Anticipation is building in New England with Rob Gronkowski's return on the horizon
What manner of statistical production can fans, fantasy owners and intrepid gamblers expect from Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ offense in Week 4 when the team takes on the Falcons in Atlanta?
All sorts of variables come into play every week, and the biggest one—literally—this week is the availability of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Weeks ago, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport and Mike Silver reported (via Chris Wesseling on Twitter) that the Patriots were “definitely” expecting him back by Week 4. On Wednesday, however, Gronk’s outlook sounded decidedly less definite, as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported the odds are 60-40 in favor of Gronk making his season debut this week (h/t Rotoworld).
The other chief factor in determining offensive output each week is obviously that week’s opponent and the game plan coaches put in place to win the game.
The Patriots have been very aggressive on offense through three games, averaging 42 pass attempts per contest and leading the NFL with 225 total plays from scrimmage.
New England has shown remarkable balance in its play-calling, logging over 30 rushing attempts per game as well. Look for that trend to continue as the Patriots find ways to keep Matt Ryan and the high-powered Falcons offense off the field.
On paper, this weekend presents a tantalizing matchup for the Patriots offense, as Atlanta’s defense ranks among the NFL’s bottom 10 in yards allowed and surrenders 24.7 points per game. Of the Patriots' first three opponents, only the Buffalo Bills have allowed more yards, and none have allowed as many points at the Falcons.
|Team||YPG Allowed||PPG Allowed|
Matt Ryan is 34-5 as a starter at home, so the Patriots have their work cut out for them in terms of actually winning the game, but their biggest challenges will come defensively in trying to slow down Ryan, Julio Jones and Atlanta’s explosive attack. Offensively, this should be the week the Patriots finally fire on all cylinders.
The only reason for pessimism remains the lingering health concerns surrounding wide receiver Danny Amendola. Officially listed as limited in practice, he remains questionable for this week’s game as he recovers from torn adductor tendons in his groin. For anyone unfamiliar with that particular bit of anatomy, adductors are the muscles located on the inner thigh, responsible for contracting the hip joint and pulling the leg closer to the midline of the body.
Suffice it to say, any lateral movements are excruciating if not impossible, so don’t expect to see Amendola on the field this week.
Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer did not practice on Wednesday after leaving last week’s game with a foot injury, so he’s questionable for Sunday’s matchup. The other injuries of note are a pair of broken wrists suffered earlier this season by Shane Vereen and Matthew Slater, neither of whom will see the field any time soon.
With those few exceptions, the Patriots are healthier than they’ve been since the season opener, and their rookie receivers finally made strides in Week 3 after dropping the ball—figuratively and literally—during the first two games. All signs point to New England mounting its best offensive effort of the young season this week.
Here’s an in-depth look at precisely what to expect from Brady, Stevan Ridley and, Goodell-willing, Rob Gronkowski and the gang.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Through three games, Brady’s average stat line looks like this:
24-of-42, 57.4 completion percentage, 233 YDS, 1.67 TD, 0.67 INT
The three teams he’s faced rank seventh, 15th and 19th in terms of fewest passing yards allowed per game. Between them, they surrender an average of 230 pass yards per game, meaning Brady’s production has fallen almost exactly in line with the opposing defensive averages.
The Falcons rank 25th in passing yards allowed and yield 296 yards per game, so by that logic, let’s consider 296 yards Brady’s baseline for this weekend.
The Falcons have also allowed seven passing touchdowns through three games, so once again based on the averages, we can safely pencil Brady in for at least two scores.
So working with a baseline projection of 296 yards and two touchdowns, here are a few other factors to consider:
- The Falcons don’t pressure the quarterback particularly well and rank 18th in the NFL with seven sacks.
- Atlanta thrives in its home dome, so Brady could find himself in a shootout if the defense isn’t up to the challenge.
- The Falcons aren’t exactly a ball-hawking team and have three interceptions on the season.
In short, the Falcons defense is a sieve. It wilted before the likes of Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill. Brady should enjoy excellent protection and have no trouble using ample time in the pocket to shred the opposition.
Given Atlanta’s defensive woes, look for the Patriots to run more plays than the Globe Theatre in an effort to brutally attack the Falcons’ weakness. Brady can help his defense by completing a high volume of short and intermediate passes and building sustained drives to keep Matt Ryan on the sidelines.
He should have no trouble doing so either, as the Falcons allow opposing teams to convert 48 percent of their third downs and yield an astounding 5.8 yards per play.
