Commentary

Brees may be too hot to handle

Defense must stop Saints early and often if Patriots are going to have a chance

Updated: October 10, 2013, 6:33 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday home game against the New Orleans Saints (Fox, 4:25 p.m. ET).

Mike: Tedy, for all the attention the Denver Broncos have received through the first five weeks of the season, the Saints might be the best overall team in the NFL. My theme this week is that the Saints are awfully fun to watch -- unless you have to play them.

Tedy: One of the main things for the Patriots this week is that they'll have to start fast. You can't let the Saints drive down the field and get a touchdown early in the first quarter and all of a sudden it's 7-0, 10-0 or 14-0. The bottom line is that it doesn't look like the Patriots have the offense to keep up with that pace.

Mike: The Patriots are averaging 19 points per game, ranking 24th in the NFL. The Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, are averaging 26.8 (9th).

Tedy: People forget about Brees at times, but this is a Hall of Fame player, no doubt in my mind. He's playing better football than Tom Brady right now. His team is undefeated, just like Peyton Manning's, and I think it's just as flashy as what Manning is doing. But Manning gets so much more credit because people think it's all him. He's the one making all the checks; he's the one that puts those schemes together and tells everyone what to do. I would argue that even more powerful than that is a coach-quarterback combination. When you have that with Sean Payton's creative play calling and Brees' abilities, you have a powerful duo.

Mike: It becomes a powerful trio when you add fourth-year tight end Jimmy Graham into the mix. He's a receiving tight end in the mold of a Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates.

Tedy: I wouldn't call him a dominating blocking edge-setter, but he is better than half the receivers in the league. The routes that he runs -- the wheel routes, the out-and-ups -- the efficiency with which he runs them and the production he's had, he's doing things receivers do but at a different size. He's 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, and he's running routes that smaller receivers run. But to finish the play, he has the size and length to go over anyone covering him. He's on his way to being a superstar.

Mike: If you're the Patriots, where do you start in defending him?

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsLed by quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints are averaging 26.8 points per game (9th in the league).

Tedy: Two weeks ago, the Patriots double-vised Tony Gonzalez and got away with it. So it makes sense to think they could do the same thing with Graham. I agree that should be part of the plan, but something to keep in mind is what unfolded Monday night in the Jets-Falcons game. The Jets took the same approach on Gonzalez but got penalized for it in a critical moment late in the fourth quarter. Maybe there was a memo sent through the officials, reminding them that if they see it again and the team holds that a little too long, it's a foul. It's imperative of the Patriots to be aware and realize what happened Monday night, and if they do it, they have to adjust accordingly and it has to be quick. Officials are looking for it now.

Mike: It might be unconventional, but I've wondered if cornerback Aqib Talib might draw the matchup against Graham, similar to how we saw him against Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson on Sept. 22 and Bengals receiver A.J. Green on Oct. 6.

Tedy: That's a possibility that should be explored, especially if Graham is lined up outside the numbers. You put a linebacker on him outside the numbers and it's like a fish out of water. Linebackers are used to covering backs out there, and the routes that backs run from that position are usually a hitch, a go or a hitch-and-go. There are no out-and-ups, post routes or sluggos (slant and go). Graham will run receiver routes outside the numbers, so you don't want a linebacker on that.

Mike: If Graham is the top weapon to account for, running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas are next in line. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich made the comparison to facing the Bills with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson because they are dual threats as rushers and pass-catchers.

Tedy: Sproles is a guy who has to be dealt with, and you have to sacrifice your rush. There are "butch" calls that the Patriots can use; they had one against the Buccaneers with Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower (1:56 left in the first quarter). Running back Doug Martin was coming out of the backfield, and Jones chipped him as he tried to release before continuing on his rush. Martin stumbled, and Hightower came and finished him off, eliminating Martin from the pattern. That's something that has to be done with Sproles, and if not, they're doing themselves a huge disservice. Ninkovich and Jones will have to be used in that way if Sproles is offset. They are creative in the screen game with Sproles and Thomas, so they'll get the run game going and all of a sudden they pop a screen and they're out of the gate with a 15-to-20 yard gain. There is just so much to defend.

Mike: You mentioned how they'll use an extra lineman to establish a physical game and won't abandon it. That's where Thomas comes into play, and the Saints also use fullback Jed Collins. The theme this week from Bill Belichick has been defending the entire field. Let's get deeper into that.

[+] EnlargeRunning back Darren Sproles could give the Pats problems, especially if the Saints' screen game is working.
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsRunning back Darren Sproles could give the Pats problems, especially if the Saints' screen game is working.

Tedy: That's a big difference compared with last week, when we talked about Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and how a defense could take certain things away just by providing a look because he's so rule-based and right-side-of-the-field dominant. All that goes out the window when you're defending against Payton and Brees. With the Saints, you have them attacking with screens to the left, screens to the right, middle screens, receiver Marques Colston down the field and outside-the-numbers, Graham down the middle of the field, throughout the seams, and if receiver Lance Moore plays, clever route concepts when you have an over route that goes over the middle of the field and sometimes breaks back to the corner. You have to defend everywhere against this team. It's also a team that will change things up by having a power running game. That's what Belichick was talking about when mentioning how you have to defend the width and depth of the field. It's all encompassing. Then you compare that to the Patriots' offense, which I consider an inside-the-numbers passing attack. There is a difference in the two offensive philosophies because of the weapons they have. Brees doesn't discriminate. That's what makes him so good. He has that Brady mentality when Brady is playing well and receivers are doing their job; his No. 1 receiver is the open receiver.

Mike: So let's touch on what the Patriots might be able to do to slow them down.

