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Perry's Report Card: Pats' 'scary' defense jumps all over Falcons

/ by Phil Perry
Presented By Mass School of Law
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ATLANTA -- J.C. Jackson felt he needed to repeat himself. 

"It's going to be scary," he said. "It's going to be scary."

He was talking about the Patriots defense, which had just spent four quarters scaring the life out of the Falcons. In its shutout win, 25-0, Bill Belichick's club sacked Matt Ryan four times.

The Patriots picked off Ryan twice... then picked off his backup, Josh Rosen... then picked off third-stringer Feleipe Franks... all in the fourth quarter. They allowed just 2.5 yards per rush, 3.5 yards per dropback and 3.2 yards per play.

Patriots takeaways: Defense dominates in shutout win over Falcons

How much scarier could they be, really?

If they keep this up, they'll be in the conversation as the best defense in football. Sinc Dak Prescott and the Cowboys torched them through the air in Week 6, only one of their last five opponents has broken 14 points. In that span, they're allowing an average of 10.0 points per game. 

Are those performances coming against the very best offenses the NFL has to offer? No. 

The Chargers are a top-half-of-the-league team in terms of scoring. The Browns ranked No. 12 in EPA/play before taking on the Patriots. The Falcons have one of the best quarterbacks in football over the last 10 years. But the Falcons are a shell of the offense Ryan had at his disposal in his prime. Then include Mike White's Jets and Sam Darnold's Panthers, and the Patriots haven't exactly faced a lineup of offensive juggernauts lately. 

Still, the team has been so utterly dominant of late it's difficult not to take notice. In their last three games, their defense has scored more touchdowns (two) than they've allowed (one).

 

Part of what made Thursday night so impressive was that the Patriots didn't appear to do all that much in the way of disguising their intentions to fluster the Falcons. They occasionally moved their safeties just before the snap. They sent pressure with their linebackers. 

But, for the most part, they plain beat up the Falcons. Twelve of Atlanta's 16 runs went for three yards or fewer. And when Atlanta tried to pass, the Patriots racked up 12 quarterback hits and four drive-altering sacks. 

"We kind of want to be a-holes on the field, but good guys off the field, and make sure we don't get penalized," Matt Judon said. "We play within the rules, but we're a nasty group. That's how we like to play, and that's how we gotta play in order for our team to win."

In pressuring Ryan, the Patriots got him to do something he hadn't been doing consistently all year: hold the ball.

"Well, I think this year he’s really done a good job and has really improved his timing on the passing game and not holding the ball as long, getting it out on time more consistently," Belichick said earlier this week. 

But it was precisely Ryan's inability to get rid of the football that reared its head on a few occasions in the first half of Thursday night's matchup with the Patriots.

Over the course of the season prior to his matchup with the Patriots, Ryan ranked inside the top-10 quickest throwers in the league (2.51 seconds to throw). On Thursday, according to Next Gen Stats, it took him 2.83 seconds to release. If that was his average over the course of the season, he'd be 22nd in football in that category.

The longer the wait, the worse it seemed to get for Ryan.

For whatever the reason -- bad offensive line play, an injured foot, bad decision-making -- Ryan wasn't the guy Belichick thought he was getting on Thursday.

Phil Perry

On second down in the first quarter, Ryan held and looked deep. He took a shot from Deatrich Wise for his efforts, and with a little extra time spent in the pocket, Devin McCourty had plenty of time to get over to the throw and break it up.

On the very next play, a third and nine, Ryan had to hold onto it again to try to push it down the field. While he waited, Christian Barmore dusted his center, drew a hold, and Ryan forced a throw that was broken up by Joejuan Williams.

A third-down play in the second quarter was a true killer for Ryan, though. Thanks to a busted pass-protection assignment, Atlanta left a running back to block either Kyle Van Noy or Lawrence Guy. Or both. Not a good situation.

But instead of throwing the ball away, Ryan held and took a sack by Kyle Van Noy. That pushed the Falcons back 13 yards. An illegal formation penalty followed, and then the Falcons missed a 50-yard field goal.

