This season, New England's defense has faced a weekly task of picking up slack for the 'O.' And there's rest for the weary; the unit faces its toughest test yet on Sunday.
Drew Brees and the undefeated Saints.
"This is an excellent offense," said Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. "This offense has a wide variety of weapons that they do a great job of distrubuting the ball to, in both the run game and passing game. They do a great job of mixing personnel groups, formations, different looks that you see every week. They do a great job of running concepts week in and week out, and putting people in an excellent positions to make plays."
It starts with Brees. The New Orleans quarterback sits behind only Peyton Manning in passing yards, with 1,722, and his 12:4 touchdown-to-turnover is also below only Manning's impossible 16:0 numbers.
Patricia applauded Brees' decision making. Brees may take more risks, but he often sees the rewards.
"Drew does a great job of really trying to analyze the defense, see what you're in, try to get to the proper read and progression, try to find the find the open receiver, and distributing the ball very well to everyone," said Patricia. "He's doing a great job of finding the particular weakness of the defense, where he knows he can exploit it and get a positive play or explosive play out of it."
Give a smart, accurate quarterback some top talent as targets and just see what happens.
Tight end Jimmy Graham has been an absolute monster, leading the league in yards with 593. He's tied for second in both receptions (37) and touchdowns (6), and has the best average yards-per-catch (16.0) among players with 30 or more receptions.
"Jimmy Graham and Drew have a real timing and relationship there where he does a great job of finding open areas," said Patricia. "Whether it is in zone coverage or working away from leverage in man coverage, he is a big target for Brees to throw the ball to. He has a big catch radius and is just a big-bodied person that gives you a difficult matchup when you are trying to put a defender on him or try to close a zone off where he can find that open space.
"There is obviously a good trust relationship there that they are going to be in the right spot and be on the same page."
Who hasn't Brees connected with?
New Orleans' second and third pass-catchers, based on receiving yardage, are running backs. Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles only have 137 and 103 rushing yards, respectively, through five games. But Thomas has also contributed 28 catches for 166 yards, and Sproles has 26 for 308 yards.
"They're going to try to use every aspect of the field availabe to them to get the ball displaced and dispersed," Patricia noted. "Both Sproles and Thomas get out quickly in routes. They line them up in different formations, move them from the backfield, and really allow them to take advantage of a particular matchup or the amount of area they have out in the field to work. They do a great job of that."
And don't forget Marques Colston and Kelly Stills. The fact those receivers aren't Brees' first, second, or third option in the passing game makes them all the more dangerous. When they're called upon to move the chains, they can do it.
"All of them play, all of them get out on the field and all are crucial parts of the offense. You really have to defend all of it and that's what makes it so difficult."