Despite having won four games this season and briefly positioning themselves inside the NFC playoff picture just two weeks ago, the Atlanta Falcons are a pretty average team at best. They enter Week 11 with a 4-5 record, have one of the worst point differentials in football (-85), and do not stand out in any statistical categories.
And yet, they are team not to be taken lightly. That is especially true considering the circumstances of their upcoming matchup with the New England Patriots: the two teams are meeting on Thursday Night Football and on only three days of rest.
Naturally, anything can happen. While the Patriots are favored to win based on their overall roster and coaching talent as well as the fact that they are currently one of the hottest teams in the league — one that has won four straight games — they surely cannot take the Falcons lightly.
In order to indeed come away victoriously, New England therefore needs to play a sound game and successfully execute in a few key areas.
Stick to the basics
As noted above, the Patriots are entering Week 11 on only three days rest. Naturally, their preparatory process for the game has looked quite different compared to any normal week. The team held only one full practice, and everything had to be sped up.
“It’s just cramming a lot of information in a short amount of time and making good decisions that you don’t want to clutter things up,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick earlier this week. “But at the same time, you don’t want to be unprepared. That’s the fine line of it.”
How can the Patriots be fully prepared but not putting too much pressure on their players? By sticking to the basics that have helped them win four straight games: playing stout, physical defense; executing on a near-mistake-free level on the offensive side of the ball; taking care of the fundamentals.
Obviously, those areas are important every week. On a short one like this, however, there is a special emphasis on all of them.
Don’t be surprised by some funky looks
The Patriots are no strangers when it comes to Dean Pees’ defenses. The veteran coach, after all, served as New England’s defensive coordinator between 2006 and 2009 and the core concepts he is running in Atlanta are similar to the ones Bill Belichick has implemented as well.
That means that the Patriots and rookie quarterback Mac Jones need to be able for some funky looks and a defense that will disguise on a regular basis. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was New England’s offensive coordinator while Pees was around as well, spoke about just that earlier this week.
“Playing against him is always different. The thing that I think I’ve always been most impressed with Coach Pees is his ability to adapt his scheme, which is I would say multiple, to the strengths and weaknesses of his players,” he said.
“Some games we’ve played them they’ve been almost entirely man-to-man coverage, other games they’ve used blitz zones, some games have been more split safety coverage and less of that other stuff. He has a great feel for what his defense can do well, he has a great feel for how to use his best players and his most disruptive players and he knows how to slow you down and try to take away some of your strengths.”
The Falcons have been able to successfully make life hard for opposing quarterbacks this year. While not the stoutest defense by any means, they have shown that they can challenge an opposing offense by disguising their intensions and performing the play-calls on a solid level.
Take the following from the game against the Carolina Panthers:
Before the snap, the Falcons are showing pressure, with all six front-line defenders aligned at the line of scrimmage. With the exception of weak-side 9-technique Steven Means (#55) all of them are actually attacking the pocket. The group does not do anything overly exotic, but it still manages to stress the communication and chemistry of Carolina’s O-line.
Instead of attacking the strong-side A-gap over which he initially aligned, Foyesade Oluokun (#54) ran a stunt behind fellow standup linebacker Deion Jones (#45). Ideally, the Panthers’ center and left guard — Matt Paradis (#61) and Michael Jordan (#73) — would switch their assignments in that case to pick up both rushers. However, that does not happen here: Paradis reacts too slowly, while Jordan is engaged with Jones for too long.
In turn, Oluokun is able to get into the backfield untouched through the B-gap to force an early throw. With Sam Darnold (#14) unable to properly step into the pass attempt, he led running back Ameer Abdullah (#20) just a bit too far to make the play work.
Making the opponent think is a key ingredient of any Pees-led defense, and the Panthers saw this numerous times in Week 8. The following play is more of the same:
Here, the Falcons are showing a standard four-man pass rush before the snap with a one-deep coverage look — possibly Cover 3 based on the off-man alignment of the cornerbacks — in the secondary. Once the ball gets snapped, however, the coverage shifts to a two-deep zone with only three defenders attacking the pocket.
The one player to drop out is 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle Marlon Davidson (#90). Usually, defensive tackles dropping back to cover underneath zones does not happen; however, Pees trusts his players to execute and the play worked: Sam Darnold was forced to hold onto the football and attempt a scramble on 3rd-and-11. He did not reach the sticks and his team was forced to settle for a long field goal attempt rather than keep the series alive.
Given the relative lack of experience that their own quarterback brings to the table, the Patriots should expect more looks like these on Thursday Night. Mac Jones and company need to be alert, especially in third down situations.
Use the wide receivers to pressure on the secondary
The Falcons pass defense has struggled so far this season, and the Patriots should be able to take advantage. While Atlanta is surprisingly stout against the run, the pass coverage has proven to be an issue: Dean Pees’ defense is ranked only 29th in EPA per dropback play.
