coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
On 09/24/2013 06:02 PM in NFL

New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons: Preview and Pick

New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons: Preview and Pick

During week four of the upcoming NFL schedule, the Sunday Night football game features two of the best teams in the league that have plenty of questions coming into this matchup. The Atlanta Falcons host the New England Patriots after losing to the Miami Dolphins. The Falcons need to get back on the winning track against a Patriots team that has had problems getting chemistry on offense with several young players learning as they go.

New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons Odds

The NFL betting line for this game opened up with the Falcons as (-1.5) point favorites. Since the Falcons have a long history of playing well at home, 63 percent of the betting public is buying into the home team with early wagering. The Patriots may not be getting the public money, but they may be getting the smart money as this line has dropped to as low as minus one at several of the top rated sportsbooks.

This will be the toughest signal caller that the Patriots defense has faced all season. They faced rookies EJ Manuel of the Buffalo Bills and Geno Smith of the New York Jets before going against Freeman, who entered the game with a completion rate of 45.3 percent, the worst in the NFL. Matt Ryan should provide a bigger test for this defense.

Ryan had a good start in the last game. The Falcons scored on their first three series, and at one point the Dolphins trailed in total yards by 127-3. Then the Falcons collapsed as a team and this has been a problem they have had all season long. If they don’t fix it they can lose to the Patriots this weekend.

The latest football gambling trends reveal that the Falcons could be in trouble as they head into this game with the Patriots. The Patriots are 6-0 against the spread (ATS) in their last 6 games in Week 4 and 64-28-2 ATS in their last 94 games after accumulating more than 350 total yards in their previous game. The Falcons are 10-21-1 ATS in their last 32 home games when playing a team with a winning road record, 0-4 ATS in their last 4 games in Week four and 1-5 ATS in their last 6 games overall. The over is 11-4 in Patriots last 15 games after accumulating more than 150 yards rushing in their previous game and that could indicate a high scoring game.

New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons Pick

With plenty of time to go before the start of the regular season, I will wait to release my pick on this game until we get closer to game day.

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/25/2013 03:09 PM

Like the 49ers, the 1-2 Atlanta Falcons were billed as Super Bowl contenders throughout the offseason. Unlike the 49ers, the Falcons could be undefeated had a few late-game plays gone in their favor.

So what's gone wrong with the Falcons so far?

- Availability of best players

The Falcons couldn't keep up with the New Orleans Saints' offense in the season opener because Roddy White was nursing a high ankle sprain and Tony Gonzalez still was rounding into football shape after taking an offseason hiatus through the end of August.

White hasn't been able to push off his ankle, leaving Harry Douglas exposed as the second option in the passing game. We noted on Sunday's "Around The League Podcast" that Gonzalez isn't moving as well as last season. That problem is exacerbated by White's inability to draw extra attention and the need for Gonzalez to chip in as a blocker to help a overwhelmed offensive line.

Steven Jackson has played just five quarters. Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon -- two of the team's most valuable defensive players -- are out for the season and the next eight weeks, respectively.

- Overhauled offensive line

It's not the Julio Jones blockbuster trade that killed the Falcons' depth up front. This team is starting a second-round draft pick at center and a third-rounder at right tackle. A former first-rounder collecting $41.1 million is protecting Matt Ryan's blindside.

The problem isn't one of neglect. It's simply that those three players are allowing too much pressure on Ryan. Among all NFL starting tackles, Atlanta's Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes have the two lowest Pro Football Focus grades through three weeks.

- Red-zone inefficiency

The Falcons are 6 of 12 in red-zone efficiency through three games. They are 17th in the league this year compared to 10th a season ago.

This was the issue that killed the Falcons on both offense and defense in a Week 3 loss in which they outplayed the Miami Dolphins. Ryan was just 2 of 5 in the red zone. It would help if White was at peak strength and the offensive tackles were blocking more effectively, freeing Gonzalez up as the primary end zone security blanket rather than extending Douglas beyond his means.

- Burned by the blitz

The lack of a consistent push up front means defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is forced to dial up blitzes to manufacture a pass rush. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was 13 of 14 against Nolan's blitz, according to Pro Football Focus. Drew Brees was similarly near perfection against the blitz in Week 1.

It doesn't help that the Falcons now have a pair of undrafted free agent rookies (Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow) seeing extensive action at linebacker, joining a pair of early-round draft picks (Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford) in the secondary.

- Can't solve second-half woes

The Falcons have been outscored 48-24 in the second halves of their three games. Jackson was supposed to fix this problem, allowing Atlanta to lean on a powerful rushing attack after losing trust in a burned-out Michael Turner the past two seasons.

Instead, this team continues to bleed commanding leads in the same fashion as last year's playoff games versus the Seahawks and 49ers.

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/26/2013 01:39 PM

The Atlanta Falcons had a few hiccups covering tight ends last week in Miami. Just imagine what type of issues one of the league’s elite tight ends could cause against a defense trying to find its rhythm.

