After surviving injuries and inexperience to start the season 3-0, the Patriots now head into arguably the toughest three game stretch on their 2013 schedule. That stretch starts this Sunday night with a showdown against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. Here's a look at some of the matchups that could decide the game.
When Atlanta Has the Ball:
Ok, good news first. You are probably getting Atlanta at it's weakest, as the Falcons are almost as banged up as the Patriots. Atlanta's bell-cow back, Steven Jackson, is out with a hamstring injury. Also, star receiver Roddy White has been a shell of his normal, highly-productive self while fighting through a painful high ankle sprain. With those two out or limited, the Atlanta offense has still been decent, but has yet to live up to last season's lofty standards.
The bad news is that this is still, by far, the best offense the Patriots have faced this year. Aqib Talib did a solid job on Vincent Jackson (aided by Jackson's case of the dropsies) last week and will be rewarded with a full dose of Julio Jones Sunday. Jones (6'3", 220) is one of the most dominant physical specimens in the entire league. Don't take it from me, listen to what Bill Belichick had to say about him yesterday:
“Julio does, I’d say, pretty much everything well. He’s a very strong, physical receiver with good speed. In the running game, he’s a very aggressive blockerIn addition to dealing with that guy, the Patriots will face a Falcons team that still has one of the league's premier red zone threats in TE Tony Gonzalez, an explosive third receiver Harry Douglas and two excellent, versatile backs in Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers. Most importantly, the Falcons boast an extremely accurate quarterback who, unlike Geno Smith or Josh Freeman, can make the Patriots pay when coverage breaks down. The Patriots defense has played well so far, but they will have to prove their worth against a much tougher opponent this week.
. He’ll come in and crack safeties and block well. In the passing game, he can go down the field, he can go up and take the ball away from defenders even though he’s covered. He has good vertical jump, timing, strong hands, go up and get the ball. Tough guy to press because he’s so physical coming off the line of scrimmage. He can run through most corners that are trying to press him. He’s a strong runner after the catch so they throw him a lot of short passes, under routes, tear screens, things like that. He’s strong to break tackles. He can take a two-yard pass and turn it into a 50-yard run or he could run a 50-yard go route and go up and catch the ball, either way. He’s a tough guy to match up against. He’s got very good speed so he can run by the defense but he’s strong and he can run through them too. He’s tough and he’s a hard guy to tackle. He does everything well.”
The success of the Patriots defense will rest heavy on the shoulders of two specific guys this week. Aqib Talib will likely get the unenviable task of following Julio Jones around all day. Jones will likely make a few plays no matter how well Talib plays, but the Pats D will get a huge boost if Talib keeps Jones from making any huge, momentum-swinging plays.
Another guy to keep an eye on is Chandler Jones. "Matty Ice" is the first quarterback this defense has faced that isn't a threat to run the ball. This means that a defense that has largely used contain schemes so far will get a chance to unleash it's pass rushers to try to knock Ryan off of his rhythm. If Jones (along with guys like Rob Ninkovich and Michael Buchanan) can provide consistent pressure, things will become much easier for Talib and the rest of the secondary. Atlanta's pass protection hasn't been stellar so far this year and starting left tackle Sam Baker didn't practice yesterday, so Jones and co could have some mismatches to exploit.
When New England has the Ball:
Atlanta's defense has not escaped the team's injury bug, as emerging star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is on short term IR with a foot injury. The Falcons are also without the services of starting defensive end Kroy Biermann. Without them, the Falcons have given up an average of 24 points a game.
Atlanta might be the Pats toughest opponent yet on offense, but their defense is not nearly as tough as the Tampa and New York units the Pats have faced in the past two weeks, as the Falcons haven't held up well against the pass so far. It should be interesting to see how the rookie receivers progress against an Atlanta secondary that lost two of it's better cornerbacks in the offseason. Asante Samuel is nominally the Falcon's top corner, but the notorious gambler can be beat for big plays. Desmond Trufant has plenty of talent but is a rookie.
Of course, things will become much, much easier for the rookie receivers if the NFL's best tight end returns to the lineup. There's been a growing buzz that this will be the week All-Pro Rob Gronkowski makes his season debut. Even if Gronkowski is a little rusty, he will represent a massive upgrade over the team's current weapons in the passing game. His mere presence on the field will force the Falcons to direct attention to him, creating better matchups for his teammates. This will not only help the rookie recievers, but also the team's running game, as Gronkowski's presence often forces defense to use nickel personel to deal with his receiving ability.
Atlanta has struggled so far dealing with backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield. That's one of the reasons I recently wrote about Brandon Bolden and his ascension up the depth chart since returning from a knee injury. With Shane Vereen out and Leon Washington banged up, Bolden is clearly the Pats best receiving back. Look for him to continue to make an impact on offense.
Of course, the success of the offense will depend on the success of the offensive line. The Falcons front boasts a few players who can be disruptive, including the underrated Jonathan Babineaux and old Patriots nemesis Osi Umenyiora. If the offensive line holds up and lets Brady get comfortable in the pocket, he should be able to get in rhythm and exploit some of the Falcon's second replacement players.
The Patriots find themselves looking at a near mirror image of themselves this week (unsurprising considering Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff came from the School of Belichick). Atlanta is a disciplined, well-coached team who have consistently been in the mix since Dimitroff took Ryan with the third pick of the 2008 Draft). Like New England, the Falcons rarely lose back-to-back games and almost never lose at home.
Something to watch on Sunday will be how the Patriots offense handles the crowd noise. Atlanta's Georgia Dome can get very loud, especially when their Falcons are playing well. Communication has been one of the biggest issues with the Patriots young receivers as they adjust on the fly to playing at the NFL level. It will be imperative for them to be on the same page as Brady in this environment.
Another thing to note is that this is the Patriots first real prime-time game of 2013 (fans don't really care that much about the inevitably sloppy Thursday night games). It's by far the biggest stage Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have played on so far in their careers. If they get the kind of jitters they appeared to have during the season's first two weeks, things could get ugly. Hopefully those two can build on last week's positive performance, settle in, and begin to make a name for themselves on the national stage.