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After Further Review: Patriots-Falcons

A film study of New England's Week 4 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.


For the second straight week, the Patriots were involved in a fast-moving, low-scoring affair – until the fourth quarter, when both they and the Falcons made things really exciting.

New England arrived in Foxborough right around 5 a.m., so, it's a short turnaround to deconstruct what happened Sunday night in the Georgia Dome.

1st Quarter – Defense

…Nickel was once again New England's de facto "base" defensive front, if you will. Kyle Arrington, as usual, was the slot corner, with linebacker Brandon Spikes the odd man out. Spikes did not see the field during the opening quarter against Atlanta.

…While cornerback Aqib Talib was matched up against Atlanta's top receiver, Julio Jones, the majority of the time, he did not do so exclusively. Occasionally, right corner Alfonzo Dennard and Talib would flip-flop, with Dennard on Jones and Talib on Roddy White, to give the Falcons and their receivers a different look.

…Rookie d-tackle Joe Vellano subbed for Tommy Kelly midway through the first drive, then Kelly came back in a few plays later for Vince Wilfork. This has been standard operating procedure for New England during the first four games – a rotational substitution pattern at defensive tackle.

…It was tough to see, but it appeared that the play on which Wilfork was injured (he did not return thereafter, reportedly because of a ruptured right Achilles tendon), he did so simply by planting his foot hard onto the ground while trying to rush the passer. It did not look as if he was struck there, but with the jumble of bodies in the trenches, it certainly is possible.

…Vellano and Kelly started the second series of the first quarter, once Wilfork left the game.

…The Patriots stuffed the Falcons' second drive of the quarter on a 3rd-and-20 by employing a rarely-seen three-safety deep look. Rookie Duron Harmon entered the game alongside Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory. Harmon replaced Vellano on the play, which was a deep pass broken up by Talib, intended for Jones.

…New England covered fairly well during the first quarter, but Atlanta completed passes at times because of precise throws by QB Matt Ryan and great catches by his receivers. Not much the Patriots defenders could've done differently in those instances.

* 1st Quarter – Offense*

…The opening possession for the Patriots was a mix of two-, three-, and four-receiver sets, with rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld and rookie receciver Josh Boyce getting some reps as the fourth receiver.



]( …James Develin continues to impress with his development at fullback. Not only is he demonstrating a proficiency as a blocker, he's becoming more reliable as a pass catcher on occasion as well. I'm liking what I'm seeing from the first-year player, a former defensive end in college, who spent last season mostly on the practice squad.

…Develin, the offensive line, and the tight ends did an excellent job of run-blocking together on the second drive, which allowed all three tailbacks – Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden – to find sizeable lanes through which to dart. The trio combined for 50 yards on the ground (6.3 per-carry average) in the opening quarter.

…The crowd noise inside the Georgia Dome was a factor throughout the evening. Resulting in three illegal shift penalties by the Patriots. The first happened on the opening drive, when Bolden stepped forward to hear QB Tom Brady call an audible. Bolden couldn't get back to his spot quickly enough to set himself before the snap.

…Brady threw just four passes, completing two, to start the game. One was broken up by a Falcons defender, the other was a purposely underthrown ball to Kenbrell Thompkins (done so for him to adjust and make a play against the defender) which the rookie couldn't corral. It bounced off his hands. This has been a problem for Thompkins, but, as we'll see later, he typically atones for these mistakes with spectacular catches in big situations.

…New England had just two possessions in the first quarter, the second of which carried over into the second quarter.

2nd Quarter – Offense

…Picking up right where the offense left off, that second drive of the game for the Patriots resulted in a Patriots touchdown – on the second attempt, that is. Replays showed that the officials got the call correct when they overturned a Bolden scoring run. His knee indeed hit the ground before he could stretch his arm with the football over the goal line.

