New England Patriots: Atlanta Falcons
ATLANTA -- There are $100 million reasons why Matt Ryan should be talked about among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. One thing the Atlanta Falcons quarterback doesn’t have that his Sunday-night counterpart possesses is a Super Bowl ring.
Ryan's showdown with New England Patriots star Tom Brady is sure to be a hot topic throughout Week 4. He already lost one such head-to-head matchup, when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints got the better of Ryan and the Falcons in the season opener (23-17).
So how will Ryan fare against the Pats? He’ll need help from all phases, something he didn’t receive in last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins.
ESPN.com Falcons team reporter Vaughn McClure and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break it down:
McClure: The Falcons were touted as a Super Bowl contender -- and possibly a favorite -- going into the season. But now, at 1-2, they find themselves in almost a must-win situation at home. How will the Patriots respond to the hostile environment they’ll enter Sunday night at the Georgia Dome?
Reiss: With 13 rookies on the 53-man roster -- including receivers Aaron Dobson (second round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), who are playing key roles -- there is an element of unknown for the Patriots when projecting how the team will respond. Some of these players simply haven’t experienced this environment and prime-time stage. It’s rare for a Patriots team to be relying on such a large number of rookies for significant contributions, and that is one of the interesting storylines from a New England perspective this week. Other storylines are if this might be tight end Rob Gronkowski's season debut, if receiver Danny Amendola will also return after missing two games with a groin injury and if the defense -- which has been solid against lesser competition (Jets, Bills, Buccaneers) -- can limit an explosive passing game that is easily the best the unit has seen to this point in the season. Give us a feel for how things are going for the Falcons on offense.
McClure: Not too well, at the moment. Head coach Mike Smith’s biggest complaint is how inefficient his team has been in the red zone. During the Week 3 loss to the Dolphins, the Falcons were 2-of-5 in red zone opportunities. For the season, they are 6-of-12 (50 percent) in terms of touchdowns in the red zone, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants that number to be a bit higher. Having bruising running back Steven Jackson in the lineup would no doubt help in goal-line situations, but Jackson will miss Sunday’s game while nursing a hamstring injury. Receiver Roddy White is also a solid red zone target, but White is not 100 percent healthy coming off a high-ankle sprain. Ryan still has Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez as primary scoring weapons. How do you think the Patriots will keep up with the speedy receiver and ageless tight end?
Reiss: I think it starts with how they decide to match up against the Falcons’ “11 personnel” (one back, one tight end), because that looks like the most explosive package -- receivers Jones, White and Harry Douglas, with Gonzalez at tight end and either Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling at running back. Last Sunday against the Buccaneers’ “11 personnel,” the Patriots stayed in their base defense but played with three cornerbacks in the secondary -- their way of staying sturdy against the run but adding a coverage element to the secondary. I’d be surprised if we see that this week because the Falcons are much more potent in the passing game. So I could envision the Patriots turning to a coverage-heavy dime defense (six defensive backs), specifically with Jones and Gonzalez in mind, with the thought that a lighter box might be enough to limit the running game. For the Falcons, how are things shaping up on defense?
McClure: The defense has had its issues. Take the Miami game, for example. The Falcons held a 23-20 lead with just less than five minutes remaining in regulation. The defense needed to close, needed to put pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, needed to lock down the receivers. Instead, the Falcons played soft coverage after the Dolphins reached midfield and couldn’t disrupt Tannehill’s rhythm. In the end, Tannehill engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his game-winning touchdown pass to Dion Sims. Not playing tight coverage and not wrapping up on tackles cost the Falcons in that game, and it could cost them the rest of the season if they don’t find a way to correct those problems immediately. They could use their defensive leader, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who was placed on injured reserve (foot) with a designation to return in Week 11. One other aspect noticeable in Miami was how the Dolphins tight ends won their one-on-one matchups against the Falcons on that final drive. That being said, will Atlanta have to contend with one of the best tight ends in the league, Gronkowski?
Reiss: We might not know the answer for sure until 90 minutes before kickoff, but things have been pointing in that direction. The one area the Patriots could use Gronkowski most, at least initially, is in the red zone. One season after ranking first in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (which we acknowledge isn't a foolproof stat), the Patriots rank last (4-of-13). It’s going to be hard to win a game like this settling for field goals. Speaking of which, let’s not overlook special teams. The Patriots are getting good contributions in that third phase of the game, with a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski a highlight in Sunday’s victory over the Buccaneers. How about the Falcons?
