Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the team's next game. This week, it's a Sunday road game against the Atlanta Falcons (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET).
Mike: Tedy, one of the things I'm most interested to see in this game is how the Patriots' young players respond to the prime-time stage. The Patriots have 13 rookies on their 53-man roster, several of whom are being counted on for big contributions.
Tedy: Early on in my career, I really looked forward to the prime-time games. But when you get older, Sunday at 1 is your favorite thing. That's the truth. I know a lot of these younger players will be excited about playing on the national stage, and I think it's good for them that they've had three games under their belt before this. The Falcons represent the best opponent they've faced to this point.
Mike: And Matt Ryan is easily the best quarterback they have faced. Where do you place him among those at the position?
Tedy: I'd say he is in the Joe Flacco stage before Flacco became a Super Bowl MVP and had that great playoff run last year. I think people are still looking at Ryan to see whether he can be a quarterback who can win Super Bowls. He's gone through almost every step possible. They've been a No. 1 seed; they've gotten the bye; and he's won playoff games now. So there's really one more step for him, and that's getting to the Super Bowl. He has skill that you respect. He has a demeanor that you watch on film and you see how poised he is in the pocket and how well he does at spreading the ball around. He has one of the best receivers in the game in Julio Jones. And, with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, they are very creative in the way they spread the ball around, using screens and short passes and mixing up their shots down the field.
Mike: They traded up for Jones in the 2011 draft, and he leads the team with 27 receptions. It seems obvious that he will be the Patriots' No. 1 defensive priority, just as Bills running back C.J. Spiller was in the season opener and the combination of Buccaneers running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson was this past Sunday.
Tedy: He has all the physical attributes -- the size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), the speed, good hands, excellent route runner. He'll take a little screen pass or a short crossing route and he can go all the way down the field with it; he's fantastic running with it after the catch. He also has the speed to fly down the field to complete the shots down the field. He's an all-around receiver, one of the best in the game. Calvin Johnson, of course, you think of as No. 1. But right in that same upper tier of receivers, there is Julio Jones.
Mike: And I know you've mentioned in the past that you like the way he approaches his craft.
Tedy: He's a prime example of the disappearance of the diva wide receiver. He's such a professional and such a team player that he's leading the charge, along with Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green and Andre Johnson. These type of guys are totally opposite from the Chad Ochocincos and Terrell Owenses. This group of receivers is as professional and skilled as we've seen.
Mike: When you have Jones, then add receivers Roddy White and Harry Douglas, as well as tight ends Tony Gonzalez and rookie Levine Toilolo (fourth round, Stanford), that's a lot of firepower to stop. I think the Falcons are most explosive in their three-receiver set, and I think that's why we'll see the Patriots in their sub defense for the majority of the game.
Tedy: One thing to watch out for this week is the jump ball. I noticed this past Sunday against the Buccaneers that Patriots defensive backs are still losing jump balls, and Jones has outstanding leaping ability. So look for those situations where there is tight coverage but Ryan still puts it up there because he's seen on film the way the Patriots have struggled when the ball is in the air.
Mike: Then there's Gonzalez underneath. I was interested to see what type of impact he was having, and it didn't take long to notice it Sunday. On the Falcons' first drive, Gonzalez had four catches, and you just say, "It's pretty neat to see a 37-year-old still showing he can get it done."
Tedy: He's not as fast as he used to be, but he's still crafty, still savvy. He's a veteran who still knows how to get open. The special thing I always thought about him was his incredible hands. You can be pulling his forearm, pulling his biceps, and, if he just got one hand on the ball, his hands were so soft and so strong at the same time that he could still catch it even if you were tugging at it. Ryan is an accurate quarterback, so if he gets it close, Gonzalez is going to make the catch. That's where the challenge is going to be for the Patriots' safeties and linebackers.
Mike: I'm envisioning Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower as a key player with Gonzalez in mind. He's shown the ability to reroute tight ends at the line of scrimmage with a powerful jam. Gonzalez's consistency is remarkable; he has caught at least one pass in 198 consecutive games. Here's another stat that caught my attention: The Falcons attempted 30 rushes last week against the Dolphins (146 yards) and, in their first two games combined -- a loss to the Saints and a win over the Rams -- they had 30 rushing attempts. So, from a pure numbers standpoint, there was a renewed commitment to run and balance things out in Week 3.
