Yesterday I released what I thought were three offensive keys for the Patriots, as they are set to take on the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday night. As usual, these are followed by
three (only two today) keys for the Pats on the other side of the ball, as they look to extend their undefeated run here in 2013.
1. Zone Coverage
The Patriots defense is a unit that up until this point, has looked like a group that is light years ahead of last years bunch. They have played stout defense through three weeks, giving up a mere 34 points, which is tied with the Chiefs for second in the league. A big part of this improvement, is the play of what used to be a dreadful defensive backfield. They have two corners that have the capability to play lock-down man coverage in Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib, and the combination of Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety has been a surprising success. The solid play of this group through three games has been predicated on aggressive coverage in the back end. Rarely have we seen both Dennard and Talib drop back in a soft zone, and react to the quarterback. Instead, both of these guys are up in the receivers face at the line of scrimmage, trying to disrupt the timing that exists between the wide-out and the quarterback. However this approach must be altered come Sunday night if the Pats want to limit Matt Ryan, and his explosive passing attack. The duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White is probably the best starting group of receivers that the National Football League has, and playing tight man coverage against them usually doesn’t end well for the defense. Jones is quickly establishing himself as one of the top threats in the league, as his combination of size, speed, and catching ability makes him one of the toughest covers in the NFL. White is not where he used to be in terms of athletic prowess, but he is still tough to defend one on one, and he will burn you if presented with the opportunity.
I have two man reasons why I think the Pats have to defend these two with mostly zone coverage. The first is Dennard’s size. His small frame will be a serious impediment to the team in this particular matchup, as he is listed at a tiny 5’10, while Jones and White are 6’3 and 6’0, respectively. When facing someone that has a good five inches on him, Dennard’s special man coverage skills will be useless, as Ryan and Jones would simply play catch over Dennard all game long. Dennard likes to get physical, and this will help him a little bit when facing an opponent that is much bigger than him. But size is something you can’t teach, and unfortunately Dennard wasn’t blessed with typical lockdown cornerback size.
The second reason New England should stick to a zone type of defense, is because of the deep threat that Jones and White present. Both Talib and Dennard are extremely aggressive corners, and even though this will bog down Atlanta’s offense for a little while, eventually this tactic will back-fire, and the end result will be a 70 touchdown to either Julio or Roddy. But if the Pats stay back in a softer zone, they can keep everything in front of them, and make an offense that relies on the big play, beat them in a normal fashion. In my opinion this gives the Patriots defense their best shot at containing Matt Ryan and company, and with Gronk possibly not returning for this contest, the last thing New England wants is a shootout in the Georgia Dome.
2. Pressure Matt Ryan
This will be a tall task for the Patriots defensive front. The Falcons offensive line comes into this game tied for fourth in the league in sacks allowed. This group is a solid bunch and generally they don’t let their quarterback go down (much like New England’s offensive line). But if Chandler Jones and the rest of his troops can somehow get to Ryan, and throw his timing off with his potent group of receivers, then the chances of the Patriots winning this football game skyrocket. Jones is definitely the Pats top pass rusher, and in my opinion he is one of the best pass rushers in the entire league. He has collected three take-downs of the quarterback thus far in 2013, and getting him going early in this contest should be a priority of the New England coaching staff. Rob Ninkovich and Tommy Kelly are two other lineman that bear watching from a Patriots perspective, as they both are solid in pushing the pocket and making positive plays for the defense. It will take a group effort to penetrate the Falcons offensive line, but the rewards will be huge if they are able to effectively do it.