Sunday, September 29, 2013

Four Point Stance: Patriots at Falcons


The New England Patriots' passing game matured a bit last week in its eventual 23-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, but its overall health isn't anywhere closer to 100 percent as it prepares for its Sunday night match-up with last year's NFC South champs, the Atlanta Falcons.

Rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins stepped up their game in Week 3. While Thompkins still only managed to pull in 43 percent of his targets (3 of 7), he made the most of the ones he did catch, getting into the end zone twice. Dobson vastly improved on his Week 2 performance against the Jets, hauling in 70 percent of his targets last week.

The Pats' defense has carried the bulk of the load for the undefeated squad, and it faces a Falcons offensive unit that's had its own struggles, particularly on the ground, as the team will be without bruiser Steven Jackson for at least a couple more weeks. Matt Ryan and his banged up receivers will try to figure out a way to get past a Patriots secondary that's sixth overall against the pass.


Divvying up the work. With Shane Vereen still sidelined with a broken wrist, New England's running game is operating on a by-committee basis, and it's working. The team worked second-year back Brandon Bolden into the mix last week, who tallied 51 yards on three attempts on the ground and another 49 yards in the air. LeGarrette Blount is slowly inching his way toward an equal workload with the primary back Stevan Ridley, which is keeping defenses guessing as to who/when the offense will run the ball.

Seeing dead red. New England's offensive struggles have leaked into the red zone, where the team currently boasts the league's worst conversion rate. Missing tight end Rob Gronkowski has been a big part of the issue, though Brady put much of the blame on his own shoulders this week and insists he can make it work with the crew he currently has. Brady's completed only 30 percent of his passes inside opponents' 10-yard line, so look for the team's backfield to see more action in that area — both on the ground or on the screen — and for more fade-type calls to the lengthy Dobson. Atlanta's allowing opponents to convert 70 percent of its red zone attempts.

Ice, Ice baby. With the loss of Jackson, the pressure has been put on Ryan to carry the load for the Falcons' offense. The Pro Bowler has averaged more than 300 yards a game through the air, touting a 68 percent completion rate along the way. His main perimeter targets, Julio Jones and Roddy White, have been working through their respective injuries, though Jones was able to exploit Miami's secondary last week and amass 115 yards. He may have a harder time with New England's DBs, who have held QBs to a 58.7 passer rating and only two touchdowns. Opposing tight ends in particular have done nothing against the Pats defense, averaging just 21 yards a game, so keep an eye on vet Tony Gonzalez, who's a much higher caliber than New England has seen thus far.

Turning up the heat. The Falcons' front seven has been so-so this season, with newcomer Osi Umenyiora leading the way with two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception for a touchdown. Brady has been under pressure much more than he's used to these first three games, and he's already taken a quarter of the sacks that he took all of last season. If Umenyiora and company can disrupt Brady's rhythm when he drops back, it will pay dividends against an offense that is known for wearing out defenses. Brady was a bit off last week in his accuracy against the Bucs, and he's only completing 50 percent of his passes when under pressure, according to ProFootballFocus.
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