NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Following a generous three-game stretch in which the New England Patriots had been heavily favored in each game of the season, head coach Bill Belichick’s squad sits at a comfortable 3-0 despite dealing with a variety of key losses on the offensive side of the ball, most notable among them being the absence of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. However, New England’s schedule now becomes significantly more difficult, with the Patriots beginning a merciless three-game stretch which features road games at Atlanta and Cincinnati and a home game versus the undefeated New Orleans Saints. This week, New England will hope to become the third team this year to beat the Falcons, following in divisional rival Miami’s footsteps. In order to do so, they will have to limit an offense which relies heavily on the outstanding chemistry between quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. Read on for ten keys to this week’s contest.
1. Which players on both teams will ultimately take the field?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is notoriously secretive when it comes to submitting injury reports, preferring to use the “questionable” designation to describe as many players as possible in order to maximize confusion and make gameplanning more difficult for New England’s opponents. Thus, it’s consistently difficult to gauge the actual health of players on the team before seeing them on the field. At this point, we know that wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin), tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm), and special teams captain Matthew Slater (wrist) will be inactive, but Belichick has also listed running back Brandon Bolden (knee), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (foot), and cornerback Kyle Arrington (groin) as questionable, meaning that New England may very well be without many of their most important contributors.
Vollmer returned to practice on Friday, but it’s possible he will be held out in favor of Marcus Cannon, who took 38 snaps last week; as of now, however, the Boston Globe anticipates that Vollmer will be active. Both Bolden and Arrington are expected to play, however. On Atlanta’s end, wide receivers Julio Jones (knee) and Roddy White (ankle) are both set to play, while the statuses of offensive tackle Sam Baker (foot/knee) and cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh) remain up in the air. At this point, the feeling is that Samuel will play, while Baker missed last week and due to his struggles may remain out for another week.
2. What is the most effective way for New England’s defense to disrupt Matt Ryan?
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is among the safest home-field quarterbacks in the league, with an incredible 34-5 record in the Georgia Dome since entering the league in 2008. Ryan has completed 65.3% of his passes at home for an average of 7.51 yards per attempt and an impressive 62-26 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Unfortunately, there aren’t many weaknesses in Ryan’s game other than his struggles against pressure. However, exactly how that pressure should be created is unknown, as Ryan has averaged 11.3 yards per attempt on 72.2% passing when blitzed this season. In 2012, Ryan completed just 61% of his attempts against the blitz versus 71.7% of his throws against four our more rushers, so it may be worth sending linebackers occasionally to try and create additional pressure.
Ryan is among the best downfield passers in the league, favoring throws over the middle, so if the Patriots employ conservative zone coverages from their starting safeties and restrict Ryan to shorter passes, they can force the Falcons to mount extended drives which will increase the chances of incompletions or turnovers. This approach has been favored by teams this year, as Ryan has completed just one deep pass thus far, with Atlanta ranking twelfth in the league in points per game versus seventh in 2012.
3. How will Steven Jackson’s absence affect Atlanta’s offensive gameplan?
Atlanta enjoyed quite a bit of success by feeding running back Michael Turner during his five-year tenure with the team, but when Turner’s yards per attempt dipped from an average of 4.5 per carry in 2011 to 3.6 in 2012, the Falcons decided to part ways with him, bringing in long-time Rams running back Steven Jackson to function as their feature back. However, the 30 year-old Jackson suffered a hamstring injury in week two and the lead role in Atlanta’s power running scheme fell to the 5’6”, 195-pound Jacquizz Rodgers, a third-year back who, like Jackson, attended Oregon State. Last season, Rodgers averaged 3.9 yards per attempt on 94 carries and caught 53/59 passes thrown his way for an average of 7.6 yards per catch; this year, those figures have dropped to 3.3 and 5.4, respectively. However, as assessed by Football Outsiders, Rodgers has been successful on 55% of his rushing attempts this season, good for fourth in the league.
Rodgers’ presence will likely prevent the Falcons from emphasizing the run game as much as they normally would with a healthy Jackson, therefore allowing the Patriots to avoid bringing an eighth man into the box, but New England must not become complacent, as Rodgers is an effective receiver out of the backfield and can gain tough yardage when necessary. The Patriots have been victimized by receiving options out of the backfield in the past. Rodgers also turned in a significantly better performance in week three (93 yards on twenty touches) than he did in week two (45 yards on fifteen touches.)