Tedy: It comes down to team defense. You're going to have to play solid coverage early and take away any quick-striking routes, and hopefully by the time patterns develop and the combinations are forming, you possibly have a rush up the middle. This is where the possibility of not having 6-foot-6, 310-pound defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who left Sunday's loss to the Bengals with a knee injury and didn't return, could hurt them. You want to try to get in Brees' face this week or at least get someone with 2-3 yards of penetration and their hands up because Brees is a short player; you see him every week tilting that chin up, with that face mask and helmet at a 45-degree angle to help him get a line of sight over taller defensive linemen who are usually blocking his line of vision. Up-the-middle pocket pressure is something you have to generate. Last week against Chicago, that's a Bears defense that will take away the big play and make you earn it down the field by completing passes in front of it. That's somewhat of a philosophy that the Patriots might try to adopt this week.

Mike: We spend so much time focusing on the Saints' skill-position players that it's easy to overlook the offensive line.

Tedy: I think it's a unit that has been better in the past. I don't think it is very good at getting to the second level, in terms of blocking, getting off the line and climbing to linebackers. I think it can be exploited in pass protection, but the thing with Brees is that it has to be fast. It has to be within three seconds because Brees has such great timing with this offensive group, where the ball is going to be gone and it's going to be gone now. One move and go, and if you don't get there, your hands have to go up. If you're trying one move and you have a counter and are still trying to push, the ball is going to be gone.

Mike: Overall, the Saints have been a potent offensive team since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006. This year, the defense has had the biggest turnaround, and it's been sparked in part by the hiring of coordinator Rob Ryan. In a lot of ways, this is like facing a Rex Ryan-type defense.

Tedy: You know the Ryan brothers talk. They talk about what works. Both of them want to beat the Patriots, so I'm sure Rob Ryan has called up Rex Ryan and said 'This is what I'm thinking. What did you think?' I know when it comes down to it what that plan is going to be: The Patriots receivers are going to have to beat man coverage. The Ryan brothers are not afraid to say 'This is your guy. You have to cover him, and you have to win.' That's been a problem for the Patriots receivers all year -- getting separation, getting open against man-to-man coverage. Rob Ryan will mix in some zone coverages and some eight-man drop concepts. Don't think he's going to blitz every time. Sure, there are overload blitzes and he'll bring six, he'll bring five, and there will be all-out pressure, but there are also three-man rushes with eight back in their zones; stretch coverage is what we used to call it. These receivers are going to have to be really good post-snap in recognizing where the challenges are and then winning.

Mike: You have to figure the potential return of tight end Rob Gronkowski will help, even though he'll probably be limited in his snaps.

Tedy: If Gronkowski does play, I see him getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. I see the Saints trying to be physical with him. If he's close to the line of scrimmage, they may use defensive ends to get a jam on him before they get into their rush. You'd think Rob Ryan is saying, "We're not going to let Rob Gronkowski beat us," so you devote some extra attention to him.

Mike: One of the themes from the Patriots this week is that they will see some things that the Saints haven't shown because New Orleans is a "game-plan" type of defense. That's a trademark of a Rob Ryan defense. Also, there is an element of becoming more familiar with the Saints' personnel as this is a team the Patriots don't see often. One player who caught my attention is Cameron Jordan, because I think the Patriots were strongly considering him in the first round of the 2011 draft before going with left tackle Nate Solder. They're obviously happy with Solder, but I think they liked Jordan too.

Tedy: He's not the biggest or most athletic defender, but he's one of those guys where you say, "Is he a 3-4 linebacker, or do you put him down as a defensive end in the 4-3?" Those are the types of guys who have succeeded best in a Rob Ryan scheme because there is so much flexibility. He might say, "You're going to be my rush guy here, but on this next one, I'm going to have you jam Gronkowski and drop to the flat."

Mike: With a mix of returning players and a few newcomers, the Saints have been able to overcome some injuries to key players.

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What's your prediction for Patriots-Saints?

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Discuss (Total votes: 8,015)

Tedy: I think they've had a couple of good additions this year. Cornerback Keenan Lewis has been good; the Patriots know him from his time in Pittsburgh. The Saints' top draft pick was safety Kenny Vaccaro of Texas, and along with Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer, it's a solid secondary. Linebacker Curtis Lofton has done well for them. Overall, they are playing well together and are getting after the passer. Their turnover differential is plus-6, fourth in the NFL. And they're fourth in scoring defense. I think they've benefited from getting leads. When you know Brees and that offense is going to put some points on the board, just like Patriots' defenses in the past, you play a little looser and get to be a little more aggressive as the playcaller. They beat the Cardinals 31-7 and the Dolphins 38-17. Last week, they were in Jay Cutler's lap from the beginning of the game. This defense won't wait. It's coming.

Mike: We'll see if the Patriots can stop that surge while also accounting for the dangerous Sproles on special teams.

Tedy: I'm looking forward to seeing this offensive line respond. I want to see the nastiness that I know is in players like Ryan Wendell and Logan Mankins. Then I want to see Sebastian Vollmer, Solder and Dan Connolly fall in line and set the tone for the entire team. They're going to come at you thinking you are fresh meat. The Saints are an attacking defense, and they will sense that an offense is struggling and can get on it early. It's going to be the same thing -- the idea of "don't give them any false hope. Get on them early and see what kind of heart they have when they get in a hole again."

Mike: I'm expecting a much better performance from the Patriots than last week, but concerns at defensive tackle and inconsistency on offense are a bad mix. The Saints look like the better team right now. They might be the best team in the NFL. Saints 23, Patriots 20.

Tedy: Payton is a spectacular playcaller. This is the week where the lack of defensive-line depth will be exploited. There is too much for the Patriots to stop. If Gronkowski plays, he will help, but it won't be enough. Saints 30, Patriots 20.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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