The weekend is almost here, and that means it's almost time to welcome back those Falcons fans who took a short hiatus following Atlanta's disappointing Week 3 loss to the Dolphins. This Sunday, though, Atlanta returns home to kick off Week 4 with a primetime game against the 3-0 New England Patriots.
Today, we're going to whet your appetite for Sunday's contest by breaking down how we think the Falcons should attack the Patriots on offense, defense and special teams in order to come away with a victory on Sunday.
We'll begin by highlighting some of the key storylines to keep an eye on when the Falcons have the ball.
When Atlanta Has the Ball: Falcons Offense vs. Patriots Defense
After games against two rookie quarterbacks and a struggling Tampa Bay team, the Falcons will easily field the best offensive group that New England has faced thus far in the season.
However, despite ranking ninth in the league in total offense, Atlanta's offensive unit has only accounted for a modest 64 points in three games. The Falcons high-powered scheme has mainly been limited by breakdowns in pass protection, poor execution and inconsistency in the red zone.
Playing at home should help the Falcons offensive execution because of the comfort level the team has on its home turf, but New England's defense has enough talent to exploit Atlanta's deficiencies in pass protection and the red zone.
In lining up against the Patriots defense, the key matchups for Atlanta's offense include: LT Lamar Holmes/Sam Baker vs. DE Chandler Jones; C Peter Konz vs. DT Vince Wilfork; TE Tony Gonzalez vs. the Patriots linebackers; and WR Julio Jones vs. CB Aqib Talib.
How the Falcons Can Attack the Patriots Defense
1. Throw the Ball Downfield
After last season's playoff loss to the Ravens, many observers felt that the secondary was the weak link on New England's defense. Through three games this season, that same suspect secondary has yet to be put to the test, and the Falcons have to change that on Sunday.
Atlanta has favorable matchups against all three of the Patriots top cornerbacks on the outside, and so long as the Falcons offensive line can keep Matt Ryan upright, there should be some opportunities for the kind of big plays that everyone expected from this Atlanta offense at the start of the season.
If Atlanta can manufacture a few big plays, they can save themselves from some of headaches they've had in the red zone recently.
2. Stay Committed to the Screen Game
Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has turned the screen game from a team weakness into a team strength during his short stay in Atlanta.
Staying committed to the screen game will serve two purposes against the Pats. First, the screen game will help Atlanta's offensive line slow down the New England pass rush, because rushers like Chandler Jones and Tommy Kelly won't be able to sell out coming up field.
Second, the screen game will give playmakers like Julio Jones, Roddy White (assuming he's closer to full strength), Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling the opportunity to get the ball in their hands in space against a New England defense that doesn't have a ton of athleticism in the secondary.
3. Get Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White Going
It's a well known fact that Roddy White has been playing through an ankle injury, but he has to start making plays or else he won't be much of a "decoy" anymore. The Falcons have missed White's ability to challenge defenses on intermediate routes and convert third-and-long plays. If White is in the lineup Sunday night, the Falcons would be wise to throw a couple of balls his way early to force the Pats to acknowledge him in coverage.
Like Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez is off to a slow start to this season, too. The Patriots have a quality trio of linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. Tony Gonzalez can help Atlanta's cause by keeping the Patriots linebackers busy in coverage and winning his one-on-one battles in the red zone when his number is called.
4. Stay Ahead of the Defense in the Red Zone
Atlanta's problems in the red zone against the Dolphins were a bit of a microcosm of Atlanta's larger problem with holding leads over its past five games. The Falcons offense seemed to be ahead of the Dolphins defense in terms of execution and tempo—that was until the offense reached the red zone on each of if its failed drives.
In addition to playing better up front, the Falcons must keep the Patriots defense on its heels by running plays that make the most of the limited space that's available in the red zone. Otherwise, they will just have to keep settling for Matt Bryant field goals.
When New England Has the Ball: Patriots Offense vs. Falcons Defense
The Falcons defense will have a tough task—whether Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola play or not—because Tom Brady has proven that he is still capable of moving his team down the field without his top-two targets.
