We continue our look at the lesser known Patriots opponents for 2013 with an examination of the Atlanta Falcons, a team that, on paper, looks like a Super Bowl contender. The Patriots won't have to wait long to face the team that finished with the best record in the NFC in 2012, as they'll square off during a Sunday night game in Week 4.
Like the Patriots, the Falcons hosted a conference title game in 2012, but they fell short against the 49ers behind the strength of a potent rushing attack that included touchdowns from both Frank Gore and Lamichael James.
The offseason started for Atlanta with the release of veterans Michael Turner and John Abraham, the team's leading rusher and sack generator, respectively, in 2012. But though they'll be without that pair of longtime contributors, the roster entering 2013 looks to be among the best in the NFL.
Here are some challenges the Patriots will face against the Falcons come Sept. 29.
Offense: It's difficult to pinpoint just one area that the Patriots will have to be concerned with as it relates to the Falcons' offense because it's one of the best in football. Adding running back Steven Jackson could prove to be one of the top NFL offseason transactions, as he provides toughness and power from the backfield that will complement the dynamic passing game. The receivers that Matt Ryan has to throw to are spectacular individual talents that benefit from being on the field at the same time. What makes Atlanta's passing game particularly unique is that it can attack a defense on multiple levels. With Julio Jones and Roddy White, the Falcons have perimeter speed that can stretch the field (especially Jones), but each is also a capable intermediate threat and Jones has sensational run-after-catch ability. Throw in tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot presence Harry Douglas, and the Falcons navigate nearly every inch of available space in the passing game. Defenses can't simply work to build an umbrella on Jones down the field, as Ryan will exploit the underneath and midfield passing game. Ditto for congesting the area between the hashes to slow down Gonzalez, as Jones and White can feast on man coverage. One of the areas that the Patriots likely hope to improve on with their own passing offense is having a downfield presence (draft picks Aaron Dobson and/or Josh Boyce may be able to provide that), as defenses that have been able to slow them down in the past have successfully congested the middle of the field. The layers to the Falcons' passing game are a chore for any defense to counter.
Defense: The defense in Atlanta doesn't quite stack up to the offense, but it does have speed and talent at all three levels. Schematically, they aren't tied to just three- or four-man fronts, but one would classify them as a 4-3 team in its base defense. Coordinator Mike Nolan has previously relied on his cornerbacks to be physical, press players who can jam opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage (he relied on those tactics with big cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith in Miami, where he was the coordinator from 2010-2011). The Falcons were aggressive in addressing the cornerback position this offseason, drafting Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the top two rounds. Neither is a particularly big cornerback, but each impressed at the combine with a combination of speed and explosiveness. Taming the speed that the Falcons have across the board on defense will be a challenge for the Patriots. Sean Weatherspoon is one of the impressive up-and-coming linebackers in the league, and the defensive line relies on a rotation of bodies to generate pressure. Making up for the 10 sacks lost when Abraham was released will be a focal point for Atlanta in 2013.