The New Orleans Saints and head coach Sean Payton were not shy in sharing with WEEi.com’s Christopher Price that they have modeled their organization after what the New England Patriots have done under Bill Belichick. From the coaching staff to player acquisition to preparation, Payton has said on several occasions that when it comes to making a decision about his team, he thinks to himself: What Would Belichick Do?” Following the Patriots model worked to perfection last season, as the Saints became Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history.
“I’ve said this a number of times. When we got hired in 2006, we looked closely at New England in regards to what they were doing. Clearly, they were the model, and we’re not afraid to talk about that,” Payton said Tuesday after the first of three joint practice sessions between the Saints and Patriots in Foxboro.
“There’s a ton of times I’ve brought up — this is an organization that gets it. They put the team first. They do a great job of bringing in the key veteran players. They’ve got good quarterback play, they’re unselfish, and all those things you talk about. Like any business you study closely that’s successful, this is the team we’ve paid attention to.”
The Saints came marching into Foxboro earlier this week for two days of joint practice sessions with the Patriots on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. The scene will shift to Gillette Stadium under the lights at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night for the preseason opener for both teams. Here are the key story lines and what to watch for on the Patriots side of the spectrum as they take on the defending Super Bowl champion Saints.
Will Wes Welker be on the field versus New Orleans?
Welker was a full participant in full contact joint practices between the Saints and Patriots this week, but according to New England head coach Bill Belichick, Welker remains a game-time decision for the preseason opener against the Saints Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. The main goal for the Patriots is to keep everyone healthy, so even if Welker plays, he will be limited.
“We’ll see how it goes yesterday and today and make a decision on that,” Belichick said during his Wednesday morning press conference prior to the third of three joint practices with the Saints. “I don’t know. I’m not saying he will. I’m not saying he won’t. We’ll evaluate it and see.”
How do the Patriots utilize the rookie tight ends?
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez possess two different skill sets which could present problems for opposing defenses. The Patriots have been using Hernandez as a true fullback and lead blocker on running plays. His ability as a receiver out of the backfield could make him an emergency outlet receiver for Tom Brady, as well as allow him to get regular playing time. Gronkowski has excellent size, and projects as a major threat in the red zone. Patriots fans should keep an eye on these two rookies on Thursday night.
Depth at wide receiver: Holt, Tate, Price and more
On the all-time leaderboard Torry Holt’s 920 receptions rank 11th, and his 13,382 yards rank 10th. But the most significant number to him over the next month will be how many receivers the Patriots choose to keep. Keep an eye on Holt’s role in the offense on Thursday night.
Brandon Tate has been a pleasant surprise in training camp for New England. Tate missed most of last season recovering from a torn ACL suffered during his senior season at North Carolina. Tate was often compared and in some cases believed to be better than his college teammate Hakeem Nicks. If Tate can step up and become a reliable target for Tom Brady this season, then he will answer a major question mark for the Patriots. Tate, along with Julian Edelman will handle the primary punt and kick returning duties on Thursday night. Also expected to see a ton of playing time on Thursday night are Taylor Price and Sam Aiken.
On the defensive side of the ball: Spikes and Cunningham
This game is expected to be a good chance to evaluate rookie linebackers Brandon Spikes (second round, 62nd overall) and Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 53rd overall). Both are projected to see significant playing time with the first team defense. Cunningham has been taking reps with the first team defense in practice opposite Tully Banta-Cain in the absence of veteran Derrick Burgess. Spikes has been the real story of training camp so far, the rookie from Florida looks like the real deal at middle linebacker. Additionally Spikes has been getting alot of one-on-one time with head coach Bill Belichick.
Who is the leader of this defense? Jerod Mayo?
Gone are defensive stalwarts Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel. The general consensus around the Patriots is that middle linebacker Jerod Mayo will step up and become the leader of this defense. Mayo has already called this preseason game Thursday night versus the Saints “a measuring stick” for his team.
Are Devin McCourty and Darius Butler ready for primetime?
With starter Leigh Bodden out, first round pick Devin McCourty and Darius Butler will have their hands full with the first team receivers of the New Orleans Saints, Thursday night. Terrence Wheatley has looked great in practice against the Saints the past couple days, flashing excellent speed, and Jonathan Wilhite will also see plenty of playing time tomorrow night. The Patriots desperately need these young cornerbacks to step up this season.
According to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, things are “cookin.” It is unlikely that a deal gets done before this game, as former Patriot wide receiver Troy Brown predicted on local Boston radio station WEEI. Keep an eye on the situation as training camp continues. Brady will likely play a couple series at most against the Saints, and be replaced by Brian Hoyer. The only other quarterback on the roster is Oklahoma State rookie Zac Robinson. With no veteran backup on the roster, these preseason games will either solidify Hoyer as Brady’s backup or give the Patriots a reason to bring a veteran in.
Patriots Injury Report
Six players were on the field but out of uniform for Thursday’s practice: defensive lineman Ron Brace; cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Terrence Johnson; wide receivers Matthew Slater and Torry Holt; and linebacker Gary Guyton. Players not seen on the practice field were safeties Josh Barrett and Bret Lockett; defensive linemen Ty Warren and Derrick Burgess; and offensive linemen Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins. Linebacker Marques Murrell returned to practice after being carted off at the end of the previous session. Wide receiver Wes Welker will be a game-time decision.
Check back after the game for a full recap of Thursday nights preseason opener between the Patriots and Saints.