What to Watch For: Patriots at Falcons
Friday, September 27, 2013
This is the start most expected the Patriots to have this season.
Now, the real fun begins.
With an offense that has progressed, perhaps, from inept to merely immature, but a defense that has helped them to a 3-0 start this season, the schedule turns from two divisional foes with rookie quarterbacks and a winless Tampa Bay team to arguably three of the best the NFL has to offer in 2013...over the next three weeks. Calling this portion of the schedule "a gauntlet" might be a cliche. But it might also be accurate.
The Atlanta Falcons are first up...and they're at home in the Georgia Dome for this one. It's a place they've had success recently, winning 12 of their past 13 home games...but most teams do have a tendency to play well at home. Out of the gate with a 1-2 start themselves, with one of the losses to divisional foe New Orleans (which happens to be 3-0), means the Falcons probably have more of an immediate sense of urgency for this one than do the Patriots.
But let's delve into this a bit further. Bill Belichick's teams, for all of their success over the years, have only had two 4-0 starts in his previous 13 seasons as the Patriots head coach. Both of those years, the team ended up in the Super Bowl (2004, 2007). Additionally, New England has actually lost three of the past five games they've played teams from the NFC - where Atlanta resides. And the Falcons, for all of their apparent talent - and they have a considerable amount - have also not lost consecutive games since 2009. They lost last week to Miami, a New England divisional rival that also finds themselves at 3-0.
Seems like there's plenty of incentive for the Patriots to put their best foot forward, so to speak.
A road game at Cincinnati, and a home game with New Orleans will follow Sunday night's national broadcast from Atlanta. The Falcons were (and still are) considered a Super Bowl contender from the NFC, but a spate of early-season injuries has them stumbling from the gate. They still possess four of the most dynamic offensive players any one team might possess, with WR's Julio Jones and Roddy White, ageless TE Tony Gonzalez and QB Matt Ryan considered among the elite at their positions. The New England defense, apparently improved but perhaps still untested, should get plenty of work.
If they can find a way to clip these Falcons' wings, this season's start could all of a sudden turn into something unexpected. And maybe even sensational.
Win the Jump Balls
Ok, so this is a mixed-metaphor. But in effect, that's what the Patriots defensive backs must try to win on every occasion against Atlanta's receivers in 6-foot-3 Jones and the 6-foot White. Expect the Falcons' Matt Ryan to lay it up there for Jones to simply go and get...and expect Aqib Talib, who leads the NFL with three interceptions, to try and make life difficult for Jones. White has been hampered by a high ankle sprain since the pre-season, and while he should play...the Patriots will choose to first help Talib with Jones, who leads ATL with 27 catches through three weeks. Without a hamstrung Steven Jackson to run in the backfield, Atlanta's best chances to win may rest on who wins the jumps.
Put Ice in the pressure cooker
The Falcons' offensive line has taken its' share of hits due to injuries, which so far Matt Ryan (aka "Matty Ice") has been able to withstand. But he has also taken his share of hits...so if the Patriots can continue to pressure him into early releases or even indecision, better the chances are of forcing mistakes, turnovers or at least incompletions. But beware of the screen pass. Ryan has targeted just about everyone in his arsenal with short passes, and they can be creative with it - like a fake toss shovel pass for a score against Miami. The short stuff can work well against a fierce rush. Atlanta has outscored opponents 31-0 in the first quarter...and blown double-digit leads in each of their losses. Withstand the early pressure by applying some of your own.
Run, run and run some more
The Falcons are pretty banged up on the defensive side of the ball, losing two of their best defenders in DE Kroy Biermann and LB Sean Witherspoon. A familiar foe in former NY Giants DE Osi Umenyiora has made life uncomfortable for Tom Brady in the past...so sensing some vulnerability in the middle, a player like RB Stevan Ridley could have a big day. Controlling tempo on the road is always important, and if the Patriots can find success running the ball, which keeps the ball away from a potentially explosive Atlanta passing game, which could then keep quiet a raucous, domed stadium crowd...it might be a good way to also find their way to 4-0. The X-factor here, is TE Rob Gronkowski. If he returns to active duty, Gronk helps the running game with his blocking ability, and potentially loosens it up for others by drawing some double coverage.