 

"He has a good arm, reads coverages well and all that," Belichick said earlier this week. "There’s never really been a question on that, but I feel like in watching him play last year to this year that his timing is good. The ball comes out quickly, and he’s just not holding it very much. He’s getting it to his outlet receivers quickly, getting the ball in their hands, and then they’re able to make positive plays.

"I think he’s just improved in that area... I think it’s noticeable how much more efficient he’s been in the passing game. His completion percentage is up. His sacks and interceptions are down. I think he’s playing well."

For whatever the reason -- bad offensive line play, an injured foot, bad decision-making -- Ryan wasn't the guy Belichick thought he was getting on Thursday. He threw two ugly picks in the second half. He couldn't convert on third or fourth down (3-for-13). He couldn't overcome the lack of talent possessed by his surrounding cast, and as a result, the Falcons never got on the scoreboard.

It wasn't always pretty for the Patriots, either. Particularly offensively. But they were scary defensively going against an overmatched opponent. 

Let's get to the grades.

Quarterback: C

Mac Jones came through with another passing grade, though he wasn’t as dialed-in as he was a few days before against the Browns. He completed a whopping 85 percent of his passes with a low average depth of target (6.3 yards). But he also averaged 8.0 yards per attempt, indicating his pass-catchers had room to work with the ball in their hands.

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Jones threw a couple of dimes on the same drive in the third quarter when he first bailed on a well-timed free-safety blitz, bought himself an extra second, and found Jakobi Meyers for a first down. Later he lofted a perfectly-thrown football to Hunter Henry on a crossing route.

But that was followed by his worst throw of the night. Jones called his interception a "poor throw and a poor read." It could also go down as a poor decision since it came on first down with the Patriots out to a comfortable lead. 

The pick ended up docking this grade significantly, but former Patriots linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Dean Pees had some other tricks up his sleeve that dinged Jones’ mark Thursday. Jones was sacked three times in the game, all when facing a blitz.

The rookie signal-caller acknowledged after the game that because of some poor communication at the line on his end, those pressures weren't able to be picked up. The commonality between the rushes seemed to be that they all came late; they disguised their intentions until the ball was snapped.

One came from the linebacker level and two came from the secondary. One turned a fourth-quarter field goal into a 53-harder (that Nick Folk drilled) after losing 12 yards.

It’ll be interesting to see if Jones continues to get blitzed at a high rate down the stretch. Through 11 games, only Lamar Jackson (120) has seen more blitzes than Jones (108).

 

Running back: B+

This grade might be higher had Rhamondre Stevenson’s massive fourth-quarter run, during which he broke two tackles and reversed the field to find running room, actually counted. It was brought back by a David Andrews holding penalty.

With 125 yards on 22 combined carries, Stevenson and Harris averaged 5.7 yards per attempt. Against a run defense that had been allowing 4.2 yards per carry on the season, that was quite a showing.

Credit to both Stevenson and Harris for continuing to plow into a wall in the running game until they were able to soften up the Atlanta front late in the first quarter. From there, whether it was on fullback isolation runs up the gut or crack-toss plays to the outside, there were chunk gains to be had. 

Wide receiver: B+

Strong night from this group, which proved it could get open against a middling secondary. Jones got warm with a few easy-access throws to the boundary to the likes of N’Keal Harry and Kendrick Bourne. Jakobi Meyers also put his effective route-running on display — particularly when he made a corner fall down with a smooth corner route during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half.

Meyers shook free on another third-down throw in the third quarter, but Jones simply missed him. Meyers did fall down on one route that helped kill a drive, but he also drew a defensive pass interference call. Good things generally happen when he’s targeted, and if Jones has time, that usually gives Meyers time to find a way to free himself from coverage.

Meyers also had a strong block on Rhamondre Stevenson’s 21-yard scamper in the first quarter. Harry had a good block of his own on a seven-yarder by Stevenson later in the game. Mix in Nelson Agholor’s coverage-bust touchdown and you’ve got the makings of a nice all-around performance from this group. 

