The New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints will square off Sunday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the winner earning its first victory of the season and the loser dropping to 0-2.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for in what should be a high-scoring affair:
CAN THE PATRIOTS’ OFFENSE BOUNCE BACK?
Frankly, they’d better. If Tom Brady & Co. can’t turn in a strong performance against a Saints defense that looked downright dreadful against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford in Week 1, we might have a problem on our hands.
Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions in that game, tearing apart a New Orleans secondary that features two rookie starters. If Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs can rack up 250 receiving yards against the Saints, there’s no reason Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan can’t do the same.
Brady, meanwhile, struggled mightily last week in New England’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, completing an NFL-worst 44.4 percent of his passes and finishing without a touchdown.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski also was ineffective against the Chiefs, catching just two passes on six targets. Part of that was due to safety Eric Berry’s excellent coverage, but Gronk just looked … off. We’ll see if he asserts himself more against New Orleans.
…AND THE DEFENSE?
The Patriots reached two unfortunate milestones last Thursday, allowing the most points (42) and yards (537) by any New England team in the Bill Belichick era. The Pats were shredded both on the ground (148 rushing yards for rookie Kareem Hunt) and through the air (Alex Smith completed 80 percent of his passes with four touchdowns), while allowing three plays of 50 or more yards, including two 70-plus-yard scores.
Limiting those big plays with be crucial this week against a Saints offense that traditionally ranks near the top of the NFL in points and yards. Drew Brees’ receiving corps is weaker than it was last season, but it still features top target Michael Thomas, who had 1,137 receiving yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie last season. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore likely will see a lot of the 6-foot-3, 212-pound wideout on Sunday.
Up front, the Saints will start backups at both tackle spots, creating a golden opportunity for pass rushers Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler.
REPLACING DANNY AMENDOLA AND DONT’A HIGHTOWER
Amendola (concussion/knee) and Hightower (knee) both have been ruled out for this game, as have special teamer Matthew Slater (hamstring) and defensive tackle Vincent Valentine (knee).
With Amendola out, the Patriots lose their top slot receiver (behind the injured Julian Edelman) and most experienced punt returner. After declining to promote a player from the practice squad, they will enter this game with just three wide receivers. Expect to see both Cooks and Hogan line up in the slot at times Sunday as the Patriots are forced to get creative on offense.
Rookie linebacker Harvey Langi, now healthy after sitting out Week 1 with a concussion, looks like the top option to replace Hightower on the edge, considering he played in that spot throughout the preseason while Hightower was on the physically unable to perform list.
Changes could be coming elsewhere in the front seven, too, as it would not be surprising to see linebackers David Harris and/or Elandon Roberts play a more significant role after combining for just 11 snaps in the opener. Both are talented run defenders, and after watching Hunt run roughshod through them last week, the Patriots would be smart to end the Jordan Richards-at-linebacker experiment.
Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
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