NFL

Scouting Report: 3 Keys to the Patriots Bouncing Back vs the Saints

The 1-3 Patriots host the 2-2 Saints this weekend in a game where New England hopes to rebound from its worst loss in the Bill Belichick era.

Mac Jones, whose performance in Dallas may have been the worst of his football career, faces another tough challenge against a New Orleans defense that ranks top-10 in point/game allowed and takeaways. The Saints’ secondary hasn’t received much fanfare this season, but they’ve played like one of the league’s top units and provided consistent, smothering coverage. Even if this isn’t the get-right game fans may be hoping for, a mistake-free contest with minimal penalties and no turnovers would be a step in the right direction.

An ailing Patriots defense, fresh off the loss of star defenders Christian Gonzalez and Matt Judon, looks to gain positive momentum against a Saints offense that ranks bottom-10 in points/game, yards/game, and giveaways. This game could also be J.C. Jackcon’s first in his return to Foxborough, which would be a big boost for a cornerback group that’s short on healthy starting talent.

Here are my three keys for the Patriots to get back on track at home against the Saints.

1. Stay on Schedule

The Patriots offense has been surprisingly effective on 1st downs, ranking 7th in positive EPA rate (consistency) and just behind the Bills at 11th in EPA/play (explosiveness). But that production has taken a nosedive on 2nd downs, where they rank 5th-lowest in positive EPA rate and 6th-lowest in EPA/play. As a result, only the Texans (64) have faced more 3rd downs this season than New England (63).

That will need to change against a New Orleans defense that ranks 5th in pressure rate (49.0%) and 7th in passer rating allowed (72.6) on 3rd down. To be clear, the Saints are tough to move the ball against on any down, which is a testament to their outstanding coverage. Marshon Lattimore is a household name, but Alontae Taylor has played like one of the league’s best slot corners, and Worcester native Isaac Yiadom has been excellent filling in for Paulson Adeebo the past couple of weeks.

Having such a reliable group has allowed the Saints to major and thrive in man coverage, which might not bode well for the Patriots offense.

New Orleans’ defense becomes even more formidable in obvious passing situations, where their pass rush kicks things up several notches with stunts and line games.

One of the keys to this success has been linebacker Demario Davis, who, similar to Patriots great Dont’a Hightower, can bring the heat as both a penetrator and a looper on twists in rush fronts.

The Patriots’ pass protection has struggled by every statistical metric this season, allowing the league’s 5th-highest pressure rate at 39.6%, but that figure jumps to 45.6% when defenses use stunts. This can be attributed to Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange still working through lower-body injuries, with rookie Atonio Mafi having to fill in for Strange last week. But whatever the reason, their execution has been inconsistent and led to some muddy pockets.

It would be great if those problems were resolved by Sunday, but not giving New Orleans the upper hand by becoming predictable. Staying ahead of the chains should be a key to victory just about every week, but the margin for error against a well-coached and talented Saints defense, particularly one that thrives late in the down count, makes it an absolute necessity.

2. Contain Chris Olave

With Christian Gonzalez out for the season, it will be interesting to see how New England’s cornerback rotation shakes out. Gonzalez was the primary boundary and shadow option through four weeks, so the Patriots must either replace him or try a different philosophy, like having corners stick to sides. J.C. Jackson’s return cushioned the blow of losing September’s Defensive Rookie of the Month, but his performance took a significant step back with the Chargers, and he’s still getting back to full strength after a knee injury shortened his 2022 campaign. Jonathan Jones, who may be the team’s best available corner, hasn’t played since the season opener due to an ankle injury, and his status for this weekend is unclear.

Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade have filled in admirably on the perimeter, but Bryant isn’t a great fit outside, and Wade has had some rough moments. On the bright side, Jalen Mills looked like an impact player from the slot against the Cowboys, so he could be a bright spot in a secondary in need of stability.

However the Patriots deploy their corners, they’ll need answers for Chris Olave, who leads the Saints with seven receptions of 15+ yards this season. The 2022 1st-rounder has exceptional burst and zone awareness and outstanding hands.

New Orleans has done a great job putting Olave in positions to succeed, making him the inside-most receiver in 3×1 looks and even putting him in the backfield to create mismatches over the middle. And even though Olave is the offense’s top slot option, he spends most of his time outside, where his ball-tracking, concentration, and body control make him a formidable vertical threat.

Olave isn’t the team’s only talented receiver, with the sure-handed Mike Thomas and speedster Rashid Shaheed presenting their own problems, but keeping him under wraps will go a long way in keeping New Orleans’ aerial attack in check.

3. Don’t Miss Against Alvin Kamara

The Patriots’ run defense wasn’t perfect against the Cowboys, allowing two explosive gains on jet sweeps and another where Keion White was blown out of his gap, but they held Dallas’ backfield to just 3.0 yards/rush. Only the Dolphins’ running backs have averaged 4.0+ yards on the ground against New England, and that will need to continue against 2x All-Pro Alvin Kamara, who managed 4.6 yards/carry in his first game back from suspension. Matt Judon’s underrated contributions as a run defender will be missed, but Anfernee Jennings has proven to be a formidable early-down presence, while rookie Keion White looks to step up as the defense’s only remaining every-down edge presence (excluding Trey Flowers, whose status for this weekend is still unknown).

New Orleans’ offensive line is dealing with injuries to key players, with guard Andrus Peat in concussion protocol and Erik McCoy limited due to a knee injury, but Lawrence Guy called them a big, physical group that likes to finish blocks. That style of play will put the onus on New England’s front to be the aggressors and suffocate rushing lanes so Kamara, one of the league’s most slippery backs, has less space to work.

Tackling hasn’t been much of an issue for the Patriots against the run, but they missed a season-high eight tackles against Dallas’ pass catchers.

Despite Kamara gaining just 33 yards on 13 receptions in his season debut, he forced a pair of missed tackles and showed solid burst in space. In a game that will likely be low-scoring, a single missed tackle could be the difference between a win and a loss. The Patriots’ battered defense will need to bring its A-game and not give the Saints’ offense any free yards or conversions.

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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