On Sunday, we all got to witness a fantastic game between two of the NFL's powerhouse teams in the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. Tom Brady connected with Kenbrell Thompkins in the end zone in dramatic fashion to seal the victory and propel New England to 5-1, putting them on pace for yet another AFC East title.
For the majority of the game, Brady was brilliant, and although blitz pickup and protection as a whole was a big problem (as well as drops by his receivers), the Patriots offense scored 30 points against a vastly improved New Orleans defense. Rob Gronkowski should be back before long and the young wide receivers are only getting better. But lost in Brady's last-minute heroics is the job New England's defense did on Drew Brees.
How improved is this defense and how far can it carry the Patriots?
Bill Belichick is a master at taking away what opposing offenses do best, and on Sunday it was clear that Belichick's defense was going to do its best to take away Jimmy Graham. Watching coverages on anything but coaching tape isn't easy to decipher, but it was obvious that the Pats aligned Aqib Talib on Graham every snap in tight, press man coverage. Talib blanketed Graham with the Patriots playing a lot of two-man coverage, which is five players matching up in man-to-man coverage against the Saints' five skill-position players and a two-deep shell over the top to help eliminate the big plays. Talib was injured early in the third quarter, but was simply exceptional against Graham, who then happened to get injured himself later in the quarter on a pass from Brees that ended up in an interception by the Patriots. We didn't get the chance to see this great battle between Talib and Graham for the entire 60 minutes, but the Saints' passing game usually goes through Graham -- but was unable to on Sunday.
Talib has been terrific this season and Belichick has used him often in a similar role, playing press man coverage against the opponent's top receiver, either at wide receiver or tight end. Talib's great size allows him to compete with bigger pass-catchers like Graham better than most cornerbacks. Talib has been up to the challenge, but the rest of this secondary is also playing great football.
Devin McCourty came to the league as a first-round cornerback, but has truly found a home at safety. Few realize it, but he is one of the best safeties in the NFL and the Pats' last layer of defense, namely that two-deep shell, was exceptional at eliminating the big play on Sunday.Alfonzo Dennard spent most of the game shutting down Marques Colston, who finished with only one catch for 11 yards. Dennard is a physical corner that isn't especially fast, which is exactly the type of game Colston brings to the table. With support over the top, Dennard could play his game without the huge threat of Colston beating him deep.
That didn't leave a lot for Brees. The Saints were smart to target Ben Watson against the Patriots' slower linebackers, and Kenny Stills also stepped up against favorable coverages. It shouldn't be overlooked that Stills, an advanced route runner for a rookie wideout, did make a great play catching a touchdown between two Patriots' defensive backs. And Brees missed what should have been a touchdown throw to Nick Toon, another peripheral weapon that the Patriots gave some leeway in order to account for Colston and especially Graham. But New England was terrific at coming up and tackling to eliminate great production after the catch, which is another big component to the Saints' great passing game, particularly with Darren Sproles.
Historically, the Patriots allow a fair amount of yardage, but are extremely difficult to play against in the red zone. New England wasn't great in the red zone on Sunday, but their red zone defense once again has been terrific overall in 2013. However, New England's defense has faced E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton before Brees on Sunday. None of those passing attacks, with the possible exception of Atlanta's, can compare to what the Saints throw at you.
It is worrisome that the Patriots are without Vince Wilfork for the rest of the season. Last week in Cincinnati, Joe Vellano had a long day as Wilfork's replacement against an exceptional Bengals offensive line. Vellano was much better on Sunday, but the Saints also don't have a true power running back -- although New Orleans did begin to exploit the middle of the Patriots' run defense as this game went along. That is something to monitor going forward.
Another potential area of concern is the pass rush, as New England had just one sack on Sunday, even with Bryce Harris starting at right tackle for the Saints. Their pass rush has been ordinary, including Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but their coverage has been spectacular to compensate. That is what we saw once again on Sunday, as New England didn't blitz often, instead choosing to use their LBs and CBs in coverage with two safeties deep.
As Brady showed again on Sunday, he's one of the best quarterbacks with the game on the line. And the young receivers are slowly making strides forward. With an improved defense, the Patriots are certainly Super Bowl contenders once again.