Patriots

Patriots, Saints sit in a similar spot ahead of Week 3 matchup

Both teams are replacing a legendary quarterback while dealing with injuries to star players and have talented backfields.

The Patriots, just like the Saints, have relied on their running backs to start the season. AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

As Bill Parcells disciples Sean Payton and Bill Belichick prepare to face off this Sunday, their franchises currently sit in similar places.

The obvious similarity between the Saints and Patriots is their quarterback situations. Both teams are in the early stages of replacing an all-time great at the position, as the Patriots are in Year 2 post-Tom Brady while the Saints are about to play their third game since Drew Brees retired this offseason.

Like the Patriots did in their first year without Brady, the Saints are starting a former No. 1 overall pick looking to prove himself in their second NFL home. Jameis Winston is at the helm for New Orleans, and through two starts, he’s provided a similar roller coaster to what Cam Newton brought on the field in New England.

In Week 1, Winston showed the upside that many thought he had coming out of Florida State, completing 14 of 20 passes with five touchdowns in a 38-3 win over the Packers. But Week 2 showed the reason why the Buccaneers let Winston walk as a free agent in 2020. Against the Panthers, Winston completed 11 of 22 passes for 111 yards in a 26-7 loss.

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Despite the lackluster Week 2 performance, Belichick recognizes the talent Winston has.

“He’s a really good quarterback,” Belichick told reporters Wednesday. “He threw for 5,000 yards in Tampa, so it’s not like this guy isn’t that productive. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s accurate. He’s got a good touch on the ball. The offense that he ran at Tampa is a lot different than the offense he’s running in New Orleans, but I think fundamentally he’s just a big, strong guy that can throw the ball accurately.”

While the Saints continue to wonder if Winston is part of their solution, the Patriots might have found their long-term solution this offseason. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has looked the part in his first two games, completing 73.9 percent of his passes for 467 yards with a touchdown and no turnovers.

Jones, who drew some comparisons to Brees prior to the draft, almost wasn’t a Patriot, though. Payton admitted Wednesday that Mac Jones was “really high” on the Saints’ draft board. The Saints even tried to trade ahead of the Patriots, who had the No. 15 pick, to draft Jones, The Athletic‘s Jeff Howe reported.

“I think he processes information fast,” Payton said of Jones. “At Alabama, if you watch closely his tape, the ball comes out, decisions are made fast. I think he sees the field horizontally as well as vertically well. He has the arm to make the throws that you want.

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“His decision-making and processing are where I felt were really strong suits with him and I think he’s handling it well. It’s not easy to all of a sudden come in and start week one as a rookie, but he’s a smart player.”

The ongoing search for their next franchise quarterback is far from the only thing the Patriots and Saints have in common. One of the best players on each team won’t play in Sunday’s game, with Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Saints receiver Michael Thomas on the physically unable to perform list.

Instead of getting two of the best players at their respective positions facing each other, we’ll see cornerback J.C. Jackson – who had two interceptions last week – and the rest of the Patriots’ secondary lineup against a Saints receiving corps that has just 10 catches through two games.

New Orleans’ current receiving struggles come a year after New England faced similar issues after its star receiver (Julian Edelman) went down for much of the season. Both teams though have a top receiving running back to help offset any receiving issues. Saints running back Alvin Kamara’s caught at least 80 passes in each of his first four seasons and has a team-high seven receptions this season, while James White has a team-high 12 catches for the Patriots this year.

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Each team has relied on its backfield through the first two weeks of the season. Of their 99 official offensive plays, the Saints have either rushed or thrown to a running back in 53 of them. The Patriots have rushed or thrown to a running back in 70 of their 121 plays this season.

Kamara leads the way for the Saints, rushing for 88 yards through two weeks and 932 yards last season.

“I feel like if you were to maybe try to build a perfect back, he essentially has everything you need,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said Wednesday of Kamara. “Vision, balance. He’s strong. He’s tough. However you want to give him the ball, you can give it to him, whether it’s screens, you want to throw it to him, you want to hand it off. He’s just a really good player. Explosive.

“You can hand off a ball to him and expect maybe a 3- or 4-yard run, and he’ll turn it into a 75-yard touchdown. He’s just that type of player.”

The Saints have also gotten help from second-year back Tony Jones Jr., who rushed for 50 yards on 11 carries in Week 1.

The Patriots have largely relied on Damien Harris in the ground game to start this season. He’s rushed for 162 yards on 39 carries so far, but White chipped in last week with 20 yards on five carries and a touchdown against the Jets.

Both teams are also facing some injury concerns on their offensive lines. For the Saints, starting center Erik McCoy missed Week 2 and has yet to practice this week. His absence in Week 2 could explain why the Saints ran an inefficient 2.8 yards per carry against the Panthers, which could also benefit the Patriots, who allowed 152 yards on 31 carries against the Jets.

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“Obviously, each week, there’s room for improvement,” Hightower said on bouncing back from Week 2. “You can’t say that enough … But it’s football. Those things are going to happen. They’re going to have good calls, they’re going to have good schemes and stuff, so just trying to limit those and make sure that they’re not 20- and 30-yard runs. Just trying to limit those situations, because the guys on the back end, they have a tough job, and whenever we can make (offenses) one-dimensional, it makes things a lot easier for everybody.”

For New England, starting right tackle Trent Brown missed Week 2 after going down in the first series of Week 1 with a calf injury. His absence led to backup tackle Yasir Durant giving up three sacks against the Jets. Brown could play against the Saints as he’s been limited at practice this week.

While both teams aren’t the class of their respective divisions anymore, they’re both in intriguing situations with some top-end talent on both sides of the ball, making Sunday’s game an intriguing one.

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