FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Aqib Talib will be focused on Drew Brees.
The New Orleans quarterback likely won’t be looking back at him, though.
“He’s great at that. He’ll never stare down a receiver and throw it straight to him,” New England’s cornerback said. “He’s going to look you off on screens and everything. He’s going to do a great job with his eyes.”
So while Brees’ right arm is responsible for setting a slew of NFL records and leading a New Orleans renaissance, it’s his eyes that have allowed that to happen.
The Patriots (4-1) will be prepared to defend against both threats Sunday when Brees leads the Saints (5-0) into a showdown against the AFC East leaders.
“He does a great job of looking guys off and understanding what defense you’re in,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said, “and trying to manipulate guys to move in certain directions so that he can open up some spaces for his receivers.”
New England’s defense this season already has slowed some of the league’s better quarterbacks. Matt Ryan of Atlanta struggled in a loss two weeks ago, and Andy Dalton of Cincinnati was held without a touchdown pass last week while barely eclipsing 200 yards in the air.
But the league’s second-ranked passing offense is a different animal.
Brees is a seven-time Pro Bowl standout and is on pace for his third straight 5,000-yard season. He has thrown for 1,722 yards, second only to Peyton Manning of Denver, with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in guiding the Saints to their best start since 2009.
That’s also the last time these teams met, a game the Patriots probably would like to forget.
Brees carved up New England’s defense in a 38-17 victory on Nov. 30, 2009, throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns while amassing a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
“They definitely play at a high tempo. They like to get up to the ball and get things going quickly so we’ll have to be ready for that,” Gregory said. “It’s something that we see a lot with our offense practicing against those guys.
“So it’s not something that’s new to us, but we’ll have to be ready for it.”
Gregory has spent the past year and a half trying to stop quarterback Tom Brady in practice, a skill that could help defend against Brees’ wandering eyes.
“A lot of guys have that ability to kind of look guys off and be real good with their eyes and their mannerisms and things like that,” Gregory said. “Drew’s one of those guys. Tom’s one of those guys.”
Jimmy Graham, however, is as unique as they come.
Brees’ favorite target has been virtually unstoppable this season. Graham, a tight end, has 37 receptions for a league-leading 593 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’ll be a tough matchup just because they use him in every way possible. You don’t know where he’s going to line up each play. He’s outside, he’s inside,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I think the biggest thing is just trying to compete with him. There’s going to be some balls that are going to be thrown to an area that only he can catch, and we’ll just have to try to make it tough.
“He’s a great player and we know Sunday he’s going to make some of his plays. We’ve just got to make some of ours.”
NOTES: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been practicing in various capacities since the start of the regular season, spoke with the media Thursday but failed to shed any new light on his status. “I’m improving every single week and just working hard,” Gronkowski said. “Obviously when I started at the beginning, conditioning was pretty rough. But that’s what practice is for and working hard is for. Just improving every week, taking it day by day, and will be super excited when I get out there.” Brady didn’t throw a touchdown pass the last time he faced the Saints. That has happened just four times in the past 69 regular-season games, including Sunday at Cincinnati. New England has only defeated one team — the New York Jets (3-2) — that has a winning record.