McClure: Yet another area in which the Falcons could use much improvement. Against the Dolphins, returner Douglas fumbled a punt he admitted he shouldn’t have fielded in the first place. It translated into a Dolphins touchdown three plays later. The usually reliable Matt Bryant missed a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. And the Falcons had three penalties on special teams: two holds and an illegal block above the waist. Through three games, the Falcons are ranked 26th in punt return average and 30th in kickoff return average, although they’ve returned just one kickoff. Those special-teams issues are enough to cause special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong to blow a gasket. Speaking of that, is Brady still yelling at his receivers?
Reiss: Could you hear him down there in Atlanta? That was probably the most talked about storyline after New England's 13-10 win over the Jets on Sept. 12, whether Brady’s on-field frustrations were making things tougher on the young receivers than they needed to be. But it was mostly yelling at himself this past Sunday. He was upset with an end zone interception he said he shouldn’t have thrown. And he missed some open receivers, too. So while Brady’s stats were better last week, his performance wasn’t up to his own high standard, and it was actually more about him than the young pass-catchers, who turned in their best performance of the season. What is Ryan saying about this matchup?
McClure: Ryan said plenty about the Patriots when he addressed the media in the locker room Wednesday. He said he expects to see a lot of man-to-man coverage and complimented the Patriots for being very sound with their technique. He believes the front seven does a great job of creating pressure in both the run game and against the pass. Of course, Ryan gave much credit to Brady for being one of the top quarterbacks in the league for such a long time. In fact, Ryan joked that he hoped to be around as long as Brady. And Ryan singled out Vince Wilfork for not only being a disruptive force up front, but for being a 325-pound guy who plays a lot of snaps. So what’s the word from Bill Belichick?
Reiss: Belichick complimented Ryan, saying among other things that Ryan has very few bad plays. He shared his belief that consistency is the mark of any great player and Ryan is “pretty consistent -- every play, every game, every series.” And, according to Brady, Belichick said the following to players this week: “If you love football, then Sunday night at 8:30 in Atlanta will be the place to be.” Hard to imagine many would disagree about that. This is going to be fun.
Below are current members of the Falcons organization with a New England tie:
Cornerback Asante Samuel. Now on his third team, the veteran cornerback was a pivotal member of the Patriots secondary during their run to consecutive Super Bowl wins from 2003-2004. Known as one of the most reactive cornerbacks in the NFL during his career, Samuel still has a nose for the football, as he managed five picks for the Falcons last season.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff. The shot-caller in Atlanta has made a rather seamless transition from his role as the Patriots director of college scouting into his new title in Atlanta, taking over in 2008 and helping to quickly turn one of the league’s struggling franchises into a consistent playoff contender. Dimitroff has done so through quality drafting, sensible free-agent signings and bold trades, led by the decision to package multiple picks to move up in the draft and select star wide receiver Julio Jones.
Director of player personnel Lionel Vital. 2013 marks Vital’s first season as the director of player personnel for Atlanta after previously working as the assistant director to David Caldwell, now the Jaguars GM. Vital was the assistant director of college scouting for the Patriots from 2001-2004 after working as a national scout in 2000. He entered the NFL ranks in 1991 with the Browns where he was hired by Bill Belichick to the personnel staff.
Offensive line coach Pat Hill. Now in his second season in charge of the Falcons offensive line, Hill is a respected assistant around the league who also has a close relationship with Belichick. He served as the offensive line and tight ends coach for Belichick from 1992-1995 with the Browns and has maintained a strong relationship since that time. Two of Hill’s players from Fresno State, where he was the head coach from 1997-2011, are stalwarts along the Patriots offensive line: Logan Mankins and Ryan Wendell.
FOXBOROUGH -- A big storyline entering today's game was how the Patriots would defend Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was limited to one catch for 16 yards, and here is a look at how the Patriots did it:
Gonzalez said he faced bracket coverage, explaining that wherever he ran there always seemed to be two defenders around him.
He said it was Patriots safety Brandon McGowan who was the primary defender to engage him when he released from the line of scrimmage. Gonzalez also said that he faced consistent jams at the line, especially on third down.
"[McGowan] was pretty much going with me with man [coverage] and pretty much anywhere I would go he got help," Gonzalez explained. "I had someone in my face playing man and as soon as I'd go in someone else's zone, they would just be waiting right there.
"The way I feel is that you kind of better do that. For the most part, and I'd say this about anybody, you should be able to beat man-to-man coverage. The day I can't beat man-to-man coverage, I'll probably retire."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged how many resources the defense devoted to Gonzalez in the middle of the field, which meant there were single-coverage matchups on the outer edges, putting added pressure on the team's outside corners.
