Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- It wasn't that long ago that it felt like the Patriots couldn't get off the field on third down. Last week against the Jets, during their first drive, the Patriots defense put quarterback Josh McCown in four third-down scenarios . . . and he converted on all four. The last was a short touchdown pass to put New England in an early hole. 

Sunday night's 23-7 win over the Falcons was a different story. Atlanta went 2-for-9 on its third-down chances at Gillette Stadium and 1-for-3 on fourth down. In a game where the Patriots were dominating the time of possession (they ended up controlling the football for 34:05), the Falcons were desperate to keep their offense on the field.

They couldn't. 

"We made a lot of plays when we needed to make them," said Bill Belichick. "Red area, third down, some critical situations, goal line. We didn’t make all of the plays, but when big plays came up we were able to make those plays. Those are big stops for us.

"Again, give the players credit. They’re covering good receivers. They’re playing against a good offensive team, a good quarterback, good system, good offensive line. They just really competed with them all the way through. When those plays needed to be made we stepped up and we were able to make most of them."

Two of Atlanta's first three drives were three-and-outs. On their fourth series, late in the second quarter and down 10-0, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Patriots 47-yard line.

The Falcons had plenty of time to think it over since the two-minute warning came down following their third-down play. Still, judging by the play call, they felt their best shot at picking up the necessary yardage was to attack Patriots corner Jonathan Jones in one-on-one coverage during a Mohamed Sanu corner route. Matt Ryan overthrew his target and the Patriots took over, driving the field and scoring in the half's final seconds. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

"They were playing aggressive tonight, as they should," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "They have great weapons over there and a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, and the list goes on with the guys they've got. They had a lot of confidence in going for it."

But going for it on fourth down so early in the game caught some Patriots players off-guard. They had their punt-return team on the field and ready to go but had to make a late switch in order to be ready for the pass play. 

The Falcons converted one fourth down, their first, on their second drive of the night when Ryan scrambled for nine on fourth-and-seven. But they failed their next two, and some Patriots players acknowledged the aggressiveness of their opponents was heaed-scratching. 

"It kind of surprised us at some point," Trey Flowers said. "They had to make a play and they wanted to make a play, so they figured it was the right opportunity to try to make it. We had to play four downs."

"That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too," Duron Harmon said. "They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did. Even when they got it on the first fourth down, we kept them out of the end zone. We played really good and didn’t give up any points. When they got in the red zone, we made it really hard for them to score. That’s what we need to continue to do and continue to build on this performance."

The Patriots got their second fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter -- a gut-punch for a Falcons offense that at the time was trailing, 20-0. On third down, Malcolm Butler broke up a goal-line pass intended for Julio Jones. On fourth, Atlanta attempted an end-around run with speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel that was snuffed out quickly by Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The play lost five yards and got the Patriots started on a 74-yard field-goal drive.

"I thought we competed and made them earn every yard," Devin McCourty said. "When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well."

It was certainly better than it had been at times earlier this season. For the Patriots -- without corners Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore -- to hold the reigning MVP and his teammates to a 25 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs? That's an authoritative step in the right direction. 

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'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Jones suggests Falcons comeback attempt hampered by fog

Jones suggests Falcons comeback attempt hampered by fog

FOXBORO -- When the field was flipped as Sunday night's Patriots-Falcons game moved from the third to the fourth quarter, Tom Brady and his offense moved from their spot near the south end zone to the opposite end of Gillette Stadium. As they headed toward the lighthouse, they strutted into the mist and disappeared slowly until they were almost fully out of sight. 

Though most players said afterward that it didn't impact what happened on the field during New England's 23-7 win, the fog was thick enough to force NBC to abandon its standard camera angle, and Bill Belichick hinted that it made life difficult on Patriots spotters residing in the upper levels of the stadium.

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The fog was also an apparent source of frustration for Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who suggested that it may have impacted the deep passing game as Atlanta was attempting its comeback.

"It didn’t affect me, but it’s crazy, though," he said. "Like, they score and they shoot fireworks off and then it sits high, kind of in the stadium. So it’s kind of hard, like, if you do get behind, like, how can you throw deep balls and things like that, because it’s foggy? I mean, it didn’t affect us at all though. They were just the better team tonight."

Most other players just kind of marveled at the weather as it hung above the field like a low ceiling.

"Yeah, the fog – that was crazy," Brady said. "I have never seen that. It was just so still out there. The fog had no place to go. I don’t think it affected much, really, at the end of the day. I’m sure it looked cool on TV, though."

"I’ve never," Dion Lewis said, "seen anything like that before."

"I mean, a deep ball up in the air was definitely more difficult," Rob Gronkowski said. "But, it didn’t change anything in the game."

For coaches and staff spending the game watching from high above the turf, relaying what they saw to their peers on the sidelines, the fog was an issue. But Belichick liked the way his crew handled it. 

"Well, I think the coaches upstairs did a real good job on that," he said. "It was challenging at times. I would say I don’t know what happened with Atlanta, but for us we took a couple of timeouts. It wasn’t really because of the fog. It was just we wanted to get our goal line in there on the goal line. I wouldn’t attribute it to that, but it was not easy for our spotters upstairs to get it.

"That being said, I didn’t think it really affected the game too much. Not the most normal situation, but my first year in the league with Baltimore in '75 when we beat Miami and then that didn’t clinch the playoffs but it put us pretty close in Baltimore. The final kick game down to, you know, Toni Linhart. It was about a 40-yard field goal and you could see the line of scrimmage, you could see the two teams line up for the field goal but once the ball left his foot you had no idea whether it was good or not good, so we had to wait for the official signal. So, that’s the first year. I haven’t had anything that bad since . . . I’d say this was – it was tough to see from up on top. I wouldn’t say it was that bad on the field. I mean, it wasn’t clear but I don’t think it changed anything."

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