Wednesday, October 2, 2013

New England Patriots 30 Atlanta Falcons 23

Talib and Steve Gregory celebrate after Talib's
game-sealing pass breakup on the Falcons' final drive
I'll get to the Aqib Talib show and Vince Wilfork's season-ending injury later, but right now I'd like to register my applause for the New England Patriots offense. I'm still not quite sure what to make of the unit, given that they rank just 20th in the league at 22.3 points per game, averaging half as much as league-leading Denver. But they scored 30 on Sunday, and even though it was against a banged-up Atlanta unit missing its top cornerback, linebacker and a key lineman, the Patriots have shown real signs of improvement the last few weeks. Against the Falcons, the Patriots were not consistently stalling in the red zone or failing on third downs as they had in the opening two weeks. Kenbrell Thompkins the ability he flashed in the preseason, making a couple of terrific catches -- one on a 49-yard toss from Brady where Thompkins had to come back to the ball and outleap William Moore and another on his 18-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. He also corralled a huge 26-yarder on third and 19 to open the fourth quarter on a play where Thompkins knew he was going to take a beating over the middle (Moore's hit to Thompkins' head gave the Pats an additional 15 yards). That set up LeGarrette Blount's 47-yard TD run on the next play, turning what looked to be a punt from deep in NE territory into a 20-10 lead in 23 seconds. Thompkins is far from a finished product and still had a few key drops, but he's getting better -- which is vital if the Patriots are to succeed in the postseason.

But it's not the individual play of Blount, Thompkins or Julian Edelman that I'm looking to praise here. Rather, it's the ability of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to still win games despite completely overhauling their offense. The defense has obviously played well, surrendering just 14.3 points per game, sixth-best in the NFL, so the offense does not deserve all the credit for New England's 4-0 start (its first since 2007).

What has impressed me about this season -- and what has impressed me throughout Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach -- is how adaptable the Patriots are on offense. They were a short-pass offense that looked to run when it could early in Belichick's tenure, with the Patriots gradually shifting to a more pass-happy attack as the league rules began to favor passing -- and as Brady became one of the league's best QBs. In 2007, the Patriots ran a dynamic attack that used either short (Wes Welker) or long passes (Randy Moss) to beat teams. As Moss aged and the Patriots added Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Pats' offense transformed once again to a team that attacked the middle of the field and used two dynamic tight ends to create tons of mismatches. The Patriots began this season by attempting mostly short and intermediate passes, and essentially ignoring the tight end. Now that Thompkins has begun catching balls (and Gronkowski is nearing a return to the field), New England has started taking more shots down the field in the last two weeks. What I'm getting at is that Belichick has always customized his offense -- and really, his entire team -- to his personnel, so that even if they have to drastically alter their identity from year to year, the Patriots can still win football games. Unless you're adding a major talent to your offense (as the Pats did in 2007), there are usually growing pains for a new system. And that has certainly been the case for New England this year. But New England has continued to win games for over a decade, regardless of who lines up on offense (even winning 11 without Brady in 2008) and for that, I give credit to Belichick. In today's NFL, it's incredibly difficult to post 12 straight winning seasons, as Belichick has done, and the Patriots would not have been able to do that if Belichick hadn't constantly tinkered his offense to fit his talent. 

On to the game:

