The New Orleans Saints might have to make their own luck when the New England Patriots have the ball. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has conducted a largely mistake-free offense, avoiding turnovers, converting critical downs, and keeping things on schedule. It’s not like they’re playing Aaron Rodgers — they can’t just sit back and let him give the ball away. They’ll have to be more proactive and put pressure on the youngster that he didn’t feel often at Alabama.
Still, there’s more going on in New England than Jones managing games well. Here are the Saints defense’s keys to the game:
Make the Patriots one-dimensional
New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) walks with teammate prior to an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
New England doesn't want Mac Jones to have to go win this game. Their offense ranks among the middle of the pack in pass attempts (69 through two games) with an above-average rate for calling running plays, where they've achieved a solid 4.2 yards per carry. That's bad news against a Saints defense that ranks second-best in the NFL with just 2.8 yards allowed per rushing attempt. If the Saints can stimmy the Patriots rushing attack and force Jones to make some grown-man throws, they can turn up the heat with their pass rush and take advantage of the 25.7% drop in his adjusted completion percentage when throwing under pressure. Getting Tanoh Kpassagnon back into the lineup should help, but look for rookie draft pick Payton Turner to lead the charge after his big debut last week.
Improve tackling efficiency
New Orleans Saints safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, left, runs a drill during the team's NFL football training camp practice in Metairie, La., Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via AP)
The Saints defense averaged 6.4 missed tackles per game in 2020, but nearly doubled that with a dozen missed tries last week against the Panthers (following a rock-solid performance in Week 1, with just two missed tackles). They're facing some elusive Patriots pass-catchers in running back Damien Harris, who has forced 12 missed tries by himself, and tight end Jonnu Smith, who only needs a little crease to punish you -- 48 of his 70 receiving yards have come after the catch. Getting technically-sound tacklers back in the mix like Marshon Lattimore, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Tanoh Kpassagnon should help. Gardner-Johnson did lead the team in missed tackles a year ago (17) but he did well in the opener and looks to have improved. He's got a good opportunity to continue raising his profile by fixing some of the communication issues New Orleans dealt with in Carolina.
Getting off the field on critical downs
Sep 19, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Malcolm Roach (97) reacts with outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) after intercepting a pass in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots offense has done a very good job of converting third downs, going 14-of-28 (50%) to rank seventh-best in the NFL. While the Saints lost some of their luster in that department last week (allowing the Panthers convert 8 of 15 tries, or 53%) they still place eighth-best across the league through two weeks. So which game was the outlier? Allowing Sam Darnold to pick up half the third downs he faced, or limiting Aaron Rodgers to just one conversion in Week 1? I lean towards the former given the Saints' larger body of work. They were a top-10 third down defense last season with an allowed conversion rate of just 38.2%, and returning some vital starters and good backups should help them get back on track. For what it's worth, Jones has seen his quarterback rating drop 30 points on third down compared to his first and second down efforts. If the Saints win on the early downs, they stand a good chance of getting off the field.
And some takeaways would be helpful, too
Sep 12, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) celebrates with teammates after defensive backs Marcus Williams (43) third quarter interception of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots are one of just six offenses that haven't thrown an interception yet, but the Saints have enough ballhawks in the secondary to end that streak if Jones gets careless. Welcoming Marshon Lattimore back to the starting lineup is huge, but Marcus Williams is someone to watch back deep over the top. However, the Patriots have had some trouble with fumbles -- they've put the ball on the ground five times already, tied for the second-most fumbles in the league. New Orleans is tied with six other teams to rank third-best in takeaways (4) but they've got to separate from the pack. New England is nearly undefeated (well, 105-6) at home when winning the turnover battle. The Saints defense must steal some possessions in Patriots territory to give them an edge.