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#PostPulpit Mailbag: Can Matt Ryan end the Patriots’ recent hot streak?

Related: How the Patriots and Falcons have changed since their last meeting

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

It’s a short week for the New England Patriots as they take on the Atlanta Falcons on the road Thursday night. As the Patriots look to extend their win streak to five games, we have quite the #PostPulpit mailbag for your pregame reading.

So, let’s waste no time.

@masonFLD Pats have been great on defense this year and have been able to confuse a lot of young QBs this year. Could Matt Ryan break that trend as a veteran, even though atlanta might be missing some weapons?

The Patriots defense has experienced quite the shift in philosophy over the past few weeks, as Bill Belichick’s defense has been playing more zone coverages of late.

While Belichick noted the increase in zone coverages are just “game plan-based”, it may not be a surprise the shift in philosophy came after trading Stephon Gilmore and losing starting slot cornerback Jonathan Jones (shoulder) for the season — watching rookie Davis Mills pick apart New England’s man-to-man coverages also did not help the cause.

Beyond shifting to zone, the new additions along the defensive front are starting to make their marks, big time. Led by the two headed monster in Matthew Judon and Christian Barmore, the Patriots are winning with four-man rushes and manning up in the run game.

The new defensive game plan has pay dividends, as New England has allowed just 50 points over their four game winning streak. In that same time span, the unit has leap frogged into the top five in the league in defensive DVOA.

As Bill Belichick often says, real football starts after Thanksgiving. As Turkey Day falls just one week away, it seems Belichick’s defense is coming together at the right time, so how will it fare against Matt Ryan and Atlanta?

It will certainly help that Atlanta will likely be down two of their best offensive playmakers — wide receiver Calvin Ridley (personal) and receiver/running back/weapon Cordarrelle Patterson (ankle) — in Thursday’s contest. Ryan’s best playmaker left is rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who Belichick has often complemented throughout the week. He likely will be the focus of the Patriots defense, meaning he could even draw J.C. Jackson in coverage.

Exploring the Falcons’ offense in more depth, their offensive line is built on athleticism— something Patriots’ defensive lineman Davon Godchaux pointed out this week. They likely will try to use their speed to their advantage and force the Patriots heavier linebackers to move laterally. Where Ryan comes into play is where Atlanta will look to build off their runs using play-action, something the veteran has done well this season.

Expect New England to continue to implement their new defensive strategy, as their zone defenses worked successfully against similar offensive schemes in Carolina and against Cleveland. If the Patriots defensive front can push back Atlanta’s lighter offensive line, it could be an extremely rough night for Ryan and the Falcons.

@cdbrown3353 Sure, my question is around punt returns. Instead of calling for a fair catch I see Pats punt returners waiving off & allowing the ball to hit the turf & bounce for many additional yards? Reminds of that 65 yard punt by the Rams Hekker in SB LIII in 2019, a SB record!

This was a weird trend for both the Patriots and Browns last Sunday, as both teams lost chunks of field position by straight up not fielding punts. In New England’s eyes, they likely felt the negatives outweighed the positives with Jakobi Meyers, who filled in for the injured Gunner Olszewski, handling return duties.

This should serve as a reminder of how good of a season, especially the past month, Olszewski and the return unit has been having. Olszewski is currently third in the NFL in punt return average (min. 3 attempts) and is second in the league with the most returns of 20-plus yards (four). Gunner was back at practice this week and clear the NFL’s concussion protocol, so he should be back out there Thursday night.

@MatthewParker0 Will the patriots look to move on from Jonathan Jones since Myles Bryant has played so well in his absence?

Myles Bryant has been extremely impressive filling in for Jones. He currently is the Patriots top rated cornerback via PFF with a 80.2 grade, which ranks 3rd out of 119 qualified corners in the league. Bryant is a classic Patriot player (undrafted, undersized, etc.) and truly stands out several times in every game he’s played this season. He also is making a positive impression with the coaching staff:

“He’s on top of something where you say, ‘Hey, look at this play. Do you see this right here?’ ‘Yeah, Coach, I saw it yesterday,’” positional coach Mike Pellegrino said earlier this year. “He had already watched the third down, he’s all over it before we even get to Thursday. And then you’re just watching him practice, the guy makes plays. The guy’s a football player, no matter his size. He defines, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ I love coaching him. Great guy.”

While looking ahead to Jones’ future, the 28-year old corner will enter the final year of the three-year extension he signed in 2019. He currently is set to count a tad over $8 million against the Patriots salary cap, and the team would save slightly over $6 million by cutting him before June 1st. For a player of Jones’ ability, $8 million is worthwhile value to keep him around.

