NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
What began as a relatively slow game and eventually developed into a game where seemingly everything went New England’s way culminated in a nail-biting finish thanks to a late push from Atlanta which ultimately ended on an incomplete pass from Matt Ryan intended for Roddy White in the end zone on fourth down, giving the Patriots a 4-0 record on the season heading into next week’s game at Cincinnati. Read on for five key takeaways from tonight’s thriller.
1. Aqib Talib turns in a masterful performance versus Julio Jones
In our preview this week, we forecasted that significant defensive attention would be given to Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, and indeed, over the course of Atlanta’s first drive, Jones was usually shadowed by Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who lined up on the right side of the field despite typically playing left cornerback. That left Alfonzo Dennard on the left side opposite receiver Roddy White, who has recently been hobbled by an ankle injury but who made a pair of important catches to provide the Falcons with first-downs. However, it was Dennard who covered Jones on the final play of the drive, preventing a completion and forcing the Falcons to kick a 23-yard field goal.
For the remainder of the game, Jones saw impressive man coverage from Talib, usually with a bracket over the top as had been anticipated. The approach proved effective early on, with Talib breaking up a deep pass and a short slant intended for Jones, limiting the receiver to just six yards on 2/7 receiving to begin the game. Jones eventually caught a sixteen-yard pass on a crossing route with Dennard in coverage but Matt Ryan was intercepted by Talib on a well-covered pass deep down the right sideline. Jones caught one critical first-down versus Dennard on an eventual touchdown drive which was ruled a catch and fumble, but was unable to be reviewed due to a problem with the instant replay machine, and another, also against Dennard, which may have been ruled offensive pass interference under different circumstances but was nonetheless a skilled grab; a later, contested catch versus Devin McCourty helped the Falcons move down the field immediately with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter.
The plays were frustrating, as Talib had previously demonstrated his effectiveness against the former Alabama star, although he made the game-winning deflection on a pass versus Roddy White in the end zone. All in all, this was probably Talib’s most noteworthy performance since his similar outing against Houston’s Andre Johnson last year, and a game which should significantly drive up his price-tag in free agency this offseason; that may work against the Patriots, who would likely be forced to start Logan Ryan on the outside should Talib sign elsewhere.
2. Struggles to cover Tony Gonzalez keep Atlanta in the game
If Julio Jones and Roddy White were largely invisible for much of the game, tight end Tony Gonzalez was anything but, establishing his presence early on by making a fantastic leaping catch for a 25-yard gain between two defenders, linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Steve Gregory, and maintaining his production throughout the game thanks in large part to favorable matchups against the likes of strongside linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Gregory, the latter of which tripped and fell on what ultimately turned into a 21-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Gonzalez in the closing minute of the first half, a score which tied the game at ten points each and sent the 37 year-old into the half with seven catches for 90 yards and the aforementioned score.
At halftime, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stressed the importance of improving coverage on Gonzalez, and the result was encouraging, with Gonzalez catching just two more passes for seventeen yards over the next quarter and a half, the time it took for New England to build a 30-13 lead. While he did cut the lead to ten points with four minutes left in the game via a touchdown catch over Logan Ryan, his second-half output was significantly more limited than before, in part due to some unconventional methods including double-press coverage at the end of the game.
Ultimately, prior concerns about Hightower’s ability to cover even a plodding receiver such as Gonzalez were not put to rest in this week’s contest, and rookie Jamie Collins’ cameo appearance in coverage versus Gonzalez was unsuccessful as well; on the bright side, the coaching staff’s halftime adjustments to Gonzalez were instrumental in changing the course of the game, as Matt Ryan was forced to rely on a combination of Gonzalez and Jones for almost all of the game.
