Patriots defense is trending up, but can be exploited by underperforming Falcons

In a season defined (so far) by failed expectations, the New England Patriots are the poster boys. Coming off their fifth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick, the Patriots were considered the runaway favorites once again. In our season preview, I even wrote that they'd flirt with another unbeaten season. With an offense featuring Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Brandin CooksJulian Edelman, and a seemingly unending stream of capable running backs, how could they not?

The answer to that question isn't Edelman's season-ending injury. It's the defense. 

It's Week 7, the Patriots are 4-2 -- so it has only been a slow start by Belichick's probably unfair standards -- and they're not the best team in football. Don't blame their offense for their start. They're scoring 28.7 points per game. Blame their defense, which is allowing 26.5 points per game -- the third-most in football.

The Patriots host the 3-2 Falcons on Sunday night in a rematch of last season's Super Bowl when -- in case you've somehow forgotten -- the Falcons choked away a 28-3 lead. The most intriguing aspect of this game will be how the Falcons handle their reunion with the Patriots after their traumatic experience the last time around. The sexiest aspect will be the two top offenses engaging in a shootout. The most important aspect will be how the Patriots defense holds up against Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones.

They'll be tested on Sunday and, as a result, Sunday's Super Bowl rematch will provide a barometer of how much New England's defense has improved since the disastrous start to the season.

Patriots: Trending in the right direction

This shouldn't come as a surprise given Belichick and rocket scientist Matt Patricia are coaching up the Patriots defense, but they're trending in the right direction. It appears they're righting the ship -- rather, they're pulling up their sunken ship from the bottom of the ocean.

In Week 1, the Patriots gave up 42 points to the Chiefs. In Week 2, they gave up 20 to the Saints. In Weeks 3 and 4, they gave up 33 points to both the Texans and Panthers. But in Weeks 5 and 6, the Patriots allowed 31 combined points to the Buccaneers and Jets. Of course, it's worth noting that the Jets are the Jets, and they would've scored seven more points if not for a questionable call at the goal line that turned a touchdown into a turnover.

Still, the defense is improving. Let's give them credit. So, what's changed?

For one, the schedule has softened. The Chiefs and Texans haven't just put up points against the Patriots. Those teams boast some of the best offensive units in football. Kansas City is tied with Houston for the second-most points score per game. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers and Jets are ranked 13th and 26th in scoring, respectively. 

Two, the defense is actually playing better. The most important aspect? They're stopping the ground game. In the Patriots' first four games, when they were gashed for 32 points per game, they allowed 132.8 rushing yards per game. In the Patriots' past two games, when the Buccaneers and Jets scored 15.5 points per game against them, they allowed 82 rushing yards per game. 

Three, the Patriots' coaches have done their job. I'll Belichick explain, as he did on Monday.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the Patriots' bend-don't-break approach. In the past two weeks, the Buccaneers and Jets combined to go 3 of 7 (43 percent) in the red zone. In the first four weeks, the Patriots' foes went 9 of 14 (64 percent) in the red zone.

This Patriots defense is never going to be a dominant unit. The talent level in the front seven isn't good enough for that. But if they can keep limiting teams to field goals, that'll be more than enough considering how good their offense is.

Falcons: Better than this

The Falcons offense is not performing like we thought it would. The Falcons are averaging 24.2 points per game. Last year, they led the league in scoring with 33.8 points per game. In each of their past two games -- both losses -- they've scored 17 points. They were shut out in the second half this past Sunday, which is how they blew a 17-point lead to the Dolphins. 

The thing is, the Falcons are still moving the ball. They're actually ranked fifth in yards per game with 378.4. According to Football Outsiders, they lead the league in yards per drive (40.3). 

Part of the problem is that the Falcons lost their architect of their offense, Kyle Shanahan, to the 49ers in the offseason. Steve Sarkisian is the team's new offensive coordinator and it's completely fair to question his play calling. The Falcons held a 17-0 halftime lead over the Dolphins on Sunday and in all, they ran the ball only 19 times despite holding that lead and the running game's production (5.3 yards per carry). Meanwhile, Ryan dropped back to pass 37 times. 