"We doubled him a lot. I thought our guys stepped up and did a good job on him," Belichick said. "Then we held up in some other spots as well. Terrence [Wheatley] and Shawn [Springs] and Leigh [Bodden], they did a good job out there and we didn't give them very much help. They stepped up to the challenge against a good group of receivers, and did a competitive job."
The Patriots ran a few different packages in the game -- a 4-3, 3-4 and a dime (six defensive backs). They did not play nickel.
It was the dime that ultimately helped the Patriots cash in against Gonzalez.
"We contained him and contained the run," McGowan said. "We got the job done."
Former Patriots safety and current NBC football analyst Rodney Harrison isn't afraid to speak his mind.
But he doesn't tweet his mind.
Last week, an account with the name "Rodneyh37", which includes a picture of Harrison holding up the Lombardi trophy, engaged in some back-and-forth Twitter trash talk with Jets safety Kerry Rhodes.
Major news operations picked up on the exchange, but it turns out Harrison wasn't behind the keyboard.
"Rodney does not tweet, does not know how to tweet," said Brian Walker, senior director of communications for NBC.
One of the off-the-field storylines of Sunday's highly anticipated matchup between the Patriots and Falcons is the presence of Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
Dimitroff worked for the Patriots from 2002-2007, first serving as a national scout before moving up to director of college scouting.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz wrote on Dimitroff earlier this week, with Dimitroff explaining his approach in building the Falcons with respect to the Patriots.
"I was very mindful when I left the Patriots of not going against the grain, jumping into their roster or their personnel department, talking to coaches or administration people and saying, 'Hey, come with me,'" Dimitroff told Schultz. "That was out of respect for Bill [Belichick] and Scott [Pioli] and ultimately the Krafts. It was more like, 'OK, I learned a lot. Let's go down there and set up shop. Let's take the principles I've learned there, but not the bodies and the minds."
On Thursday, the Associated Press also wrote on Dimitroff's return to town.
"If anything, for me, it's more about us going in there and proving that we can compete at a high level," Dimitroff said. "For us, it's going to be sort of playing the benchmark organization and seeing how we fare against a historic program."
One area that will be charted throughout the 2009 season is how often the Patriots are in their base defense vs. a sub package.
Coach Bill Belichick made the point in a SIRIUS radio interview this year that the Patriots were in sub packages more than 50 percent of the time in the 2008 season. That seemed to be a reflection of how more offenses are spreading the field, which forces the opposition to put more defensive backs on the field.
In the season opener, it was charted as a 50-50 split for the Patriots between their base and sub packages.
Against the Jets, however, the numbers skewed heavily toward sub packages. Of 56 snaps, the Patriots were in sub for 44 of them. The breakdown looked like this:
Five defensive backs -- 30
Six defensive backs -- 13
Base 4-3 alignment -- 11
Seven defensive backs -- 1
4-4-3 short-yardage -- 1
Some of that might have been due to the team's personnel shortage at linebacker.
In playing mostly with five defensive backs, the Patriots seemed to be using safety Brandon McGowan in a linebacker-type role at times. So while they had nickel personnel (5 defensive backs) on the field, it also had the look of a standard 4-3 at times.
Longtime NFL coach Dan Reeves will be in town for Sunday's Patriots-Falcons game, providing color commentary on Westwood One's radio broadcast.
Reeves spent time Thursday sharing his thoughts on the matchup.
"It should be a great game between very similar football teams that are coached extremely well, Mike Smith in Atlanta and Bill Belichick in New England," Reeves said. "When Matt Ryan came to Atlanta, he kind of reminded me a little bit of Tom Brady, just in throwing the football, the way he handled himself. He's given the Falcons a chance to win every single week.
"With the Falcons, I think the biggest question right now is their defense, in particular the secondary. They had four turnovers in the first game against Miami, with one at the end of the game that made the difference. They've given up some yardage but have done a good job with turnovers .
"I think one of the key matchups this week will be John Abraham vs. Matt Light. Abraham gives the Falcons the best chance to put pressure on Tom Brady. Atlanta's defense is young; they fly after the football. They play downhill, and those linebackers attack the line of scrimmage. The weakness is in pass defense, and that will be a real key for them.
"For New England, Wes Welker is just so important. It's much different when he's in there. Julian Edelman did a nice job last week replacing him, but it's still not the same. The number that stood out to me was third down, where they converted 33 percent [5 of 15]. That's where Welker comes in big-time, converting those third downs. It was also noticeable that Brady and [Joey] Galloway do not have their timing down. You have to throw a lot of passes to get there. You can work on it in practice, but it's not the same as being in the game.