Tedy: Running back Steven Jackson (hamstring) is going to be out for a couple of weeks more, and they had Jason Snelling come in. I don't know how much of a drop-off there was. Snelling was catching passes out of the backfield; he was running hard in between the tackles; and he can get it done just like Jackson and, before him, Michael Turner. Jacquizz Rodgers isn't an easy tackle, either. I've seen him run through arm tackles and run over people. People might think of him as a third-down back, but he also has strength.
Mike: If there is a potential weakness on the Falcons' attack, it's the offensive line. Starting left tackle Sam Baker missed Sunday's game with foot and knee injuries. And the Falcons previously lost starting right tackle Mike Johnson to a season-ending ankle/fibula injury, so the depth has been taxed at tackle. Boston College product Jeremy Trueblood, who was signed Sept. 3 after training camp and the preseason, was pressed into duty at right tackle last week.
Tedy: I don't think this is a game where the Patriots should do too much moving along the line of scrimmage in terms of slants or stunts in the run game. This is one where you play this Falcons offensive line straight up, one on one, because it's a unit at its best when taking the defensive linemen where they want to go. So if a defensive lineman were to slant to the left or right, it's not like they're going to stop them from getting penetration, they are going to ride them down the line of scrimmage, and that's where Snelling or Rodgers will read off their offensive linemen and cut off of that. They are better as a zone-blocking scheme rather than one-on-one. Against Miami, there were multiple examples when they tried to base block against the front, and that's when they would lose and have a shorter gain.
Mike: How has the short passing game helped the Falcons?
Tedy: That is something that stands out, as they have screens in the plan for every skill player on this offensive unit. Off of those screens, they have a complementary play. They'll run the tear screen. Then they'll run the tear screen again. Then they'll run the tear screen and go. It's almost like a play-action pass without the run fake. You also see some creative passes behind the line of scrimmage -- they had a fake toss shovel pass for a touchdown against the Dolphins -- so that's something the Patriots will have to look out for.
Mike: Let's flip the matchup and get a feel for the Falcons' defense. Just as they have veteran Gonzalez still contributing on offense, 31-year-old Osi Umenyiora looks like one of their more productive defenders.
Tedy: Osi made some plays last week. You have to be careful with Osi because he's a guy who, once he gets going, he can really put a few games together where he gets a couple of sacks, another forced fumble, a strip sack, and it looks like that's what is happening right now. Two weeks ago, he returned an interception for a touchdown. Last week, he had two sacks and a forced fumble. A hot Osi Umenyiora is the most dangerous one. That's the way he's playing, and that's what they need because they aren't getting much pass-rush production from many others. They like to send their linebackers on blitzes, and they lost Sean Weatherspoon, their best linebacker, so that hurts them.
Mike: There has been a lot of buzz this week on whether this could be the night that Rob Gronkowski returns for the Patriots. If he does return, you have to figure it will be for limited snaps.
Tedy: There will be a trickle-down effect as a result of his return, whenever that might be. As he gets settled in, and gets his football legs back, it should open opportunities throughout the offense.
Mike: Part of that trickle-down effect could be the running game. This is going to be a tough environment, and I see the running game settling things down for the Patriots. I wouldn't be surprised if Stevan Ridley has a big day.
Tedy: Just when I say the offensive line and Ridley need to step up and be the new stars of the team, they start to abandon it. Maybe they haven't felt good about their edge-setting in the run game with their tight ends, so if Gronkowski is coming back, maybe they can get some of the two-TE sets going and maybe they will make more of a commitment to running the ball. Miami had some success running it last week, and that's something they should get to. The Atlanta linebackers also have had some trouble reacting to the play-action pass.
Mike: Overall, it's a Falcons defense, coordinated by Mike Nolan, that couldn't come up with the stop against the Dolphins on a game-winning drive Sunday. Nolan was Josh McDaniels' defensive coordinator when McDaniels coached the Denver Broncos, so there is some familiarity there.
