Bill Belichick dictated most of the terms of Sunday night’s 30-23 win over the Falcons — emphasis on “most.”
On offense, the Patriots were going to outmuscle the Falcons’ undersized and undermanned front seven and run the ball straight at them. They ran the ball 10 straight times on one first-half drive, finished with a perfect 31/31 run/pass split and compiled 132 rushing yards and a 4.3-yard average. Their success in the run game opened up the field for the play-action pass in the second half, as well as Kenbrell Thompkins’s fantastic touchdown catch on a fade pattern.
And on defense, Belichick went all out to slow down two players: receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Belichick had his best cornerback, Aqib Talib, follow Jones around for most of the game, while using Devin McCourty to shadow Jones over the top. Jones did have six catches for 108 yards, but other than a 49-yard catch in the closing moments, his impact was limited.
Gonzalez, though, was a different story. No matter how many ways Belichick tried to stop him, Gonzalez found ways to get open — or catch the ball even when tightly covered.
Belichick put an army of players on Gonzalez — Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Logan Ryan — and had Steve Gregory shadow him over the top on most snaps.
Gonzalez never got behind the defense for a huge gain, but none of the defenders were effective, either. Gonzalez caught 12 passes for a career-high 149 yards and two touchdowns, and was simply unstoppable. He had eight catches that went for first downs, and he caught passes even when he was draped by two defenders.
By the end of the game, the Patriots were chipping him with three defenders at the line of scrimmage just to slow him down.
It was an incredible performance for a tight end of any age, let alone one who is 37 years old and in his 17th NFL season.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Tom Brady was a lot sharper than Matt Ryan, who got his team a touchdown on just one of six trips inside the red zone. Some of that was due to tight coverage but some of it was Ryan flat-out missing receivers on relatively easy throws.
A closer look at the game after reviewing the coaches’ film:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ The offensive line was dominant, particularly left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins, who manhandled Osi Umenyiora, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry, and linebacker Stephen Nicholas in the run game.
Eighteen of the Patriots’ 26 true rushing attempts were to the left side for a total of 92 yards, including LaGarrette Blount’s 47-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Right guard Dan Connolly also had some nice blocks pulling to the left side, first on a 7-yard run by Stevan Ridley and later on Blount’s TD run.
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who was used as a blocker on 45 of his 54 snaps, and fullback James Develin (season-high 24 snaps) had some nice blocks, especially when the Patriots ran the ball 10 straight times.
■ The Falcons stacked the box early to dare Brady to throw, and used the “amoeba” defense — in which nine or 10 defenders stand near the line of scrimmage — to try to disguise the pass rush. But nothing worked.
Brady wasn’t sacked for the first time all season, was hurried just a half-dozen times, was hit only twice, and had wide-open pockets in which to stand tall and find his receivers. On Thompkins’s 26-yard catch on third and 19, Brady had enough time to scan the field, pump once, and pat the ball twice before finding Thompkins over the middle.
■ Brady was much closer to perfect than he was in the first three weeks, when he uncharacteristically missed several throws. He didn’t see Brandon Bolden streaking out into the flat wide open in the red zone in the third quarter, and he also sailed a relatively easy third-down throw to Thompkins. But other than that, Brady was nearly flawless.
■ The Patriots have a true running back committee going. Ridley played 25 snaps, Bolden 22, and Blount 19, although Blount was used mostly in the fourth quarter for the second straight game, suggesting the Patriots are using him in the “closer” role. Ridley ran well up the middle, rushing six times for 32 yards.
■ Thompkins is clearly getting more comfortable in the offense, but he still caught only 6 of 11 targets, had two drops, and bobbled two more catches. His drops and bobbles tend to happen when he tries to catch the ball with his body instead of his hands.
When the Falcons had the ball . . .
■ Once again, the Patriots rarely blitzed, which was a bit surprising. We counted just 10 blitzes on 56 dropbacks by Ryan, although the pass coverage was so good that the Patriots ended up with two sacks and five quarterback hits. Backup defensive tackle Joe Vellano did a nice job replacing Vince Wilfork in the pass rush, and easily beat center Peter Konz for his first NFL sack.
■ Tommy Kelly rarely came off the field once Wilfork went down, playing 60 of 76 snaps and, unfortunately for him, facing constant double teams. Vellano played a season-high 33 snaps (three tackles, a tackle for loss, and a QB hit), Chris Jones 19 (one tackle), and Chandler Jones and Michael Buchanan both rushed the passer from the inside in the second half.
The Patriots also adjusted to Wilfork’s departure by going with a lot of three-man fronts and having Rob Ninkovich drop off in coverage.
■ Ninkovich didn’t have a sack, but he had a half-dozen pressures against left tackle Sam Baker and his replacement, Jeremy Trueblood. Brandon Spikes, used mostly in run coverage, played just six snaps as the Falcons ran the ball on only 15 of 71 plays.
■ While Talib did line up against Jones most of the day, he switched to Roddy White in the red zone. Talib was outstanding, allowing just one catch for 1 yard, plus a 38-yard pass interference penalty. His game-saving play to knock the ball away from White in the end zone was incredible, and so was his play to knock a slant pass away from Jones in the third quarter.
Alfonzo Dennard did an admirable job one-on-one with White with not much safety help, but Kyle Arrington had trouble with Harry Douglas, allowing five catches on six targets for 68 yards.
■ Ryan was not sharp. On the Falcons’ field goal drive to open the game, he missed Douglas coming out of the backfield on third down, wide open for a touchdown. He badly missed White on fourth down in the red zone on the Falcons’ second drive, had a bad underthrow to White in the third quarter that would have converted a third and 16, and was way late finding Douglas in the flat in the red zone at the end of the game, which could have been an easy catch-and-run for a touchdown.
■ Stephen Gostkowski was 3 for 3 on field goals, and six of his seven kickoffs went for touchbacks (20 of 22 for the season). Ryan Allen punted only twice, with a net average of 42, although he’d probably like to have back the 56-yard punt that went for a touchback.
■ Zach Sudfeld couldn’t handle the short hop on the first onside kick, and Hoomanawanui got a more fortunate hop on the second kick.
■ QB Tom Brady: Efficient, accurate, and deadly despite missing several key players on offense.
■ LT Nate Solder: Absolutely dominated Osi Umenyiora and opened big holes in the run game.
■ CB Aqib Talib: The definition of a shutdown corner; made several incredible plays to preserve the lead.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.