New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, as well as anyone, knows what will be awaiting the Saints on Sunday, when New Orleans (1-1) plays New England (1-1) at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
The Patriots are one of the most successful franchises in NFL history, and have been especially formidable since Coach Bill Belichick took over in 2000. In New England, Belichick, one of Payton's closest friends in the coaching profession, has led the Patriots to a 244-92 regular-season record, and they're 30-11 in the playoffs.
Overall, Belichick is 280-136 and 31-12 in the playoffs.
And following a subpar 2020 – New England was 7-9, snapping a streak of 17 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins and an 11-year stretch in which it finished first in the AFC East Division – Payton sees signs of the Patriots being what they have been under Belichick. And he offered high praise for what he has seen.
"Here's what you see (on offense): They run the ball very efficiently and effectively," Payton said. "They're going to do a good job of mixing play action, hard-sell-it play action. Second-level throws that can challenge your interior hook defenders, guys that have a conflict on a play of run or pass. They can get the ball down the field.
"They'll give you some personnel groupings that are conventional and yet, when they align, they'll be in unconventional formations. Let me say that again: There'll be some conventional personnel groupings that we see, but when they break the huddle, they're not necessarily in conventional formations. It forces you to sort through who your assignments are in man, probably a little bit more stressful in some of those man situations, and how you're going to deploy in zone.
"When you look at their team and you watch them not just in one- or two-game study, but all last year and the years prior, you have to battle all three elements. They're one of the best special teams units in the league. They're extremely athletic. We've got to be able to handle the speed when we're trying to return a punt or trying to field a punt. In Foxborough, the turnover numbers are going to be important. Under Bill, since 2001 at home, they're 108-7 when they win the turnover battle at home. There's your stat of the week."
Payton said the Patriots also present problems on defense. New England allowed a 58.3 percent completion rate (35 of 60) and 369 passing yards, with one touchdown surrendered against five interceptions, and totaled six sacks, in its first two games, against Miami (17-16 loss) and the Jets (25-6 victory).
"The first thing I see is their versatility," he said. "They can play a handful of their defenses with several personnel groups. They're extremely smart, I would say they're extremely well-coached. The technique, they do a great job of mixing up man and zone. They're on the same page relative to what they're playing front and coverage wise.
"It's a group that I think moves well, I think they're pretty stingy in the red zone. When you watch the tape, you just see a defense that communicates well. They present a lot of challenges, and that's kind of what you grow to expect when you're seeing one of Bill's teams and you're seeing how they play. They're one of the better tackling teams we've seen on defense. The tape shows you that this year, the tape shows you that all last year when you watch it."
PAYTON ON PAYTON: Rookie defensive end Payton Turner, the Saints' first-round draft pick, made an impactful NFL debut on Sunday against Carolina. Turner, who didn't play in either of the two preseason games, was credited with four tackles, three tackles for losses, a sack and a quarterback hit. "I was encouraged," Coach Sean Payton said. "It was his first full-go exposure. I like how he's wired, I think it's important to him. I think he's worked hard and it's something to build off."
RETURNING COACHES: Payton didn't offer a specific, coach-by-coach update on the assistants who have contracted COVID-19 and missed Sunday's game against Carolina due to protocols. But he said he expects several to return this week. "I think within the next three or four days – you know, there's a point where you're just out of (protocol) because of time," he said. "You no longer are contagious. That's going to involve a handful of them by the end of the week. There's no way, with the current setup, where all of these guys are going to miss New England because they'll be at the 10-day mark where there's no longer any risk of giving it to anyone. I think we're getting close to a few of these people back."