The Falcons have also proven vulnerable to the deep ball, as Kenny Stills (67-yard catch) and Chris Givens (47-yard catch) both torched them downfield. Don’t be surprised if Brady lulls them to sleep with his dink-and-dunk approach before taking a few shots deep.
Then, of course, there’s the possible return of Gronkowski to consider. For our purposes, I’m operating under the assumption that he does indeed suit up.
Gronk is the master of the seam route, and his presence alone will wreak havoc on the middle of Atlanta’s defense. As the unquestioned best weapon on New England’s offense, he’ll command a double-team on virtually every play, which will open up all sorts of possibilities for Brady and his receivers underneath.
Those high-percentage throws will be even more high-percentage with Gronkowski in the lineup.
Brady has really missed his herculean tight end in the red zone, though. So far in 2013, the Patriots rank dead last when it comes to converting red-zone trips into touchdowns. According to teamrankings.com, New England has managed a touchdown on just 30.7 percent of its red-zone drives after scoring 67.5 percent of the time last season.
Gronkowski is hands-down the best red-zone threat in the NFL, with 38 touchdowns in 43 career games. Brady won’t need to force throws into tight windows with him back in the lineup, so expect the Patriots to be much more successful in the red zone this week.
Projection: 33 of 44, 349 YDS, 3 TD, 0 INT, 1 CAR, 2 YDS
Barring an apocalyptic turn of events, Mallett won’t see the field.
Despite their overall defensive struggles, the Falcons have actually been stout against the run, yielding a paltry 79 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry. Ridley should still get plenty of work since the Patriots run such a high-volume offense, and those defensive stats are misleading considering how poorly the Falcons defend the pass. They also faced the Saints, Rams and Dolphins, none of whom have any semblance of an effective rushing attack.
A closer look at the Falcons’ game logs, however, reveals the driving force behind their success stopping the run: They don’t give up big plays. Sportingcharts.com tracks all big plays—defined as a run of more than 10 yards or a pass of more than 25 yards—and lists the Falcons as having allowed an NFL-low eight such plays. Three of those came on the ground and one was a scramble by Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.
That means opposing running backs have only mustered two runs of more than 10 yards against the Falcons defense.
Ridley hasn’t found his groove yet this season after riding the pine in Week 1 and facing two tough defenses in the games since. This week should be his best game of the season, but that’s not really saying much considering he hasn’t found the end zone yet and is averaging roughly 40 yards rushing per game.
Rob Gronkowski’s return will help clear defenders out from near the line of scrimmage, and he can also open running lanes as an outstanding blocker, so Ridley should have more room to operate than at any other point this season. The Patriots need to get him going, especially given his ability to punch the ball into the end zone and the team’s woeful performance in that regard this season.
He’ll need to scrap for yards and probably won’t make any highlight reels, but like waves slowly eroding a beach, Ridley should crash and grind his way to a decent game.
Projection: 19 CAR, 83 YDS, 1 TD
Bolden returned in Week 3 after missing the first two games due to injury and immediately stepped into Shane Vereen’s role as a receiving threat out of the backfield. He totaled 100 yards on eight touches and should enjoy similar success against the Falcons this week.
The Falcons defend the run well, but they’ve been shredded by running backs in the passing game, allowing 19 catches for 185 yards through three games. Look for Bolden to feature prominently in this week’s game plan as the Patriots try to exploit that weakness.
He’ll likely spell Ridley throughout the game, particularly on passing downs. The Patriots haven’t run as many screens and draw plays as fans are accustomed to seeing, but that could change this weekend since the Patriots clearly have a matchup they can capitalize on.
Like Ridley, Bolden will need to fight for rushing yards against an underrated unit, but he should produce quite well overall.
Projection: 5 CAR, 14 YDS, 0 TD; 5 REC, 42 YDS, 0 TD
Blount received his heaviest workload of the season in Week 3 with 14 carries for 65 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is just a hunch, but I think Bill Belichick let Blount loose because he had something to prove against his former team.
I don’t see Blount getting nearly the same workload this week since Bolden figures to be such a big part of the game plan. He’ll need one of his patented tackle-busters to have any real impact on the game.
Projection: 3 CAR, 17 YDS, 0 TD
Washington’s been a non-entity through three games, earning just one carry without recording a single catch.
This could be the week he finally gets off the bench. Like Bolden, Washington has the skills to impact the game as a receiver. Unlike Bolden, however, Washington isn’t a real threat in the running game, so the Patriots are pretty much openly declaring a pass when he’s in the backfield.
