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Film Review: Patriots defense flexes their muscle on 4th down against the Falcons

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The Patriots held strong on fourth down against the Falcons.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons faced seven fourth down plays against the New England Patriots on Sunday night and the Patriots have to be pretty ecstatic about the outcomes: Two punts. Two missed field goals. Two turnovers on down. One conversion.

The Patriots won on 6 of the 7 fourth down opportunities and the Falcons’ willingness to try and convert showed how aggressive Atlanta wanted to be in prime time.

“That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said after the game. “They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did. Even when they got it on the first fourth down, we kept them out of the end zone. We played really good and didn’t give up any points. When they got in the red zone, we made it really hard for them to score. That’s what we need to continue to do and continue to build on this performance.”

The Patriots defense has made major strides over the past few weeks and their brilliant outing against the Falcons saw all facets of the defense come together.

Now it wasn’t completely perfect and there are some problems that need to be cleaned up- more on that in a bit- but the Patriots have to be excited with how they performed at crucial junctures in the game.

So let’s look at the three offensive plays run by the Falcons on fourth down.

4-7-NE 48 (3:56) (Shotgun) M.Ryan scrambles right end ran ob at NE 39 for 9 yards

The Falcons made the decision that they were going to try and convert on fourth downs around midfield and they were given an early opportunity in the first quarter.

“It’s really just the belief I have in our guys,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said after the game. “For me, historically I’ve been known to be aggressive with the opportunities we have. I’d say it boils down to the belief we have in the team, and belief in what we can be.

“I believed we could execute in that time, and we nailed it.”

On fourth-and-7 the Patriots dropped seven into coverage with all defenders playing catch or press and instantly engaging to take away a quick pass. This meant just four defensive linemen were trying to contain Matt Ryan against five offensive linemen, so Ryan played the numbers game and scrambled.

“It kind of surprised us at some point,” Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers said about the fourth down attempts by the Falcons. “They had to make a play and they wanted to make a play, so they figured it was the right opportunity to try to make it. We had to play four downs.”

Cassius Marsh was held on the edge as Ryan broke free, so the Patriots defender couldn’t disengage and make the stop. Still, Marsh overcommit to the inside move and wasn’t in the strongest position to contain the quarterback. Marsh has a habit of running himself out of the play, either looping too far around the quarterback or crashing too far inside, leaving his edge vulnerable. He’ll have to work on this as the season develops or else he might lose time to Shea McClellin.

Still, Marsh ultimately redeemed himself by blocking the field goal attempt at the end of this drive.

4-6-NE 47 (2:00) (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass incomplete deep left to M.Sanu.

The Falcons decided to go for it again on fourth down from the Patriots 47-yard line coming out of the two-minute warning. If the attempt failed, the Patriots would have had plenty of time to score and with the Falcons offense struggling to produce and getting the ball out of the half, it might have been a smarter move to just punt the ball and play for the second half.

“I was surprised by the fourth-and-6 that they tried,” Cassius Marsh said after the game. “I’m sure they had a reason for it, but it caught me a little off-guard.”

“[We’re] just trying to be aggressive and the coach is going to trust us in those situations,” Falcons running back Devonta Freeman said. “We just need to do whatever it takes to convert.”

Matt Ryan actually had the right idea with this throw to Mohamed Sanu and the Patriots were fortunate that Sanu read the route differently. Atlanta had three receivers on the nearside of the field, each in man coverage, and Patriots safeties Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty were playing deep.

Johnson Bademosi covered Taylor Gabriel and was an obvious target choice as far as the Patriots defenders were concerned. Harmon jumped at Ryan’s slight pump fake and run up to help Bademosi, while Sanu and Jonathan Jones ran down the field.

With no safety behind the receiver, Ryan expected Sanu to run a deeper angle on his route with a possible chance to get yards after the catch or even a touchdown. Sanu was thinking about getting the ball out of bounds to stop the clock. This miscommunication led Ryan’s pass to sail over Sanu’s head and fall incomplete.

4-1-NE 1 (14:36) T.Gabriel right end to NE 6 for -5 yards (K.Van Noy).

The Falcons were trying to get their first score of the day, but Kyle Van Noy denied their ridiculous jet sweep attempt at the goal line. This was simply a terrible play design by the Falcons because there was no potential ballcarrier in the backfield for the Patriots linebackers to respect, which allowed Van Noy to recognize and follow Taylor Gabriel running across the formation.

“We thought they had all their big guys inside and we’d have to chance to get the ball outside, on the edge,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said after the game on Sunday night. “We had a difficult time, you know, against all the big guys, you know, getting movement. So we took a shot to get the ball out to the perimeter. For them, made a better play than we did. That was our chance, I thought, that was the right thing to do. Get aggressive and go try to get back in the game.”

“If you could have one play call to get back, that would be one,” Quinn said on Monday morning.

Credit first goes to Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Alan Branch, all of whom played such a great game that the Falcons didn’t even want to try running up the middle. Then credit goes to Trey Flowers for blowing up the Falcons blocks, and the Kyle Van Noy for making the tackle.

“It’s a little bit of an unusual play to run down on the goal line but we’ve seen it before,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Monday morning. “It’s a tough play because in your goal line defense when you’re trying to stop the run down there you’re almost always in some type of man coverage principles. So, when the receiver – [Taylor] Gabriel – comes across in a fast motion like that it’s almost impossible for the guy who has him in man coverage to get through all of the traffic and get over the top on everything and he’s there on the other side.

“Kyle made a great play, made a very instinctive play. He recognized the motion and then saw that the defender was a little bit behind the receiver and so he moved into position to have better leverage on the play. Trey Flowers also saw that and it might have forced him a little bit deeper. Kyle might have made the play anyway but Trey got a good read on it, too, and was able to partially disrupt the play.

“If you can just force that play to not get around the corner immediately through a belly back and give ground or if the runner has to slow down and gather it all then you’re in position to get there. That play is really dangerous if they can just hit it on the outside and then you have no way to catch them. Trey made a good play on that and Kyle’s awareness and the quickness with which he got outside with all of the traffic so that he could kind of have a clear shot to come up the field was a real heads up play on his part.”

Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder (#73) and tight end Levin Toilolo (#80) were trying to combo-block Flowers on the edge, so Toilolo could get a release and seal Van Noy away from the Gabriel. That would have theoretically given Atlanta control of the edge and Gabriel would have squeaked in for a score.

Instead, Flowers blew through Toilolo and forced Gabriel to run backwards, away from the goal line. Schraeder missed his block entirely, and that allowed Van Noy to meet Gabriel behind the line of scrimmage without having to fight through any blocks.

The Patriots defense is finally playing at the high level everyone expected prior to the season and all of the hard work paid off with impressive stops at crucial moments against the Falcons.