We will get a much better grip on the situation after the Patriots’ season. They could need the $6 million for additions or in season moves, leading to Jones’ departure, work on an extension with the veteran to lower his cap hit, or ultimately just let him play out the final year of his extension. The versatile Bryant himself will even need a new contract, as he enters the offseason as an exclusive restricted free agent. No matter what happens though, Bryant’s strong season has given New England yet another intriguing undrafted free agent in the secondary.

@PatriotsBrain What do you think the OLine looks like now that everyone is healthy or close to healthy and we have depth back

The Patriots had many options along the offensive line when Trent Brown returned. I truly believed the Patriots would go back to Wynn-Onwenu-Andrews-Mason-Brown, as that is what the team practiced with all summer and opened the season with when healthy. However, they surprised everyone by leaving Michael Onwenu as the odd man out on Sunday.

With Trent Brown stepping back in against Cleveland and looking like his dominate self as usual, the question appears to be at left guard: Onwenu or Ted Karras? With Karras operating as the starter last Sunday, the Patriots offensive line manhandled Cleveland, allowing a pressure on only 20 percent of Mac Jones’ dropbacks (5 of 25) and running for a season-high 186 yards.

It is tough to envision the team going away from that unit after that dominate showing, especially on a short week. Karras has fit in extremely well next to Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews, while Onwenu can serve as an extremely high-quality backup and rotational piece. It still seems weird leaving Onwenu, who has been the team’s best overall lineman this season, on the bench, but New England will certainly play the best unit over the best players.

@owavy26 What do you think about delusional fans calling Mac a “game manager” and saying he’s not that guy.

Let them hate! As we all knew the growing pains would come and go, but Mac Jones has overall been awesome this year. And while Josh McDaniels himself seemed to get off to a slow start, the Patriots offense is rounding into form as we reach Thanksgiving.

As for Jones, he is far and away the best rookie quarterback this season (although he is certainly in the best situation) and arguably playing as a top-10 quarterback in the entire NFL right now. Since Week 4, Jones has the third highest PFF passing grade, sixth best passer rating, fifth best completion percentage over expected (CPOE), and sixth best EPA per play.

And for the “game manager” fans, Jones’ 11 big-time throws since Week 4 are on par with some guys named Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, and Lamar Jackson. Pretty good company.

@BrianCo84 What ever happen to Tre Nixon?

Tre Nixon is currently a member of the Patriots practice squad. While he started to build a strong connection with Mac Jones throughout the start of training camp, an injury forced him to miss some extended offseason time. Even before the injury, it was clear the rookie needed time to develop and wasn't going to crack the Patriots 53-man roster. His speed makes him an enticing prospect, but we’ll have to wait and see if a year in the system impacts his game.

@Cappy2590 Can we compete with Buffalo and Tenn. should win alt and Ind right?

If the NFL has taught us anything this season, it’s that anybody can compete with anybody. So, the Patriots absolutely can compete with Buffalo and Tennessee — especially if they keep playing at the level they are now. I’d also pick them to beat Atlanta and Indianapolis, but again, it feels like anything can happen this season.

@Ramirez1080 Who replaced James White as captain

The Patriots did not replace James White as a captain. Captains on the active roster remain as center David Andrews, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Devin McCourty, special teamer Matthew Slater. I’m sure White’s leadership is still felt in other areas, like perhaps the running back’s room text group chat.

@TeamCrazyMatt How long before there is a spike in babies named “Mac” in the Boston/New England area?

Let’s see, when the Patriots win the Super Bowl on February 13th, then the spike could come right around this time next year.

@CheyenneSulli14 Ok are you seeing Spider-Man and matrix next month

We’ll see about the Matrix, but c’mon, Spider-Man will be seen the day it is theaters. The return of Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, and all the other characters could be the greatest comeback since 28-3 (had to during Atlanta week). Plus, I might cry like a little girl when Tobey Maguire (the greatest Spider-Man of all-time) swings onto the screen. Chills thinking about it.

@FWordsPod What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

This is what these mailbags are all about — getting to the heart of the important questions in this world. While doing some quick animal brainstorming, I was looking for innocent animals so scaling them to horse size would not result in them taking over the world. I then landed on the two-toe sloth and the chameleon. I mean imagine just walking past a horse-sized sloth hanging from a tree or a horse-size chameleon blending into your neighbors front bushes. Pretty cool.

Also, if we are scaling up an animal to serve as a pet, the answer is a chinchilla. Chinchilla’s are already good pets as shy, quiet, odorless, and clean animals, plus imagine how soft and fluffy a horse-sized chinchilla would be. I’m not sure what the serving sizes would be for meals, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

That’s all for this week’s #PostPulpit mailbag. If you have questions you’d liked to be answered next week, submit them on Twitter using #PostPulpit! Make sure to be following @iambrianhines and @PatsPulpit as well!