…An important win by New England on Sunday night. While the offense continues to struggle somewhat with scoring consistency (they've gone from averaging more than 30 points per game in September to just 22 the past few weeks), the defense appears to be stabilizing after a horrid start to 2017.
One bugaboo, however, that still haunts the team overall is penalties. The Patriots committed 10 (eight of which were accepted) versus Atlanta. LT Nate Solder committed two of those 10 and now leads the club with five infractions so far this season. The first of those against the Falcons was a holding penalty on the opening drive.
Many of us have speculated that Solder's issues this season might be related more to his off-field concerns, namely his 2-year-old son Hudson's pediatric cancer, than anything else.
After the Atlanta game, Solder confirmed that Hudson is indeed undergoing new treatments for the pediatric cancer that has resurfaced after it appeared he was in remission.
"It's difficult. It weighs on my mind," Solder admitted, "but I have a great team that supports me so much and I don't think I could make it through it without those guys."
We're certainly hoping for the best for Solder, his wife Lexi, and their young child.
…QB Tom Brady was sacked twice by Atlanta. The first came from Solder's left side of the formation, but it didn't appear that he was to blame for this particular miscue. Solder was engaged with DE Derrick Shelby, so, he was handling his assignment, but no other Patriot helped out to pick up the blitzing Falcon, LB De'Vondre Campbell. TE Rob Gronkowski was lined up next to Solder, but at the snap, he ran a pass route and never thought of putting a hand on Campbell. RB Mike Gillislee would have been the last line of defense for Brady, but he was facing the right side of the formation after Brady play-action faked to him.
Campbell was simply left unblocked, a clear blocking scheme mistake by the offense.
…Gronk is one penalty behind Solder for the team lead after he committed three in the Falcons game alone, giving him four on the season so far. Gronk's first flag, for offensive pass interference, was his second such infraction this year. While the push-off that Gronk gave to LB Duke Reilly downfield might have been unnecessary for him to get open, it nonetheless was the proper call by Gene Steratore's officiating crew, the way the penalty is worded in the NFL rule book.
What Gronkowski did looked more like normal hand-fighting between opponents on a pass play, but he clearly extended his left arm fully, which gave him a slight opening to haul in a deep Brady pass. Gronk's catch was tremendous, but it was wiped out by the penalty.
…Defensively for New England, LB Kyle Van Noy led all tacklers with seven stops, all of them solo. His first big play of the night was a takedown of RB Devonta Freeman for a loss of yards on 3rd-and-4 near midfield. Surprisingly, Atlanta elected not to punt, however, and QB Matt Ryan ended up scrambling for a first down on the next play. Van Noy was late getting after Ryan on that play because he was initially preoccupied with Freeman coming out of the backfield as a receiver.
…CB Malcolm Butler had 6 solo tackles against the Falcons, and his most impressive may have been when, on 1st-and-10 from the NE 19, he read a running play by Atlanta and knifed into the backfield to bring down RB Tevin Coleman for no gain.
…That same drive ended with no points for the Falcons after DE Cassius Marsh's biggest play thus far in his Patriots career. As a member of the field goal block unit, Marsh was lined up over the left tackle. At the snap, he deftly executed a swim move to insert himself sideways into the Falcons' backfield while managing to avoid making contact with teammate Dont'a Hightower. He then explained afterward how he stayed on his feet by using the Falcons tight end for help.
"I penetrated and stayed low so that I was able to drive into the tight end's shoulder... I had to make sure to keep my lower body strong so that I didn't lose my balance or get tangled up in another player's feet."
Once he did so, Marsh used textbook technique to dive for what's known as the "block point," the area just in front of the kicker and holder where a defensive player is taught to launch himself and extend his arms to knock down a kick without making contact with the kicker.
…Solder's second penalty, a false start, was certainly deserving, but a bit unfair in that it should have been offset by an offside by Atlanta DE Grady Jarrett. In fact, Jarrett's violation was more blatant, yet Steratore's crew somehow missed it and only flagged Solder.
…Loved the way RB Dion Lewis ran all night. He was given the nod in the starting lineup and delivered with an impressive performance, averaging just under 6 yards per carry. His longest, a 25-yard run, came up the middle on a well-blocked play which Lewis finished by running through safety Ricardo Allen. "Trucked" is the term often used to describe what Lewis did, because it looked like Allen was run over by a truck.
"Whatever it takes to break tackles and make plays and not be a one-trick pony. I'm small," Lewis grinned when asked about the play afterward, "but I'm not little."
