On paper, the Atlanta Falcons are an average-at-best team. They are entering Week 11 with a 4-5 record, have the fourth worst point differential in the league (-85), and have no true standout performers on either side of the ball. Them being 7-point home underdogs to the 6-4 New England Patriots — fresh off a four-game winning streak — is no surprise.
However, Thursday Night Football has its own rules. With both teams playing on only three days of rest, anything can happen Just ask the 6-2 Baltimore Ravens, who lost to the 2-7 Miami Dolphins last week.
In order to not meet the same fate and get upset by an inferior opponent, the Patriots need to play some solid football in all three phases. With that said, let’s take a look at our five players to watch this week.
S Kyle Dugger
The Patriots will likely throw the kitchen sink at hyper-talented rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. The Falcons’ leading receiver with 40 catches for 606 yards, the first-round draft pick has proven himself a serious playmaker in an otherwise sub-par passing game. Needless to say that taking him out of the equation will be key for New England.
There are multiple options for the team to choose from. It could employ number one cornerback J.C. Jackson or a bigger-bodied player such as Joejuan Williams. It also could turn to its safety group, with Adrian Phillips a potential matchup.
One player to keep an eye on, however, is Kyle Dugger. The second-year man, who has taken a big step this season, has proven himself a do-it-all defensive back. His size — 6-foot-2, 220 pounds — and impressive athleticism make him a potential matchup against a player of Pitts’ caliber. He likely will not line up against him exclusively, but he should see his fair share of action versus the Falcons’ premier weapon.
Dugger is not only listed here because of his defensive contributions, though. He also has proven himself a valuable member of New England’s kick coverage operation; even if Cordarrelle Patterson is unable to suit up on Thursday Night, Dugger will play a big role in helping the field position battle develop in his team’s favor.
RB Damien Harris
After having missed last Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns due to a concussion sustained the previous week, Damien Harris has now been cleared to return to the field. In fact, he was not listed on the final injury report of the week and should therefore be good to go against the Falcons.
The question is how much action the third-year back will see, and there are multiple factors to consider even outside of his concussion. For one, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson looked impressive in his first game as New England’s RB1, gaining 100 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns; him cutting into Harris’ share would therefore not be a surprise moving forward. Furthermore, the Falcons field a defense that is better against the run than the pass (albeit still not great either).
Accordingly, New England might try to keep Harris on a snap count this week. Whenever he is on the field, though, he will be a player to watch: Will he display the same physical running style post-concussion, or he will need to shake the rust off a bit?
OL Michael Onwenu
Full disclaimer: there is a chance that we will only see Michael Onwenu on the bench this week. The second-year lineman, after all, was relegated to rotational duty last week in light of right tackle Trent Brown’s return to the starting lineup.
There is a still a chance that Onwenu eventually re-takes his original starting spot at left guard — one currently held by Ted Karras — which means that his usage will be an interesting storyline to follow in the coming weeks. Maybe he takes the field as early as Thursday? Maybe he again works in a rotation with Brown and as a sixth blocker up front? Either way, Onwenu is worth keeping a close eye on.
WR Nelson Agholor
The Falcons defense, as noted above, is not necessarily among the top units in the game. It has struggled particularly defending wide receivers. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, Atlanta is just the 26th most productive team against WR1s, 32nd against WR2s and 25th against other wideouts.
When measured by playing time and targets, Nelson Agholor is the Patriots’ WR2 — and he could have a prime opportunity to boost his current numbers. Agholor, one of the team’s big-name free agency acquisitions, has had an up-and-down year so far: he has caught 24 passes for 356 yards and 2 touchdowns. Solid but unspectacular production.
What stands out is that he and Mac Jones have yet to consistently get on the same page on deep pass attempts. Maybe going up against the Falcons’ inconsistent pass defense will change that, especially considering that the team is among the worst in football defending the deep pass.
If there ever is a breakout opportunity for the Jones-Agholor connection, this game should be it.
LB Chase Winovich
Chase Winovich had a relatively quiet season before being sent to injured reserve in mid-October due to a hamstring injury. Playing one-fourth of defensive snaps, the team’s reigning sack leader registered only three quarterback disruptions. In fact, Winovich had his biggest impact in the kicking game where he was on the field for roughly half of New England’s snaps between Weeks 1 and 6.
So, why is Winovich a player to watch against the Falcons? For one, Atlanta will likely throw the ball more than it will run it, giving the 26-year-old added chances to take the field as a situational pass rusher. Furthermore, with Josh Uche now on injured reserve, the Patriots could elect to use him as a more prominent member of their edge linebacker rotation.