New England Patriots: 2013 Week 4 NWE at ATL

Reaction to Wilfork's torn Achilles

September, 30, 2013
ATLANTA -- When building a house, nothing really matters if the foundation isn't sturdy.

When considering what Vince Wilfork means to the New England Patriots -- in light of Shalise Manza-Young's report in the Boston Globe that Wilfork has a torn Achilles and is almost certainly out for the season -- think of a house's foundation.

He's the sturdy guy in the middle, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound mountain of a man with uncommon athleticism whose stats don't always reflect his impact.

Losing him puts the Patriots on shaky ground.

Because foundation players are rare, expect the Patriots to rely on multiple players to attempt to fill the void. There is no one replacement. Right now, it's veteran Tommy Kelly and rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones at defensive tackle. It's unclear if Armond Armstead might return to health and be an option when he's eligible to come off the reserve/non-football illnes list.

We've seen Wilfork's impact only grow in recent years. Consider his playing-time stats:

2009: 51.8 percent
2010: 69.8 percent
2011: 86.8 percent
2012: 81.3 percent

The Patriots have overcome injuries to key players in the past, so this isn't anything new to them. But Wilfork's injury ranks as one of the most significant, and one of the toughest voids to fill.

Patriots impress, but are far from perfect

September, 30, 2013
Kenbrell ThompkinsKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKenbrell Thompkins' 18-yard diving touchdown catch put the Patriots up 27-13.

ATLANTA -- Midway through the fourth quarter, we were ready to write it in all capital letters for the New England Patriots: BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.

Then came a near collapse, so let’s just call it the best win of the season.

They did it in the Georgia Dome, one of the toughest places for visitors to emerge victorious. They did it against an Atlanta Falcons team that since 2008 has only lost back-to-back games three times. And they did it after taking control of the game with a commanding 17-point lead with 6:18 remaining. But then they almost gave it away after about half of the sellout crowd had headed to the exits.

Talk about creating your own adversity, then overcoming it. That’s what Sunday night’s 30-23 victory represented for the Patriots: a 60-minute roller coaster of sudden swings with a happy ending.

For those curious how players reacted, it was mostly a happy Patriots' locker room afterward, even though it seemed like quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t in the smiling mood. Maybe he was just exhausted. Or maybe he was peeved that a fumbled snap on fourth down with 1:54 remaining, when the Patriots needed to advance just a few inches to seal the win, nearly cost the team a victory.

Instead, it took cornerback Aqib Talib's fourth-down pass breakup, in the end zone, to finally extinguish the threat.

“We slugged it out,” Brady said early Monday morning. “We came to Atlanta, which is a tough place to play. They have a very good team. It’s nice to win and be 4-0.”

“I’m really proud of the way our team played today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They made a good example of what it takes to win in the league, and that’s 60 minutes of good football. We have to do a better job of finishing out the game. Obviously we could have played a little better in the end, but it’s good to be 4-0 and get out of here with a win.”

As one player was quick to remind a reporter, few pundits predicted the Patriots would be in this position, which was a reminder that media buzz does resonate inside the locker room walls at times -- stuff like the Patriots defense needing to prove it can shut down a top-level quarterback, or the inconsistent offense being able to hold up its end of the bargain.

[+] EnlargeVince Wilfork
AP Photo/David GoldmanHaving Vince Wilfork carted off with an injury puts a damper on a 4-0 start.
There will be fewer questions about the defense after this one, and anyone who might have doubted Talib’s value to the unit has to be having second thoughts. He’s been a big-time difference maker, the first real shutdown man corner the team has had since Ty Law (1995-2004), and he showed it again Sunday night.

But that doesn’t mean there are not concerns. Starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left the Georgia Dome with a protective boot on his right foot after being carted to the locker room in the first quarter. Belichick was speaking with Wilfork’s wife, Bianca, outside the team’s locker room after the game -- a conversation that both obviously hoped they wouldn’t be having.

The Boston Globe reports Wilfork has a torn right Achilles tendon and likely is done for the season.
Meanwhile, promoted cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who started in the base defense over Kyle Arrington for the first time this season, hobbled off late and didn’t finish. And rookie receiver Aaron Dobson left in the third quarter with a neck injury and never returned.

So the Patriots left Atlanta a battered team. But it’s safe to say they aren’t as bruised and beaten as the Falcons, who were steamrolled by a power running game that had shades of 2004, when Corey Dillon was tearing up opposing defenses. The Patriots, who owned a decisive size advantage over the Falcons, wanted to play old-fashioned big-boy football.

Wide-smiling 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount, who romped for a 47-yard touchdown run at the start of the fourth quarter, relayed to the media that that was the crux of Belichick’s message all week -- physical play.

That’s why Brady had only nine pass attempts in the first half, the Patriots preferring to keep it on the ground (they only had three possessions) before their passing game erupted in the second half. Receivers Julian Edelman (7 catches, 118 yards) and Kenbrell Thompkins (6 catches, 127 yards and a TD) were immense.

“I’m just playing football and trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot for the plays that are being called,” said the unassuming Thompkins, whose diving 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was similar to a play he failed to make in Week 2 against the New York Jets.

