Drew Brees vs. the Patriots D looks like trouble, but never doubt Bill Belichick
Ten days after giving up 42 points to the Chiefs, the Patriots head to New Orleans
Hate them or love them, the Patriots are supposed to be the one consistent, reliable force in the NFL. We know what we're getting when we watch them play. When we tune into a Patriots game, we expect to see the highest possible quality of football. Tossing aside the way we feel about them (and our jealously of their success), they're football nirvana. We're guaranteed to see Tom Brady dissect a defense, Rob Gronkowski spike a football, and Bill Belichick coach a well-prepared defense.
But that didn't happen on Thursday night.
A week ago, the reigning champs kicked off the 2017 NFL season with the most in-your-face, arrogant pregame celebration, spearheaded by Mark Wahlberg, who by the way left the Super Bowl early. Fans wore Roger Goodell clown shirts. The scoreboard read 28-3. Five replica Lombardi Trophies, each the size of Sauron's tower, took the field.
That field, which no longer exists, would be the site of a demolishing. The Patriots ended up losing to the Chiefs by 15 points. Alex Smith, a quarterback who's allergic to throwing the ball downfield, roasted the Patriots for 368 yards, 10.5 yards per attempt, and four touchdowns -- including two of at least 75 yards. Meanwhile, rookie running back Kareem Hunt averaged 8.7(!!!) yards per run, totaling 246 yards from scrimmage. In all, the Patriots allowed the most yards (537) and points (42) in the Belichick era.
This Sunday, the Patriots defense's task won't get any easier, as they'll head to New Orleans for a date with Drew Brees and the Saints at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. Say what you want about the recent versions of the Saints -- they still can't play defense, evidenced by the walloping Sam Bradford gave them -- but what they can do is put up points at the Superdome. And the Patriots' defense will be challenged to slow them down. If the Patriots thought Smith was a handful, just wait until they go up against Brees.
And that begs the question: Can the Patriots' defense, which was just embarrassed by Alex freakin' Smith, rebound against an explosive Saints offense?
Drew Brees indoors
Before dissecting the Patriots' defense, it's important to contextualize just how dang good Brees and the Saints have been at home in the Brees-Payton era. Since 2006, the Saints' record at home is 55-33. That has a ton to do with Brees' level of play indoors.
In domes, he's completed 68.9 percent of his passes, averaged 8.0 yards per attempt, thrown 257 touchdowns and 105 interceptions, and posted a 102.5 passer rating. Outdoors, he's completed 64.38 percent of his passes, averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, thrown 192 touchdowns and 105 touchdowns, and posted a 90.3 passer rating.
This game will be played inside the Superdome in New Orleans. So, the Patriots can expect Brees to be at his best.
Dont'a Hightower's availability could be a problem
Dont'a Hightower's status is just as important as the location of the game. Hightower, a linebacker who mainly plays as an edge defender, is reportedly dealing with a minor MCL sprain and his status for Sunday's game is unknown.
Hightower left Thursday's game in the third quarter. Without Hightower in the fourth quarter, the Patriots gave up 21 points.
Hightower's important because he's one of the only Patriots who can get after the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Hightower lined up on the edge 91.4 percent of the time against the Chiefs. He didn't get a sack or a hit on Smith, but he did generate three pressures, according to PFF. In a game that saw the Patriots rack up 12 missed tackles, Hightower had none.
The Patriots need him.
He's important because the linebacker corps is probably the Patriots defense's weakest link. One reason the Chiefs saw so much success? They targeted the Patriots' slow linebackers.
And they lined up Hunt and let him run deep down the right seam of the field against Cassius Marsh. The result? A 78-yard touchdown.
Here's why that play is important: Marsh was only in that position because of Hightower's absence.
Then again, Hightower probably wouldn't have been able to keep up with Hunt in the open field, but it's worth noting he was the Patriots' best linebacker in coverage on Thursday. Hightower dropped into coverage only eight times, according to PFF, and was targeted twice. Both targets resulted in completions, but they gained just 12 total yards. Van Noy, who plays more in the middle of the field, dropped into coverage 32 times, per PFF. He allowed six receptions on six targets for 45 yards.
I'm not sure if this is a problem that can disappear. Van Noy isn't going to get any faster unless, maybe, he suddenly adopts Brady's diet. And if Hightower is out, Marsh is going to be a downgrade.
The Saints should exploit the Patriots' linebackers underneath. According to PFF, 30 percent of Smith's throws went to receivers running crossing patterns. He went 8 of 10 on those passes for 80 yards. The two incompletions were drops. The Patriots front-seven looks slow, and the Saints can exploit that by running crossing patterns and forcing the linebackers to cover.
For as much as
we I make fun of Smith for throwing underneath, it's a smart gameplan to use against the Patriots, whose strength is the secondary, with Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and Devin McCourty leading the way. Attack the slower linebackers.
It's what Smith did. Though much of the criticism was directed toward the Patriots' inability to stop Smith's deep ball, it's not as if that's what Smith was doing the entire game. According to PFF, Smith threw four passes 20-plus yards downfield and completed three of them for 178 yards. For much of the game, Smith played like the quarterback he is, throwing relatively short passes. And it worked.
Take a look at his passing map, via PFF. He didn't miss a single pass within nine yards of the line of scrimmage.
So, can the Saints do that? In their past 17 games (all of last year plus Week 1 of this year), the Saints have thrown to crossing patterns 16 percent of the time when league average is 11 percent, per PFF. So, they can.