One area in particular that has been a challenge for the group is defending wide receiver. Per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, Atlanta is just the 26th most productive team against WR1s, 32nd against WR2s and 25th against other wideouts.
New England’s top-three wideouts — Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne — could be in for a lot of action. The same goes for a secondary that has been able to intercept only three passes all year and has not been able to consistently contain pass catchers.
Disrupt the Ryan-Pitts connection
With Calvin Ridley currently not on Atlanta’s roster for personal reasons, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts becomes the Falcons’ clear top target in the passing game. Pitts has impressed so far: the fourth overall selection of this year’s draft is leading the team in receptions (40) and yards (606) and has also scored a touchdown. He has quickly turned into a go-to guy for Matt Ryan, and naturally is a player worth keeping an eye on.
Just look at what Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had to say about him earlier this week.
“Pitts is a really, really talented player,” he said. “He’s very long, has excellent hands. Has good quickness to get off the line. Good quickness at the top of his route. He has a huge catch radius. Has made some spectacular one-handed catches where defenders are kind of grabbing at his other arm, he can only get one hand on the ball and he still hauls it in. Again, he’s a big target.
“You know, Ryan’s a very accurate quarterback, but he’s a huge target. He’s hard overthrow. He makes plays with the ball on either side of him that most receivers just can’t make. So it’s somewhere between a Julio Jones and a Tony Gonzalez. And he is a big, strong guy too, like Gonzalez was. So if you start pushing off against him, he’s probably going to win that because he’s bigger and longer and just as strong as anybody that’s pushing on him, unless they’re a linebacker in then if it’s a linebacker then he has a huge advantage against those guys from a speed and quickness standpoint.
“He’s really good and he’s going to be really good. I’m sure he’ll break all the tight end receiving records for a rookie this year. Coach Smith’s done an excellent job of putting him in positions where it’s hard to get a lot of coverage on him. And then the type of play that they run based on where he’s lined up, it just, it creates some opportunities for him and he’s certainly able to take advantage of them with his outstanding skill set. So that’s going to be a tough match up for sure.”
Belichick speaking highly of opponents is nothing new, but his praise of Pitts is noteworthy given that the Falcons lack consistent receiving talent outside of him. When it comes to this week’s game between the two clubs, the goal from New England’s perspective therefore has to be clear: take Pitts away and make Matt Ryan go elsewhere with the football.
That is easier said than done, but New England should look at the Falcons’ Week 8 game against the Panthers.
In that game, Ryan targeted his big-bodied tight end six times but only two of those passes were completed for 13 yards; he also threw an interception while trying to hit Pitts late.
What did the Panthers do to effectively take the rookie out of the game? They played some tough man coverage against him, but were not afraid to mix things up to throw both him and his quarterback off their rhtyhm.
Take a look at the following play as an example:
Pitts is aligned split out wide in the Falcons’ 3x1 formation, with Panthers initially showing a one-deep coverage as a counter. At the snap, however, they rolled into a two-deep look with cornerback A.J. Bouye (#24) moving over from the underneath zone to cover Pitts. Using a safety over the top to bracket him, Ryan’s pass is knocked away for an incompletion.
The Patriots could use a similar tactic against the rookie TE. While number one cornerback J.C. Jackson might be a good matchup, New England could also try to go with the likes of cornerbacks Jalen Mills or Joejuan Williams, or safety Adrian Phillips, with another safety over the top. Devin McCourty would be a natural choice, but so would be second-year man Kyle Dugger.
Dugger’s size — 6-foot-2, 220 pounds — stands out and could give New England a good matchup against the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Pitts. While he should not be expected to go one-on-one against him at all times, Dugger might very well be prominently featured as part of zone or bracket coverages.
Be disciplined against outside zone runs
The Patriots are no stranger when it comes to defending outside zone. They are coming off back-to-back games against teams heavily featuring this type of running scheme, with both the Carolina Panthers and the Cleveland Browns having the athletically impressive linemen to run it.
New England, of course, has found plenty of success against zone runs the last two weeks. How did the club’s defense do it? By out-muscling the offensive linemen up front, and by patiently but effectively reading the keys.
The following run for no gain is a good example of that:
Aligning in a 3-4 bear front, the Patriots are quick to engage the blockers in front of them without allowing much movement to the second level. The down-linemen — Lawrence Guy (#93), Carl Davis (#98) and Davon Godchaux (#92) —play an important role, moving with the flow of the play. The key, however, is the linebackers quickly getting up the field to disrupt those second-level blockers from opening lanes for Christian McCaffrey (#22) to attack.
In this particular play, off-the-ball linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8) needs to be mentioned. He shoots downhill immediately and knocks the Panthers’ right guard back upon contact. That is enough to disrupt the play, and allow backside linebacker Matthew Judon (#9) to come in with the clean-up tackle.
If the Patriots defense is able to play the game like this — reading the keys properly and bringing raw power against athleticism — they should be in a good position to stop the Falcons’ zone-based running game.