Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game, this week against the Atlanta Falcons.
Mike: We're back for another week, Tedy, and this looks like an exciting matchup. We could see some offensive fireworks. How do you view this game?
Tedy: If ever there was a week that the Patriots needed to bounce back, it's this week. Unfortunately for them, it doesn't get any easier. The Falcons are probably the most for-real 2-0 team there is, beating a tough Miami team that made the playoffs last season in Week 1, and in Week 2 beating a Carolina team with quarterback Jake Delhomme that had all the motivation in the world to bounce back after a horrible performance in Week 1. Carolina was also a playoff team last season. I'm sure the Falcons looked at their schedule at the beginning of the year and said, "We're going to find out what kind of team we are after the first two weeks." After two weeks, I think they can say to themselves, "We're for real."
Mike: No doubt, it's been a great start for the Falcons, who are one of the NFL's great turnaround stories this decade. I think one aspect of this matchup that shouldn't be overlooked is that this is Atlanta's first road game. It was 7-1 last year in the Georgia Dome and 4-4 on the road, 4-5 if the playoffs are included. That makes me wonder if we'll see the same Falcons team we saw in the first two weeks.
Tedy: After you play the first two weeks at home, you get sort of in a comfort zone in preparations and in knowing that you'll have the crowd behind you on your home turf. This is a whole different point they have to prove to themselves as a team. Can we win on the road? It's new to them, and this is a great chance to prove it.
Mike: You've been in the meeting room in New England on weeks like this. What do you think Bill Belichick has been telling the Patriots?
Tedy: I think Coach Belichick is trying to get the team to play clean football again. You can't win a football game when you have 11 penalties. One of Coach Belichick's main goals as a head coach is to eliminate bad football, which are the penalties you have control over. A holding call isn't really considered bad football, but delay-of-game penalties are, personal fouls are. The Patriots had those delay-of-game penalties against the Jets. Those are the type of things, the football operations stuff, that drive Coach Belichick crazy. Things like the center/quarterback exchange not being clean, bobbling a snap. He'll start by trying to eliminate that, and the lack of judgment displayed on procedural penalties, personal foul penalties and those types of things.
Mike: The Patriots have been flagged for 17 accepted penalties in two games. Only two teams have more, the Chargers and Cardinals. So how do you sum up this Patriots team right now?
Tedy: If there was a drive last week that sort of encapsulates the entire game, it would be the one after they got the Leon Washington fumble in the first quarter. They had a holding penalty on Steve Neal, and after that play, there was a holding penalty on Chris Baker. The numbers on that drive ended up being four plays for minus-10 yards, the Patriots settling for a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. Right now, I think the problems that need to be fixed are in the red area. If you don't start scoring touchdowns instead of field goals in the red area, there are going to be big problems.
Mike: Anything else from that Jets game stand out to you before we move forward?
Tedy: We had talked about how Leon Washington was going to be a difficult guy to stop. He ended up with 203 total yards between rushing, receiving and kickoff returns. The next time they play, they're going to have to hold him to well under that if they expect to do better against the Jets. I was also impressed with how good the Jets' defense was so quickly. It's only the second week of the regular season, and they looked as if they were in postseason form already. It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain that type of intensity throughout the entire season.
Mike: Good stuff, Tedy. Let's break this game against the Falcons down into a few different categories.
Explosive offenses for both teams
Tedy: I think what New England fans are going to see with Tom Brady leading the Patriots offense and Matt Ryan leading the Falcons offense is the star of today versus the star of tomorrow. Matt Ryan is going to be a big-time quarterback in this league for many years. From the start of his rookie season, he's done nothing but put winning performances on the field. To lead the Falcons to the playoffs in his rookie season, there is something to be said for what type of quarterback he is. It's not the changing of the guard, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that. Tom Brady is still the class of the league. But you're going to see a young kid who is up-and-coming, and next in line.
Mike: It looks as if tight end Tony Gonzalez has made a huge impact on that Falcons team. One thing that stood out to me was Falcons coach Mike Smith saying he has the best work ethic of any player he's ever been around, and how that has resonated through the entire franchise. That is high praise.
Tedy: What you have in Tony Gonzalez in '09 is a dangerous combination. It's the combination of the best tight end in the history of the NFL -- if you look at his numbers -- and the fact that he is rejuvenated. He can finally say, legitimately, "We have a chance." When a player says that and believes that, and also has the ability that Gonzalez has, it's a dangerous combination. He's going to be playing all year for that one thing that has been missing his entire career, and that's a championship.
Mike: How do you defend him if you're the Patriots?
Tedy: You try to jam him on the line of scrimmage and cover him with the best you've got. I'd assume Adalius Thomas in terms of a linebacker, or possibly a safety. You have to give whoever that player is help. So whether it's a linebacker or a defensive back that is covering him man-to-man after he's received that jam at the line of scrimmage, he'll have a player over the top -- especially in the red area.
Mike: When Rodney Harrison was with the Patriots, that seemed to be his specialty, the ability to take away opposing tight ends.
Tedy: At times, Rodney would be locked on the tight end, and other times Rodney would be locked on the tight end, and we'd still roll coverage over to that side. The real responsibility in those cases would come to the singled-up corner who had that receiver all by himself, away from that rotated coverage. Look for that other corner to be, in the Patriots coaches' mind, the best they have.