…New England had been rushing the ball so effectively on that drive, thanks in large part to a strong push between the tackles, that the Falcons fell hard for Brady's play-fake that resulted in the first TD of the game. Lined up in what looked like an obvious run formation, the Patriots had two tight ends to the right (Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui), both in three-point stances, and a third, Matthew Mulligan on the left end, also with a hand on the ground. Develin was in the backfield in front of Ridley. Atlanta's front crowded the line of scrimmage and collapsed on it at the snap as they followed Ridley's path. This allowed Mulligan to sneak behind the defense and run unobstructed to the right side. By the time a couple of Atlanta defenders noticed the ruse, Brady had already fired to Mulligan – a threaded needle that had no margin for error. Mulligan was not distracted by the two pairs of flailing Falcon arms and calmly secured the pass for the score. Excellent execution all around.

…Once again, the Patriots held the ball just twice in a quarter. The second one also ended with a score (Stephen Gostkowski field goal from 48 yards out), but the play that made it happen was a 49-yard strike to the aforementioned Thompkins that very nearly was blown up by Atlanta before it had a chance. New England came out in another run-type personnel look, with Thompkins wide left and Julian Edelman far right. Hooman was in a three-point stance next to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Develin lined up in the backfield in front of Blount. Brady faked a right-side handoff to Blount, then faked an end-around handoff to Edelman. When Brady whipped back around to look downfield for Thompkins, he found Atlanta d-end Mallicah Goodman in his face. But Brady deftly sidestepped the rusher, who'd bulled past right guard Dan Connolly and brushed Brady with one hand. Brady quickly recovered but wasn't properly set to throw, which resulted in his pass being dangerously underthrown. It looked as if the Falcons safety, William Moore, was in prime position to pick off the pass, but Thompkins adjusted beautifully and out-rebounded Moore for the ball. Great awareness by the rookie. He just needs to show more consistency with his hands. He makes tough catches like these look easy and often makes easy ones look difficult.

…Boyce looked decent in his limited opportunities. One in particular came two plays after the Thompkins grab. Boyce, the far man in a trips-right look, used his speed to get separation from a defender down the right sideline. Brady looked his way, but the pass was a poor one from Brady that sailed too far in front of the rookie. A better ball just might've resulted in a touchdown.

…The very next play, Brady again misfired, sending a ball way over the head of Thompkins, who'd gotten open for what would have at least been a first-down catch to the left at the Atlanta 20-yard line. The rookie got open for him, but Brady was off target.

2nd Quarter – Defense

…New England finally showed a traditional base defense to start the second quarter, with Spikes appearing for the first time, even though Atlanta came out in a four-wide look. Right defensive end Chandler Jones got good pressure on Ryan on the first play. Jones was going up against a banged up left tackle Sam Baker and simply bull rushed him into the backfield. Baker (knee/foot) left the game a short time later.

…Atlanta tried to spread the Patriots in their base at one point, sending tight ends wide to both sides, which drew linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower to the edges, leaving Spikes alone in the middle of the field behind the d-line.

…The Patriots stuck with the base for most of that opening series of the second quarter.



]( …Despite losing Wilfork, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia continued his 2013 tactic of rotating fresh legs at d-tackle. Rookie Chris Jones saw his first action in this mix, lining up with fellow rookie Vellano to begin the second quarter. The two of them and Kelly shuffled in and out the remainder of the quarter and throughout the game. In the second quarter, New England didn't suffer in the run-stuffing department as a result of the Wilfork loss. Credit the rookies with stepping up in this situation.

…Hightower continues to show less-than-adequate open field coverage and tackling skills.

…More Chandler Jones pressure forced an errant throw by Ryan. The second-year end might not be getting sacks, but he's making his presence felt with equally important plays like these that force incompletions.

…The one time Patricia called for his three-defensive-end look that has become increasingly popular this season was when the Falcons were in the Patriots red zone on their failed drive to start the second quarter. Atlanta's o-line did a great job of sealing them off for Ryan, but he threw a terrible pass that was too high over the head of his intended receiver, White.

…Nickel came back on the next series and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, as we've so often seen this year, replaced Hightower for a few plays. The second quarter is when Collins has gotten most of this reps this season.

…Atlanta got their first touchdown in part by rushing up the middle for much of their second drive of the quarter. The Falcons found something they could exploit with the d-tackles and picked up several yards in this fashion. The score, however, was simply a result of safety Steve Gregory slipping on the turf as he tried to tackle tight end Tony Gonzalez, who made a nice spin move and outraced Alfonzo Dennard, who'd come over to help, to the pylon.

