BOSTON (CBS) – By no fault of the Patriots, their defense has yet to face a tough offensive opponent three weeks into the season.
They faced off against two rookie quarterbacks and one who just lost his starting job. That’s not the only reason the Patriots have held opponents to just 27 offensive points through the first three weeks of the season, but it’s pretty obvious that the offense of the Bills, Jets and Buccaneers are just not that good.
But the defense rose to the challenge each week, and is one of the main reasons New England finds itself at 3-0 despite the team finally finding its stride on offense last weekend.
Now the defense gets their first taste of an overpowering offense on Sunday night in Atlanta.
The Falcons’ offense, while not as prolific as say the Broncos or Packers, still pack a hefty punch. Led by the ever-consistent Matt Ryan, Atlanta ranks ninth in the NFL with 379 yards per game and seventh in passing yards at 289 yards per game.
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The Patriots’ secondary has looked vastly improved compared to the past few years over the first three weeks of the season, but Sunday is their biggest test yet. They have benefited greatly from an improved pass-rush, with both Chandler Jones and Tommy Kelly wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The Pats’ D has once again are a very opportunistic bunch as well, forcing seven turnovers, but head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday those turnovers won’t come easy against a quarterback like Ryan.
“He doesn’t have many bad plays, he has a lot of good ones,” said Belichick. “He’s a real good quarterback.”
Ryan has six touchdowns passes and just two interceptions through Atlanta’s first three games, though the Falcons sit at just 1-2. He doesn’t light up the scoreboard like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers, but has been consistent since being selected third overall out of Boston College in 2008, and it’s hard to find a flaw in his game.
“He looks pretty good at everything to me,” the New England coach said. “He has a good touch, he does a good job throwing the ball down the field, reads coverages well, doesn’t make many mistakes, manages the game well, he’s accurate, he’s tough, he’ll definitely stand in there, throw the ball and take a hit. He has very few bad plays, let’s put it that way, very few. So, consistency. I think that’s the mark of any great player. He’s pretty consistent: every play, every game, every series. He does a lot of things right.”
A lot of Ryan’s success is tied to wide receiver Julio Jones, who has 27 receptions on 33 targets this season and has found the end zone twice. The Patriots’ secondary has allowed just two scores to wide outs through three weeks, but have yet to face a receiver as dangerous as Jones.
“He’s a very strong, physical receiver with good speed,” said Belichick. “In the running game, he’s a very aggressive blocker. He’ll come in and crack safeties and block well. In the passing game, he can go down the field, he can go up and take the ball away from defenders even though he’s covered. He has good vertical jump, timing, strong hands, go up and get the ball. Tough guy to press because he’s so physical coming off the line of scrimmage. He can run through most corners that are trying to press him.
“He can take a two-yard pass and turn it into a 50-yard run or he could run a 50-yard go route and go up and catch the ball, either way. He’s a tough guy to match up against,” added Belichick. “He’s got very good speed so he can run by the defense but he’s strong and he can run through them too. He’s tough and he’s a hard guy to tackle.”
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The Falcons are not perfect on offense by any means with injuries keeping them from displaying their full potential, but the replacements have filled in admirably. Running back Steven Jackson is sidelined with a foot injury, but Jaquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for 139 yards on the ground in last week’s loss to Miami. And even though Atlanta’s number-two receiver Roddy White has been slowed by a high ankle sprain, registering just seven catches so far, he still finds his way on the field serving mostly as a decoy, freeing up the likes of Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The Patriots secondary enjoyed success last Sunday against the Buccaneers, aided by the fact that Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams both got hurt and it was Josh Freeman who was trying to throw the ball to no one in particular. The afternoon did not start off well, with Kyle Arrington getting benched due to his poor play against Williams, but Aqib Talib was his usual self and the unit buckled down to keep Tampa out of the end zone.
This weekend, Talib will have his hands full with one of the best receivers in Jones and a solid quarterback throwing his way.
It all adds up to the toughest challenge of the young season for the Patriots’ defense. They have received praise over the first three weeks, and rightfully so, but now we’ll see if their up to the challenge against a very good passing attack.