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Match Of Similar Offenses Highlights NFL Trend

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The Patriots and Saints are a lot alike. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.
The Patriots and Saints are a lot alike. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.

The Patriots have always been good at covering the opponent’s best offensive threat. In the past two games, New England’s defense has limited Julio Jones to six catches and 108 yards and A.J. Green to five catches and 61 yards. However, this week, the Patriots face another offensive machine, tight end Jimmy Graham. The 6-foot-7 tight end has 37 receptions for 593 yards and six touchdowns so far. He has been targeted by quarterback Drew Brees for a total of 53 times, which accounts for 26 percent of Brees’ passing attempts.

Graham sure seems impossible to cover, but New England’s hardest challenge might be the diversity of the Saints’ offense. Against New Orleans, opponents sometimes just need to pick their poison. It can be deep passes to Marques Colston or short passes that turn into long gains in the hands of speedy Darren Sproles, Drew Brees will just take what is given to him. Sean Payton, after his one-year suspension due to his knowledge of the bounty system defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran with defensive players in the 2009 season, proves to be a worthy coach, as the Saints are 5-0.

Even though they are not as efficient as the Saints this year, the Patriots thrive on the same kind of offense. New England’s diverse offense has been the main elements of its success. More and more quarterbacks post good numbers on Sunday. In 2003, the average number of pass attempt for the top 10 quarterbacks by passing yardage was 524 attempts per season. Last year, it was 618 attempts. The National Football League’s rules that favor the passing game might be one of the reasons; however, there is surely something else. Every Sunday, more teams are adopting the same offensive strategy as New England and New Orleans, which is just getting the ball to the open guy based on complex timing routes and mismatches. 

The benefit of such an offense is the unpredictability. There are no special defenses or coverages for this type of offense, as almost anybody can get the ball. Playcalling is strictly based on situational football, and if players know the situation and don’t make any mistakes, it is nearly unbeatable. The fact that anybody can get the ball is both a nightmare for defensive coordinators, who don’t know who to cover, and for fantasy football players, who don’t know who to start in their lineup.

Even though both teams like to be unpredictable in their offensive playcalling, they relied heavily on their tight ends in recent years. Gronkowski and Graham have been major forces, proving to be too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. This also set a trend around the National Football League. In 2003, only two tight ends were part of the top 40 in receiving yards: Tony Gonzalez with 916 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns and Shannon Sharpe with 770 yards and eight touchdowns. There were five tight ends in last year’s top 40: Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Greg Olsen and Heath Miller. It is also safe to assume that if Rob Gronkowski had played healthy all season long, he would have been part of that top 40. This year, Graham surprisingly leads the league in receiving yards and is second in catches.

The only sure value of the Patriots’ and Saints’ a system is the quarterback. He has to be consistent and make everyone around him better. Consistency has been one of Drew Brees’ main assets, as he holds the record for the longest streak of games with at least a touchdown pass with 54 games. Ironically, second place belongs to Brees’ Sunday rival, Tom Brady, whose streak was stopped at 52 games last week against the Bengals. 

In the past, the Saints have traveled to New England in the pre-season to practice with the Patriots. They have had many pre-season matches and Bell Belichick and Sean Payton seem to like sharing ideas. The last regular season game between the two teams was on November 30, 2009, and the Saints blew right past the Patriots 38-17 at the Superdome. Drew Brees had set the record for the most touchdowns passes thrown against a team coached by Bill Belichick with five. The Saints have almost the same offense as in 2009, and even though the Pats’ defense is better than in the past, it is hard to see how they will stop Drew Brees and his receivers. 

The Saints’ defense is much better than in the past years. It allowed only six touchdowns passes so far and intercepted the opposing quarterback seven times. New Orleans’ defense also sacked the quarterback 15 times, tied for fifth in the league.

The fact that Sean Payton’s team will be away from home might disrupt their offensive rhythm, but the Pats, even if it seems like tight end Gronkowski will play, will not be able to match New Orleans points for points and will suffer their second loss of the year.