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BOSTON (CBS) — Surely, some things have not gone exactly according to plan for the Patriots, but through three weeks of the season, the team is right where most folks expected them to be. They’re 3-0, but this Sunday night — as you’ve surely heard a hundred times by now — they’ll be facing their biggest test of the young season.
While that’s been the refrain of the week, it is for good reason. For one, the Falcons are a very dangerous team, especially at home, where they’ve won 21 of their last 25 games. On top of that, the Falcons sit at 1-2, so they’ll have a certain level of desperation when this one kicks off Sunday night. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but there’s no doubt that the Falcons badly want this win in order to avoid falling to 1-3.
There’s plenty for the Patriots to prepare for, so here’s What To Watch For when the game begins Sunday night.
To Gronk Or Not To Gronk
Will the much-anticipated return of Rob Gronkowski take place this Sunday night? That remains the million dollar question, because despite the Patriots’ 23 points last week, the offense still had its hiccups.
Tom Brady finished last week’s game with just 225 passing yards, making it three straight weeks in which he’s been held under 300 yards. It’s the first such stretch since the final three games of the 2010 season, and while much of it has to do with the losses of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, the absence of Rob Gronkowski during the three games has no doubt made things much harder for Brady.
Heading into the weekend, despite the 3-0 record, the Patriots are converting just 39.6 percent of their third downs into first downs, a sharp drop from a league-best 49.7 percent last year and 45.9 percent the year before. Bill Belichick said one of the biggest reasons for more failed third-down conversions is getting stuck in long-yardage situations, but the lack of a reliable option in the middle of the field has no doubt played a significant factor as well.
That’s where Gronkowski would come in. Through the three games, just 4.1 percent of Brady’s completions have been caught by a tight end (Michael Hoomanwanui’s three receptions). Last year, tight ends accounted for 28.9 percent o Brady’s completions. While it’s clearly a changed offense, there is a certain comfort level that Brady hasn’t been afforded this year by having Gronkowski on the field.
If No. 87 can get back on the field (reports say that probably won’t happen, but they’ve been wrong before), even in a limited role, it should work wonders for Brady and the offense when it comes to moving the chains to sustain long drives.
Pressure’s On The Cornerbacks
Last week, the Patriots faced the tall task of trying to stop Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson, and results were somewhat mixed. Kyle Arrington was removed from the game after getting beaten several times in the first half, though his appearance on the injury report this week could be the reason behind that.
This week, healthy or hampered, the pressure is right back on Arrington, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and rookie Logan Ryan.
It’s true that Roddy White is lacking a certain level of explosiveness due to his ankle injury, but that doesn’t mean things will be easy for the New England secondary.
Julio Jones is now one of the league’s most dynamic receiving threats, and he’s been Matt Ryan’s favorite target by far this season. Jones accounts for one-third of the team’s receptions, one-third of the receiving touchdowns and and 41 percent of the receiving yards, so he’ll be a headache for Bill Belichick as he tries to game plan for this one. While Aqib Talib will likely draw Jones duty, he’ll still need help, and even with the other two top targets not at their best right now, they still present size matchups that are unfavorable for the Pats.
Add in that the Patriots are facing a quality passer for the first time this season, and there’s a risk that the Falcons score early and often in this one. It’s another tall task for the defense.
Yo, Mr. White!
Speaking of Roddy White, there has to be at least some trepidation when facing a man named Mr. White in a game taking place during the series finale of Breaking Bad. While Walter White is authoring his final brilliantly devious stunt, who knows what Roddy White will be capable of doing? This may be an unprecedented moment in sports and TV history. The Patriots should tread lightly.
The Patriots’ rookie receivers have found themselves in the spotlight for much of the season, for varying reasons. In Week 1, they did next to nothing, with Kenbrell Thompkins catching just four of the 14 passes thrown his way. In Week 2, they were the target of some verbal abuse from Brady for dropping too many passes and running too many wrong routes. It was a much different story in Week 3, when Thompkins caught two touchdowns and Aaron Dobson led the team with seven catches for 52 yards.
This week though, the degree of difficulty rises significantly. All 11 players on offense will need to be on the exact same page, as the roaring crowd inside the Georgia Dome will not create the best environment for communication. (That may turn out to be a blessing if Brady starts yelling at them again, because they probably wouldn’t be able to hear him.)
Dobson and Thompkins each took big steps forward in their careers last week, but it gets a whole lot tougher this week in what could be an at-time deafening dome. It’ll be a new environment for them, and how well or how poorly they adapt to it will go a long way in how the story of this game is written come Monday morning.