3TFO: Patriots @ Falcons, Week 4
This week’s edition of Sunday Night Football features an undefeated team against a squad in danger of falling to 1-3. But with the way everyone is talking about the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, you’d almost think their records were reversed. Though Bill Belichick’s mark remains unblemished, there’s great concern in New England about Tom Brady’s slow start and the Patriots’ lack of weapons. Atlanta has lost two games, but both were on the road against tough competition, and a couple of breaks the other way could easily have the Falcons at 3-0.
With both of these 2012 Conference Championship runners-up looking to regain the form that made them contenders last season, which team will get a big win in primetime? One of these matchups could be the key.
Crisis On The Outside
With a sad nod to the Giants’ offensive line and the Steelers’ running backs, there’s been no worse position group in the league so far this season than the Falcons’ offensive tackles. Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes are the two worst graded players at their positions this season, and it’s not even close. Thirty-nine of the 54 quarterback pressures that Atlanta’s line has surrendered have come from its bookends. After reliable right tackle Tyson Clabo was cut and replacement Mike Johnson was lost for the season, Holmes has parlayed a poor preseason into a dreadful September. Baker has given a poor initial return on his big offseason contract extension, and is now struggling with a leg injury. It shows how low the bar is set when Jeremy Trueblood gives a big boost by allowing just three QB hurries last week.
The Patriots’ edge rushers are undoubtedly licking their chops when they see their upcoming opponents on film. Chandler Jones is showing signs of being that outside force that New England has lacked for years. His 11.5 Pass Rushing Productivity is one of the highest marks for a 4-3 defensive end this season. Rob Ninkovich does his best work versus the run, but he’s more than competent enough to take advantage of this favorable matchup. Matt Ryan has the third-highest grade of any quarterback this season, but he’s also faced the third-highest pressure rate of any passer. Unless his tackles have a big turnaround, he’ll be under duress again this Sunday night.
The New Top Falcon
It’s seemed inevitable for a couple of seasons now, but it appears that Julio Jones has finally taken the torch from Roddy White as the Falcons’ top passing target. The third-year receiver currently leads the league with 373 receiving yards, and his 3.13 Yards Per Route Run is the third-highest mark for any wideout with over 10 targets.With only one reception over 20 yards downfield, Jones is doing most of his work underneath, as his five forced missed tackles is also tied for the most of any receiver. White would be challenged to match that production regardless, but his high ankle sprain has made his decline that much steeper. The injury has held him to just 56 yards through three games while playing limited snaps. His 648 routes in 2012 were the fifth-most of any wide receiver, but he’s on pace for 200 fewer this season. Unsurprisingly his Yards Per Route Run has plummeted from a 2.08 mark to 0.67.
The headlining challenger to Jones this Sunday will be his former NFC South rival, cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib didn’t have the best debut with the Patriots last season, allowing 257 yards and two touchdowns in his first three starts, but by the postseason he was New England’s best cornerback. Belichick decided to re-sign him this offseason, and Talib has rewarded him with three interceptions while allowing a 58.3 QB Rating on passes thrown into his coverage. In fact, between him, Kyle Arrington, and Alfonzo Dennard, the Patriots’ top cornerbacks have allowed just a 46.4 completion rate to opposing quarterbacks. Also providing a safety net will be Devin McCourty, who has tallied three passes defensed while allowing just one reception this season at free safety. Nevertheless, keep in mind that the Patriots’ secondary has also had the benefit of facing two rookie quarterbacks and the now-benched Josh Freeman. Ryan and Jones will undoubtedly present a much greater challenge, and it’s up to Talib and company to rise to the occasion.
Help for Brady?
It says something about the standard Brady has set, that even in a 3-0 start we’re questioning his performance. Nevertheless, the concerns in New England are valid. After never finishing a season since 2008 with an Accuracy Percentage worse than 74.1, Brady’s current mark of 66.1 places him 28th among starting quarterbacks. Without Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski, he’s been unable to dissect defenses like we’re used to seeing. In 2012, Brady had a +20.1 grade, 20 touchdowns, and two interceptions on throws between 1 and 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This season, he has a -3.1 grade with one touchdown and two interceptions in that same zone. His new receivers are not helping, as his 129 yards in the air on dropped passes is the most of any quarterback this season.
However, there’s a chance that help is on the way soon, with news that both Danny Amendola and Gronkowski returned to practice this week. Amendola showed an instant rapport with Brady, catching 10 passes and gaining 2.59 Yards Per Route Run in Week 1. There are countless ways to explain the dominance that Gronkowski brings, one of them being that his 2.44 Yards Per Route Run last season was the highest mark by any tight end with 10 targets. If either of them suit up, they’ll face an uneven Falcons coverage unit. While strong safety William Moore has allowed just a 64.9 QB rating when targeted, inside linebacker Akeem Dent and free safety Thomas DeCoud each have the third-worst coverage grade at their respective positions this season. Whether or not Brady can recapture his old form against this unit likely depends upon which of his top weapons, if any, are able to return to the field.
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