It's hard to believe, but we are not into Week 11 of the 2021 NFL season. The playoff picture is starting to come into clearer shape, and teams are beginning to jockey for positioning.
Two such teams will be in action later this evening, as the New England Patriots pay a visit to the Atlanta Falcons on "Thursday Night Football." New England is 6-4, a half-game back of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East and occupying sixth place in the AFC. Atlanta is just 4-5, but that record puts the Falcons within a half-game of the No. 7 seed in the conference.
Needless to say, both teams have to come away with a win to maintain the pace they want to be keeping. So, will the Patriots take care of business on the road, or will the Falcons pull off an upset in their own building? Let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Patriots have the ball
Mac Jones made two outrageously good throws last week against the Browns (links right here and here) and he has unquestionably been the best of the rookie quarterbacks throughout this season, but I think the degree to which he's succeeding is being somewhat exaggerated at this particular moment due to the fact that A. he is on the Patriots; and B. the Pats have won four consecutive games.
That's not to say Jones isn't playing well; he is. He's just not necessarily been the driving force of New England's success. And that's okay, because he doesn't need to be. Right now, all the Pats need him to do is not make mistakes, and to hit the right receiver with the right throw at the right time. They don't yet need him to create things outside the structure of the offense, or lift the supporting cast all on his own. Most rookies can't do that anyway, and because the Patriots have such a strong overall infrastructure, they don't have to ask Jones to do it at all.
I do wonder what would happen if teams employed more man coverage against the Patriots. Jones is at his best when he's able to quickly identify coverage after the snap and get the ball out before defenders close in on his receiver. If defenses play more man, they'll be forcing him to either throw his receivers open (he doesn't have elite arm strength, but does have a very quick release to make up for it), or those receivers to generate more separation than they are typically capable of. It's not the most dynamic group. If Jones sees zones, though, he's going to be able to pick them apart with decision-making and accuracy, and with the knowledge/game-planning advantage baked into the team's offense by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. That's a great baseline for success, and he's fully capable of reaching it right now, and exceeding it as he grows into the role.
Whether putting the game on Jones' right shoulder or into the hands of Damien Harris (expected to return after missing Sunday's game while still working his way through the concussion protocol) and Rhamondre Stevenson, the Pats should be able to move the ball pretty freely. Atlanta ranks just 22nd in Football Outsiders' rush defense DVOA, and 30th against the pass. The Falcons have stopped just 13 percent of opponent rush attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage, a rate that ranks 26th in the NFL. That's been New England's biggest issue this year (20 percent of runs have been stuffed), so facing an opponent that is not necessarily equipped to take advantage of it puts the Patriots in a good position.
When the Falcons have the ball
Only two teams (the Dolphins and Broncos) have played man coverage on a larger share of opponent dropbacks than have the Patriots, who have done so 43.7 percent of the time. It makes far too much sense for New England to utilize a heavy dose of man looks in this matchup, as that's been an area of struggle for Matt Ryan. He's just 42 of 74 for 487 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions against defenses playing man this season, according to TruMedia. That's good for a 79.1 passer rating, far south of the league average of 94.7.
The Falcons are already down their top wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, who is taking time away from football to address his mental health. His absence leaves them incredibly thin at wide receiver, to the point that they've had to shift Cordarrelle Patterson from the backfield to the slot and out wide even more often than they did earlier in the season. But Patterson injured his ankle during the team's blowout loss to the Cowboys last Sunday, and seems to be on the doubtful side of questionable for this game.
That essentially leaves rookie tight end Kyle Pitts as the team's lone receiving threat. (Nobody is threatened by any of Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheus, or Tajae Sharpe; and No. 2 tight end Hayden Hurst is out for this game.) Belichick will almost surely game plan to take away Pitts. That's what the last few Falcons opponents have seemingly done, and he has just nine catches for 135 yards on 20 targets over the past three weeks. (He had previously broken out with 9-119-1 against the Jets and 7-163-0 against the Dolphins.)
Pitts has been far more effective running routes against linebackers and safeties (3.04 yards per route run) than against cornerbacks (1.85), according to Ian Hartitz of Pro Football Focus. There would seem to be an opportunity to get Pitts lined up as an in-line tight end more often than in recent weeks, but with Ridley and Patterson out the Falcons almost have to line him up outside or they'll have nobody available to threaten the wide areas of the field. It's a tough balance to strike. Pitts is talented enough that he could potentially break loose for a big play, but it's going to be tough given how much sense it makes for the Pats to devote nearly all of their defensive attention to stopping him.
Ryan is also one of the league's most stationary quarterbacks, and thus one of its most vulnerable to heavy pressure. He's not really able to move off his spot and make plays outside of structure. Matt Judon has basically been unblockable this season, and while Josh Uche was placed on injured reserve, the Pats are at least getting Chase Winovich back to complement Judon on the edge. Whichever of them is rushing against right tackle Kaleb McGary (last seen getting absolutely smoked by Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons last week) should have a distinct advantage.
If Patterson sits out, the Falcons will likely split the backfield work between Mike Davis and Wayne Gallman. It's easier to run on the Patriots than throw against them, but Atlanta has had almost no success running the ball this season and is likely to have even less of it without Patterson in the lineup.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Falcons 20