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What to watch for as the Patriots host the Saints

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  October 13, 2013 09:29 AM

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FOXBOROUGH – There will be a huge emphasis on how the Patriots perform on offense against the New Orleans Saints, especially considering the team is coming off its worst offensive outing in four years.

Here's what you should be looking for:

1. Does Stevan Ridley give the Patriots a boost? – The third-year running back is listed as questionable for today's game. He missed last week's game against the Bengals with a knee injury. It just so happens that the Patriots had a season-low 82 yards rushing in his absence, brought on by both a lack of production at his position and a viable passing attack. We know Ridley can help. But will the Patriots consistently go to him?

2. Improvement upon improvement – We're now a month away from the debacle that was the New York Jets game, in which Patriots receivers were so far off their marks with Tom Brady that the veteran quarterback's frustrations were quite visible. In the weeks following, we've seen the Patriots' new receivers – Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and even Danny Amendola – prove to be much more on the same page, but quite far off from consistent. They've had issues with drops (Amendola had three last week) and running the right routes. So now, against a formidable defense and the class of the NFC, would be a good time to show that they have demonstrably improved.

3. Accuracy under pressure – This year, unlike so many others, Tom Brady is having a hard time completing passes under pressure. Part of it is his fresh group of receivers. But another part has been his own accuracy. When he's not under pressure, he's completed 61 percent of his throws, according to the statistics website ProFootballFocus.com. But when he is under pressure, that rate drops to 45.5 percent. When he's blitzed, he's completing 50 percent of his passes. Facing a Saints defense led by coordinator Rob Ryan, the Patriots are likely to see coverages that are meant to confuse and blitzes that are disguised. It is imperative for Brady to play well under pressure.

4. Who is in, who is out? – We'll get official word 90 minutes before kickoff whether tight end Rob Gronkowski will play. He's still recovering from back and forearm surgeries. But we'll also see if center Ryan Wendell (concussion) will be available. He's listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

5. Will they hold the line? – The Patriots will be without defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who suffered a knee injury against the Cincinnati Bengals last week. He'll be replaced by Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Marcus Forston. It will be interesting to see how these interior linemen handle the Saints' running game, which is ranked 26th overall in the league (78.2 yards per game).

6. Stopping Jimmy Graham – The Saints' tight end is 6-7 and provides a number of matchup problems across the field. Whether the Patriots put a linebacker, safety, or cornerback on Graham, he'll be hard to stop. He has 37 receptions on 51 targets for 593 yards and six touchdowns.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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