3rd and 4th Quarters – Offense and Defense

…After tossing just nine passes in the first half, Brady and the offense went back to their bread-and-butter in the second half. TB12 completed 15 of 22 attempts in the third and fourth quarters.

…Upon closer inspection, the play on which rookie receiver Aaron Dobson injured his neck was an egregious foul on two counts, neither of which was flagged by the officiating crew. First, Dobson was being held – in clear view of the back judge – by one defender (Robert Alford), before the second one (safety Thomas DeCoud) came in an clobbered Dobson in the head. That's the one that caused the injury and would have been the more severe penalty. It was a flagrant violation of the rules, and while an argument can be made that the first infraction could have been allowed to go uncalled, the second one most certainly should have been flagged an automatic first down and marked off half the distance to the goal (New England was on the Atlanta 4 at the time). It's possible the league office in New York will fine DeCoud later this week after folks on Park Avenue take a good look at the play.



](/fan-zone/patriots-football-weekly.html) …Nickel was the order of the day again in the second half, with Spikes being relegated to bench duty once again for the most part.

…On their second possession of the third quarter, the Falcons attempted to catch New England off-guard by going no-huddle, but the Patriots were still able to substitute as needed throughout the drive.

…The fourth quarter was wild, with every possession by both teams resulting in a score – save the final two (one each from Atlanta and New England, discounting the two kneel-downs at the end by Brady).

…Blount's 47-yard touchdown gallop was impressive. It began from a simple formation: two wides (Edelman left, Thompkins right), tight end Hooman in motion from right to left, Develin as the blocking fullback in a broken I-formation backfield behind Brady. Hooman set himself down in a three-point stance next to left tackle Nate Solder just before the snap. At the snap, Connolly pulled from his right guard spot and headed left along with Develin. The two of them, along with Hooman, built a wall on that left side, while center Ryan Wendell, left guard Logan Mankins, and Solder shored up a wall to the right. Blount easily ran right through the "seal here and a seal here" alley that Vince Lombardi so famously described once for NFL Films. At the second level of defense, Edelman threw a decisive block as well on DeCoud, which allowed Blount to spring free for the final 40 yards. It was a footrace from there on with the Falcons secondary, and the big-bodied Blount won it with surprising ease. Fantastic job all around.

…Thompkins' touchdown grab was a much more elementary design. He was the lone receiver wide left. Edelman and Boyce were wide right, with Hooman in a two-point stance next to Vollmer. Thompkins ran a fade pattern and Brady lofted the ball to the perfect spot over his outside shoulder. Watching it live, there was some question as to whether or not Thompkins was fully inbounds with the football. However, the film clearly shows Thompkins' right elbow hitting inside the end zone. If a receiver has one elbow or one knee inbounds, that is equivalent to having two feet inbounds. Hence, the scoring play stood. Good call by the officials.

…Once New England had a two-touchdown lead, Patricia went back to his three-d-end pass rush package, featuring rookie Michael Buchanan at right end, Chandler Jones sliding to right tackle, and Tommy Kelly and the rotating tackles on the left side (Rob Ninkovich remained at his usual left end spot). The idea was to pressure Ryan, of course, but it wasn't effective in the latter stages. Atlanta's o-line was up to the challenge, forming nice pockets from which Ryan could stand and deliver passes that led to two field goals and a touchdown pass to Gonzalez that trimmed the New England lead to 7.

…The Patriots should have been able to run out the clock following the 2-minute warning, but the officials clearly erred by not granting them a first-down on a third-down rush by Blount. He appeared to get the entire football over the line for the extra set of downs. Brady fumbled the ensuing snap from center on fourth down and the Falcons got one more chance. But Talib, the star of the night defensively for New England, made one final tremendous play to knock a Ryan pass down on fourth down in the end zone. Gonzalez – who might've been Ryan's primary target – was double-teamed by Collins and Mayo, leaving Talib one-on-one with White. Talib's coverage was as tight as possible without being a penalty, and he timed his jump just right to beat White to the football.

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