Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t mix messages during his weekly news conference at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday.
“We have to figure out how to score points,” he said. “I said after the game, we’re not going to win many games scoring six points. So, if we score six points this weekend we probably won’t win. We’ve got to do a lot better than that.”
Brady wasn’t trying to state the obvious. He was saying -- in 45 words -- what was abundantly clear last Sunday: the Patriots offense needs to find ways to be better.
That would be true regardless of who the team was playing this weekend, but given that they’re welcoming the Saints -- owners of one of the league’s most powerful offenses -- into Gillette Stadium, it’s an especially critical week for the Patriots to get on track offensively.
New Orleans may be “just” the ninth best offense this season in terms of points per game, but they’re fully capable of keeping up in a shoot-out offensive performance. What’s been different this season is that the offense doesn’t need to score 30 or 35 points per game just to keep things close, as the defense has turned into a vaunted group behind new coordinator Rob Ryan.
Balance between both sides and an MVP-type year from Drew Brees has catalyzed a 5-0 start, making the Saints the Patriots’ most significant test thus far in 2013.
When the two square off on Sunday, here’s what we’ll be looking for.
1. The Return of Gronk? Earlier this week, the sense we got was that Gronkowski was more likely to play than not. Now? Things remain up in the air, as he’s yet to be cleared to return to game action. If he does play, all eyes will be on the 24-year-old. Expectations have to be tempered for Gronkowski, as he’s undergone surgery on two parts of his body since he last played and will likely need time to get back up to full speed and full strength. Given the lack of production from the Patriots tight ends thus far this season, simply having Gronkowski back on the field would be a major boost. Two areas to focus on will be the red zone, where the Patriots are currently 31st in touchdown percentage, and third down, where they rank 17th. They topped the NFL in both categories last season, due in part to the massive mismatch Gronkowski creates in both situations.
2. Offense back on track? Thinking generally: Will the offense find a groove a week after a forgettable performance? The issues on offense were multiple in Cincinnati, and the Patriots cannot afford to duplicate them against the Saints. Brady needs to be better, his receivers need to create more space against man coverage and the ground game needs to give the offense more consistency. Should Stevan Ridley -- who has practiced each day this week -- return, the Patriots will have their top rusher from 2012 back. He’s due for a big outing after a slow start to this season.
3. Containing Graham. Taking quarterbacks out of the equation, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham would merit strong consideration for the MVP of the league through the first five weeks of the season. Graham, a nightmarish matchup for any defender, is the NFL’s leader in receiving yards and is second in both receptions and receiving touchdowns. Graham isn’t a conventional tight end in that he often aligns split out and in the slot (that’ll create an interesting conversation as it relates to his pay grade this offseason when he’s a free agent, as some are wondering whether he’d qualify for a wide receiver franchise tag rather than a tight end). He’s a particularly tough receiver to guard in the red zone, as he has basketball leaping ability (he was a hoops star in college) and head coach Sean Payton schemes ways to isolate Graham in man-to-man coverage.
4. Protecting Brady. A week after struggling to slow the Bengals' vaunted defensive front, the task doesn’t get any easier for the Patriots, as they’ll need to find a way to slow down the Saints' revamped front seven that has already generated 15 sacks this season. That starts with slowing their dynamic pair of young edge rushers, Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who have combined for seven sacks already this season. But it isn’t just slowing down the Saints' natural pass-rushers, as they also manufacture pressure with their secondary players, evidenced by starting safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins each having registered a sack already this season. The Saints have done well to force turnovers, too, as they’ve picked off seven passes through five games, each by a different defensive player.
5. Strong up the middle? The Saints haven’t been particularly productive as a rushing offense this year, which might bode well for the Patriots if they are without defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who missed practice each day this week. But one area where Kelly would certainly be missed -- as pointed out by colleague Tedy Bruschi in this week’s Bruschi’s Breakdown -- is as an interior rusher, where he can use his long arms to disrupt passing lanes. Brees stands at just about 6 feet tall, and while the precision passing offense of the Saints helps him avoid many batted passes at the line of scrimmage, Kelly’s length challenges opposing quarterbacks by making them have to throw over or around him. If Kelly cannot go, the Patriots defensive tackle trio of Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and newcomer Andre Neblett will be tested both against the run and pass.