…We've seen the Patriots use WR Brandin Cooks often this year on those quick plays that Julian Edelman is famous for, where the receiver coming in motion through the backfield takes a well-timed handoff from Brady. This time, Cooks was between the o-line and QB in the shotgun when he collected Brady's two-handed dump-off – technically scored as a forward pass by Brady. Out front, Gronkowski served as Cooks' lead blocker to the left side. WR Chris Hogan also threw a crucial block to give Cooks a relatively easy running lane until he was met at the goal line by several Falcons. It was too late at that point, though, as Cooks rode Gronkowski's back to the pylon and finished off the lightning-quick scoring play.
…Safety/co-captain Duron Harmon was incredibly lucky not to have been flagged for egregious pass interference against WR Julio Jones deep down field. There was no question Harmon jumped on Jones' back before the ball arrived, which clearly infringed on Jones' ability to make the catch. The pass fell to the turf, but no flags did. They should have.
…As well as Lewis ran versus Atlanta, so, too, did Rex Burkhead, in the backfield again for the first time since Week 2, when he suffered a rib injury. Three of Burkhead's first four carries went for 9 yards. New England has an embarrassment of riches right now at running back with Lewis, Burkhead, James White, and Mike Gillislee. Let's also not forget RB James Develin, whose lead blocking is often overlooked as a key aspect of the Patriots' rushing attack.
….Gronkowski made good on a bad false start penalty by coming back the very next play and making a tremendous sideline catch to pick up a 1st down on 3rd-and-8 from about midfield.
…New England's lone sack of Ryan came from rookie DL Adam Butler. Lined up as a tackle over the right guard, Butler used his speed to drive past the blocker and get in Ryan's face just as the QB set his feet to scan the field. Great individual effort by the undrafted rookie who's seen a considerable amount of playing time this season.
…The Patriots did a bit more blitzing than usual, and mixed up when they chose to do it, against the Falcons. This might have been because the secondary, minus Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe due to injuries again, did a decent job in coverage throughout the night. New England blitzed Ryan, for example, on Atlanta's second 4th-down attempt around midfield, but the coverage was tight on all of Ryan's intended targets. He overshot WR Mohamed Sanu, who was blanketed on that particular play by CB Jonathan Jones.
…White contributed with just four carries against Atlanta, but still have a big impact when he caught Brady's second and only other touchdown pass of the night. From the shotgun to Brady's left, White slanted out of the backfield while Brady looked the opposite way to a trips right collection of his receivers. This drew the attention of Atlanta's defense in that direction.
White, meanwhile, faked as if he were going outside to the left before cutting sharply back inside over the goal line. Brady pump-faked to the right, spun his head around just in time to see White separate from a Falcons defender. Brady fired a low pass that only White had a chance to catch, and he did so for the important score just before halftime.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Marsh should have had a sack of Ryan in the early 3rd, but he over-pursued from the right side and blew past Ryan from behind in the backfield. Ryan scrambled out of it and wound up picking up a 1st down on 3rd-and-5.
…Hogan has been dealing with a rib injury that limited him in practice this past week. He managed to play the entire game versus Atlanta, but on a 30-yard catch-and-run on 1st-and-10 in the late 3rd quarter, Hogan was slammed to the ground and appeared to feel the effects of that existing injury. He came out of the game for a few moments, but was deemed fit to return a short time later. Something to monitor this week, though, when the team returns to practice.
...Van Noy did a fantastic job of reading Atlanta's play-call on 4th-and-goal from the 1. He was lined up in his usual middle linebacker spot, but when he saw WR Taylor Gabriel motioning from left to right, Van Noy started drifting in that direction as well in anticipation of Gabriel receiving a handoff from Ryan. That's precisely what happened. Van Noy shed a feeble block by TE Levine Toilolo, who was thrown somewhat off-balance by DE Trey Flowers, and met Gabriel in the backfield to drop him for a 5-yard loss. Nice recognition and reaction by Van Noy.
…Deserving holding penalty on RG Shaq Mason during New England's penultimate drive of the game. It wiped out a nice 6-yard gain up the middle by Gillislee. Other than that miscue, Mason has had a solid season. In fact, that was his first penalty of 2017.
…Hightower suffered a shoulder injury at some point in the second half and underwent extensive examination on the sideline. He stayed on the bench thereafter, but he's dealt with shoulder problems in the past and thus warrants scrutiny of his health status this coming week. He's already missed games this season due to a knee problem.
…Butler had a really nice game, it's worth emphasizing, from his tackling to his coverage. It's a shame he couldn't outfight Jones for a Ryan pass in the end zone late in the game. Butler had his hands on the football first, but as he was falling backwards with it, the bigger Jones reached over Butler's head and stole the ball away for Atlanta's only touchdown of the game.
…It was encouraging to see New England able to run out the clock in their 4-minute offense by running the ball effectively on Atlanta's defense. The o-line has taken its lumps in 2017, but they pass protected well for the most part and might finally be getting it together as the Patriots approach the midpoint of their regular season.