New England Patriots: Mike Smith
September, 27, 2013
Getty ImagesTom Brady and Matt Ryan have both come in for heaping praise ahead of Sunday's meeting.
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.