The play, in a sense, epitomizes the growth that players such as Thompkins and the Patriots have shown in a short time. And if the past is any indication, they should only get better.

When there was 6:31 remaining, and it was 30-13, it didn’t seem like a stretch to say the Patriots were putting together the type of performance that brought back memories of their Super Bowl championship past.

It had all the makings of the BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.

The ending, and near collapse, almost changed everything.


Locker Room Buzz: New England Patriots

September, 30, 2013
ATLANTA -- Observed in the locker room after the New England Patriots' 30-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:

Physical football the key: The final player to conduct interviews in the locker room was running back LeGarrette Blount, and, to a degree, the bruising 250-pound running back epitomized the team's offensive approach. "We wanted to be physical," he said of the Patriots' power running game. Blount said coach Bill Belichick had stressed that message to players early in the week. In a cramped locker room, it was Blount, fellow running back Stevan Ridley and several offensive linemen who drew big media crowds.

Mostly positive despite near-collapse: While quarterback Tom Brady didn't seem overly enthused, perhaps because of the way the offense couldn't close things out, one player said it was mostly a positive message from Belichick to the players. "Hey, we're 4-0. And we had a lot of doubters out there," one Patriot said, pointing out that the author in this space was one of them. In his postgame news conference, Belichick said: "I'm really proud of the way our team played. They made a good example of what it takes to win in this league, and that's 60 minutes of good football."

Talib's play draws raves: The first player whom media members swarmed was cornerback Aqib Talib, whose pass breakup in the end zone on fourth down sealed the win. Belichick raved about his performance, saying Talib has played well going all the way back to spring camps.

Wilfork's status a natural concern: Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork's wife, Bianca, attends almost every road game, and Belichick was seen speaking with her after the game. Naturally, the Patriots are concerned after Wilfork was carted to the locker room in the first quarter. Wilfork was later spotted with a protective boot over his right foot.

Talib continues to have things covered

September, 30, 2013
ATLANTA -- There was no hiding from the challenge of facing the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4.

Atlanta boasts one of the most explosive offenses in football, catalyzed by a passing attack that features the NFL’s leading receiver, Julio Jones, and Roddy White, a four-time Pro Bowler.

And on Sunday night, as the game hung in the balance with a last-gasp effort from the Falcons to try to tie it in what would have been a miraculous comeback, it was a defensive player who capped the evening in fitting fashion, as Aqib Talib broke up a fourth-down pass intended for White. The play preserved the Patriots’ 30-23 victory.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
AP Photo/David GoldmanAqib Talib breaks up a pass intended for Roddy White to preserve the Patriots' win.
“Coach dialed it up,” Talib said after the game. “I was on Roddy. Me and Roddy. He just ran a straight -- like an over route, a crossing route and Matt Ryan put it up. I just had to get to it, break it up.”

And break it up he did, as Talib managed to swat his fourth pass of the evening on a night when he also recorded his league-leading fourth interception.

Talib has been a stabilizing force for the Patriots' secondary since being acquired last season in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Sunday night may have been his best outing yet.

“Aqib’s played great for us all year,” coach Bill Belichick said. “All the way back to the spring, training camp, he’s stepped up when we needed him and he played well. He played the ball well. Played against good receivers, tackled well and just played well. He’s done a good job for us.”

There were times early in the game when the Patriots appeared to use Talib to shadow Jones, who finished the game with 108 yards -- nearly half of which came on one late downfield throw -- but he noted the importance of giving Jones a variety of looks to try to contain the gifted third-year wideout.

“We just switched it up on him, sometimes we doubled him, sometimes we single covered him,” Talib said. “We just tried to do a good job switching it up on him. I think we did a good job. Kept him off balance a little bit.”

The plan worked masterfully through the first half, as Jones entered halftime with just 5 yards on two catches. Things took an abrupt turn late in the fourth quarter when the Falcons successfully recovered an onside kick, and later when they stopped the Patriots on a failed fourth-down play (Tom Brady fumbled the snap).

On the first play of the ensuing drive, the Falcons, down by seven with 1:50 to play, looked long to Jones down the left sideline, connecting on the aforementioned 49-yard completion.

They were in business, it seemed, with a fresh set of downs and the ball inside the Patriots' red zone.

And yet, Talib said the secondary remained confident it was going to come through with the stop despite the sudden momentum swing.

“We practice it all the time,” he said. “We practice every situation. Bill [does] a good job putting us in every situation, so we’ve been in it in practice before, we did it in practice before, so we felt we could win the game.”

In the end, Talib and his secondary got the last laugh, as three plays later, White failed to come down with the ball in the end zone, Talib draped over him in coverage.

“The refs let us play,” he said of the win. “They did some pushing, we did some pulling, man. Came out with the victory.”

The Patriots head home 4-0 with a road trip to Cincinnati looming. That means another stiff test in the form of receiver A.J. Green.

