Three weeks into the 2013 NFL season the New England Patriots are a perfect 3-0. But their unblemished record doesn’t tell the story of the team’s tumultuous season thus far. In the process of squeaking out a win in week one, New England lost its two most dynamic offensive weapons to injury in slot receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen. Amendola’s impact in early action was immeasurable as he showed a chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady that’s been absent with the other receivers. Vereen was supposed to be Tom Brady’s swiss army knife this year and was set to play a featured role in the New England offense as a Danny Woodhead-Aaron Hernandez hybrid. Not so fast. As is often the case, the NFL is unforgiving. These key injuries have forced the Patriots to rely on their rookie wide receivers more and, at times, it’s been hard to watch.
Regardless, the Patriots are perfect. Not in the way some analysts imagined they’d be at this stage of the season – fueled by a high-flying offense – but largely because of the caliber of their defense which, if you can believe it, is anchored by strong play in the secondary (enter, the twilight zone).
Even more surprising is that that Patriots have company in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins are off to their own perfect start and have have done their work under more impressive circumstances than New England. You would have been hard pressed to find any analysts outside of South Florida to predict that the Dolphins would be 3-0 with wins against the Colts and the Falcons.
The truth is that the youth on the Patriots roster was far too hyped going into the season. Those who imagined a smooth transition from a group of veteran pass catchers to a group set to see its first NFL action were delusional. Given the circumstances, the Patriots have managed well with the personnel they have – a hallmark characteristic of the Brady-Belichick era. But now the fun begins. Over the next three weeks the Patriots will face the Falcons, Bengals, and Saints. As they enter this pivotal stretch of their schedule, let’s take a look at some key questions that will affect how the Patriots perform this Sunday in Atlanta and over the weeks to come.
1. Just how good is the Patriots defense?
The Patriots defense has looked solid early in the season. Thus far, they rank sixth in passing yards allowed, but they haven’t exactly faced the gold standard of the NFL. Two rookie quarterbacks and the now bench warming Josh Freeman aren’t exactly murderers row. The Falcons will be the first real test for the Patriots defense, particularly their secondary. Matt Ryan is a top-tier quarterback with the skill to beat any defense when he’s on and the guts to beat some when he’s not. As good as Ryan’s been in the NFL, my lasting memory of him will always be his last game at Boston College in which he got injured, but while being carted off the field on a stretcher was emotionally cheering his team as they scored. This guy is a competitor and he’s not throwing the football to a bunch of rookies. He has a slate of seasoned veterans in Julio Jones, Roddy White and the ageless Tony Gonzalez. Needless to say, if the Patriots secondary can contain the Falcons’ passing attack, they are likely to be a strength of this team all season long.
The Patriots run defense has not been good and will need to improve against the Falcons. They rank 24th in the league in rush defense allowing more than 120 yards per game. It’s natural that if you’re defending the pass well that teams are going to run the football more against you, but stopping the run has been a real strength for New England over the past few seasons and there’s much potential for it to be again. Look for this to be an area of improvement for the Patriots on Sunday.
2. Can the Patriots offense continue to progress?
The Patriots offense has gotten better as the season has progressed, but Tom Brady and his young wide receivers still have a lot of room for improvement. Even against Tampa Bay, the Patriots left too many opportunities on the field. Red zone efficiency has generally been a strength for the Patriots under Bill Belichick, but so far in this young season its been a debilitating weakness. While the Patriots rank at the top of the league in red zone opportunities with 4.3 per game, they have managed to come away with touchdowns only 30 percent of the time. That’s good for last in the league and is not the kind of red zone success the Patriots need to come out on top against teams like the ones they will face over the next three weeks.
The Falcons defense has not, however, been exceedingly impressive thus far. While they’ve been stout against the run, ranking 5th in the league in rushing yards allowed, their secondary has struggled to contain opposing passing attacks. They rank 22nd in the league in passing yards allowed and have allowed opponents to score touchdowns on a whopping 70 percent of their trips to the red zone. If Brady and his young offensive weapons continue to improve, the Patriots could see much more success in the red zone on Sunday.
2. Can the Patriots get healthy on offense (and, more importantly, stay that way)?
We know Shane Vereen won’t be back on the field until well into the second half of the season, but the Patriots are about to get an influx of talent on the offensive side of the football. It’s unclear whether Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola will play on Sunday against the Falcons. Gronkowski is more likely than Amendola to take the field, but don’t be surprised if the Patriots are again without their two most important offensive weapons outside of Tom Brady. Bill Belichick is historically conservative bringing players back from injuries, so giving Gronk another week off as a precaution might be the most likely scenario. But whether Gronkowski and Amendola can get back on the field is one thing. What the Patriots need is for them to stay healthy throughout the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, their ability to do so is a huge question mark. If the Patriots are going to compete with the likes of the teams they will see over the next three weeks they will need both playmakers active and productive.
4. Can the running game continue its momentum against a strong Atlanta run defense?
The Falcons pass defense is poor. Their run defense is another story. Atlanta is among the best defenses in the league at stopping the run (see above), so the Patriots backs and their offensive line will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. This difficulty will only be compounded with the likely absence of Sebastian Vollmer. Through three games, the performance of the Patriots running game has been mixed, but their production against Tampa Bay was impressive, particularly in their ability to successfully feature different backs based on the game situation. The Patriots are a respectable 12th in the league in rushing, but they have struggled at times, particularly against the Jets in week two. The Atlanta defense will be a good test for a unit still establishing an identity after the loss of Vereen and the travails of Ridley. If they can succeed against the Falcons, it will be a great sign for the rest of the season.