FOXBORO, Mass. — After facing the Falcons, the rest of the season may seem like a breeze to the Patriots’ secondary.
There’s no better 1-2 punch in the NFL at wide receiver than Julio Jones and Roddy White. And while Harry Douglas is not at the same elite level as Jones or White, he’s one of the more underrated slot receivers in the NFL.
There was plenty of criticism thrown Atlanta’s way when they traded five draft picks for Jones during the 2011 draft, but Thomas Dimitroff and the Falcons look likely to have the last laugh when the Alabama product’s career is over and done with.
Jones has quickly become one of the elite receivers in the NFL. He had 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second year in the league, and he already has 27 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns this year. His size-speed combination is one of the aspects of his game that makes him so impressive. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Jones ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash with a 6.66-second 3-cone drill.
“He’s a great receiver,” Devin McCourty said. “It’s not too often you see a guy with that size able to run like he does. And they use him in every way possible. They find ways to get him the ball. He’s not just a vertical threat. They can throw quick passes to him. He breaks tackles and makes plays that way. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us as a secondary. We’re going to have to compete with him on all the different throws down the field and do a good job of tackling.”
“He’s one of the premier wideouts in this league,” Kyle Arrington said. “Not only fast, big, physical, tough, great hands, you name it. You can run down the list. Everybody has to be aware of where he is. Not only where he is, Roddy as well, on the field. Douglas is another great wideout for them. Definitely have to be aware where those guys are on the field.”
Against the Buccaneers, the Patriots elected to have Aqib Talib shadow Vincent Jackson all over the field. They did not give Stevie Johnson of the Bills the same treatment, and no one on the Jets was deserving of that game plan. Against Buffalo and New York, Talib stayed to the left side of the field, while Arrington was in the slot and Alfonzo Dennard manned the right side.
It’s unclear how the Patriots will choose to handle the Falcons. With White still banged up by a high-ankle sprain, Jones is the biggest weapon on the field. He’s also an inch and 1/2 taller than White, so Jones would be the bigger mismatch for the shorter Dennard.
But White is no slouch himself. And if he’s better recovered by this Sunday, it may make sense to keep the cornerbacks on their sides of the field and let the receivers come to them. The Patriots have stayed in man coverage for most of the 2013 season. If they keep with that attack, McCourty will handle the deep half of the field while Steve Gregory patrols in the box.
The Patriots could elect to cover Jones and White using more Cover 2 looks, but it could be dangerous to let the receivers roam free and find holes in the zone to exploit. Bill Belichick seems to have confidence in his cornerbacks this season — more than we’ve seen in recent memory — which means more man coverage.
A good example of that confidence was when the team pulled Gregory in the nickel defense, electing to keep Brandon Spikes and Kyle Arrington on the field instead. By having just one safety helping out, that put more pressure on each cornerback to handle their man assignments.
It’s doubtful we see the Patriots pulling any safeties against the Falcons, though. The cornerbacks will need all the help they can get to take on Jones, White and Douglas. Talib is confident he can take on Jones alone if that’s what he’s forced to do.
“I hope I can if I have to,” Talib said. “I don’t know what the plan is. Whatever the plan is, that’s the plan.”
Talib has faced the Falcons seven times in his NFL career. In those games, he has allowed 16 receptions on 28 targets for 147 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
This season, Talib has allowed five receptions on 12 targets with three interceptions, according to my own charting. Talib’s approach in this game is to check the tape and see what other defenses did to limit Jones and White.
“See what everyone else did, the people who were successful against them,” Talib said. “If you want to have success, you better watch the tape.”
New England’s secondary will face some other great challenges this season. The Bengals, Saints and Broncos all present big tests for the Patriots’ cornerbacks. But none of those teams has quite the same wide receiver tandem as the Falcons. If the Patriots can get through Atlanta with success, they should be able to take on anyone. And if they can’t, it’s not exactly time to panic yet.