The Patriots have a young receiving corps, but the Falcons also have a young group of cornerbacks. Those matchups should be fun to watch.
Brady has quietly gotten a boost from his ground game, too, as LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen (albeit for one game) have helped place the Patriots at No. 12 in the league in terms of rushing yards.
If Rob Gronkowski does play, Falcons linebacker Joplo Bartu will have to rebound from the subpar outing he had against the Dolphins.
How the Falcons Defense Can Stop the Patriots Offense
1. Eliminate Big Plays in the Run Game
The Falcons cannot let the Patriots establish their ground game early on, because if they do, the defense will be vulnerable to play action later on in the game, and the Patriots will be able to control the clock and keep the ball away from Atlanta's offense. Stopping the run should keep the Patriots in the type of long-yardage situations that are tougher to convert on the road.
2. Get Pressure with Four and Don't Rely on Blitzes
The Falcons didn't have a lot of success getting to Drew Brees and Ryan Tannehill with blitzes. They would be wise to avoid sending extra pressure at Tom Brady this week, because he will see it coming and pick the Falcons apart.
Corey Peters, Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Massaquoi need to feed off of the Georgia Dome crowd and keep heat the on Tom Brady up front, and Atlanta's linebackers need to focus on helping out in coverage while doing their best to fool Brady into a turnover or two.
3. Disguise Pre-Snap Coverages
Much like with Drew Brees, the Falcons will be in trouble against Tom Brady if they telegraph their coverages pre-snap, because Brady will be able to audible and create a big play for the Patriots.
Last season, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was able to bait Brees, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning into interceptions at the Georgia Dome by disguising coverages. If Atlanta's defense is able to make that happen again with Brady, the Falcons would have a good shot at a victory.
4. Win in the Red Zone
For all the talk about Atlanta's problems in the red zone, the Patriots are struggling with their own set of red zone issues. As reported by The Sports Xchange, the Patriots' red zone offense currently ranks dead last in the league (h/t Yahoo! Sports).
Some of the Patriots problems in this area can be linked directly to the absence of Rob Gronkowski, but the Falcons can also keep the Patriots red zone woes going by doing a better of job challenging New England's receivers and using the small windows in the red zone to the defense's advantage.
With both teams focusing on finishing in the red zone, this game could very well come down to a matter of which team finishes drives with seven and which team finishes with three.
The Falcons can ill afford another special teams mistake like the one Harry Douglas made last week, when he muffed the ball after fielding a punt off of a bounce after waiving his blockers off. Whoever the Falcons use as their punt returner this week must be disciplined and remember that the ball has a better chance of getting into the end zone if it ends up with Matt Ryan and Atlanta's offense than it does on a punt return.
In terms of Atlanta's coverage units, New England's Julian Edelman is a capable returner who the Falcons must maintain their lanes against.
Falcons kicker Matt Bryant needs to have a short memory after missing a 35-yarder last week.
Keys for Falcons Coach Mike Smith
What Part of Atlanta's 1-2 Start Has Been Most Surprising?
Falcons coach Mike Smith has been good about making sure this team avoids losing streaks during his tenure in Atlanta, and Sunday's game will present a unique challenge to that reputation. Remember, Tom Brady has never lost to the Falcons.
Smith's most important task will be making sure the team keeps its foot on the gas if they get a lead Sunday night. Whatever the issue has been, he needs to figure it out; that's what Arthur Blank is paying him to do.
Despite the fact that many Falcons fans are second-guessing Smith after the Miami loss, don't expect Smith to change too much about his approach this week. He doesn't need to put any additional pressure on the team by calling this game a "must-win," but he should emphasize the importance of Atlanta taking care of business at home.
This game will most likely be a four-quarter game because the Patriots are rarely blown out. However, if the Falcons can execute these keys on offense and defense and feed off of the home crowd, they should be able to even their mark at 2-2 and remain unbeaten at home.
*All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.