Fortunately for the Falcons, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, still recovering from offseason forearm and back surgeries, won’t be at full strength if he plays Sunday night. However, Gronkowski’s presence on the field as a 6-foot-6, 265-pound target is enough to drive defenders insane. His 38 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons were the third-most for any player in that time span, right behind Randy Moss (43) and Jerry Rice (40).

"Just another threat," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said of Gronkowski. "Coming back off an injury like that, we expect him to be targeted a lot because he’s a huge part of their offense, and he’s been missing. So if he comes back, we expect him to be a huge part of their game plan. And we’ll adjust accordingly."

Gronkowski hasn’t caught a pass since the 2012 regular-season finale against the Dolphins. His timing with quarterback Tom Brady might be a little off, although Gronkowski practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday.

It will be interesting to see just exactly how the Patriots use Gronkowski, if he plays. They might spread him out wide to keep him out of traffic and, thus, keep his body from taking a pounding.

Falcons linebacker Joplo Bartu talked about the possibility of matching up with Gronkowski.

"Same challenge that it has been other nights: rerouting, throwing the timing off, making it even harder for him because I know Tom Brady probably hasn’t been throwing to him this season," Bartu said.

Brady has made the best of being shorthanded at receiver. Top target Danny Amendola missed the last two games with a groin injury and might not be available Sunday night. Last week, Brady settled for contributions from rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson along with leading receiver Julian Edelman.

Regardless of which players he has to target, expect Brady to try to slice and dice the Falcons in the middle of the field, utilizing option routes with his inside receivers.

"It’s a lot of shimmying and shaking with their routes, with jerk routes and plants and pivots," DeCoud said. "And then, with an accurate quarterback, you have to be tight in coverage and be ready to make a play on the ball because if you are tight, the ball may still be coming to you."

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/26/2013 01:39 PM

Falcons receiver Julio Jones has 27 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard touchdown blast against the Rams.

His 27 catches are tied for the league led with New England’s Julian Edelman.

“Julio is an exceptional talent,” Koetter said. “He really is. When him and Matt (Ryan) are clicking and we give him adequate time, Julio is tough to stop. I’m sure that he’s going continue to see defenses try to take him away but that’s not an easy task. He’s one of those elite players who can still get open.”

Jones’ combination of height (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and speed (sub 4.3 in the 40-yard dash) makes him extremely difficult to defend.

“He can run by you,” Koetter said. “He can jump over the top of you. He has strong hands and he’s a good route runner.”

Jones, who's in his third season, has been listed on the injury report this season with a hamstring injury during the exhibition season and with a knee injury during the regular-season. His pain threshold is very high.

He once played a college game with broken fingers and he made a legendary 40-yard dash run at the NFL scouting combine with a stress fracture in his foot. He later had to have a screw inserted to fix the foot.

“He is a tough competitor,” Koetter said. “It’s been my experience with Julio that no matter how much he’s hurting, he can usually rise up on game day and compete.”

New England coach Bill Belichick, a defensive guru, will certainly try to come up with a scheme to slow down Jones. When the Falcons played the Patriots in 2009, Belichick concentrated on Roddy White and Tony Gonzlaez and dared Michael Jenkins to make plays.

Jenkins caught five passes on eight targets for 78 yards. White had four catches, all on shallow routes, for 24 yards and Gonzalez, who faced bracketed double coverage, was held to one catch on two targets.

“Julio has been very impressive,” Belichick said. “As you know, he does everything well. In the running game, he’s an excellent blocker. In the passing game, he goes down the field and takes the ball away from defenders.

“He’s a strong run-after-catch player with all of the tear screens and the short passes that they throw him. He can turn them into long gains just as easily as he can turn a go pattern into a long gain.

The Patriots will have to mix their coverages up on Jones.

“He’s really so hard to jam just because he’s so physical and strong," Belichick said. "He has good speed down the field. He has good timing to go up and get the ball. He does a lot of things. He’s a hard guy to defend. Julio Jones is very, very impressive on film.”

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/27/2013 11:39 AM

Although there have been some bumps in the road, the New England Patriots have zoomed out to a 3-0 start this season. Along the way the team has encountered a number of things they weren't expecting; some good and some bad.

One of the biggest surprises among the players so far has been tight end Zach Sudfeld. Unfortunately, it hasn't been a good surprise.

It may seem strange to say the rookie has been a disappointment since he was undrafted out of the University of Nevada. Simply making the team should be a success on its own, but his production to date has fallen well short of the hype he received during preseason.

The 24-year-old Sudfeld was the beneficiary of an unexpected opportunity because of how thin the tight end position suddenly got for the Patriots. Aaron Hernandez was arrested on charges of murder, and immediately released by the team, while Rob Gronkowski has yet to play this year following multiple offseason surgeries.

At 6'7" and 260 pounds, Sudfeld has surprisingly soft hands for his player his size. His pass-catching skills are the most advanced part of his game, but he really came on as a blocker during preseason, where he routinely impressed observers and earned the nickname of "Studfeld." The team even released veteran Jake Ballard because they were confident they would not need him.

