When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley proved last week that he doesn’t necessarily need the ball in his hands to make an impact on this offense. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder threw several key blocks in pass protection, allowing Tom Brady & Co. to move the chains. That being said, Ridley is first and foremost a runner, and he needs his touches. Ridley is an exuberant runner who takes what a defense gives him and makes the most of it. He will slide down the line, find a hole, and burst through it. Ridley takes his share of shots but keeps his legs churning and will make yards after first contact. A healthy Brandon Bolden (5-11, 215) is a weapon. A powerful runner with good vision, Bolden shows deceptive speed and elusiveness when he gets to the second level. Bolden will deflect hits and find cutback lanes. LeGarrette Blount (6-0, 240) is beastly. A thick and powerful man, it’s always full steam ahead for Blount, who inflicts as much pain as he absorbs. If he’s fresh in the fourth quarter, he can wear a defense down — and out. Surly lumberjack/left guard Logan Mankins sets the tone for this offensive line, which can and will play better. The Falcons have some beef up front in tackles Jonathan Babineaux (he’s quick, athletic, and strong) and Corey Peters (he’s quick off the snap). Middle linebacker Akeem Dent (with that name, you are required to play middle linebacker) is a tackling machine. A swift and smart player, Dent has great instincts and will make jarring hits.
Atlanta defense: 79.0 (fifth)
When the Patriots pass
As promised, Tom Brady was more in control of his emotions last week — though his fiery reaction after the end zone interception was what you want from your quarterback — and he was more in control of the game. Though it wasn’t a vintage Brady performance, it was pretty good. Brady got his young receivers involved early and it paid off all day. Aaron Dobson (6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds) is a big target with speed. He slides through defenses and has the ability to make circus catches. If he finds an early rhythm, he will be a headache. Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1, 190) is a muscular receiver with good acceleration and strong hands. He will fight through traffic and find openings in the secondary. Julian Edelman’s quick feet, strong hands, and football intelligence continue to make him the go-to guy in this offense. Rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld, who was all the rage in the preseason, has contributed virtually nothing. It’s time to see those hands again. Sudfeld is big (6-6, 225) and athletic. Michael Hoomanawanui is a solid blocker and good for a catch or two. A team effort will be needed to help keep explosive ends Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi out of Brady’s face. Umenyiora (6-3, 255) is exceptionally swift and strong. He will bat defenders aside and pop quarterbacks. Massaquoi has a tremendous first step and great lateral movement. The secondary has playmakers, led by Asante Samuel and thunderous safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud.
When the Falcons run
Atlanta will be without one of the league’s most versatile threats as Steven Jackson nurses a nagging thigh injury. Lucky for the Falcons, they have excellent understudies in Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. Rodgers (5 feet 6 inches, 188 pounds — not a typo) is extraordinarily slippery and quick. He has excellent vision and uses his lack of height to his advantage by hiding behind the bigs and darting in and out of holes and weaving his way through defenses. The man is hard to locate. Rodgers rarely takes big hits, has freakishly big legs (they look like tree stumps) that are always churning, and he’s constantly spinning out of tackles. Snelling (5-11, 234) is a bruiser. Snelling has a quick first step and hits holes hard. He lacks elusiveness and acceleration. He won’t run around defenders, he just simply dips his shoulder and drives through would-be tacklers. Snelling can line up as a fullback and take on linebackers or as a tailback and take the ball. Center Peter Konz is oversized (6-5, 317) and underrated. Aggressive and fast, Konz explodes off his snap and will stun defenders. He redirects quickly and will pick off charging linebackers at the second level. Left guard Justin Blalock (6-4, 326) is a real battler, and right guard Garrett Reynolds (6-7, 310) is quick but lacks power. Patriots tackles Vince Wilfork (expect a big game) and Tommy Kelly do a good job clogging the middle and slowing ball carriers so the exceptional linebacking crew of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower can seek and destroy.
When the Falcons pass
Matt Ryan has developed into one of the game’s elite players thanks to an awesome combination of tremendous physical skills and above-average intelligence. More important, the 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pounder is one cool cookie — he’s rarely frazzled even under heavy pressure. Ryan has owned this huddle from Day One, and everybody on the roster knows who’s the boss. Sounds downright Bradyish, huh? Ryan does a great job using all the weapons in his arsenal. The fiery Ryan scans the field, reads through his progressions quickly, and delivers picture-perfect spirals. He can make all the throws, and no down and distance is too daunting. Ryan has excellent complementary pieces. If Julio Jones is not the best receiver in the league, he’s certainly in the discussion. The 6-3, 220-pounder is super speedy and strong. He can run every route and can adjust to every pass and make every catch. When healthy, Roddy White can be just as destructive. The 6-1, 208-pounder, who is dealing with a balky ankle, is a physical receiver with exceptional after-the-catch speed and moves. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (6-4, 251) is literally old reliable. At 37, the best tight end in league history still moves well, still has reliable hands, and still is one of the best red-zone threats in the game. New England’s secondary has been playing at a high level. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are good cover corners, as is Kyle Arrington, though he gets picked on a lot. Free safety Devin McCourty covers a lot of ground and strong safety Steve Gregory sticks his nose in everywhere.
Falcons’ key player: Julio Jones
You’ll find him lining up on the inside and the outside. You’ll find him streaking down the sideline and across the middle. You’ll find him everywhere. Maybe even down by the schoolyard.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With impressive skills and versatility. Jones has blinding speed and great strength. The cornerback who can cover him without help hasn’t been born yet.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By pressing him. You can’t stop Jones, but smacking him at the line and at least trying to slow him is imperative. Give him a clean break and you’re done.
FALCONS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Protective measures: Keeping Matt Ryan upright is of utmost importance. After all, the backup is untested Dominique Davis. Yes, BC fans. That Dominique Davis.
2. Stick with the plan: Just because Steven Jackson is hurt doesn’t mean you can’t run the ball. Balance is the key, and with this cast of characters, you still can run the ball.
3. Jam on it: Young corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have to get physical with New England’s young receivers. Asante Samuel can’t cover everybody.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Red alert: That this team is 3-0 with the way it has performed in the red zone is a miracle. The execution has to get better.
2. Stay the course: The defense has been great. It has to continue to prove its worth against its most formidable foe to date. Matt Ryan is no E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, or Josh Freeman.
3. The low down: New England’s front seven has to get its mitts on Jacquizz Rodgers. If you let the little guy slip through your fingers, he will slip his way all the way to the end zone.