In past years, the Patriots would study a defense like the Saints’ and throw out half their playbook.
Run plays? Straight out the window. Sunday would become an all-pass, all-the-time type of game.
This was the luxury of having the greatest quarterback of all time at the controls of their self-identified game-plan offense. The Pats wanted to morph each week into an opponent’s worst nightmare, and they were never scarier than when they determined that terror meant passing more.
Last season, of course, that wasn’t an option. All the Patriots could do was run, so they lost to the three toughest run defenses they faced by a combined 53 points. This year, there’s hope.
Despite the fact New Orleans is allowing only 2.8 yards per carry, the Pats can score Sunday. Their weapons are healthy. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week he trusts rookie Mac Jones “completely,” perhaps the highest compliment a coach would pay his quarterback.
Here’s how Jones and McDaniels can orchestrate a win against the Saints.
1. Spread them out
After cutdown day last month, the Saints basically put out a “help wanted” sign at cornerback.
They kept just three corners on their roster, then signed Desmond Trufant after he was released by the Falcons. Next they acquired Texans corner Bradley Roby in a trade. The more often the Patriots can force Trufant, Roby and third-round rookie Paulson Adebo onto the field, the better.
The Pats should lean into three-receiver personnel groupings and rely heavily on tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith to create mismatches. By deploying that personnel in empty formations, Jones can more easily identify and exploit those matchups and diagnose pressure. New Orleans isn’t a heavy blitz team, but their creativity on third downs has caught the Patriots’ attention.
“They definitely have a good third-down group. It looks a lot like us, with the [defensive line movement] and all those types of things,” Pats right guard Shaq Mason said this week. “Definitely got our work for us going against those guys on third downs and early downs.”
2. Fix pass protection
If Jones takes three first-half sacks like he did last week, the Patriots will be in much deeper trouble than they were at the Jets.
The Saints can be expected to attack the same area on their offensive line — right tackle — where Yasir Durant and Justin Herron allowed two sacks and a pair of hurries in Week 2. Damming up that stream of pressure might require more than possibly returning starter Trent Brown to health. The Pats should chip top pass-rushers Cameron Jordan, Payton Turner or Tanoh Kpassagnon with a tight end or a running back when necessary.
They can also run bootlegs away from them and go no-huddle to tire out New Orleans’ defensive front.
Jordan, a six-time Pro Bowler, leads New Orleans in pressures and most often aligns to the offense’s right. Turner, a rookie, already owns one sack and has pressured opposing quarterbacks on 20% of his pass-rushing snaps.
3. Target tight ends against Zack Baun, P.J. Williams
So, the Patriots have spread the Saints out and solidified their right tackle spot.
Go after No. 26 and 53.
Williams (No. 26) is a hybrid safety/nickelback, and New Orleans’ worst-graded coverage player the past three seasons, per Pro Football Focus. Opposing quarterbacks have gone 6-of-7 when targeting him this year.
Per PFF, Baun has been the Saints’ worst pass defender overall this season, making him an easy target for running backs and tight ends. These are the players the Patriots should look to exploit first through Henry and Smith, particularly on early downs. If they can’t, Jakobi Meyers could make quick work of Williams in the slot or Adebo on the outside come third down.