Run to win vs. New England
They should also attack them with the run game. Hunt, who rushed for 148 yards on 17 carries, had plenty of room to run. Look at the Chiefs' offensive line absolutely manhandle the Patriots' front.
And when he did meet a defender, he often made them miss.
According to PFF, he forced eight missed tackles on his 22 touches. He posted an elusive rating, which "attempts to distill the impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down," of 145.5. To put that number into context, Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi led the league last year with a 76 elusive rating. So either Hill is the most elusive running back ever or the Patriots' defense was awful. It's probably a mix of the two.
The Saints are usually reluctant to run the ball -- they ranked 19th in rushing attempts last season, 20th in 2015, 19th in 2014, 26th in 2013, 29th in 2012 and so on -- but they might want to "run the ball up their Donkey." They didn't do that against the Vikings, running the ball 21 times for 60 yards.
On Sunday, the Saints will want to use their running backs more -- letting Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram run, and allowing the shiftier Alvin Kamara to exploit the linebacker corps. When Smith threw to running backs on non-screens against the Patriots, he went 11 of 11 for 100 yards and two touchdowns, according to PFF.
This could be a big day for Kamara.
Preventing big plays
Last year, the Patriots didn't allow a single reception of 75-plus yards, according to the Chiefs' website. They gave up two in the second half against the Chiefs.
The first one, as previously discussed, was a result of matching a backup edge defender against a running back. The second one was the result of a blown coverage, as Gilmore just let Hill run right by him while McCourty followed Travis Kelce on his post route to the middle of the field.
It's tough to know if that falls on Gilmore or the safety. And before you go making jokes about Gilmore's contract, just know that he actually held up pretty well. According to PFF, he was targeted three times and allowed one catch for 4 yards. So, PFF assigned the blame to McCourty and not Gilmore.
But the point remains: A Belichick-coach defense got burned badly twice for back-breaking touchdowns. That doesn't happen often.
One thing that needs to improve, to shut down those big plays, is the pass rush. Those two 75-plus yard touchdowns have something in common: Smith had an eternity to release the ball.
Take a look at his pocket on big TD1:
And here's his pocket on big TD2:
According to PFF, Smith had an average time to throw of 3.06 seconds, which ranked as the third highest average in Week 1.
I hate to keep picking on Marsh, but he didn't fare any better in the pass-rushing aspect of the game. According to PFF, he hunted Smith eight times and registered only one hurry. This is, again, where Hightower's injury comes into play. Since the Patriots jettisoned Collins to Cleveland, they've relied more and more on him to generate pressure.
Look at how he's transitioned from an inside player to an exterior player:
Without Hightower, it's tough to see the Patriots manufacturing a pass rusher. Players like Trey Flowers will have to step up.
Two PFF notes: Brees was under pressure on just 21.1 percent of his dropbacks in Week 1 and Brees had the 11th-best passer rating on throws that traveled at least 20 yards downfield last year.
One thing that might help the Patriots: Right tackle Zach Strief is expected to miss a few weeks due to an MRI sprain, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Furthermore, left tackle Terron Armstead is also dealing with an injury.
So the Patriots will have their chances to get after Brees.
The Belichick factor
The talent level on the Patriots isn't going to get magically better this week barring a last-second trade, so it's up to Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to coach up the unit. Belichick is probably the only reason why I'm expecting a slight improvement on Sunday considering 10 days will have passed since the embarrassing loss to the Chiefs.
In the past few years, when the Patriots have given up at least 30 points, they've responded. Last year, the Seahawks dropped 31 points on them. The next week, the 49ers were held to 17. In 2015, the Bills hung 32 on them. The Jaguars scored 17 the next week. Later that year, the Broncos and Eagles dumped at least 30 points on them in consecutive weeks. The Patriots responded by allowing 22 total points over their next two games. In the 2014 season opener, the Patriots allowed 33 to the Dolphins. The next week, they allowed seven to the Vikings. A few weeks later, they allowed 41 to the Chiefs. The next week, the Patriots gave up 17 points. In the playoffs, they gave up 31 points to the Ravens in the divisional round before allowing only seven to the Colts in the AFC title game.
You get the point. Belichick's defenses don't usually get gouged repeatedly. History says they'll respond. They can do that by limiting big plays and forcing the Saints to methodically work their way downfield. It's been a long time since Belichick trotted out a dominant defense. The Patriots haven't featured a top-10 defense in DVOA since 2006, per Football Outsiders.
Instead, their recipe is usually along the lines of "bend, but don't break." They broke too many times against the Chiefs. And if they get sloppy again, Brees will exploit them even more than Smith did.
I'm expecting the Patriots to clean up the big plays simply because of Belichick. He'll make sure those mental lapses in coverage don't happen again. But if you're expecting Belichick to turn this unit into one that can completely shut down Brees, you're expecting too much.
Expect a relatively high-scoring game. The Patriots simply don't have the personnel to stop the Saints on a consistent basis. But the key to their game has to be cleaning up the sloppy mistakes. Even if they play sound fundamental football, Brees will find a way to break through. But if they have lapses in coverage and are unable to get after the quarterback, he'll annihilate them. The Patriots' defense isn't good enough right now to play sloppy.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, those are the margins they're operating within. They can't hope to be dominant because they simply don't have the personnel in the front-seven to do so. They can only hope to be solid, limit big plays, make the Saints work for their points, and maybe in the process come away with a few turnovers.
And then they'll need Brady to become Brady again. But that's an entirely different story.
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