Tedy: The Falcons have given up a lot of plays. Week after week, I've noticed coverage breakdowns where it looks like they can't get on the same page. Sometimes they lack fundamental skills in pass coverage in terms of playing deep to short, in zone coverage, and they've been exploited on this since the playoffs last year when Zach Miller, the Seattle tight end, had a big game against them. In Week 1, the Saints had success against their intermediate zone coverages. Last week, when Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline had a touchdown catch, cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety Thomas DeCoud couldn't get on the same page. So it's a unit that can be taken advantage of. Couple that with this being a poor tackling defense, which has been a problem for the Falcons since last season, and it could be one where the Patriots can put up some production.
Mike: What are your thoughts on the growth of the Patriots' offense?
Tedy: It's a unit that still needs to get better. I know Kenbrell Thompkins scored two touchdowns Sunday, but it seems as if Tom Brady still has to wait an extra half-second. It's not coming out in rhythm. It's not coming out decisively. Compare it to the way Peyton Manning was throwing it Monday night, you can tell Brady doesn't have the same chemistry as he had with his old receivers because of that extra half-second he has to hold the ball. If that extra half-second isn't eliminated against a better pass rush, or against someone bringing pressure, and if those receivers don't win faster and show Brady that they're available and open faster, you'll have more pressure and more sacks. The Patriots' offensive line has had to protect Brady longer.
Mike: If receiver Danny Amendola returns from his groin injury, it naturally would help the Patriots' cause. He said Wednesday that he envisions being 100 percent "shortly." He is a tough matchup inside and could take some pressure off rookies such as Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.
Tedy: The Falcons' defense was losing one-on-ones outside last week, so this is going to be a great opportunity for the Patriots because this is what the young receivers have to get better at -- winning one-on-ones. They will have opportunities against this secondary, and in zone coverage, because the Falcons do play a lot of zone. One thing the Atlanta defense failed in last week is what coach Mike Smith calls "challenge" situations. The Falcons let the Dolphins drive and score a field goal before the end of the first half, and, at the end of the game, the Dolphins drove down the field and scored a touchdown. The cornerbacks were not challenging the receivers on various third downs, and that's where they were exploited.
Mike: One player we should mention is Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel. Patriots followers know all about him.
Tedy: Asante has great stats; he's a gambling corner; and he has fantastic hands. If it's thrown close to him, he's probably going to make the catch. He does a great job of playing back in zone coverage, with a safety over the top, where he can read the No. 2 receiver as he's reading the quarterback. That's what he does best. So you have Asante on one side and then a rookie in Trufant on the other side, which is the matchup you figure Brady would rather go to. Asante has a lot of experience of picking off Brady in practice.
Mike: We shouldn't overlook special teams, as the Patriots have been playing pretty well in that area. The Falcons' special teams let them down last week when Douglas lost a fumble on a punt return. That was a game-swinging play.
Tedy: Although the Patriots are playing mostly well on special teams, one thing that caught my eye is the ineffectiveness of the kickoff return; having LeGarrette Blount out there as the primary returner has hurt them. I understand that he's the type of runner who gets positive yards because he runs straight ahead, but you are conceding any type of chance for an explosive play by having a player out there who isn't used to doing that. Maybe that's because of the receiver depth. That's a unit that has to improve and help this team.
Mike: Speaking of improvement, that's what the Falcons have done ever since they hired Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff as their general manager in 2008.
Tedy: He's one of the guys who have been with Bill Belichick, but he's also put his own little spin on it when going out on his own. He hasn't tried to duplicate everything that Bill has done, and I think that's why he's had success. He's from a football background; his father was a coach. He was successful here in New England, but he had the courage to say, "I have some good ideas, too" and "I'm going to do some things that maybe they didn't do in New England that I think will work."
Mike: At the start of the season, I had this game pegged as a loss for the Patriots. Now I'm not so sure. The Falcons look banged-up, and the defense didn't put up much resistance on the final drive against the Dolphins. But in the end, I'll stick with my initial instinct, with the thought that the Falcons' offense might be too much to handle. Falcons 30, Patriots 27.
Tedy: There are two units on the Falcons that I'm not impressed with: the defensive line and the offensive line. I think the Patriots' offense will attack the middle of the field and exploit Atlanta's linebackers and safeties in coverage. The Patriots' defensive front will get to Ryan and cause two turnovers. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, once again, will make a play to win the game. Patriots 24, Falcons 20.