The time has come for the dreaded rematch from the game we shall not mention. The Falcons will look for revenge (or so the narrative goes) as they travel to Boston to take on the New England Patriots. The Patriots defense looks vulnerable this year, so will this be a bounce-back game for a Falcons offense that has struggled to score consistently the past several games?
Note: Assessments based on PFF Edge scoring
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line has been one of the better ranked units in the NFL, but they’ve had some challenges the last few weeks. Against Buffalo, Jake Matthews struggled in pass protection. Against Miami, it was Ryan Schraeder’s turn to stumble. Overall, though, this is a very capable unit. Alex Mack is arguably the best center in the league right now. Andy Levitre is a quality veteran at LG while Wes Schweitzer has been showing steady and consistent improvement with every game. He’s shown himself to be a quality starter now. Jake Matthews has had an up and down year, but is normally pretty reliable as a pass blocker and thrives in the run game. Ryan Schraeder is normally a top-5 RT in the league, but looked rusty after missing a few games after a concussion set him on the bench. This is a quality unit that is capable of performing better than they have.
The Patriots have struggled to consistently pressure QBs this year, ranking near the middle of the pack in sack percentage. In the middle, Malcom Brown is a quality defensive tackle in his third year. Next to him, Lawrence Guy is playing ok, but is not a wrecking ball like Kyle Williams or Ndamukong Suh. Fourth round pick Deatrick Wise is playing decently, especially considering he’s a rookie and does have 3 sacks on the year. On the other side, Trey Flowers is also a quality edge player whose 3.5 sacks on the year is tied for the lead on the team. This is not a dominating unit, but they are a capable one.
While this Patriots defensive front isn’t quite comparable to the Bills or Dolphins, they aren’t pushovers either. The Falcons offensive line will need to play well across the board, which they haven’t done for several weeks. If they can stop the trend of having someone struggle, this should be a favorable match-up for them, even if just slightly so.
The skill positions
Matt Ryan isn’t playing at an MVP level, but don’t let the box score fool you either. While his deep ball accuracy has been off this year, he’s otherwise playing very good football overall. Julio Jones should be close to 100% for this game, so look for him to cause havoc on the field as usual. Taylor Gabriel also looks to be getting back to mid-season form, and is a threat to take the top off at any point. At TE, the Falcons have a decent receiver in Austin Hooper, while Toilolo is mostly a blocker at this point. The Falcons have depth at WR with Justin Hardy a capable hands receiver and recently brought up Marvin Hall who has great speed and big play ability. If Mohamed Sanu is able to play, he helps open up things in the middle of the field and is a quality option that Ryan looks to often. At running back, the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both capable in the running and passing game and are arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league. This is a group with a ton of talent that should overwhelm most defenses.
The Patriots linebackers and secondary are their weakest spot this year. At linebacker, Elandon Roberts is solid against the run but a definitely liability in coverage. Kyle Van Noy has struggled this year, even though he has 3.5 sacks on the season. He’s been bad against the run and in coverage. Dont’a Hightower is normally one of the better linebackers in the league, but a week one MCL injury has hampered his performance this year. If he’s healthy, he can cause havoc on the field as well. At corner, Malcolm Butler is playing well, but not at the level he’s played at the last two years. Johnson Bademosi is also playing decently, but has mostly been inconsistent over his career. Slot corner Jonathan Jones is having a rough go of it, and is definitely someone the Falcons should look to take advantage of. At safety, Devin McCourty is one of the best and is still playing like it while Patrick Chung is solid if not particularly splashy this year. In nickel sets, Duron Harmon may also get some snaps and has shown to be a solid safety as well this year.
The Patriots have some good (and a couple great) players in this secondary. The problem is they have some glaring holes as well that the Falcons should be able to exploit. So long as the Falcons don’t shoot themselves in the foot (oh god), this is a favorable match-up for them as well.
The last two games for the Falcons have convinced many fans that this offense will never be good again. It’s easy to overlook the fact that the Bills and Dolphins both had very good defensive units, particularly up front. The Patriots front is a step down from those units and has some definite vulnerabilities that can be exploited. It’s up to Steve Sarkisian and Matt Ryan to put together a plan that will do just that. While it may not “feel” like it, this is a match-up the Falcons should win.