The Falcons hope to respond after a disappointing loss last week as they face the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick, who has earned a reputation as the league’s best schemer. With questions surrounding Falcons head coach Mike Smith and whether the Falcons coaching staff is pulling its own weight, they will have to be up to the task of trying to match wits with Belichick.
In looking at the past two Patriots games, here are three favorable matchups to watch out for on Sunday night for each team.
Julio Jones vs. Aqib Talib
Last week, the Patriots asked Talib to shadow Vincent Jackson and he was very effective doing so. Jackson was limited to just three catches for 34 yards. It is likely that the Patriots will do something similar this week hoping that Talib can have a similar effect against Jones, who is clearly the Falcons No. 1 target. Jones has been targeted on nearly half (43-percent) of Ryan’s 81 attempts this year. It should be noted that even at his peak in 2009, Roddy White never exceeded 36-percent. If Talib is effective in containing Jones, it will make the Falcons offense much less effective. But that will be a tall order for Talib. It has been no secret the first three games of this season that Jones has been best and often sole offensive weapon in the passing game, yet no Falcons opponent has really been effective at slowing him down. Talib and Jones have only faced each other once, back in Week 3 of 2011. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones was able to catch a pair of passes against Talib for 25 yards on three targets in that game. The Falcons coaching staff, knowing that the Patriots No. 1 defensive priority will be limiting Jones’ impact on the game will have to find ways to get him the ball despite the shadow that Talib creates.
Tony Gonzalez vs. Patriots LBs/Safeties
If Talib shadows Jones throughout the game, it should allow Belichick free to mix up his coverages in regards to tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez has yet to really have a breakout game this season and this week he could be poised for such. The Pats have yet to really face a formidable tight end through the first three weeks of the 2013 season. A year ago (per Football Outsiders) the Patriots were weak against the tight end, ranking 29th in DVOA. Note that the Falcons, who also struggled to cover tight ends, ranked 21st last year. The Patriots may not put a single player on Gonzalez, but rotate multiple players. Normally, safety Steve Gregory and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Don’ta Hightower tend to draw most of the assignments against opposing tight ends. But the Patriots may try using athletic rookie linebacker Jamie Collins as well in the hopes he may be better suited against a veteran like Gonzalez.
Corey Peters vs. Patriots Interior OL
New England’s offensive line is often a strength of theirs, but if there is a weakness it is in their interior with center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly struggling a bit. The Falcons need to get more production from their interior defensive linemen in terms of their pass rush, something I noted upon reviewing their Week 3 loss against the Dolphins. Corey Peters typically lines up on the left side of the Falcons defensive line and as the team’s de facto nose tackle in their three-man front he should get several opportunities to go against both Wendell and Connolly. If he can help press the pocket and pressure Tom Brady up the middle, it will be critical to success on defense. As it is for most NFL quarterbacks, interior pressure in the past has shown it’s very effective at slowing down Brady.
Chandler Jones vs. Falcons LT
Whether Lamar Holmes gets his second start at left tackle or Sam Baker returns to the lineup, regardless the Falcons will face an unfavorable matchup with Chandler Jones. Regardless of who has lined up across from the Falcons’ left tackle, whether Junior Galette, Robert Quinn, Dion Jordan, or Olivier Vernon, opposing pass rushers have found success in 2013. It’s unlikely that will change this week. Jones presents a tough matchup for Holmes should he be the starter due to his combination of speed and strength. Holmes has struggled to use his hands this season, and that could get him into trouble against the quick-handed Jones who can present a variety of moves to get after the quarterback. The Falcons will need to use backs and tight ends to chip and help slow down Jones off the line to aid Holmes. Jones also gets reps inside in certain sets, often lining up against the left guard, meaning that Justin Blalock also will be tasked with slowing down the burgeoning second-year playmaker.
Vince Wilfork vs. Falcons Interior OL
The big fella in the middle is one of the league’s best interior presences. Whether it is swallowing up blockers or pressuring the quarterback, Wilfork finds ways of getting the job done. The Patriots like to use Wilfork on either side of the line, so there’s no one guard matchup he’s likely to draw between Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds. Blalock has played well this year and Reynolds has been better than expected as well. But Wilfork will be a whole new animal, particularly for Reynolds who has been prone to giving initial ground to interior pass rushers. With Wilfork’s bulk and power he may be better able to finish those power rushes to get into the face of Matt Ryan. As I noted after the Rams game, there would be a point this year where Reynolds could face a good defensive tackle and get exposed. We may discover after Sunday night that point may have arrived. Playing beside Wilfork is Tommy Kelly, who has gotten off to a productive start this year, meaning that both guards will have their hands full every snap.
Julian Edelman vs. Robert McClain
Robert McClain injured his knee last week and briefly exited the game, but looks to be on his way back to play this week. Julian Edelman is the Patriots most reliable receiver as Tom Brady has struggled to get on the same page with the rest of his inexperienced receivers. The Patriots have found much of their success on short, crossing routes to Edelman and others designed to get the ball out quickly. The Falcons struggled defending these types of routes when they faced the Rams in Week 2 with several instances where Chris Givens and Tavon Austin beat their corners and linebackers over the middle. The Falcons will need to correct this issue, otherwise Edelman could be in for a very productive day. If Edelman can be contained, the Patriots simply don’t have the playmakers on the outside to really be able to successfully move the ball downfield.