4. What impact, if any, will injuries to Julio Jones and Roddy White have on the game?
Falcons receiver Roddy White has been limited this season by a bad ankle sprain which has prevented him from seeing the same target rate as he is used to; White is tied for 89th this season in terms of targets (nine) after ranking in the top ten for every other season of quarterback Matt Ryan’s career. White will be active again, but will likely not receive the same respect in coverage that he would if healthy, the defense’s attention instead being shifted towards Atlanta’s other weapons, including fellow receiver Julio Jones. Jones’ knee has limited him in practice over the past two weeks, with his snaps hovering around 55 per game regardless of the Falcons’ total number of offensive plays, yet he is tied for sixth in the league in targets and has caught an astounding 27/33 attempts in his direction for 373 yards, his 81.8% completion percentage tied for second in the league among receivers with ten or more targets and his total yards leading the league.
Therefore, his knee should be considered a non-factor, and the Patriots will be forced to gameplan around removing Jones from the game, perhaps by consistently bracketing him in coverage and/or by having cornerback Aqib Talib shadow him on the field. Limiting Jones should theoretically be made easier by White’s injury, but no team thus far has succeeded in reigning in Jones’ production.
5. Can New England’s linebackers match up against future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez?
Although it’s impossible to discount a future Hall-of-Fame player such as Gonzalez, the 37 year-old tight end finally appears to be showing signs of slowing down. Last season, Gonzalez caught 107/136 passes in his direction, 78.7%, topping 1,000 yards and scoring ten touchdowns. Gonzalez’s catch rate this season sits at just 61.1%, with 93 yards on the season and an average of 8.5 yards per reception. At this point in his career, Gonzalez’s lack of speed has relegated him to catching short passes, with all but four of his eighteen targets coming on throws which traveled less than ten yards down the field. In coverage, look for a linebacker such as Jerod Mayo or, perhaps more likely, Dont’a Hightower, to be responsible for covering Gonzalez on the majority of his pass patterns.
Hightower was victimized to some extent versus the Jets, allowing completions on four of five passes, but surrendered just one completion in each of New England’s other two games. Gonzalez possesses a slight advantage in terms of height, but Hightower should be able to keep up with the veteran and prevent him from uncovering himself deep downfield. As a safety valve and red zone option, Gonzalez remains dangerous, but he may not necessarily warrant too much special attention at this point in his career, allowing the Patriots to leave their safeties in deep coverage.
6. Can Atlanta’s interior offensive linemen handle Vince Wilfork?
This past offseason, Atlanta lost long-time center Todd McClure, who opted to retire in March after starting for the Falcons since 2000. Fortunately for the team, McClure’s decision had not come as a complete surprise given his age (36), so Atlanta’s front office was able to address the position in advance by drafting Wisconsin junior Peter Konz with their first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, #55 overall. The 6’5”, 315-pound Konz had been a three-year starter for the Badgers, appearing in 32 contests with the team and starting all but one, establishing himself as the draft’s top center prospect via his combination of size, strength, experience, and ability to fit in both man and zone schemes. Konz took over as the team’s starting right guard in his rookie season, replacing the departed Harvey Dahl (who signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the St. Louis Rams), but struggled, grading out poorly in both pass protection and run blocking according to ProFootballFocus.
Konz now starts at center, but has continued to struggle, although the Falcons do have appealing starters at guard, with 6’4”, 326-pound left guard Justin Blalock and 6’7”, 310-pound right guard Garrett Reynolds both grading out positively on ProFootballFocus. Despite this, the Falcons are averaging just 3.66 Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind their center and guards, ranking 23rd in the league. They may have trouble handling New England’s massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork, although it must be mentioned that the Patriots have not defended the run particularly well this year, ranking 28th in the league in Adjusted Line Yards up the middle and behind guards. New England currently ranks 24th in the league against the run.
7. Will Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich capitalize on appealing matchups?
Defensively, New England’s biggest advantage on paper resides in the matchup between Atlanta’s offensive tackles and New England’s defensive ends. Last week, Falcons left tackle Sam Baker, who the team re-signed to a ludicrous six-year, $41.1 million contract in March, was inactive with knee and foot injuries after two horrific outings to begin the season, with right tackle Lamar Holmes sliding into his spot and surrendering seven pressures and one hit. Jeremy Trueblood earned the start at right tackle, allowing three pressures but grading out favorably in run blocking according to ProFootballFocus. Regardless of whether or not Baker, who is currently listed as questionable, plays, the Patriots should have the advantage on the edge, which could help the team force Matt Ryan into a short passing game which will limit Julio Jones’ impact as a deep threat; additionally, players such as Jacquizz Rodgers and tight end Levine Toilolo may be utilized as additional pass protectors.
