We all know what to expect.
As the Falcons head north for this weekend’s tilt in Foxborough against the Patriots, the major national media outlets will finally gets to sink their teeth into a game that has had them licking their chops since April, when the NFL released the schedule.
To them, Sunday’s game will merely act as a serving platter for which to present their stacks of steamy, piping hot takes; story lines of Super Bowl revenge accompanied by an assortment of hyperbolic narratives, each diagnosing the teams’ crippling deficiencies thus far in 2017.
“If you’re Matt Ryan, how bad do you want this one?”
“How many hours do of sleep do you think Dan Quinn got last night?”
“Just how bad is this Patriots defense? And on the flip side, is the play-calling of Steve Sarkisian sabotaging Atlanta's offense?”
“What about 40-year-old Tom Brady — can he survive the entire year with this offensive line play?”
However, once you move past this profusion of predictable plot lines, and boil it down to just football, you end up with quite the satisfying match up — one that showcases both of last season’s conference champions. It’s a match up that is, in a word, sexy.
That’s right. Sexy.
In fact, week-seven match ups don’t get much sexier than this one — a prime time shootout between two of the league’s most potent offensive attacks. Rosters rich with offensive super stars like Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, and of course — football’s personification of sexiness — Tom Brady.
In New England, however, any conversation containing a fusion of sexiness and Patriots football is rendered futile without the inclusion of a certain two-time Super Bowl champion. A defensive veteran regionally-synonymous with victory and voluptuousness — Alan Branch.
If you don’t already Google “Alan Branch dancing” periodically just for kicks, you should. It’s tremendously effective at lifting you from awful moods, and there isn’t a happy mood that it won’t make even happier. However, given his low snap count and an inability to “get in a rhythm”, Alan Branch hasn’t put his eye-catching dance skills on display thus far in 2017.
That will need to change on Sunday.
Although we’re likely to see our fair share of flashy, ‘chunk play’-filled offensive outbursts between the twenties from each offense, the odds are that the outcome of Sunday’s game, as is so often the case, will be determined by the ‘big fellas’ in the trenches as the field shrinks in the red and green areas.
If the Patriots are going to capture their fifth win of the year, Branch and his full-figured colleagues on the interior of the New England’s defensive line are going to have to put forth their best effort of the young season.
Disrupting Alex Mack and the ground game
Atlanta’s rushing attack is, according to footballoutsiders.com, the most efficient in the NFL, as they are ranked first in DVOA Rushing Offense. There is only a pair of teams, the Chiefs and Jaguars, that are averaging more yards per carry than the Falcons (4.8).
Impressively, they have also put up these numbers against some of the NFL’s best interior defensive lineman. In five games, it could be argued that they’ve faced three players who are playing at a level worthy of First or Second Team All-Pro honors in 2017: Ndamukong Suh, Akiem Hicks, and Mike Daniels.
A prized free agent acquisition last offseason, center Alex Mack earned Second-Team All-Pro honors in 2016 for the second time in his career. The four-time Pro Bowler, who is clearly back to full health, has been a dominant force as the cornerstone of the Atlanta ground game. His ability to get his hands on linebackers at the next level, and carve out space on the edge when pulling on outside zone-scheme stretch runs has earned him the top grade among all centers this year according to PFF.
It will be crucial that the Patriots find a way to limit the Atlanta ground game, which will subsequently create continuous third and long scenarios to maximize each and every opportunity for their mediocre pass-rushing unit. Knowing that multiple tacklers will consistently be needed to corral the slippery Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, it’s going to be imperative that the Patriots’ interior defensive line group keeps linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Dont’a Hightower clean from the Mack and his peers at guard.
Huge test for the Patriots’ offensive line
Much like Alex Mack and company, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason have faced a handful of incredibly talented interior defensive lineman themselves thus far in 2017, including J.J. Watt, Gerald McCoy, Chris Jones, Kewann Short, and Leonard Williams. So it is somewhat understandable that it wasn’t until the team’s week-six victory in New York that the unit accomplished both goals of avoiding sacks and QB pressures, and imparting their will in in the running game.
After an unforgettable performance against this same Patriots group in February, Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has picked up right where he left off. He and new teammate Dontari Poe are forming a dynamic tandem on the interior, and allowing freak linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell to freely track down ball carriers.
If the Patriots offense is going to stay on schedule, they must continue to see the same progress in the running game that they experienced in spurts two weeks ago in Tampa, and last week on a more consistent basis in New York. An inability to get into manageable second and third down situations will allow young stud pass rushers Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, as well as veterans like Brooks Reed and Adrian Clayborn to pin their ears back and feast on Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, the latter of which has, to his credit, improved in the preceding weeks.
The bottom line is this:
With what appears to be, on paper, a suboptimal match up in the trenches on both sides of the football, the Patriots’ big personnel will need to rise to the occasion. If they can’t, Google will be seeing an uptick in Alan Branch dance-related searches on Monday morning.