Another problem is red zone efficiency. In their past three games, they're struggling to punch it in, scoring a touchdown on just 55.6 percent of their red zone trips, according to TeamRankings.com.

And then there's the quantity problem. The Falcons are 27th in plays per game.

Ryan isn't blameless in all of this. A year after winning MVP by averaging 9.3 yards per pass, throwing 38 touchdowns and seven picks, and posting a 117.1 passer rating, he's regressed. Through six games, he's averaged 8.0 yards per pass, thrown six touchdowns and six picks, and posted an 87.3 passer rating. With that being said, Ryan's been experiencing some bad luck. According to Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar, Ryan has four tipped picks in his past three games. Those passes were tipped by his own receivers. 

So, Ryan's stat line is a little misleading. Take away some of those fluky interceptions, and his season looks significantly better.

Jones has also struggled. He's yet to reach the end zone and he's averaging 73.4 receiving yards per game -- the lowest average of his seven-year career. 

Ryan and Jones will have a chance to get going against a Patriots defense that is still bad against the pass, which is still an area Belichick and Patricia haven't solved. In the past two weeks, the Buccaneers and Jets averaged 326.5 passing yards against the Patriots. Overall, the Patriots rank dead last in passing yards allowed per game. The Falcons can exploit that.

The Falcons' offense is ranked fourth in DVOA. They're better than their disappointingly low point total. Eventually, they're going to explode. It might just happen on Sunday.

Falcons can exploit Patriots

Expect the Falcons to get their deep passing game going, because offenses have been carving up the Patriots downfield. Check out the Patriots defense's passing chart, via Pro Football Focus:

screen-shot-2017-10-17-at-11-02-37-am.png
Key: attempts, completions, yards, TDs, INTs Pro Football Focus

Then again, Ryan has been subpar on passes thrown downfield. Last year, Ryan led the NFL in passer rating on throws that traveled 20-plus yards downfield (136.1), according to PFF. This year, Ryan ranks 14th with an 84.3 passer rating on deep throws. He's gone just 4 of 19 on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield, per PFF. 

In coverage, the Falcons should pick on the Patriots' linebackers. Specifically, Kyle Van Noy has allowed 22 receptions on 25 targets for 235 yards, according to PFF.

Expect Jones to garner more targets, because Falcons coach Dan Quinn wants Jones to carry more of the offense.

"No," Quinn said when asked if he was satisfied with how much they were getting Jones the ball, per the team's website. "The reason I say that is that he's such a factor. We've got to get more possessions, more time, more plays, and I think that is more the byproduct of getting Julio the ball more. It's not where he needs the ball more; we need more plays so he can get the ball more."

To win, the Patriots won't just need to shut down Jones. They'll need to stop the Falcons' running game. They held up against the Buccaneers and Jets, but the Falcons' ground assault is a different animal. Freeman is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and Tevin Coleman is averaging 5.6 yards per carry. It'll be interesting to see if Sarkisian commits to the ground game a week after abandoning it. 

Regardless of their approach, expect the Falcons to move the ball against the Patriots, which has improved, but is still giving up loads of yards on a weekly basis. The game will likely come down to the Falcons' ability to finish drives and take care of the ball -- they've turned the ball over seven times in their past three games after going turnover-less in their first two games. Meanwhile, in addition to their recent stingy red-zone defense, the Patriots forced a season-high three turnovers last week.

If I had to offer a prediction, I'd bet on the Falcons' offense winning the matchup against the Patriots' defense. They'll put up a ton of yards and score a lot of points. The Patriots' defense is trending in the right direction and the Falcons' offense is trending in the wrong direction, but the Falcons' offense is more talented than the Patriots' defense. The Falcons aren't going to struggle on offense forever -- evidenced by their DVOA ranking -- and the Patriots' defense is going to give them plenty of chances. Expect the Falcons to put up points. The Patriots' defense has benefited by two favorable match ups in recent weeks. This isn't a favorable match up. 

But to win the game, the Patriots' defense doesn't need to be perfect. Brady will score points. The Patriots just need to come up with a few timely stops to win. I think they'll do that. Never bet against Belichick. He'll get the most out of his defense. Just don't expect him to do the impossible by completely shutting down the Falcons. Even Belichick can't turn this defense into an elite unit.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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