Sudfeld has not yet lived up to the legend he helped create this summer, where he consistently stood out in practices and game action.

The rookie has played sparingly in two of the first three games (he missed the Week 2 game against the New York Jets with a hamstring injury). He has been targeted for passes just three times by quarterback Tom Brady and hasn't yet recorded his first NFL regular season reception.

Although Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui, and the recently signed Matthew Mulligan are the only healthy tight ends currently on the roster, the youngster has found it difficult to get off the bench.

When Sudfeld has played, he has not run crisp routes, which has obviously not created any bond of trust between him and Brady. This discomfort was compounded by a pass going through his hands and to a defender for an interception in his debut against the Buffalo Bills. He was subsequently benched by coach Bill Belichick for most of the remainder of that game.

The Patriots have even resorted to using offensive lineman Nate Solder at tight end for some plays; a further indication of their reluctance to throw Sudfeld into the deep end.

Having faltered after being given such an enormous opportunity rare for a player of his draft pedigree, Sudfeld now faces an even more difficult task to get his footing.

Gronkowski is nearing his return. His presence will push Sudfeld even further into the recesses of the sideline, as the team will gladly use their two-time Pro Bowl tight end over the untested rookie.

The Patriots won't use players they don't trust. A perfect example of this was the benching of starting running back Stevan Ridley earlier this season because of fumble issues.

Sudfeld is about to enter a vicious cycle, as he needs to play in order to gain his own confidence and that of his teammates and coaches. However, it will be increasingly difficult for him to get opportunities to prove himself once Gronkowski is back.

Expectations can run very high for the fans of the Patriots; even in the case of an undrafted rookie like Sudfeld. If he hadn't stood out so impressively in preseason, he wouldn't be a candidate for such a dubious distinction as an early-season disappointment.

While the young tight end may be off to a rough start, he still has time to develop into a productive player. Instead of buying into the hype, patience will be needed in waiting for him to transform into the type of player the team believes he can become.

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/27/2013 11:40 AM

The Falcons, in part because of leaky pass protection, have relied heavily on their short passing game early in 2013.

But offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants to start launching some bombs. He knows that teams, perhaps starting with New England on Sunday, will start jumping all of those short routes.

For instance, Julio Jones is going start getting pummeled on all of those screens if the threat of the deep pass in not present.

“We need to have more vertical shots in our game,” Koetter said. “That’s something that we are probably lacking right now. We just have to get more of an element of the vertical game.”

In addition to pass-protection issues, wide receiver Roddy White has been hobbled by his high ankle sprain.

“There are multiple factors in there that I’m not going to get into,” Koetter said. “There is more than one reason, but you are not scaring the defense if you’re not threatening vertically, that’s for sure.”

According to NFL statistics, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ranks 30th in average pass length (including incomplete passes) at 6.14 yards and 32nd in the average length his passes travel in the air before completions (4.56).

According to Pro Football Focus, just 38.5 percent of Ryan’s 909 passing yards come before the catch. That’s the lowest percentage in the league.

The Falcons’ offensive line is still developing. They could get a boost with the possible return of Sam Baker at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons stay with Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle or if they go back to the struggling Lamar Holmes.

The second-player could probably benefit for taking a step back and watching for awhile.

Pat Hill, one of the Falcons’ offensive line coaches, along with Paul Dunn, worked with New England coach Bill Belichick during his Cleveland head-coaching stint.

“Pat is an excellent coach,” Belichick said. “He does a great job. He’s a good fundamental teacher. He has a great way of motivating his players. He works them hard. Everybody loves him. He’s a guy that has a real upbeat and positive energy.”

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/28/2013 10:45 AM

After being limited during practice throughout the week, New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) are questionable for Sunday night's matchup against the Falcons in Atlanta. Neither is expected to play, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

For Amendola, who said earlier this week that he anticipates being 100 percent "shortly," this represents an upgrade from last week's status, when he was listed as doubtful before sitting out against the Buccaneers.

He has been a limited participant in practice since injuring his groin against the Bills in Week 1 and clearly was affected by the injury in the days following. He has shown steady improvement since, as he has moved with less strain in more recent practices.

Gronkowski, meanwhile, is questionable to play for the second straight week after being listed as doubtful for the first two weeks of the season. The Patriots have been without their star tight end since a divisional round playoff win over the Texans in last season's playoffs, during which he re-broke the same forearm that was initially injured in Week 11 of last season.

In addition to the forearm injury, Gronkowski had a back procedure in June that typically requires roughly 12 weeks of recovery time. This past Tuesday was 14 weeks removed from the operation, and signs point to a return from Gronkowski in the near future, perhaps as soon as Sunday night.

He has stressed in recent weeks that he continues to improve and is working to regain the strength throughout his body, as he was forced to rest for a couple of months while recovering from the final surgery.

coleryan Posts:21705 Followers:24
09/29/2013 08:08 AM

Pick: Patriots +1

The Falcons are in trouble and have problems on both sides of the ball. The Pats won't have Gronk, but anytime I can get Tom Brady and the points I will.