In the week leading up to January's AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots didn't hide from one of the biggest challenges they'd be facing: finding a way to slow down the Ravens' vertical passing game, led by speedy wideout Torrey Smith.
One of the wrinkles we saw from the defense that week in working to slow Smith down was using safety Devin McCourty to put an umbrella on the side of the formation that Smith aligned to. Smith managed four catches for 69 yards that day, but the Patriots were able to prevent him from exploding down the field and victimizing their defense like he had many others.
On Sunday, the Patriots face an even more difficult downfield test in Julio Jones, perhaps the best young receiver in all of football. Jones leads the league in both catches (27) and receiving yards (373), and no one has a longer play from scrimmage than Jones' 81-yard touchdown catch in a Week 2 win against the Rams.
So with that in mind, might this be a week the Patriots again use McCourty to shade to the side of a vertical-stressing wideout? Doing so doesn't necessarily compromise the Patriots' defense, but it does leave them a little bit vulnerable to defend the rest of the Atlanta Falcons' talented receiving corps. In facing an offense like the one in Atlanta or the one in Denver, there's an element of picking your poison -- loading up to defend one player opens up space and opportunities for another.
But given how explosive Jones has been this season, and also that fellow wideout Roddy White has been limited by an ankle sprain, this may be a week where zoning in on one element of Atlanta's offense could pay dividends with a ripple-down effect.
The Falcons will find ways to score against any defense in any given week, but if the Patriots can prevent rapid-fire scores, they’ll make it much harder on an offense that will be without its best running back and dealing with injury issues along the offensive line.