Tight end: C

Hunter Henry made a great grab over the middle on what was arguably Jones’ best throw of the night. Jonnu Smith made his presence felt early by catching a pass in the flat and turning it into a 17-yard gain after breaking a tackle.

But this pair combined for just three grabs on five targets for 42 yards. And in the run game there seemed to be more down moments than positive ones.

Smith helped open up a big gainer for Stevenson with a seal on the edge, but he also was on the scene at the point of attack on three stuffed runs and he was called for a hold.

Offensive line: B

It was a bit of a slog in the running game early on, featuring several stuffed runs including a Brandon Bolden sweep to nowhere on third down in the first quarter. But after a 21-yarder from Stevenson and 14 and 17-yarders from Harris, the floodgates opened.

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A 10-yard run in the fourth quarter, in which Trent Brown threw linebacker Foyesade Oluokun to the ground with relative ease, was a highlight. Holding back this grade are Andrews’ holding penalty and the three sacks allowed, though without knowing the protection plans on those particular plays, it’s hard to know how those Falcons blitzes should’ve been picked up or if they should’ve been Jones’ responsibility.

Special teams: B+

If not for a hold on Cody Davis, a block in the back from Justin Bethel and a near tackle by Chase Winovich ... on his teammate Gunner Olszewski ... this grade would be higher. Because Jake Bailey looked like All-Pro punter Jake Bailey. He knocked one down to the Atlanta four-yard line, one to the 12, and a 60-yarder that landed at the Falcons 19-yard line.

Combine a steady night from Nick Folk (who banged a 53-yarder through after Jones took a bad sack), and two strong tackles by Jalani Tavai and there was a lot to like from this group. 

Defensive line: A

Could this group have done more to prevent a fourth-and-1 conversion that went for 10 yards? Sure. Potentially. But where else did they err? Carl Davis looked like every bit of the behemoth he is when he bench pressed his blocker off him and helped make a fourth-down stop at the end of the third quarter.

Davon Godchaux had a fourth-quarter sack. Christian Barmore had a pressure, a quarterback hit and a run stuff, and he drew a hold. Deatrich Wise had two pressures, a hit, and he contributed to a run stuff.  

Lawrence Guy had a stuff and blew up a screen that led to a sack. Through three quarters, this unit helped to hold Atlanta to 2.7 yards rushing.

Linebacker: A

In one of the best performances from this group this season, it was fitting that two 'backers were in on one of the the biggest plays of the game.

With the Falcons driving early in the fourth quarter -- Matt Ryan had just completed passes for 16 and 19 yards -- both Dont'a Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley broke through the shoddy Atlanta line to put a lick on the quarterback. Under duress, Ryan unleashed a horrible throw that was picked by a sliding Devin McCourty.

Kyle Van Noy ended up with a pick-six in the fourth quarter, two sacks and a pair of stuffs. Career night.

Judon picked up a sack of his own -- giving him a career-high 10.5 -- to go along with a run stuff and a quarterback hit. Hightower was a force in the run game with four stuffs on the night, including one on third down that helped lead to the fourth-down stop by Davis and Adrian Phillips.

 

Dominant night from this group.

Secondary: A-

The door was open for the Falcons. They had moments in the second half when they pushed the ball down the field. But thanks in part to a sure-handed secondary, those moments were brief.

McCourty's pick early in the fourth quarter was a back-breaker for a Falcons team down just 13 points. The interception was McCourty's 30th of his career, making him just the third player in franchise history to reach that number.

Later, with about five minutes left, J.C. Jackson got another. It made him the franchise leader in interceptions through his first four seasons, surpassing Hall of Famer Mike Haynes. And it just about squelched any chance Atlanta had of coming back.

With little margin for error, Ryan finished with an average yards-per-attempt figure of just 5.5. This unit picked another pass late for good measure when Phillips intercepted third-stringer Feleipe Franks.

A defensive pass interference on Jalen Mills and a few lost one-on-one matchups by slot corner Myles Bryant might've knocked this grade down a touch on another night. But too many big plays from this group for this grade to be anything but an "A."