Here are the ten matchups we’re looking forward to seeing in Sunday’s Patriots-Cardinals game at Gillette Stadium:
Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd against cornerback Patrick Peterson. This will be one of the premiere one-on-one matchups of the week, as other than one early missed connection with quarterback Tom Brady, Lloyd started strong in his first regular-season game with the Patriots, coming away with a team-high 69 yards receiving on five catches. Peterson is the Cardinals’ premiere corner, and while they won’t be matched exclusively in man coverage throughout the day, expect the LSU product to handle most of the heavy lifting against Lloyd. One thing worth passing along: while the Patriots corners are usually deployed strictly according to side, in his year-plus in the league, Peterson has seen just as much time on the right side as the left, which could mean more man coverage than usual against Lloyd.
The Patriots punt coverage unit against punt returner Patrick Peterson. The New England coaches and players all sang the praises of Peterson as both a returner and defensive back this week. The Patriots’ specialists had really good success against the Titans -- Tennessee’s average starting field position was its’ own 18-yard line, and punter Zoltan Mesko didn’t have any of his four attempts returned. However, New England figures to have a greater challenge this week against Peterson. The fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft out of LSU tied an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns last year. Despite the fact that he averaged just 9.3 yards per return in his four attempts in the regular-season opener against the Seahawks, he’s the No. 1 priority for the New England special teamers this week. “He’s fast enough to outrun people and he’s strong enough to run through them if they don’t get a good shot at him,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots secondary against wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. While it’s expected that Devin McCourty will get the bulk of the work in man coverage against Fitzgerald, it’s important to note that the Patriots’ cornerbacks usually play different sides and are necessarily assigned to shadow one receiver throughout the game. With that in mind, McCourty is usually at left corner, and so when Fitzgerald is on his side, this will be one of the matchups worth watching. Our opposing scout told us this week that the Patriots will likely employ double coverage on Fitzgerald, which means lots of safety help over the top. If the Patriots can limit Fitzgerald -- who can routinely torch the best defensive backs in the league -- it’ll go a long way toward slowing down the Arizona offense.
Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins against defensive end Darnell Dockett. Dockett has shown the ability to cause havoc in the past, and working as Arizona’s right defensive end in the Cards’ 3-4 base defense, he’ll be lined up opposite Solder on Brady’s blind side. While Solder figures to get some help from Mankins -- whose return has really started to stabilize the left side of the offensive line -- he’ll also spend a bulk of the game with a tight end on his left hip in hopes of slowing down Dockett. Dockett, in addition to having one of the most entertaining Twitter feeds in the NFL, is the Cards’ best defender. (According to our pals at Pro Football Focus, he graded out at a ridiculous +9.7 in the regular-season opener last week against the Seahawks.) Along with fellow defensive end Calais Campbell, the two have the capability to change the game. Neutralize Dockett and Campbell, and the Patriots will be able to give Brady the time needed to pick apart the Arizona defense.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski against strong safety Adrian Wilson. As our scout friend told us here, Wilson might be the only Arizona defensive back with the chops to stick with either one of New England’s tight ends. In this case, we’ve stuck the slightly oversized strong safety (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) on the super-sized Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds), as we anticipate Wilson’s skill set being a better matchup for the more physical of the Patriots’ two young tight ends. Wilson is considered the best Arizona safety when it comes to pass coverage, and we still believe some team will eventually take a page out of Oakland’s playbook when it comes to trying to slow Gronkowski -- body him up with a bulkier safety who is considered a better-than-average pass defender.
Running back Stevan Ridley against linebacker Daryl Washington. Ridley had a career-best 125 yards in the opener against the Titans, but simply put, he’ll have a lot harder time trying to top the century mark this week against the Cardinals. Arizona has a better front seven than Tennessee, and one of the Cardinals best run defenders is Washington, a linebacker who was able to come away with nine tackles last week against the Seahawks, with seven of those tackles classified as “stops,” meaning they were tackles that constituted an “offensive failure.” PFF had Washington as Arizona’s second best run defender after Week One, trailing only Dockett. He’ll have Ridley in his sights this week. (Just a thought: It will be interesting to see if the Patriots lean on Lex Hilliard or any other fullback-type this week in hopes of creating a little extra space for Ridley against the Arizona run defense.)
Linebacker Jerod Mayo against running back Beanie Wells. Like the Ridley/Washington matchup, these two are the headliners when it comes to the Cardinals’ attempts to run the football. Along with Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes, Mayo was part of a crew that held Tennessee’s Chris Johnson in check (11 rushes, a career-low four yards) last week. As Mayo and Wilfork have said frequently, run defense remains a group effort, and it will take a collective to try and duplicate that performance against the Cardinals. (For what it’s worth, Wells was limited to just 14 yards in seven carries last week against Seattle.)
Defensive end Chandler Jones against left tackle D’Anthony Batiste. In the nascent stages of his NFL career, Jones has already made a habit of eating up opposing left tackles. He’ll get his chance to go against Arizona’s Batiste this week, a (mostly) backup who has been thrown into a starting role this season. The 6-foot-4, 318-pound Batiste struggled mightily last week in the regular season opener against Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons, yielding one sack, five quarterback hurries and picking up a fourth-quarter holding call. While Batiste will likely get help on both sides, this could be a winnable individual matchup for the Patriots, particularly if Jones is able to duplicate his performance from Week One against the Titans.
Defensive lineman Vince Wifork against center Lyle Sendlein. Dating back to last season, Wilfork is on the best extended run of his already impressive career, dominating opposing offensive lines. He routinely commands double teams, allowing his fellow defenders to work in one-on-one situations. Sendlein might be one of the better opposing centers he’ll face this season -- he’s been a durable and consistent presence for the Cardinals over the last five years.
The Patriots’ rookies against heightened expectations. Belichick almost came out of his shoes this week when a reporter asked if he had to worry about calming down the rookies after their Week One performance. “Are you kidding me? They’ve played one game,” he said with a raised eyebrow. Much will be expected of the first-year players this week, but the biggest key for them as a group is to build on their performance against the Titans.