"The penalties obviously hurt the Patriots, as well. I don't think I've ever seen them penalized as much. Those are mistakes you usually don't see them make. The special teams hurt them, too, but this Atlanta team doesn't have a Leon Washington as returner."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One aspect that has stood out today at Gillette Stadium, from different perspectives, is the presence of Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The sure-fire future Hall of Famer presents a difficult matchup for the Patriots.
"Tony not only makes our offense better, but he makes our entire football team better. He has the most unbelievable work ethic that I've ever been around," Smith said. "It not only rubs off on the other tight ends and offensive players, but it rubs off on everybody in the building and locker room."
Added Ryan: "He knows how to prepare, he works really hard, and I think that permeates down through the locker room. Other guys see what it takes to be at that level, and try to do some of the things he's done."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick discussed the challenge of facing Gonzalez, whom the Falcons acquired this offseason for a second-round draft choice.
"He looks like he's always looked, all the way back to when we played them here in 2000," he said. "They get him isolated on anybody and he goes to work on them. He's tough in the red area, tough on third down, a good play-action receiver everyone sucks up on the running game and he's open back there against whoever they have covering him. Corners are too small to cover him and the safeties and linebackers can't run with him, can't match his quickness and route-running ability. He kills everyone. It doesn't matter who is on him. A lot of times there are two [players] on him and it doesn't matter."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Newly acquired linebacker Prescott Burgess, who will wear No. 93, laughed at the question: "Are you aware about the last Patriots player to have that number?"
"Oh yeah," he said, referring to Richard Seymour. "All these pictures are up here [inside Gillette Stadium]; I've never seen so many pictures in my life. Ninety-three, it's a high number for me to be wearing at inside linebacker, but whatever it is, it's just a number."
Burgess drew a large crowd of reporters in the locker room today, and said he was surprised at Tuesday's trade. If he was going to leave the Ravens, he said at least he's coming to a solid team.
He doesn't think he'll have many problems adapting to a new defense.
"I don't think anything is complicated [coming from] the Baltimore Ravens, they run just about everything," Burgess said. "I'll just play football. I think I can catch on real fast."
With the Ravens on the schedule in two weeks, Burgess said he would be willing to help the coaching staff with insight on Baltimore's defense.
"Whenever they come to me, I'll be ready for it," he said.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick opened his Wednesday press conference by commenting on the team's acquisition of linebacker Prescott Burgess from the Ravens for a conditional seventh-round draft choice.
Burgess will wear No. 93, last donned by Richard Seymour.
"He played outside [at Michigan], inside at Baltimore and also played in the kicking game, so he has some versatility. He gives us a little more depth at that position," Belichick said.
As they do for all prospects, the Patriots scouted Burgess in 2007 when he was selected by the Ravens in the sixth round. Belichick said the scouting report was similar to what it is now.
"Versatile player. He runs well. Big kid. That's what he's been in Baltimore, that's what he was at Michigan, and that's probably what he'll be here," he said.
Getting to know the Patriots' next opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, with 10 quick-hit thoughts:
1. They've opened the season with wins over Miami (19-7) and Carolina (28-20). Both games were at home, making their trip to Gillette Stadium their first road contest this season.
2. Head coach Mike Smith was hired in 2008 after serving as Jaguars defensive coordinator (2003-2007) and Ravens assistant coach (1999-2002). His brother-in-law is former Ravens coach Brian Billick.
3. Second-year general manager Thomas Dimitroff spent six seasons with the Patriots personnel department before being hired in Atlanta. He is the primary architect behind the Falcons' unexpected reemergence, with his key decision selecting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan No. 3 in the 2008 draft.
4. In the first two games, Ryan is completing an impressive 68.3 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and one interception.
5. In terms of pass-run ratio, they have been balanced through two games -- 64 rushes and 63 pass attempts.
6. Leading rusher Michael Turner has generally been held in check, with 170 yards on 50 carries (3.4 avg.), and one touchdown. Turner averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season, to go with 17 rushing touchdowns.
7. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, acquired from the Chiefs for a second-round draft choice, has been a key addition. He leads the team with 12 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
8. They've surrendered 240 rushing yards on 47 carries (5.1 avg.), showing some vulnerability against the run. Miami and Carolina are two of the NFL's better run teams, which adds context to the stats.
9. Defensive lineman Peria Jerry, their first-round draft choice, has been lost for the season with a knee injury. Veteran end John Abraham is a top pass rusher, a key player on a defense that has six takeaways over the first two games.
10. Concerns at cornerback led them to sign former Jaguar Brian Williams at the end of the preseason, and he was immediately inserted into the starting lineup. They also traded for former Rams first-round draft choice Tye Hill, who has been inactive the first two games but could factor into the cornerback mix.