Thus far on the season, Jones has recorded three sacks, while Ninkovich contributed half a sack last week, although ProFootballFocus has also credited him with seven hurries and three hits on the season. The battle between either Holmes or Trueblood and Ninkovich in the run game should also be something to watch, as Ninkovich typically grades out as an effective run defender but occasionally struggles with size, which Trueblood, listed at 6’8” and 320 pounds, certainly possesses. The Falcons currently rank second in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind their right tackle, according to Football Outsiders.
8. Can New England’s rookie receivers continue to become more efficient options?
After a disappointing start to the season, rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins enjoyed substantially improved games this past week against a talented Tampa Bay secondary. Dobson caught seven of eleven passes thrown his way, gaining just 7.4 yards per catch and dropping one pass in what was an average performance that nonetheless looks outstanding compared to his three-drop debut, while Thompkins caught three of seven passes including a pair of touchdowns, although the first score came on a blown coverage in which Buccaneers right end Adrian Clayborn was responsible for defending him. Whether or not those two players can take the next step this week against the Falcons will be critical to New England remaining competitive, with both Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski sidelined for another week.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, Atlanta’s pass defense is by far the strength of their defense, with standout strong safety William Moore having signed a five-year, $29.5 million contract in March to complement a deep group of cornerbacks which features former Patriot Asante Samuel, effective slot cornerback Robert McClain (who held opposing quarterbacks without a touchdown pass on 71 throws in his direction in 2012), 2013 first-round pick Desmond Trufant, and 2013 second-round pick Robert Alford. Starting free safety Thomas DeCoud is somewhat of a liability, but this is an area where Atlanta boasts a clear advantage. Significant contributions probably shouldn’t be expected from either Dobson or Thompkins, and slot receiver Julian Edelman may struggle against McClain as well.
9. How much pressure will Atlanta’s pass rusher rotation be able to manufacture?
Versatile defensive end/outside linebacker Kroy Biermann was lost for the season just under two weeks ago after suffering an Achilles injury, crippling a Falcons pass rush which was already attempting to compensate for the loss of effective pass rusher John Abraham this past offseason. The loss of Biermann means that Atlanta will be forced to try and create pressure via a combination of right end Osi Umenyiora, who recorded two sacks last week, and a rotation of defensive ends opposite him which should feature 2012 fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi as the starter and two additional rotational ends: rookie fourth-round pick Malliciah Goodman and 2011 seventh-rounder Cliff Matthews. Fortunately for New England, Atlanta may not be able to count on any of the aforementioned players to create pressure and significantly disrupt Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as left tackle Nate Solder is well-equipped to handle Umenyiora and, even in the event that Sebastian Vollmer is inactive, Marcus Cannon should be able to hold his own against the left end rotation.
The Falcons’ best bet in this game may be to mix in different blitz packages to attempt to overload New England’s blocking schemes and create confusion. Last week, Buccaneers weakside linebacker Lavonte David and strong safety Mark Barron split a sack on a blitz, while middle linebacker Mason Foster hit Brady as well. In the season opener, Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy recorded a sack of his own. Brady has been sacked seven times this season, which puts him on pace to be sacked 37 times in 2013, which would be the highest figure since his first season as New England’s starter.
10. Will Ryan Wendell be able to improve his level of play against a weak group of tackles?
On Friday, Ryan Wendell’s struggles thus far were outlined in a feature which can be found here. This week, his responsibilities should be somewhat easier than they have been to this point, with his primary blocking assignments coming against the three-pronged rotation of Jonathan Babineaux (168 snaps on the season), Corey Peters (155), and Peria Jerry (101.) Peters and Jerry have improved their play since last season, but due to the small sample size the 2013 season offers, it’s probably more likely that both players will finish the season as below-average options. With a potential long-term extension on the line, this is the type of game Wendell will have to dominate in order to gain the attention of New England’s front office and any additional suitors who may opt to pursue him in free agency.
Fortunately for Wendell, this is a relatively undersized group of interior linemen; it seems likely that the Patriots will attempt to establish the run against what can best be described as a front seven in dire need of a complete overhaul. Should Wendell and fellow interior blockers Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly prove able to consistently clear rushing lanes for the likes of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and potentially Brandon Bolden, the Patriots will be able to lean on their rushing attack in a contest where their options at wide receiver appear overmatched heading into the game.
Final Prediction: Patriots 24, Falcons 21