When the team turns the page to the Bengals, rest assured it will be relying on Talib to help slow down Green next Sunday afternoon.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 30, Falcons 23

September, 29, 2013

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the New England Patriots' 30-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:

What it means: The Patriots turned in an impressive effort through three and a half quarters and then almost collapsed. But they held on and improve to 4-0 for the first time since the 2007 season. The Falcons have been tough to beat in the Georgia Dome since 2008 (they were 34-7 entering the game), and they have been tough to beat after a loss over that span (22-3). The Falcons made a late charge, and the Patriots helped them get back into it with some sloppy play in critical situations, but the Patriots will obviously take the win.

Stock watch: Patriots defense -- rising. There were plenty of questions leading into the game about how the Patriots’ defense would fare against a top-level quarterback such as Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan after beating rookies EJ Manuel (Bills) and Geno Smith (Jets) and soon-to-be-benched five-year veteran Josh Freeman (Buccaneers). It did its part, holding down the Falcons’ explosive offense. A heavier mix of pressure was part of the plan as Ryan had his rhythm disrupted at times. Cornerback Aqib Talib came up with the big pass breakup on fourth down in the end zone to end the game.

Wilfork’s injury looms large: Starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, a five-time Pro Bowler, left the game on the opening drive and didn’t return. He hobbled off to the sideline and then was carted to the locker room. The Patriots announced that he had an ankle injury and, at the start of the second half, Wilfork was spotted in street clothes with his right foot in a boot in the tunnel. The Patriots have been thin at defensive tackle since training camp began. After Wilfork, they have veteran Tommy Kelly and rookies Joe Vellano (undrafted) and Chris Jones (a sixth-round draft pick of the Texans who was claimed on waivers on Sept. 11). Jones was making his debut on Sunday night. Vellano had his first career sack in the third quarter.

Dobson leaves with injury: In addition to Wilfork, rookie receiver Aaron Dobson left the game with a neck injury in the third quarter and did not return. With Dobson not returning, and with Danny Amendola (groin) and special teams captain/emergency receiving option Matthew Slater (wrist) inactive, the Patriots’ depth at receiver was down to three players -- rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, five-year veteran Julian Edelman and rookie Josh Boyce.

Brady’s stats of note: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady extended his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass to 52, which is two shy of tying Drew Brees' record. But in a first half in which the Patriots turned to the power running game, Brady attempted just nine passes. Can’t think of too many times that has happened.

What’s next: The Patriots visit the Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) on Oct. 6.

Quick-hit thoughts after third quarter

September, 29, 2013
ATLANTA -- Entering the final quarter of play, the New England Patriots lead the Atlanta Falcons 13-10. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the third quarter:

1. Bolden returns. After leaving the game in the first half with a knee injury, running back Brandon Bolden returned to open the second half. Bolden was unable to play in each of the team's first two games due to a right knee issue. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, meanwhile, was ruled out of the rest of the game due to a right ankle issue.

2. Edelman triggers incentive clause. In catching his third pass of the night, wide receiver Julian Edelman made himself a nice chunk of change, as he triggered an incentive clause in his contract that entitles him to $30,000 for 30 catches during the season. The next benchmark: 40 catches and an escalation of that bonus to $70,000.

3. Dobson banged up. At the conclusion of an extended drive that resulted in a chip shot field goal, Patriots receiver Aaron Dobson went down to the ground and clutched his right shoulder area after taking a crunching hit in the end zone. Dobson, who was the intended target of the throw on the play, was taken off the field with help from the medical staff. He later left the sideline and headed back to the locker room.

4. Vellano registers first sack. Getting extended playtime in Wilfork's absence, undrafted rookie Joe Vellano came through with his first career sack and the first sack for the Patriots defense on the evening. The sack pushed Atlanta into a 2nd-and-23 situation, putting the initial halt on what had been a productive drive.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the third quarter: guard Logan Mankins (holding), team offense (illegal shift; declined) and quarterback Tom Brady (delay of game).

Quick-hit thoughts from first quarter

September, 29, 2013
ATLANTA -- Following 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Atlanta Falcons 3-0. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter:

1. Falcons start fast, settle for field goal. As has been the case throughout the season, the Falcons started fast, taking the ball down on their opening drive and advancing to the Patriots' 5-yard line. That was the extent of their success, however, as the Patriots clamped down and limited the Falcons to a field goal. Considering the ease with which Atlanta made it to the red zone, holding the Falcons to a field goal was a win for the Patriots' defense.

2. Wilfork shaken up. The heart and soul of the Patriots' defensive line, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, was shaken up on a play on the opening drive and forced to leave the game. Members of the Patriots' medical staff examined Wilfork's right ankle before taking him on a cart to the locker-room area. The team later announced that he is questionable to return.

3. Jones drawing steady dose of Talib. It hasn't been exclusively Aqib Talib on Falcons receiver Julio Jones, but we've seen quite a bit of the Patriots' top cornerback shadowing Jones around the formation. That's something we saw last week with Talib following Vincent Jackson around. Thus far, Jones has just one catch.

4. Ridley shoulders load early. Last week, Brandon Bolden got the early touches and LeGarrette Blount finished with the most rushing yards, but thus far it's been Stevan Ridley leading the way from the backfield. Ridley already is at 59 yards of total offense.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: Bolden (illegal shift) and safety Kanorris Davis (illegal formation).