What To Watch For: Will Patriots Offense Get Cookin’ In New Orleans?

By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots did not look good in their 2017 opener. The New Orleans Saints did not look good in their 2017 opener.

The two will square off Sunday in New Orleans, looking to avoid a 0-2 hole to start the season. It’s a hole the Saints are familiar with, having started each of the last three seasons with a pair of losses (at least). The Patriots, on the other hand, haven’t started a season 0-2 since 2001, before Tom Brady was under center for the first NFL start of his career.

Now Brady brings his new-look offense to the Big Easy, hoping for a much better effort than last Thursday’s embarrassing loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. They’ve had 10 days to think about that performance, no doubt reminded just how bad they were by head coach Bill Belichick with every practice and film session.

It was an early season drubbing by the Chiefs in 2014 that provided the team with a wake-up call, en route to a Super Bowl, so maybe this year’s version will have a similar effect (though no one has really said they’re “On to New Orleans” this time around). Even if it doesn’t have that kind of feel to it, we should see a much better Patriots team take the field on Sunday than the one that stunk up Gillette Stadium last Thursday.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for on Sunday afternoon:

Anything Cookin’

Brandin Cooks says this is just another game. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t itching to stick it to his former team while, more importantly, breaking out for his new one.

Cooks had a good, not great, Patriots debut last week, hauling in a trio of catches for 88 yards. That included a quick glimpse of his big-play ability, with a 54-yard connection with Brady. But overall, Cooks was held in check by a solid Chiefs secondary, unable to really break free aside from that long gain.

Back in the bayou and against a young New Orleans secondary (one that made Sam Bradford look like a Hall of Famer on Monday night), Cooks has a great opportunity to shine for the first time in a Patriots uniform.

Bounce-Back Week For Gronk?

Tight ends feasted on the Saints secondary last season, and with a young squad manning the defensive backfield for New Orleans this year, Rob Gronkowski should look more like his old self on Sunday.

The All-Pro was held to just two catches for 33 yards in Week 1 (he had a nifty diving touchdown grab taken away by video review), with KC safety Eric Berry leading a physical charge against the tight end. The Chiefs D pushed, grabbed and ultimately held Gronk in check, eliminating of Brady’s most reliable options.

That probably won’t be the case on Sunday. Veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro will likely get Gronk duties for the Saints, and he is no Eric Berry (very few are). He’ll be relying on help from linebackers and a pair of rookies in corner Marshon Lattimore (the 11th overall pick) and safety Marcus Williams.

The Chiefs had a great game plan and the personnel to take Gronk out of the equation last week. The Saints are going to have a much tougher time trying to do the same.

Run Game Needs To Be Better

Mike Gillislee had a heck of a Patriots debut, finding the end zone three times against Kansas City. But overall, he and the run game as a whole could have been better.

New England’s stable of running backs averaged just 3.5 yards per carry against the Chiefs (Gillislee averaged just three yards on his team-high 15 carries), and they failed to convert when all they needed to do was pick up a yard on a pair of key first downs.

The Patriots’ backs should be better on Sunday against a Saints team that allowed rookie Dalvin Cook to run for 127 yards in Week 1, averaging 5.8 yards on his 22 carries. If it’s not on the ground, then it should be by catching passes from Brady out of the backfield.

Pats Rush D Vs. Saints Rush Attack

The Patriots’ run defense also has to be much, much better after allowing the Chiefs to race for 185 yards and two touchdowns. That won’t be easy, with Dont’a Hightower likely out after suffering a leg injury last Thursday and missing practice all week.

But if their performance against the Vikings is any indication, the Saints’ rush attack is just as bad as New England’s rush defense. Adrian Peterson, in his return to Sota, ran for just 18 yards on six carries and is already complaining about getting more touches. Veteran back Mark Ingram picked up just 17 yards on his six carries. The most impressive of the bunch is rookie Alvin Kamara, who ran for just 17 yards on seven carries, but added four receptions for 20 yards.

The Saints didn’t run much after falling behind the Vikings 16-6 at halftime, but when they did they were extremely ineffective. The group will be out to prove they’re much better (or in Peterson’s case, that he’s worth a bigger workload in Sean Payton’s system), and could do so against a porous New England linebacker corps.

It’s an ugly matchup, but one worth watching throughout Sunday’s tilt.

BONUS: Who Handles Morstead’s Monster Punts?

Bill Belichick made it pretty clear this week that he’s a big fan of Saints punter Tom Morstead and his booming kicks. With Amendola likely out, the big question now is who the heck is going to field those punts?

Belichick said on Friday that the team is essentially holding open tryouts when it comes to those duties, and he’s going to be patient to let guys develop into that role. That will likely mean veterans Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung handle punt return duties for the near future, while newcomer Phillip Dorsett puts in some work away from game action.

With Morstead giving New Orleans a unique weapon on special teams, there’s a good chance we see a lot of fair catches from the Patriots. If their defense can actually force some punts, that is.

Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Saints game on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5FM at 10am with Patriots Preview and on WBZ-TV at 11:30am on Patriots GameDay. After the game, stay tuned for Patriots 5th Quarter on WBZ-TV and three full hours of postgame coverage on 98.5 The Sports Hub!

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