3. Defensive captain Vince Wilfork leaves the game with a foot injury
Their first defensive drive was not entirely successful for the Patriots, as nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the anchor of New England’s defensive front, was lost to a right foot injury which required him to be carted from the sideline to the locker room. Wilfork’s injury may be an exacerbation of the injury which limited him in practice this week, and sideline reporting revealed that during a conversation between Brady and Wilfork, the nose tackle did not offer an enthusiastic prognosis and was subsequently ruled out for the remainder of the game.
While the Patriots were able to keep Atlanta’s running game from becoming a major factor even without Wilfork, any sort of extended absence would likely force New England to add another player at the position, given the team’s lack of depth there. Joe Vellano replaced Wilfork, but rookie sixth-round pick Chris Jones, originally drafted by the Texans, rotated in as well; Vellano recorded the defense’s first sack by beating center Peter Konz with a pretty swim move late in the third quarter.
The Patriots currently have two defensive tackles on the practice squad, Marcus Forston and A.J. Francis, and one of these players seems like a likely candidate for promotion to the active roster, possibly at the expense of someone such as recently-promoted strong safety Kanorris Davis. Other available options may include the likes of 2012 starter Kyle Love (depending on his relationship with the Patriots) or end/tackle ‘tweener Jermaine Cunningham.
4. Rookie wide receivers, particularly Kenbrell Thompkins, impress
New England’s first offensive drive began with an encouraging set of plays, but quickly fell apart due to mistakes made by three of New England’s young skill position players. Rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson was hit in the chest by a Brady pass but ultimately failed to secure in, and an illegal shift penalty by running back Brandon Bolden negated a would-be first-down on a quarterback sneak off tackle, creating a third-and-six situation which would have been converted if not for another drop, this time by fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins.
Fortunately, the two receivers each made impressive plays later in the game, with Thompkins ripping the ball away from a defender on a 49-yard throw to set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and Aaron Dobson making a nice rolling catch with fellow second-round pick Robert Alford in coverage at the start of the third quarter; on the next snap, Kenbrell Thompkins got open against Desmond Trufant on a deep in route to convert a second straight first down. However, Dobson required medical attention at the end of the drive, with his head being bent awkwardly on a hit in the end zone; he eventually walked off the field under his own power, but was replaced by Josh Boyce for the rest of the game.
Boyce made an impressive catch on a play which was ultimately nullified by defensive holding and uncovered himself on a deep route which Brady did not recognize. Soon after, Kenbrell Thompkins converted a third-and-nineteen on a deep crossing route, a critical play which immediately preceded a 47-yard touchdown by LeGarrette Blount. Thompkins did drop one routine catch on the following drive, but made up for it with an excellent diving touchdown grab to extend New England’s lead. An impressive 24-yard catch-and-run by Boyce followed on the next drive, just barely scooping the ball away from the ground.
5. Steve Gregory and Kyle Arrington victimized in the secondary
Despite Talib’s successes and a handful of effective coverage snaps from Dennard, the play in New England’s secondary was uneven. One particularly egregious culprit was strong safety Steve Gregory, whose missed tackles and lack of speed had a significant impact on the game, most notably in the touchdown pass he allowed to Gonzalez in the second quarter.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Falcons also had plenty of success targeting slot cornerback Kyle Arrington, who allowed a 40-yard pass to Atlanta slot man Harry Douglas at one point and was also responsible for coverage on a number of other completions in the late going, plus a defensive holding penalty with less than four minutes remaining. After Dont’a Hightower’s struggles versus Gonzalez, the Patriots attempted to use rookie third-round pick Logan Ryan for that purpose, but were unsuccessful, as mentioned above.
Because New England parted ways with Ras-I Dowling, and, more recently, special teams option Marquice Cole, their depth and flexibility at cornerback is limited at best, although it would be nice to see either of the team’s top reserves at safety, Tavon Wilson or rookie Duron Harmon, worked into the defense opposite outstanding free safety Devin McCourty. Like the defensive tackle position, this is another area where the Patriots may opt to bring in some additional help before traveling to Cincinnati.