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Game of the Week preview: Saints

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates after a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons
Did you know Graham played basketball? Me neither!
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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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The FOX NFL Game of the Week features the New Orleans Saints journeying to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots. With the Pats looking to avenge Week 5’s loss against the Saints’ unblemished record, let’s get the lowdown on each team’s subplots heading into this Boston battle:

For a preview on the Patriots, click here.

Five Things to Watch: New Orleans Saints

 

Pierre Thomas emerging as primary Saints back

Hope you are wearing socks, because I’m about to blow them off: Thomas, who entered 2013 averaging 34 receptions per season in his six-year career, is on pace for 90 catches this fall. The diminutive Darren Sproles is regarded as Drew Brees’ principal check-down in the passing game, and with 26 grabs, it’s not as if Sproles has been ousted from this role. Nevertheless, after years of utilizing a committee approach, Thomas appears to be materializing as the central focus of the Saints backfield, with Thomas receiving double the carries as Sproles in the terrain attack.

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This distribution could change with the return of Mark Ingram, who’s been limited to just 17 attempts thanks to turf toe and the fact that, you know, professional Mark Ingram blows. (Compared to college Mark Ingram, who was the man.) However, even with Ingram back, Thomas should still see the majority of work out of the New Orleans rushers. Bigger names headline the high-octane offense, but Thomas is proving himself as the fuel that sparks the fire.

Spotlight: Kenny Stills

Historically, Brees had displayed a penchant for spreading the rock around his receiving corps. This year? Not so much. Wideouts are accounting for a meager 27.1 percent of Brees’ completions, much of which derives from Marques Colston’s production. Granted, Jimmy Graham is as much of a tight end as Jay-Z is a sports agent, but with Lance Moore hurt and Robert Meachem failing to revive his past Big Easy success, the responsibility falls to Stills to provide a complement in the receiving arena.

It’s a task that’s generated mixed results through five games for the rookie out of Oklahoma. In the season opener, Stills posted an 86-yard day, including a 67-yard reception. Alas, Stills has also submitted two goose eggs and has a tendency to drift on routes. As Moore battles a wrist injury, Stills will continue to see opportunities to contribute, and his speed and deep-ball dexterity make him a breakout threat. If he develops any type of consistency in the second half of the season, the Saints offense will become borderline unstoppable.

Matchup Watch: Patriots WRs vs. Saints secondary

Energized by new coordinator Rob Ryan, New Orleans is giving up a mere 14.6 points per game, fourth-lowest in the NFL. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has terrorized opposing backfields this fall and linebacker Curtis Lofton has seemingly been omnipresent over the middle, yet it’s the secondary that has been the catalyst for a unit that ranked last in total defense a season ago. Notching seven picks versus six touchdowns and allowing just 222 passing yards per game (fifth-lowest in the NFC), what was once the Saints’ Achilles’ heel has become one of its strengths.

Conversely, this is the same group that conceded over 350 yards to Jay Cutler a week ago, so let’s not make them out to be infallible. The Patriots receiving corps has been erratic, evidenced in Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson ranking among the league leaders in dropped passes (correlating to the always-entertaining Brady stare-down at the patsy in question), and a rash of injuries has kept two of Brady’s bull’s-eyes on the sidelines for most of the year. On the bright side, Thompkins and Dobson have shown flashes of brilliance, Julian Edelman has filled in admirably for Wes Welker as Brady’s safety valve and Danny Amendola returned last week from a groin ailment. In short, it’s a crew more than capable of keeping the Saints on their toes.

Is Jimmy Graham turning in the greatest fantasy season of all-time?

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Bearing in mind the point disparity between Graham and second-place contributor Jordan Cameron, you better believe it. The Graham and Brees rapport is damn-near unfair, reminiscent of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana in Super Tecmo Bowl, and in many facets, Graham is still developing as a football player. (Want a fun game? Bet with friends on the over/under of Graham’s basketball career mentions during a telecast. Found that 3.5 is a solid figure.)

The Pats have been relatively successful against adversarial tight ends this season. Of course, they’ve yet to face anyone near the stratum of Graham. Look for Jimmy G to deliver another fantasy harvest in Foxborough.

The Saints win if…

Brees continues his noble battle against Father Time, the Saints take advantage of a weakened Patriots defensive line, Rob Gronkowski throws his back out at a rave on Saturday night…

Under the Brady-Belichick regime, New England has been a tough out the week following a loss. Nevertheless, this New Orleans defense is legit, and with Brees enduring as one of the league’s best field generals, I’m going with the Saints on Sunday.

Tagged: Browns, Broncos, Patriots, Saints, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Wes Welker, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Cameron Jordan, Mark Ingram, Jordan Cameron

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