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Both teams are in unfamiliar rebuilding phases, with Jameis Winston working to prove last week’s disappointing loss was a fluke while Mac Jones hopes to continue building confidence in his abilities. With the shadows of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks hanging over the game, each passer is feeling some pressure.
Ahead of the game, I linked up with Patriots Wire managing editor Henry McKenna, who shared his insight in a question-and-answer session. He floated five queries my way and I sent mine in kind. Here’s what we learned about both squads:
How has Mac Jones looked? Is he going to keep the Saints defense on its heels or take what they're allowing him?
McKenna: He's definitely going to take what they're allowing him. That has been his M.O. in these first few weeks. He's a conservative decision-maker, who prefers to operate in a way where he'll finish the game with a 75% completion rating. He's been able to do that in the first few weeks, with the defense playing really well. If the Saints put up points, however, we mind finally see Jones come out of his shell. That's what I'm hoping to see. Jones can absolutely push the ball downfield, but this year, he may not do it unless he has to.
It's been a while since Saints fans have seen the Patriots. What is the makeup of the team post-Tom Brady?
McKenna: It's largely different from a personnel standpoint. Bill Belichick saved up his money for this offseason, and unlike he normally does, the Patriots coach and GM spent a lot of money in free agency. He added two top-end tight ends (Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry), two receivers (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne), a tackle (Trent Brown, via trade), two linebackers (Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy) and a cornerback (Jalen Mills). Jones, of course, has taken over for Cam Newton, who took over for Brady. Ultimately, though, this team looks a lot like the Brady teams, with a strong defense, schemed up by Belichick, and an efficient offense, with a decisive and quick-to-the-trigger passer
A lot was made of Dont'a Hightower returning to lead the New England defense. How have they performed this year?
McKenna: The front seven has underwhelmed, Hightower included. He looked a little slugging in Week 1. He looked better in Week 2, so there's reason to believe he was simply rusty after a year away after opting out due to COVID-19 concerns. Regardless, the defense has issues stopping the run. That said, their secondary is quite dangerous, with four interceptions last week. It will be interesting to see whether the front-seven can improve to the point where this defense becomes one of the NFL's best.
Who should Saints fans be watching out for when the Patriots have the ball? And which Pats defender could give New Orleans the most trouble?
McKenna: The Patriots will need to keep an eye on running back Damien Harris. New England will want to run their offense through him, with efficient and bruising runs. That's who the Saints should focus on stopping to put Jones in third-and-long situations. Defensively, keep an eye on safety Adrian Phillips. He's a versatile defender, who may end up being one of their solutions to containing Alvin Kamara. Phillips plays great run defense, even if he's on the small side, and he's solid in coverage, particularly against tight ends.
Let's see a score prediction -- who wins, and why?
McKenna: I can't help but feel like this one will be low-scoring. Both offenses will struggle. Saints win, 16-13.
Which version of Jameis Winston are we likely to see? Was one of the weeks a fluke?
Sigler: I think Winston plays a lot better than last week. The protection issues should be resolved now that the offensive line coach is back with the team (having missed the entire week on the COVID-19 reserve list). I'm still not confident the Saints have enough weapons to support him but if anyone can make it work it's Sean Payton. It all starts up front, and if the Saints can continue to keep Winston clean and allow him to make good decisions, he'll be fine.
Did the salary cap constraints end up impacting the Saints in the offseason? If so, what position was most greatly impacted?
Sigler: Yeah, the depressed cap really hurt them. If the pandemic hadn't torpedoed the cap they wouldn't have had to let go of veterans like cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Losing those two really hurt given the lack of depth behind them. Corner is the position to watch with Marshon Lattimore continuing to recover from hand surgery while Paulson Adebo and Bradley Roby get up to speed.
Last year, the Saints defense was one of the league's best. Where do you think they rank in 2021?
Sigler: I like the Saints defense better than their offense, which feels really weird to say after 15 years of sustained success. They have enough experienced leaders in the secondary to protect the new corners and defensive ends rotation remains strong, though they're missing the unit's best player with Marcus Davenport on injured reserve. Once everyone is back to full health and acclimated to each other they'll be a strength of the team, but that's not happening until maybe midseason.
Can you introduce us to a breakout player for New Orleans on both offense and defense?
Sigler: The player to watch on offense is tight end Juwan Johnson, who caught a pair of touchdown passes in Week 1 and would have had a third if he hadn't been interfered with. He was quieter in Week 2 but that's because the package he's featured in wasn't used as often, having converted from receiver as a rookie. On defense, this feels like a big opportunity for C.J. Gardner-Johnson to show how important he is. He's known for his trash talk but he's a very effective tackler and a heady player in the secondary who isn't easy to fool.
Who wins? Why?
Sigler: I'd like to say the Saints bounce back in a big way, but there are still too many uncertainties for me to say they run the Patriots off the field. Between the injuries on defense and the absence of starting center Erik McCoy, this will be closer than it should be if they had all hands on deck. Bill Belichick will take away Alvin Kamara and make life tough on Winston. Patriots win 17-14.