FOXBORO — On Monday night, stopping the Saints could depend just as much on the work of Tom Brady, Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney as it does on Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon McGowan.
The Patriots want to limit the amount of damage Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and the rest of the New Orleans offense can do. The best way to do that is to keep them off the field as long as possible through tried and true means. Controlling the ball, winning the time of possession battle and keeping your own offense on the field are all paramount when you’re facing the high-octane Saints offense, and that’s what New England will try to do Monday night in the Superdome.
“That’s important. Usually the best defense for a great offense is our offense keeping possession of it,” Brady said when asked about the plan of attack against a team like the Saints. “It’s a dangerous team, and offensively, we’re going to have to possess the ball and be good on third down.”
The Patriots will be able to run the ball against New Orleans. The Saints allow 4.6 yards per carry (25th in the league), give up an average of 115.7 rushing yards per game (20th in the league) and have yielded some tremendous individual rushing performances to players such as Atlanta’s Michael Turner (151 yards), Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams (149 yards) and St. Louis’ Steven Jackson (131 yards).
Whether or not New England is up to the test will depend heavily on Morris and Maroney. Morris has been hobbled by a knee injury the last four weeks but has expressed optimism he would be able to return to the lineup sooner rather than later. If the Patriots can’t get a consistent running game going, they will likely try to achieve the same success with a short passing game that would rely heavily on Kevin Faulk and Wes Welker.
Regardless of how they do it, seizing an early lead and keeping the chains — and the clock — moving will be critical. New England heads into the weekend tied for sixth in the league in third-down conversions, reaching the first-down marker on 45.7 percent of its third-down chances. The Pats will need to replicate that mark Monday night if they want to succeed against the Saints.
Here are five other things to watch for Monday night in New Orleans:
The Patriots in the red zone. Brady said New England’s red-zone offense was a “little better” last week against the Jets — last Sunday, the Patriots were 3-for-4 inside the Jets’ 20, with a pair of Maroney touchdowns (from 1 and 2 yards out) and a 4-yard pass from Brady to Randy Moss.
However, last week represented the exception rather than the rule. On the season, the Patriots have converted 21 touchdowns on 44 possessions inside the opposing 20-yard line, a rate of 47.7 percent (12th in the AFC and 24th overall in the NFL). Washington, Kansas City and Detroit all have better conversion rates in the red zone than the Patriots.
When they have been able to score in short-yardage, goal-line situations, more often than not, it’s been because of their running game. If the Patriots are able to get Morris back this week, that should go a long way toward improving in the red area. It goes without saying, but New England can’t afford to be settling for three when it should be getting seven against a historic offense like New Orleans.
“That’s something that we’ve got to try to do more consistently,” Brady said of converting in the red zone. “That’s going to be a big challenge for our offense.”
Sixty minutes. Throughout most of the 2009 season, the Patriots offense has looked excellent. But in five games, the Patriots have not scored at all in the third quarter, and three of those games turned into the team’s only three losses. Poor execution in the third and fourth quarters doomed the Patriots in their first meeting with the Jets, as well as the losses to the Broncos and the Colts.
For the season, New England has put up just 94 second-half points, including just 39 in the third quarter. Those numbers stand in marked contrast to the 196 first-half points (125 of them in the second quarter) they’ve amassed through the first 10 games of this season. New England is still the third-highest scoring team in the league, and went into Sunday’s action ranked No. 1 in the AFC with 290 points through 10 games. Only New Orleans (369 points) and Minnesota (306) have put more points on the board this year.
But not getting a consistent scoring presence across all four quarters likely won’t get it done against the Saints.
“For one reason or another, we haven’t been able to put together 60 great minutes, unless it was against Tennessee,” Brady said. “We’re going to need to do that this week. It’s something that we’re always building toward. Obviously we haven’t perfected that yet, but hopefully we make those improvements this week.”
Wes Welker. The slot machine has become an absolutely integral part of the New England offense this season. He leads the league in receptions this season with 79, despite the fact that he missed two games earlier in the year. Last week against the Jets, Welker had a career day with 15 catches for 192 yards, taking advantage of New York’s increased focus on Moss on several occasions.
The Saints secondary is in a state of disrepair. Starting cornerbacks Tracy Porter, who has a sprained MCL, and Jabari Greer, who has a strained groin, missed last week’s action against Tampa Bay. It was the second straight missed game for Greer, who remains questionable heading into Monday night. Meanwhile, former New England cornerback Randall Gay pulled a hamstring two weeks ago and has been able to practice only on a limited basis.
With New Orleans signing veteran cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie off the street to try to bolster a depleted secondary, the chance to face an inexperienced secondary (which includes rookie corner Malcom Jenkins) should set up very nicely for Welker, Randy Moss and the rest of New England’s receiving corps.
But don’t tell that to Welker, who says he’s seen this before.
“I think a lot of people put a lot of emphasis on that. We had the same thing going into Indy,” said Welker when asked about facing a banged-up secondary. “I think with the pass rush and the way they blitz, things like that can present problems and they can almost plug anybody in there and have success.”
Which team turns turnovers into points. No defense in the league is more aggressive when it comes to turning turnovers into touchdowns than New Orleans. The Saints have a league-high 29 takeaways in 2009 and, as a result, 117 points off turnovers — also the most in football.
The New Orleans defense sometimes doesn’t wait for the offense to take the field, frequently taking matters into its own hands. The Saints have five defensive touchdowns on their 20 picks, with safety Darren Sharper running back three of his seven interceptions for touchdowns.
“When we’re in practice, if someone gets an interception, coach is always screaming, ‘Get out and block everyone. Get out and block everyone. Get out and block to clear the way,’” said Sharper, in his first season with the Saints. “I think that’s a direct reflection on why we’ve had the amount of scores on defense. It has really become a mentality for us whenever someone gets their hands on the football.”
As for the Patriots, they have forced 22 turnovers (most of any AFC team, tied for third in the NFL) and including their 17 points off five Jet giveaways last week, they have a total of 66 in 2009 — sixth most in football. They aren’t as aggressive when it comes to taking it back to the house, but cornerback Leigh Bodden was able to turn one of Mark Sanchez’s gifts into a touchdown last week, taking it back 53 yards for the score. It marked the second interception return for a touchdown this season for the New England secondary. Brandon Meriweather returned an interception 39 yards for a score in the first quarter of the Oct. 25 win over Tampa Bay.