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5 things to watch in Patriots-Saints matchup

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) greet each other after an NFL preseason football game in New Orleans, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
AP Photo/Bill Feig

Whether it was Adrian Peterson fuming about his six carries or Tom Brady shaking his head for missing an open receiver, it is safe to say both the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots experienced plenty of frustration in Week 1. Drew Brees and the rest of his offense got bottled up by a tenacious Minnesota Vikings defense. Meanwhile, the Saints defense got carved up by NFC Offensive Player of the Week Sam Bradford (346 yards, 3 TD). Yes, Sam Bradford.

In New England, the unveiling of Super Bowl banner No. 5 ended with the Kansas City Chiefs dropping 42 points on an often overmatched and confused defense many expected to be among the league’s best. As for Brady, the offense had no rhythm and got blanked in the fourth quarter. As both teams try to put their disappointing debuts behind them, let us take a look at five things to watch in this Patriots-Saints matchup.

1. Brady vs. Brees

The battle between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks is by far the most intriguing storyline this weekend. Brady is arguably the most accomplished signal-caller in NFL history. From his five Super Bowl rings to two MVP trophies to countless clutch throws, TB12 has been a pillar of success since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Coming off his most efficient season that included the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, Brady somehow continues to defy Father Time at the age of 40. But with top receiver Julian Edelman out for the season and Danny Amendola sidelined with a concussion, Brady must make better use of his other weapons, including Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan.

Like his counterpart, Brees has also put together one of the best quarterback resumes of all time. The NFL’s active leader in passing yards (66,402) and touchdowns (466) also owns the best completion percentage of all time (66.7). Despite his short stature, the 38-year-old has been a fantasy owner’s dream during his 12 years in New Orleans. Though he has only one Super Bowl ring, Brees runs the offense like a coach on the field and is one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the game. This season, however, he lost Cooks (trade) and Willie Snead (three-game suspension) and also has to adjust to some new weapons. Brady and Brees have split their two prior matchups. Who will emerge as the better QB on Sunday?

2. Can either team run the ball more effectively in Week 2? 

Though the Patriots managed 124 rushing yards and three touchdowns last week, they still struggled to run the ball at critical moments. Free-agent pickup Mike Gillislee—who scored all three TDs—got stuffed on two fourth-down attempts. Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead combined for just five carries for 24 yards, and James White simply is not an effective between-the-tackles runner. The Saints got gashed by Viking rookie Dalvin Cook, so look for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to try to get the ground game going early to take pressure off Brady.

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 31: New England Patriots running back Mike Gillislee (35) before an NFL preseason game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants on August 31, 2017 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Giants defeated the Patriots 40-38. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

To say Peterson’s revenge game against his old team was a letdown would be a massive understatement. He managed just 18 yards on six carries… and was the team’s leading rusher. Fellow backfield mates Mark Ingram (six carries for 17 yards) and Alvin Kamara (seven carries for 18 yards) struggled to find their footing against a ferocious Viking front. But after watching Chief rookie Kareem Hunt run through and around this Patriot defense to the tune of 148 rushing yards, perhaps Sean Payton can find a way to maximize his three-headed monster at running back.

3. Can the Saints’ young secondary slow down the Patriots’ veteran receivers? 

No matter what they do, it seems the Saints cannot fix their secondary. General manager Mickey Loomis has invested high draft picks on Patrick Robinson and Stanley Jean-Baptiste with little to show for them. Currently, the Saints’ defensive backfield features two former first-rounders (strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and rookie corner Marshon Lattimore) as well as second-round rookie Marcus Williams at free safety. Despite their draft pedigrees, those players did not look good in Week 1, when the Saints surrendered 341 passing yards against Bradford, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.

New Orleans’ young secondary will have a much tougher task at hand this Sunday against a more dangerous group of pass-catchers. From Cooks—the former Saint standout—Gronkowski, Hogan or some combination of Lewis or White, the Patriots boast an arsenal of weapons any team would envy. After getting shut down in Week 1, expect Gronk and Hogan to be featured more on Sunday. The real question is: Can the Saints stop them?

4. What adjustments will Matt Patricia make after a historically bad opener?

Whether it was a combination of new personnel, poor game-planning or simply being out-executed, the Patriots failed in every way on defense in Week 1. New England’s top-ranked scoring defense from a year ago looked completely overmatched against the immortal Alex Smith, who earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in what might be the best game of his otherwise lackluster career. The Patriots seemed ill-prepared against the Chiefs, showing trouble aligning before the snap and displaying severe coverage breakdowns.

From a personnel standpoint, the team took a hit when Dont’a Hightower went out with a knee injury. Outside of budding star Trey Flowers, the front seven had a forgettable day. A star-studded secondary replete with Pro Bowl talent watched Smith and his arsenal of speedsters simply blow by them time after time. Communication must improve this week against the surgical Brees. Newly extended linebacker Kyle Van Noy must show better awareness and help the defense line up and execute assignments properly if the Patriots have any chance of putting their abysmal Week 1 performance in the past. As for Patricia, the rocket scientist must emphasize better edge setting and gap discipline. He may want to find a different personnel package that does not include Jordan Richards at linebacker.

5. Can anyone rush the passer? 

To put it simply, the Patriots need to find a way to dial up more pressure—a task that will be more difficult if Hightower is unable to suit up. Besides Flowers, the Patriots do not feature an established defensive end capable of applying consistent pressure. Instead, look for versatile rookies Deatrich Wise Jr. and Adam Butler to be on the field a lot in order to make life uncomfortable for Brees. New England also needs to get more out of Alan Branch and Malcom Brown along the interior.

The Saints have a similar issue in that Cameron Jordan is the only legitimate pass-rusher on the team. The perennially underrated seventh-year pro can disrupt passing attacks from both the edge and inside. However, New Orleans needs 2016 first-round pick Sheldon Rankins to become a nuisance from his three-technique spot if the team has any hope of stopping Brady and the Patriots on Sunday.

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