With the offense experiencing uncharacteristic growing pains this year, the defense has been at the heart of the New England Patriots 4-1 start this year.
New England is allowing only 14 points per game so far, second-best in the NFL. We’ll find out Sunday just how good the defense really is.
That’s when the New Orleans Saints come to Gillette Stadium for a 4:25 p.m. game. Led by quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints possess one of the most diversified and dangerous offenses in the NFL. They average 26.8 points per game and the passing attack ranks second behind Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
“Obviously this is an excellent offense,” said Matt Patricia, the Patriots defensive coodinator, in a conference call on Wednesday. “And it really starts with Drew Brees, starts with (head coach) Sean Payton and (offensive coordinator Pete) Carmichael. This offense has a wide variety of weapons and they do a good job of distributing the ball to in both the run and passing game. They do a great job from the standpoint of mixing personnel groups, formations, different looks that you see every week.”
And that’s what makes the Saints so difficult to defend. Try to take away one option, they have plenty more. Patricia named at least eight skill players and said, “all of them get on the field and all are a crucial and critical part to the offense, so you really have to defend all of it and that’s what makes it so difficult.”
Brees has completed passes to 10 different receivers, led by tight end Jimmy Graham, who is a match-up nightmare for any defense, averaging 16 yards on each of his 37 catches. He has scored six touchdowns.
Graham is followed by running backs Pierre Thomas (28 catches, 5.9 average, two touchdowns) and Darren Sproles (26 catches, 11.8 average, one touchdown) and wide receiver Marques Colston (23 catches, 13.3 average, one touchdown).
Only one quarterback has thrown for more yards than Brees and that’s Manning, who is operating on a different level these days. Manning, who has thrown for 1,884 yards and 20 touchdowns, is the top-rated quarterback in the NFL (136.4). Meanwhhile, Brees has thrown for 1,722 yards and 12 touchdowns to rank fourth (107.4).
The Patriots often try to disguise their defenses, especially coverages, right up to the offensive snap. Coach Bill Belichick said that’s not easy with a team like New Orleans, which plays at such a fast tempo, and a quarterback like Brees.
“You have to be careful about trying to do too much with him,” said Belichick. “You better be able to get to what you have, which does mean that a lot of times you have to show what you’re in, in order to match up against their different looks.
“They get lined up and go. You have to be ready to play when the ball is snapped because (Brees) does a very good of, when (the defense) misses somebody, he finds them. They get a bunch of plays every week on what I would say, defensive mistakes or alignment errors, that he recognizes and just gets the ball to whoever it is and then you’re chasing him.”
The Patriots lost their first game without Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles, out for the year) last Sunday, 13-6 at Cincinnati. Rookies Joe Vellano (three tackles) and Chris Jones (four tackles, 11/2 sacks) filled in for Wilfork. But they, and the entire defense, need to be sharper against the Saints.
“This week is going to be a big challenge for us,” said Patricia. “It will be a big challenge for the guys across the board, both up front and at the back end, to be able to handle everything that New Orleans does.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: