Despite all the fervor engulfing Foxboro at this time last week, reasonable New England Patriots fans knew the team would be just fine. The Patriots largely justified this even-keeled sentiment last Sunday, rolling over the Bucs with a passing game that was refreshingly proficient, at least for stretches.
The small sample size of an NFL season makes each week's result ripe for overreaction, but with three games in the books, there is enough evidence to make a reasonable conjecture at a team's identity. Thus far, it appears the Patriots are a well-rounded team with a less explosive but still efficient offense, and a bend-but-don't-break defense that can limit big passing plays while shutting down the run game.
The Pats have yet to play a likely playoff team, and Week 4 will be the first true test of whether their identity is good enough to win against the cream of the crop. The Falcons are probably a notch below the league's elite, but Matt Ryan is 35-9 at home in his career, and New England faces an uphill battle trying to win in the Georgia Dome.
For the Patriots to win on Sunday night, someone besides the likes of Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork will have to play at an elite level. The 1-2 Falcons certainly have some exploitable holes, particularly on defense, and the Patriots will have to take advantage against what will certainly be a desperate team.
The following three players would play important roles against any team, but against Atlanta, they should be salivating at the opportunity to make a huge impact. Here are the three X-factors most likely to break out and help carry the Patriots to a tough road win in Week 4.
The undrafted rookie is quickly emerging as Tom Brady's favorite outside receiver, ranking 12th in the league with 27 targets. Thompkins has only caught nine of those targets, but there were some definite signs of improvement against Tampa in Week 3, especially in regards to timing.
Thompkins earned national praise this preseason, in part because of his strong route-running ability. That skill did not suddenly disappear the first two weeks; rather, he often ran the wrong depth on routes, a fatal error in a timing-based system like New England's.
Take this play against the Jets from Week 2. With the corner playing off, Thompkins and Brady both saw the hole in the zone. Brady fired almost immediately, expecting Thompkins to sit down:
Instead, Thompkins absentmindedly wandered towards the crashing defensive backs. Not only did that afford the defense an opportunity to contest the pass, but it also made Brady's throw a bit behind Thompkins, causing the rookie to drop the pass:
Those are simple mistakes, and Thompkins was much more precise on Sunday. On this 20-yard reception, he smartly extends his route to the corner, allowing Brady to find the soft spot in the zone:
Against the Falcons, Thompkins' tactician technique should bode well against a spotty rookie corner. With Asante Samuel battling a thigh injury all year, Atlanta turned to a pair of rookies in Desmond Trufant and Robert McClain against Miami. Both have turned in negative pass coverage performances thus far, though Trufant has been passable.
Since Thompkins usually lines up on the left side, he will likely square off against the first-rounder Trufant, who has played at right corner for all but three snaps this season. Despite the disparity in draft statuses, one of Trufant's biggest knocks was his lack of stellar technique. For instance, on this critical 4th-and-2 play late in the Week 2 game against St. Louis, Trufant gets his hips turned the wrong way and gives the receiver too much room inside. Beaten, he commits pass interference on the play, conceding a first down:
Thompkins may not have the speed to zoom past the athletically gifted Trufant, but his technique and improved chemistry with Brady should allow him to get open on Sunday night.
With a well-deserved extension in tow, most Patriots fans are probably past the point of calling Ninkovich a scrappy overachiever. In truth, Ninkovich is a dynamic playmaking force and one of the most important cogs in the Patriots defense.
Though Ninkovich has compiled just a single sack on the season, his 11 total pressures ranks 12th among all 4-3 defensive ends. This week might bear fruit in the more traditional stats, as Falcons right tackle Lamar Holmes has been rated as the second-worst pass-blocking tackle in football. In fact, Holmes has turned in two of the eight worst performances by a tackle this year:
In Week 1, Holmes' minus-4.0 pass-blocking performance against the Saints was the fourth-worst among all tackles and a large part of the reason why Atlanta's offense stalled after a strong start. Right away, it's abundantly clear how stiff Holmes is when encountering finesse pass-rushing moves. Here, Cameron Jordan uses a simple swim move that leaves Holmes lunging:
Last week, Holmes shifted over to left tackle in place of an injured Sam Baker, and the results were even more disastrous. A minus-5.3 pass-blocking grade was the worst of any tackle in Week 3. Though Miami actually did not record a sack, numerous pressures like this sabotaged the Falcons' air attack:
Either Ninkovich or Chandler Jones will get to feast on Holmes this week, depending on Baker's return. If Holmes plays left tackle again, Ninkovich will likely match up against Jeremy Trueblood, whom the Falcons signed off the street at the start of the season.
Ninkovich has gotten close this season, and with a juicy matchup against an overmatched tackle, fans should prepare themselves to see the familiar sight of No. 50 creating a huge turnover.
It feels bizarre calling Gronk an X-factor, but after months of rehab, it's fair to expect some rust with the All-Pro tight end. Last week, NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported that Gronk would "definitely be playing" by Week 4, so it appears that his return is finally here.
If he does return, Gronkowski couldn't ask for a much better opponent to exploit. The Falcons' undersized corners appear ill-equipped to contain Gronk, starting free safety Thomas DeCoud has compiled a minus-4.4 grade in pass coverage, and Atlanta is short on coverage linebackers.
This lack of depth shows up most blatantly in the red zone, where opponents have scored seven touchdowns on 10 trips this season against the Falcons. That dismal percentage gives Atlanta the 24th-ranked red zone defense thus far, per TeamRankings.com.
The injuries have wreaked havoc with the secondary's communication, as some critical blown assignments have resulted in catastrophe. Here, against the Dolphins, the Falcons had two players to cover two receivers, but they both zoned in on the flat route:
That left Brian Hartline wide open on a corner route. The safety had no chance to bail the corners out, resulting in an easy 18-yard touchdown:
The Falcons will almost certainly try to bracket Gronkowski with double coverage in the red area, and one player who could stymie the hulking tight end is strong safety William Moore. Moore possesses solid size at 6'0" and 223 pounds, and he can be dangerous with good playmaking instincts. For instance, here he picks off Drew Brees after reading the dig route and breaking on the throw:
Still, Moore is only one player, and three years of evidence irrefutably suggests that Gronkowski is impossible to cover one-on-one. One would not expect significant timing issues throughout the game, though there might be an uncharacteristic mishap or two as he re-adjusts to game speed.
Do not be fooled though; this article is about the Falcons' biggest weaknesses, and it does not represent how difficult it will be for New England to win on the road. After all, the Patriots face equally daunting tasks trying to contain the likes of Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
However, these three players do equate to the Patriots' biggest advantages—mismatches they almost certainly must win to have a reasonable chance at victory. The Pats always harp upon complete 60-minute efforts, which is an attainable but tremendously difficult goal. There are certain games where this kind of all-around consistency is necessary, and Sunday night marks the first true type of that test.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all photo stills courtesy NFL.com.