The Atlanta Falcons are approaching a major crossroads in their 2017 campaign this week, as they travel to Foxborough, Massachusetts to take on the New England Patriots in a rematch of last year’s game no one remembers.
Both teams look like mere shadows of their former selves as the Patriots forgot how to play defense, and the Atlanta Falcons have forgotten how to score points in the NFL. We all know the Falcons offense has been lacking thus far this season, but another part of this team that many anticipated to be better, the defense, has yet to take that next step towards being an above-average unit.
At least it isn’t like they have an incredibly tough test this weekend or anything, right? Oh yeah. Welp. Let’s dig into this thing a little more.
In the trenches
The New England offensive line feels like it has been playing at the same level for the last 10 years protecting Tom Brady: they’re just good enough to protect Brady long enough for him to get the ball off. Are they world beaters? No. They are, however, a great fit for the system in New England and made to look a lot better by their system and their quarterback.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots’ offensive linemen are all average, though Shaq Mason is playing the best out of the five thus far this season. The interior of the Falcons defensive line matches up pretty well on paper, and should have opportunities to make some movement and finish some plays in the backfield.
The Falcons will be looking for another big game from Grady Jarrett against David Andrews and the two New England guards, as well as Dontari Poe to create some havoc along the interior of the line of scrimmage. I like the matchup on paper but I think the way the Pats play, plus the quick release of Brady neutralizes any advantage the Falcons have, for the most part.
In the running game, the Falcons should be able to limit Mike Gillislie and James White for a large part of the day, but White catching the ball out of the backfield could be an issue for Atlanta. Deion Jones and Duke Riley will need to keep the yards after catch by finishing tackles, often by themselves. We’ll see if they are up for it.
Once again, I feel like the Falcons have an advantage on the outside, but that advantage is quickly diminished by the presence of a massive polar bear named Rob Gronkowski. Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks are clearly very capable receivers, but I feel like they are a better matchup for the Falcons’ defensive backs than bigger receivers.
The Patriots are great at getting guys open and finding them open space within the opposing defense, and with the gravity that Gronk has, there will be some room for those shiftier guys to fill. All of this means that the Falcons linebackers and secondary need to improve their tackling from the last few weeks or else this will be a long game.
I expect Trufant to have a solid game but there will be plenty of frustrating plays, I think—that’s just what the Patriots do to defenses. Keanu Neal and DeVondre Campbell will most likely be assigned the tough task of slowing down Gronk, and, while they may get the best of him a time or two, I expect Gronk to have a solid day.
This comes down to tackling. The matchups on the edge are pretty even if the Falcons can tackle in space and force Brady to hold the ball for longer than three seconds, but Gronk does so much for that offense that can’t be overlooked.
Advantage: New England Patriots
I truly believe this comes down to the Falcons ability to limit plays by tackling in space and possibly forcing some turnovers. If Atlanta can improve their tackling and not commit untimely penalties, they will do enough to win the game.
If not, and they come out like they did in the second half last week, it will be a really frustrating day that could lead to a 3-3 start for the Atlanta Falcons. I want to believe in this defense because they could be really good, but they just haven’t shown that quality yet. Hopefully that changes on Sunday.
Advantage: New England Patriots (almost a push, though)