Mike: Bill Belichick made the point this week that Gonzalez is dangerous on play-action passes. Defenses suck up to defend the run, and then Gonzalez slips behind them.
Tedy: That ties into one guy we haven't talked about yet, running back Michael Turner. I can tell you in that New England Patriots locker room that he is thought of as one of the toughest running backs to tackle in the league. Here is why: He runs hard, and you look at his body, he's 5-10, 244 pounds. How does that happen? He's like a rolling ball of butcher knives. When you try to tackle his lower body, as compact as it is, his thighs are enormous, his lower body is enormous. His strength is outstanding. He is a very difficult tackle to make.
Mike: On the Patriots' side, you have the big question with receiver Wes Welker. My sense is that it will come down to a game-time decision once again with Welker's knee. ESPN colleague Michael Smith is reporting that Welker is expecting to play, which is good news for the Patriots. Rookie Julian Edelman filled in well last week, but you still lose something big without Welker, who you pointed out is so effective on those option routes underneath and has such great chemistry with Brady. In the end, I think will come back to Brady and how quickly he gets comfortable.
Tedy: If you want to wonder if Tom is going to bounce back after a game like last week, you ask yourself the question: How mentally tough is he? Just ask yourself that, and I know the answer. I think most everybody else knows the answer, how mentally tough Tom Brady is, how much of a competitor Tom Brady is.
A closer look at the key areas of both teams' defenses
Tedy: I see two players who stand out to me on the Falcons' defense, defensive end John Abraham and linebacker Mike Peterson. Peterson has been a big-time player in this league for a long time, and a lot of people don't know about him. He already has a couple of forced fumbles this year, 16 tackles, one interception. He's been all over the place. I know one thing they harp on down there in Atlanta is that they want to get to the ball with bad intentions. Peterson has been leading the charge with that. Meanwhile, Abraham has had a lot of success against the Patriots. He has 10 sacks against New England, which obviously goes back to the time he was with the Jets. He's coming into this game confident that he is going to make some big plays.
Mike: He'll probably be matched up at times against Patriots left tackle Matt Light, so that will be a key area to watch.
Tedy: Exactly, and the other question here is, "Can the Falcons' defense do what the New York Jets' defense did? Are they a copycat defense where they would try to mimic the same schemes that the Jets ran to try to get pressure on Brady, or are they going to try something else?" I think it comes down the question of whether the defensive backs are as good as the Jets. I like the defensive backs of the Jets, I think they're a little better than the Falcons, when you have players like Kerry Rhodes and Darrelle Revis, who had great games versus the Patriots. I don't know if the Falcons can duplicate the feat.
Tedy: I thought Gary filled in well. He gave his calls so definitively and so confidently, you could hear them coming through the TV copy. I was watching the game and I could hear him setting the front, I could hear him making his calls to the defensive linemen. He was ready to go. Finishing that game with 10 tackles is a huge confidence boost for him. The thing about Gary is that he can do that from the outside linebacker position, too. This kid is only going to get better.
Mike: While I think the Patriots have shown some vulnerability, I'm thinking that they'll bounce back this week. The final point from here is on the Falcons. They are one of my favorite turnaround stories because of how they mapped out a plan to resurrect the franchise and followed through on it brilliantly, even when some of the decisions weren't initially popular. They wanted Bill Parcells, but what they ended up with, in my opinion, was even better -- a combination of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith. These guys are really good at what they do. The plan was to initially get the quarterback (2008 first-round pick Matt Ryan), which some criticized at the time, a power running back in 2008 free agency (Michael Turner) and a left tackle (2008 first-round pick Sam Baker). That was the foundation, and they've built from there.
Tedy: I think they've adopted some of the philosophies that good teams have when you want to build a team -- draft a franchise quarterback and make sure you protect him. And how do you succeed on defense? By building up your defensive line. You saw it with the Patriots with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. The Falcons drafted Peria Jerry this year in the first round, so they had a similar idea. Unfortunately for them, Jerry was just lost for the season with a knee injury, so that might hurt. Overall, it looks as if they're making a lot of good decisions.
Mike: Any final thoughts from a Patriots perspective?
Tedy: I know that Coach Belichick has probably mentioned Tony Gonzalez's name a million times this week. He is probably the main force that they are going to have to stop. Because the Falcons are an unfamiliar opponent, this is the type of week when they will have to be in their playbooks more, in terms of learning individual players' names, numbers, their techniques, tricks of the trade. Going into a week like this when you know you're going to play an opponent with a lot of new names and a lot of new faces, you know Belichick will come prepared in team meetings with questions. Questions like, "Gary Guyton, who is their fullback?" He'll ask the offensive linemen, "What are the names of the four down linemen?" Or asking defensive backs, "Who is their third receiver?" Asking special-teams contributors like Sam Aiken, "Who is their leading tackler on special teams? Who is their punter and kicker?" These are the type of quizzes that players will get from Belichick during weeks they play opponents they are not too familiar with. One thing I know about the Patriots is that after a loss, they turn everything up a notch. They don't lose two games in a row very often. Belichick is the best at making adjustments and fixing problems.