Preview: New England Patriots - New Orleans Saints

The New England Patriots play the New Orleans Saints tonight at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. The Patriots (1-0) will play the Saints (0-1) again during the regular season, so much of the lessons learned in tonight's game will provide information for the rematch. PI's Tim Coughlin provides tonight's preview of the game, including some fast facts and what to look for.

PHOTO: New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister (26) steps away from Seattle Seahawks defender Marcus Tubbs (90) during the first half of an NFL preseason game Friday night, Aug. 12, 2005, in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Coming in to help is Seahawks safety Marquand Manuel (33). McAllister had a short gain on this run up the middle. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Preview: New England Patriots vs New Orleans Saints

KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 8/18/05
LOCATION: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
RADIO: WBCN 104.1 FM, Gil Santos, Gino Cappelletti

SERIES: The Patriots and Saints have not played each other in nearly four years, yet they are set to square off twice in 2005 with a Week 11 game coming later in the season. The last time the two teams competed in late 2001, the .500 Pats beat New Orleans 34-17 en route to a nine-game winning streak that would ultimately bring the team a Super Bowl Championship. Overall, New England has won 7 of 10 regular season games against the Saints and 4 of 7 preseason contests. The last time the two teams met in the preseason was 1994, when the Pats won 24-6 at Foxboro Stadium.

2004 RANKINGS*: Saints: offense 15th (27th rush, 12th pass); defense 32nd (30th rush, T-27th pass). Patriots: offense 7th (7th rush, 11th pass); defense 9th (6th rush, 17th pass) * in yardage

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots should exploit New Orleans's unimpressive rush defense, which allowed 140.8 rushing yards per game last season. In fact, the Saints' total defense last year was the worst in the NFL despite the fact the team maintained an 8-8 record and second place in the NFC South. The Pats might not be able to use their most explosive weapon to take advantage of the holes in New Orleans's run defense, however. Corey Dillon (3rd in the NFL in rushing last season) may miss the game to be with his wife, who is expected to give birth soon. In that case, RB Kory Chapman, who racked up 62 yards on 13 carries last week, should be expected to carry the load along with RB Kevin Faulk and FB Patrick Pass.

LBs Monty Beisel, Matt Chatham and Chad Brown should be given more playing time in the face of Mike Vrabel's ankle injury during the first quarter in the preseason opener at New Orleans. Look for the Saints to test the New England run defense by giving the ball to RBs Deuce McAllister, former Patriot Antowain Smith and Aaron Stecker early and often. New Orleans just signed McAllister to a seven-year contract extension through 2012 so the team will need him to be the healthy, efficient runner he was in 2003, when he rushed for 1,641 yards in only 351 attempts. Although he had "tightened up" from minor injuries suffered through camp, Beisel lead the team with five tackles last week. Brown, who tallied four himself, still said he's had a difficult time adjusting to Belichick's complicated defensive scheme and needs some time to acclimate. The Bengals took advantage of the aching New England defensive line last week by pounding the ball up the middle and off tackle with RB Rudi Johnson (6 rushes, 40 yards), so the loss of Vrabel will only open the door for more of the same.

The passing game on both sides of the field will be important to watch. QB Tom Brady looks to log his first preseason minutes and QBs Doug Flutie, Matt Cassell and Rohan Davey vie for a tough second string. For the Saints, QB Kliff Kingsbury, a former Patriot, may have an opportunity to exact vengeance on the team that scorned him last season by getting some snaps late in the game. On the defensive side, the Pats secondary continues to look strong and even more competitive. CB Duane Starks, who was signed this offseason after leaving Arizona with 25 career interceptions, effectively replaces Ty Law, who signed with the Jets Aug. 9 after 10 years with New England. Eugene Wilson, Chad Scott and Asante Samuel are all competing for starting jobs at the position while Rodney Harrison (129 tackles last season) and Antuan Edwards (29 tackles) will be roaming the backfield at safety.

FAST FACTS: Saints: The Saints, under head Coach Jim Haslett for the sixth consecutive year, lost its preseason opener against Seattle 34-15. …Both New Orleans coordinators worked under Bill Belichick in Cleveland for two seasons. Saints offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard acted as the Browns tight ends coach from '93-'94, while defensive coordinator Rick Venturi was Belichick's linebackers coach from '94-'95. Patriots: Head coach Bill Belichick is 15-7 in the preseason since coming to New England. …Since 2001, the Patriots are 4-1 in preseason games in which a regular season rematch is scheduled and 4-1 in regular season games following a preseason meeting that year. …Thirty-two players have been added to the Patriots roster since Super Bowl XXXIX.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "They really have a lot of good players and they're very well coached. They present a big challenge for us in every area, whether it's the field goal area, the kickoff area, or the punt area, whichever way it's going. They're really pretty good at everything." -- Bill Belichick on the challenges the New Orleans Saints special teams units will present to the Patriots.

PREDICTION: 31-21, Patriots

INJURIES: Saints: LB James Allen - knee, DB Fred Booker - Hamstring, TE Ernie Conwell - groin, OT Spencer Folau - shoulder, OT John Stinchcomb - knee, LB Courtney Watson - quad, DE Willie Whitehead - toe; Patriots: TE Daniel Graham - leg, WR Bethel Johnson* - undisclosed, RB Chad Morton* - undisclosed, LB Mike Vrabel - ankle.
* on PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list

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