FOXBORO — After the disastrous start to the season, the Patriots defense has made amends.
After holding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets to under 20 points, the unit played even better on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Patriots made shutting down Matt Ryan & Co. look easy during their 23-7 victory at foggy Gillette Stadium, as the defense stifled the Falcons on third and fourth downs.
The Falcons finished the game completing 22 percent of their third-down conversions (2 of 9). They also went one for three on fourth down.
The mere fact that Atlanta tried for multiple fourth-down conversions in the first half showed how little respect they had for the Pats defense. The unit, however, proved to be up to the challenge.
The defense started the game out with a three-and-out. On the next series, after stopping the Falcons again on third down, Ryan ran for a gain of nine on fourth-and-7.
The next third down, however, Patriots cornerback Johnson Bademosi deflected a pass intended for Falcons superstar receiver Julio Jones. That set up a field goal, which Patriots defensive end Cassius Marsh blocked. Two third-down stops led to field-goal attempts, but the Falcons didn’t convert either (block and miss).
The Patriots deflected three of Ryan’s seven pass attempts on third down. After Bademosi’s play, undrafted free agent cornerback Jonathan Jones made a diving breakup at 1:19 of the first, on third-and-10. Patriots CB/safety Malcolm Butler also came up big, on third-and-1. At 14:42 of the fourth, he deflected a pass intended for Jones in the end zone.
Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy also played a big part, coming up with three tackles in clutch situations. On the second third down of the game, the linebacker stopped powerful Falcons running back Devonta Freeman for a loss of three yards. Van Noy also stopped Jones six yards shy of the first down on third-and-20 at 2:36 of the second.
Van Noy’s biggest play came at 14:36 of the fourth. On fourth-and-1, at the 1-yard line, the Falcons ran an end around, but Van Noy sniffed the play out. He was able to get by tight end Levine Toilolo and hit wideout Tyler Gabriel for a 5-yard loss.
In the secondary, it was a joint effort to try and contain Jones, who finished with nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. The receiver caught passes against Butler, Bademosi, safety Duron Harmon and free safety Devin McCourty.
Bademosi played well giving up one pass on two targets for 15 yards. Butler was up and down, allowing five catches on seven targets for 51 yards. He allowed a touchdown, which Jones ripped out of his hands. Jonathan Jones didn’t allow a catch on three targets.
The bulk of Ryan’s production came in the open flat (7 for 7, 40 yards) or in front of a soft zone (4 for 4, 47 yards).
The Patriots’ offense played the opposite of the Falcons. Tom Brady and his group were outstanding on third down converting 54 percent of the time (7 of 13). This was truly the difference in the game.
Credit goes to the offensive line as Brady had plenty of time to throw the ball when he needed to.
The first third down the Pats saw, the Falcons blitzed, overloading the right side. Brady got rid of the ball in 2.59 seconds to hit tight end Rob Gronkowski for the first.
Faced with a thrird-and-16, at 7:54 of the first, Brady had 3.62 seconds to throw the ball and hit receiver Chris Hogan for a gain of 20. Next, third-and-8, at 7:45 of the second, Brady had 3.83 seconds to throw and he hit Gronk for 27 yards.
Brady had over 3.6 seconds on four of his eight third-down pass attempts. It’s nearly impossible to stop the quarterback when he has that much time.
Brady was also accurate. Of his eight incomplete passes only four (three wide and one overthrown) were inaccurate. Two other were dropped, one was due to pressure and another was deflected.
Brady’s first “touchdown pass” didn’t take much effort on his part. He simply shuffled the ball to wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who swept from the left to right side in front of the quarterback. Cooks had some help though on this 11-yard touchdown run.
Gronkowski led the way blocking for 11 yards. Cooks is so fast, that he held onto to Gronk’s jersey as the pair plowed into the front left corner of the end zone, through four defenders for the score.
On the 2-yard line, Brady didn’t need much time for his second touchdown. The quarterback released the ball in 2.89 seconds after a pass fake to Cooks on the right side. He threw a low pass to versatile running back James White, who was open in the front of the end zone.
Special teams key
It was easy to see why Patriots coach Bill Belichick was so happy after Marsh’s field-goal block. It was perfect execution by the special teams unit.
At 1:11 of the first quarter, the Patriots tipped their hand, but the Falcons still couldn’t stop them. As Falcons kicker Matt Bryant lined up for the 37-yard field goal attempt, the Patriots loaded up six plays on the right side of their field goal unit as opposed to only four on the left. With six Patriots rushing on four Falcons defenders, the mismatch was obvious before the snap.
On the left side, the Patriots had (in order from left to right) Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Marsh, Dont’a Hightower, Nate Ebner and Jones.
When the ball was snapped, Brown and Hightower did such a good job to get a push on Jake Matthews and Ty Sambrailo, it opened up a gap for Marsh. He immediately shot in and dove to get a hand on the kick.