Why the Patriots won

  • Most of what the Patriots did to win the game came in the first 54 minutes of the contest (when NE ran up a 30-13 lead), and it may be the case that some of these good things did not carry over to Atlanta's crazed comeback attempt. For instance, my first point would be that Aqib Talib did a masterful job covering Julio Jones, allowing just three completions and 22 yards to the Falcons' star wideout in the first 54 minutes. But after that, Jones had three catches for 86 yards as Atlanta almost rallied to tie the game. Talib had help on Jones for much of the contest but for his interception in the fourth quarter, Talib was all alone. That play may have been Talib's most impressive of the season, as he played the pass perfectly, forcing a perfect pass from Matt Ryan to beat him, which Ryan did not deliver. Though the Pats' secondary was leaky over the final few minutes, Talib saved the game by breaking up the Falcons' last chance on fourth and 7 from the NE 10-yard line. Overall, the fifth-year pro from Kansas has been fantastic for the Patriots this season and should collect a hefty payday once the year is done. Shutdown corners and elite pass-rushers are probably the second- and third-most valuable commodities in the NFL in some order (with a franchise QB obviously number one) and right now, New England has one in Talib. This isn't a Wes Welker situation where New England can replace him with someone with a similar skill set. You're either an elite corner or you're not, and there won't be many (or any) on the market this year apart from Talib.
  • Thompkins had a hit-or-miss game, making a few bad drops but also hauling in those three key catches mentioned above. Overall, he was definitely a net positive.
  • The defense as a whole did a great job against the Falcons for much of the contest. Even after Wilfork went down, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were able to step in and help control the middle of the line of scrimmage. It did help that Atlanta only ran the ball 15 times, largely because they played from behind for much of the second half, but Jones and Vellano were in a prime position to be exploited and they held firm. Alfonzo Dennard had a few goofs and whoever the Pats used to cover Tony Gonzalez consistently lost that matchup (to be expected), but apart from Gonzalez, the Pats shut down everything else Atlanta tried to do offensively until the final six minutes. The Pats also did an excellent job in the red zone, allowing Atlanta to score a touchdown there just once in six trips (including the all-important final drive). Job well done. 
  • Stephen Gostkowski was 3-for-3, hitting from 48, 22 and 49. The game was played indoors, so you'd expect a good kicker to make all of those, but give credit to Gostkowski for doing his job.
Why the Falcons lost
  • As mentioned at the end of the second-to-last bullet above -- Atlanta failed miserably in the red zone. They settled for three field goals and twice turned it over on downs inside the 10. I don't fault the Falcons for going for it in the first half on fourth and two from the seven in the first half -- it's about a 50-50 proposition for me in that situation and I would have been fine with either decision. The second time, the Falcons obviously had to go for it needing 7 points late in the game. Mike Smith choosing to kick down 10 on fourth and one from the NE 7 with 3:00 left was an interesting, but not entirely incorrect decision. You always want to extend the game in that situation, though they only needed seven yards for a touchdown that they were going to have to get at some point (and only one for the first down). Again, I don't think that's an egregious error. I could write a whole article about Smith's decision (Bill Barnwell covers it at length on Grantland) but there's no cut and dried answer in that situation. One decision I disagree with was Smith's call for a second onside kick with 3:00 to play. ATL still had all three timeouts AND the two-minute warning. That's plenty of time for a veteran like Ryan to mount a comeback assuming a defensive stop. The real pressing problem is that Atlanta consistently stalled close to the goal line -- Ryan taking a nine-yard loss on third and five from the NE 18 earlier in the fourth quarter is a much worse mistake than any of Smith's decisions. Credit to New England there, but with Gonzalez winning every matchup for most of the night, why wouldn't the Falcons go to him more often near the end zone (I'm talking before the Patriots employed their "send two guys to beat the crap out of Gonzalez at the line of scrimmage" strategy on the final possession).
  • No pass rush whatsoever. ATL had just two hits and no sacks of Brady. They're missing Kroy Biermann, which hurts, but that is horrible. You won't win a lot of games without pressure on the quarterback.
  • Injuries on defense. Atlanta was forced to start several rookies on defense due to the absence of Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon and Asante Samuel and it showed, as New England succeeded in both the run and the pass on Sunday night. 
  • Some horrible situational football. On the first play of the fourth quarter, NE faced third and 19 from their own 12. Not only did ATL allow them to convert, Moore was flagged for a personal foul, giving NE a new set of downs at the ATL 47. Blount scored a touchdown on the next play. The 47-yard touchdown run is bad; allowing third and 19 from the NE 12 on the play before is unforgivable. 
Why the Patriots could have lost

  • A few simple things here. First, they had no answer for Gonzalez. Nothing they did worked on him, as he caught 12 of his 14 targets for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Pretty much everything New England did in the last six minutes of the game. Zach Sudfeld showed why he hasn't been targeted a lot on offense as he mishandled the onside kick and allowed ATL to take over. The defense didn't just let Atlanta march down the field; they let them do it quickly, almost allowing a comeback that seemed near-impossible to become reality. And when the Pats tried to seal the game with 1:54 to go, Brady had his second fumbled fourth-and-one exchange with center Ryan Wendell in four games. Brady is as close to automatic on third and fourth and one as there is in the NFL. Whatever it is that caused those fumbles, it needs to stop.
Why the Falcons could have won

  • Gonzalez, as noted above, absolutely killed the Pats. An incredibly impressive performance from the 37-year-old.
  • In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Julio Jones finally came alive. He's usually a very tough cover and if he had played like that for the first 54 minutes, Atlanta would have had a great chance to win. Matt Ryan deserves credit for upping his game in the fourth as well, but, as with Jones, it begs the question: why didn't they play like that earlier? The Pats playing looser coverage to prevent the big completion partially explains it, but Ryan and Jones were still able to connect for 49 yards on the first play of Atlanta's drive (when the Pats were specifically trying not to allow a big play). Guys with that kind of ability can't afford to be silent for 54 minutes against good teams.