The Patriots are 3-0 for just the third time under Bill Belichick. That undefeated status will be put to the test on Sunday night, though, as the Patriots travel to Atlanta for a showdown with the Falcons.
The Falcons are 34-7 at home since Matt Ryan first came on the scene in 2008, making the Patriots’ chances for a win on Sunday even slimmer. But Tom Brady and a much-improved Patriots’ defense will have a few things to say about that record before the night is through.
Brady’s connection with his young receivers seemed to take a major step forward in Week 3 as Aaron Dobson caught seven of 10 passes thrown his way and Kenbrell Thompkins scored a pair of touchdowns to help secure the easy win. Their play will be even more important this week, especially with the statuses of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola still very much uncertain. Even if the All-Pro tight end and big-money receiver do take the field, it’s unlikely they are at their usual Pro Bowl-worthy levels.
Turning away from the heightened focus on the passing game, the Patriots have a number of other areas to key in on against the Falcons if they hope to pull out their fourth win of the season on Sunday.
That being said, let’s take a look at the three biggest keys to Sunday’s game in this week’s Three & Out.
1. Slow down Julio – Through three weeks, the Patriots rank sixth in the NFL against the pass. The primary crew of Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Devin McCourty among others have shown great improvements over the past few seasons in shutting down opposing receivers, including some of the league’s best. They’ll face their toughest test of the season on Sunday, though, with Julio Jones lining up across from Talib. Jones leads the NFL in receiving this season, catching 27 balls for 373 yards and a pair of scores. Talib has been the primary corner assigned to opposing No. 1s this season, and the defense has done a good job shutting them down. They limited Stevie Johnson to three catches for 39 yards and a touchdown, Santonio Holmes to three catches for 51 yards and Vincent Jackson, granted in just one half of play, to three grabs and 34 yards. Those numbers offer an encouraging sign for the Patriots as they take on Jones and the Falcons’ three-headed monster with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Jones will still be the key, though, as stopping him will severely inhibit Atlanta’s offense from ever getting going.
2. Finding Brandon Bolden in the passing game — The Falcons have a talented group of cornerbacks and Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola seem unlikely to play again this weekend, meaning the Patriots’ young receivers might be in for a long night on Sunday. So, Brady will need to find some other options to throw to, a group that should include running back Brandon Bolden. Bolden caught five passes out of the backfield during his first work of the season against the Buccaneers. He proved to provide an energetic spark, similar to what Shane Vereen does to the passing game and took some pressure off the receivers to do all the work. The Falcons have struggled against pass-catching backs this season, too, allowing Darren Sproles six catches for 88 yards in Week 1 and Daryl Richardson five grabs for 45 yards in Week 2. Bolden isn’t exactly to the level of Sproles, but he can be a reliable receiver out of the backfield and exploit an obvious weakness of the Falcons’ linebackers.
3. Establishing the run – So far this season, Stevan Ridley hasn’t been the steady presence he was in 2012. The 1,200-yard back still leads the Patriots’ backs in carries (36) and yards (121), but at 3.4 yards per carry he’s averaging a full yard less than he did last season. If the Patriots’ offense hopes to find some sort of edge against the Falcons, they’ll need to get Ridley going, at least the ground game in some capacity. The Falcons do boast the NFL’s fifth-best run defense, but they also have a solid secondary, which makes the need to establish the run even more important in order to set up the pass.