NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Through three quarters of play on Sunday evening, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons found themselves in a 13-10 deadlock. But as the fourth and final frame opened up, the Patriots offense followed suit.
It had to.
After a pass to slot receiver Julian Edelman fell incomplete. After a Brandon Bolden rush netted a four-yard loss. And after a false start by right guard Dan Connolly backed the ball up another five yards, the Patriots’ climb to maintain a three-point lead had steepened. The Falcons defense had New England’s offensive attack on its heels for a 3rd-and-19 at the 12-yard line.
At that juncture, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels essentially had two choices: Play the field position with a run call to set up the punt, or play for possession with deep pass to the sticks.
The latter option was elected.
The Patriots offense left the huddle in “11” personnel with Bolden flanking quarterback Tom Brady in shotgun and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the right seam. Meanwhile, the left side of the field showcased a trio of wide receivers in Edelman, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins.
Defending both the draw and the deep ball, the Falcons countered with three down linemen – Osi Umenyiora, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux – a stand-up defensive end in Jonathan Massaquoi, two linebackers in Akeem Dent and Joplo Bartu, along with five defensive backs.
The Falcons schemed to rush just three and ship Bartu and Massaquoi back into the secondary’s zone coverage.
It was a decision that played into the Patriots’ hands.
Far left at the “X” spot, Thompkins geared up to run a deep dig route. Inside the numbers, Boyce prepped to run a fly route. And, also in the slot, Edelman readied to run a 10-yard curl.
Three tiers of patterns to the left of the hashes. Three variables for separation.
As Brady handled the snap from center Ryan Wendell and diagnosed his reads, he saw right cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety Thomas DeCoud tracing deep downfield in anticipation of Boyce’s vertical route. He also saw nickelback Robert McClain heading to the sideline.
In turn, he anticipated a window of opportunity for his undrafted route-runner over the middle.
Brady maneuvered the pocket, buying time for Thompkins to cross through center field between Atlanta’s levels of defense. But there to alleviate the pressure of the three-man rush was Connolly, who merged over to help Wendell block Babineaux, which cleared out space for Brady to step into his throw unharmed.
With linebackers manning the 20, Brady released the ball right as No. 85 pivoted over the 35.
The ball arced right over Dent’s outstretched arm and floated into Thompkins. The 6’0”, 195-pound target approached the pass, leaping with his feet on line, his elbows bent and his eyes gazing upward.
Thompkins snared it hands-first at eye level. But in just a moment, he would be leveled by hard-hitting safety William Moore, who was barreling in from the underneath.
Moore got the 25-year-old in his crosshairs and departed from the ground. Vying to jar the football out and force fourth down, he lowered his shoulder.
Moore sailed into and over Thompkins, knocking his elbow to the side of the Patriot’s helmet.
Thompkins’ facemask bounced off the turf. The ball, however, did not.
Moore rolled over to see that Thompkins still had the football in his grasp at the 38. The impact of the play went beyond the tackle. Brady’s had pass given way to a 26-yard gain and a fresh set of downs – on top of the 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Falcons DB.
The first official play of the fourth quarter landed Thompkins’ fourth reception of the night.
The next play landed the Patriots a 10-point lead.
Brady’s handoff to 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount yielded a 47-yard scamper into the end zone and made the score 20-10. The swing in fortune was realized, as the away team tacked on another 10 for good measure.
All of which were needed in order to ensure the victory.
That risky third-down pass to open the fourth changed the complexion of the game for the Patriots. One second, the punt team had their helmets strapped. The next second, they were called off.
Thompkins and Brady connected five other times for 101 yards and two touchdowns during the Week 4 tilt in the Georgia Dome. But their connection on 3rd-and-long was vital. With the field goal post at their backs, the third-down conversion was a display of trust in the passing game. It was a display of confidence in the pass protection.
And it was a display of an ever-building rapport between a 14-year pro and a rookie free agent.