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Welcome to Season 10, Episode 3 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
If there’s ever a week to remind ourselves to follow the Bill Belichick one-game-at-a-time/we’re-on-to-(this-week’s-opponent) mantra, it has to be this one, right?
The Patriots have the most anticipated regular-season game since, oh, probably the 2007 regular-season finale booked for next week, when Tom Brady and the Buccaneers visit Foxborough. The anticipation now, with the Belichick/Brady showdown so near, is understandable, even irresistible.
The Boston sports media this week have for the most part begun looking ahead, with dreams of page-views and ratings dancing in their heads. Some fans have followed suit. But as Belichick knows and presumably has reminded his players once or twice, the Patriots cannot afford to ponder what’s ahead, because they have an important task at hand now: figuring out how to beat the New Orleans Saints and improve to 2-1 rather than falling to 1-2.
It’s disrespectful for any of us to overlook the Saints. They are led by one of the coaching peers Belichick seems to respect most in Sean Payton, who is 144-82 with one Super Bowl victory in 15 seasons at the helm. His roster isn’t as talented as recent past teams, with receiver Michael Thomas still recovering from ankle surgery and Drew Brees (and his suddenly lush head of hair) retired and now part of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” studio team.
But do-it-all back Alvin Kamara is still a weapon, the Saints feature a deep defensive backfield that will challenge Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones, and Payton will cook up a play or two that the Patriots won’t be anticipating.
The Saints’ record — like the Patriots, they’re 1-1 — doesn’t tell the whole story of the drastic swings of their uneven season so far. They opened with a 38-3 rout of the Packers in which Aaron Rodgers threw the ball as if he were Ken Jennings in disguise, then they were overwhelmed last Sunday in a 26-7 loss to the Panthers.
The team’s performance runs parallel to the performance of Jameis Winston, the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde quarterback who with the Buccaneers in 2019 became the first passer to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season.
He was electric in the win over the Packers, connecting for five touchdowns, but threw for just 111 yards against the Panthers and made bewildering mistakes similar to the ones Jets rookie Zach Wilson made against the Patriots last week. In Year 7 of his career, that’s inexcusable, but he can burn a team that takes him lightly. We might. The Patriots won’t.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
J.C. Jackson: In his fourth season, the undrafted free agent out of Maryland is on his way to becoming one of the most prolific ball-hawks in franchise history. After picking off Wilson twice last week, Jackson now has 19 career interceptions, which ties him with Lawyer Milloy for 13th in Patriots history.
But get this: Jackson has collected his in 47 games, the fewest by any player in franchise history with more than 10 career interceptions. (It took Milloy 112 games to hoard his 19 picks.)
Next up on the list is Don Webb, who had 21 interceptions in 134 games from 1961-71. Then comes Asante Samuel, who picked off 22 passes in 75 games as a Patriot from 2003-07 before cashing in as a free agent with the Eagles.
It would not be a surprise at all if Jackson, who has 10 interceptions in his last 14 games going back to last season, gains on both of them this week courtesy of an errant Winston heave … or two … or three.
Deonte Harris: The receiver and return specialist was one of the feel-good stories in the NFL in 2019 when he stuck with the Saints as an undrafted free agent out Division 2 Assumption in Worcester and went on to earn All-Pro honors after averaging 26.8 yards per kick return and 9.4 yards per punt.
Two seasons later, with Harris fully established as a return-game force, the Saints intend to integrate him into the offense more. He made an immediate impact in the Week 1 win over the Packers, catching a 55-yard touchdown pass.
Harris is small (5 feet 6 inches) but feline-quick, and he accelerates as if he’s flooring the gas pedal.
Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater, who is not prone to hyperbole, compared Harris to former Saint/Eagle/Charger Darren Sproles, the only player in NFL history to exceed 2,200 all-purpose yards in four consecutive seasons. Pretty good company — fast company too — for an undersized kid out of the Northeast-10 conference.
Whoever plays right tackle: Trent Brown made it through seven snaps in the opener against the Dolphins before a calf injury sent him to the sidelines. He missed the Jets game last week, and his status for Sunday is up in the air after he had limited participation in practice this week.
