One week after taking on the NFL's best running back in LaDainian Tomlinson, the Patriots head south to battle the league's top rushing offense. Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett will provide another challenge for the wounded Patriots defense.
In 2004, the Falcons led the NFL in rushing by averaging 167 yards per game. So far this season, the Atlanta running game is even more dominant averaging 209 yards per game, tops in the league. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL to have three players rush for over 100 yards in a game this season (Vick, Dunn, Duckett). After giving up 183 rushing yards to the Chargers last week, the Patriots know they are in for a tough test this Sunday.
"It's going to be a big challenge for us," Patriots linebacker Monty Beisel said. "They have backs who can do a lot of different things and even if you take away Vick's rushing yards, they still rank second in the league in rushing. They line up and say this is what we are doing, stop it."
Vick easily leads all quarterbacks with 233 rushing yards this season. That number is even more impressive when you consider the Atlanta signal-caller has been banged up with a bad hamstring and now a knee injury. According to Bill Belichick, having Vick at quarterback gives an already good rushing team just another weapon for defenses to worry about. "They are good running team without Vick but with him, that's just one more guy we have to worry about. They could lead the NFL in rushing without Vick but you add him in, that just puts them way ahead of everyone else in the league."
There is a perception if you prevent Vick from running; the Falcons are a lot easier to beat. So far this season, Vick is completing just over 57 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 83.0. Belichick pointed out on Wednesday that Vick is dangerous even when he isn't running in the open field.
"He can beat you in many ways," Belichick said. "He can beat you throwing, he can beat you running, he can beat you throwing on the run. It's not just his running. They run a lot of play action passes to compliment their running game. He can beat you with his arm, as well as his feet."
While he may not get the accolades that Vick gets, Dunn is just as important to the Falcons offense. After four games, Dunn ranks fifth in the NFL with 394 rushing yards. Even more worrisome for the Patriots, Dunn is the same kind of cutback runner that Tomlinson is. LT gave the Patriots fits all day cutting back to the left side of the defense.
"We have to do a better job of staying in our lanes to prevent him from cutting back," Beisel said. "We have to execute and tackle better this week. Everything comes down to execution."
Belichick said all the Falcons running backs are very good; they just bring different styles to the game. "Dunn and Vick are extremely quick and fast and Duckett has a lot of power," Belichick said. "They are different but all very hard to stop."
The Patriots did a good job defending LaMont Jordan, Stephen Davis and Willie Parker but things fell apart last week against the Chargers. Tomlinson's longest run was only 11 yards but that makes his 134 yards on 25 carries even more impressive. LT seemed to get seven or eight yards every time he touched the football, setting up the Chargers with third and short all day long.
The Patriots need to fix the problems that plagued them last week because if they don't, the Falcons will run the ball down their throat the entire game. "You can't take a step forward until you look at what you have done in the past," Beisel said. "We looked at the tape from last week and identified the problems we had defending the run. We have been addressing them throughout the week and hopefully they will corrected on Sunday."
If not, the defending champs could be looking at a 2-3 record with a trip to Denver waiting in the wings.
Branch receives extra attention
Deion Branch was extremely quiet against the Chargers, catching only one pass for six yards. After their victory, some of the San Diego defensive backs admitted their gameplan called for specifically trying to take Branch out of the game.
"We knew he was their best receiver and if we could limit his touches, we could prevent them from making big plays in the passing game," Chargers cornerback Sammy Davis said after the game this past Sunday.
With the success Branch has had recently, most notably being named Super Bowl MVP last season, he is starting to garner extra attention from opposing defenses.
"I have been seeing a lot more coverage roll my way than I did in my first couple years in the league," Branch said. "It's starting to go back to what I saw in college. I used to see a lot of double coverage in college but coming in my first couple of years with Troy [Brown] and [David] Patten here, the coverage went to those guys instead of me."
When asked what he does as a receiver to counter the extra coverage he is seeing, Branch joked, "I just run my routes and hopefully someone who is covering me will slip and fall. No, seriously, I just run my routes and try to get open and everything else will work itself out."
Now he knows how President Bush feelsESPN.com is keeping a weekly Sports Nation pole where fans can go and vote on how they think their favorite team's coach is performing. So far this season, Belichick's overall approval rating is 82 percent. His rating after the Patriots loss in Week 4, however, dropped from 91 to 66 percent. This week Belichick ranks below coaches such as Dennis Green, Jim Haslett, Mike Nolan and former Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis led the way with a rating of 95 percent after his team improved to 4-0 on Sunday. Mike Tice was the lowest rated coach after Week 4, coming in at 7 percent, while former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells dropped to a 47 percent approval rate after the Cowboys loss to the Raiders. ESPN.com tracks the results from week to week. Almost 39,000 people have voted for Belichick over the first four weeks of the season. His highest rating came after the Patriots victory over the Steelers and his lowest after the loss to the Chargers. Amazingly, winning and losing has something to do with a coaches rating for that particular week. Go figure.
NotesAfter four weeks, the Patriots rank 21st in the NFL in total defense and last in red zone defense. Not something you would expect from a Bill Belichick coached team…Troy Brown needs 10 catches to become only the second player in team history to reach 500 receptions. Stanley Morgan is the other with a team-record 534 receptions…The Patriots kickoff returners have been doing their job so far this season. The Patriots rank second to only the Raiders in the AFC for best starting field position after a kickoff. The Raiders average starting field position is 30.9 and the Patriots are right behind them at 30.8.