Brown’s absence has been glaring. One of the reasons Jones hasn’t looked downfield often is that he’s too often under siege. Yasir Durant played 31 snaps against the Jets and allowed three sacks. Justin Herron (30 snaps) was somewhat better than that in relief.
But in the first two games of his NFL career, Jones has been sacked or hit 17 times, and it’s not like he’s holding the ball too long and doing that Drew Bledsoe pat-pat-pat thing before he throws. The line, particularly the player holding down that right tackle spot, must protect him better, and it won’t be easy with six-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan breathing fire across the line of scrimmage.
Two games into his career, the talk about whether Jones needs to be bolder in taking shots down the field is already beyond tedious. Jones played the short game against the Jets, and it was the right thing to do.
With Wilson handing out interceptions like Halloween candy, the only way the Patriots were going to find trouble in that game is if they started being careless or risky with the football. Jones took what the Jets gave him, completing 22 of 30 passes for 186 yards, and it was the proper tactical approach.
Trent Green, the CBS analyst, pointed out that Nelson Agholor came open on a double pass in which Jones threw underneath to Jonnu Smith instead. But watching the play on the All-22 film this week revealed that Agholor wasn’t that open. But it seeded the narrative that Jones needs to let it fly more.
Maybe he will Sunday. I believe he’ll be able to do it when necessary. But it hasn’t been necessary so far. Do we really have to nitpick this kid already?
Saints running back Alvin Kamara versus the Patriots run defense
Here’s one way to frame the versatile fifth-year back’s slow start this season: Kamara had more rushing touchdowns against the Vikings on Christmas Day last season (6, tying Ernie Nevers’s 91-year-old record) than he had rushing yards (5) last Sunday against the Panthers.
His 0.63 yards per attempt in that game (he had eight carries) is the worst of his career, and he totaled just 34 yards in the loss. Kamara has just 88 rushing yards and 33 receiving yards this season after running for 962 yards and catching 83 passes for another 756 yards in 2020. Last season, he collected 21 touchdowns. This season, he has just one, a receiving touchdown against the Packers.
In other words, he’s due to break out in a big way. No one expects his struggles to continue, least of all Belichick. Kamara, who has made the Pro Bowl in all four of his seasons, is established as one of the most prolific and versatile backs in the league. Part of the issue against the stout Panthers run defense was that Payton abandoned the ground game (Winston was New Orleans’s leading rusher with 31 yards.)
Belichick has a long history of taking away an opposing offense’s best weapon, but that will prove challenging with Kamara. The Saints, who are dead last in the NFL in total offense (115.5), aren’t about to contribute to his marginalization again. He will get his touches (he averaged 18 per game last season) even if he starts slowly.
With their quality depth in the defensive backfield, the Patriots seem better equipped to deal with Kamara in the passing game than as a ball carrier. They were supposed to have fixed last season’s issues against the run with the return of Dont’a Hightower and the additions of Devin Godchaux and second-round pick Christian Barmore, but the Jets punctured them for 152 yards on 31 carries last Sunday.
The most basic approach to predicting how this one will play out comes in the form of a question: Which version of Winston will show up?
It’s tempting to suggest the Patriots will befuddle the Saints quarterback, but he has had modest success against them, throwing for 334 yards and a touchdown — with no interceptions — in a 19-14 Patriots win over the Bucs in Week 4 of the 2017 season. Patriots defensive players noted this week that he’s less prone to make risky throws no; Jonathan Jones described Winston as more meticulous.
We’ll see if that’s true, but it must be noted that Winston’s degree of difficulty is high because of how porous the injury-plagued Saints line has been so far. Josh Uche, who had two sacks against the Jets and has three sacks, three tackles for a loss, and three QB hits in just 50 snaps this season, could have a breakout game. I do wonder whether this is the week Payton opens up the Taysom Hill bag of tricks.
Offensively, the Patriots may need to put a little more on Jones in his third career game. The Saints defense has been near-impenetrable by the run, allowing just 66 yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt. They also feature a well-rounded defensive backfield, though both Marshon Lattimore and C.J. Gardner-Johnson missed the Week 2 game against the Panthers because of injury. Veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Bradley Roby are as smart as they are experienced.
This one won’t be easy for the Patriots, but they’ll get the outcome they want. Then — say it with me —we’re on to Tampa Bay. Patriots 24, Saints 20.
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