Still, the Falcons were torched by Darren Sproles earlier this season, and Rams running back Daryl Richardson tallied five catches for 45 yards against them in Week 2. Like those two, Washington is shifty, undersized and most dangerous in open space.
If the Patriots can match him up with a linebacker in the flat or catch the Falcons with a screen pass, Washington will have the opportunity to make a big play offensively.
Projection: 1 REC, 13 YDS, 0 TD
Develin technically plays fullback and the odds of him seeing significant playing time, much less recording any statistics, are slim to none. Our B/R database doesn't even have a current photo of the guy.
Nevertheless, I don’t want anyone to feel left out.
I mean, if I were him, I’d be ticked if some turkey with a laptop purported to project “complete” stats for the entire Patriots offense. yet left me off the list. It would be like taking a beautiful canoe trip and leaving the fat guy alone on the shore.
So Develin gets a spot in my canoe; I’m just not giving him a paddle. Or any projected stats.
Earlier in the slideshow, I mentioned Brady using high-percentage passes to sustain drives and churn out yards. Thus far, Edelman’s been the primary recipient of those dinks and dunks, and that won’t change in Atlanta.
Brady has targeted Edelman 34 times through three games, and Edelman has come down with an NFL-leading 27 receptions as a result. He’s averaging an abysmal 7.4 yards per reception, which is buoyed by a respectable average of 3.4 yards after the catch, according to ESPN.com’s statistics.
Last season, Edelman averaged 6.5 yards after the catch. Of course, Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez drew plenty of coverage to help keep Edelman free to operate in space, but Edelman is still dangerous with the ball in his hands.
As the only Patriots player with more than 10 catches on the season, defenses can sit back and key on Edelman, concede the short pass and swarm to him like a hive of bees.
With Gronkowski presumably returning this week, Edelman will finally have room to work underneath and should be able to flash his trademark ability to run after the catch. Just like Brandon Bolden figures to factor in the passing game, the Patriots will almost certainly use Edelman to exploit that same weakness in Atlanta’s defense.
Look for the Patriots to use a variety of receiver screens, quick slants and crossing patterns to put Edelman in open space and let the NFL’s all-time leader in punt-return average (minimum 75 returns, per Pro-Football-Reference.com) work his magic.
Projection: 9 REC, 82 YDS, 1 TD
This game will be Dobson’s official coming-out party. I’m calling it right now.
As bad as Atlanta’s played against the pass this season, it has been especially putrid against its opposition’s primary deep threat. As I referenced in earlier in the slideshow, both Kenny Stills and Chris Givens managed receptions of over 45 yards in their meetings with the Falcons.
Dobson didn’t play in the season opener, but in the two games since, he’s been very successful beating coverage downfield and getting behind the defense. He hasn’t been able to convert those opportunities into catches yet, but he ran noticeably cleaner routes in Week 3 and looked infinitely more comfortable in the offense, hauling in seven passes after struggling with drops in Week 2.
He drew a key pass-interference penalty on a jump ball against double coverage. He was also wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown, but Brady simply made a rare bad throw.
Not to beat a dead horse, but Gronkowski’s return means less double coverage for everyone else. Dobson’s been tantalizingly close to several big plays this season. Facing single coverage against a woebegone pass defense, this is his opportunity to cash in on those missed chances.
It will be interesting to see how Atlanta covers him. Its first-round pick, cornerback Desmond Trufant, matched up with Dobson during this year’s Senior Bowl, and as Dobson shows in the video atop this slide, he’s capable of beating the former Washington Husky, potentially for a big gain.
With Gronk back in the fold and Edelman luring the defense upfield, look for Dobson to break free in the secondary. If he makes good on his opportunity, he’ll enjoy the best game of his young career.
Projection: 6 REC, 105 YDS, 1 TD
WEEI.com keeps a very handy target tracker, charting how many times Brady throws in each receiver's direction throughout the season. Based on their list, Thompkins ranks second on the team with 28 targets.
He’s only caught nine of those passes, but he’s still been heavily involved in the offense, even if he hasn’t turned his targets into catches.
Coming off a two-touchdown performance against the Buccaneers, Thompkins will be looking to build off that against the Falcons this week. As much as Gronkowski’s return will open things up at other positions, it also likely means fewer targets for other players like Thompkins.
That doesn’t mean Thompkins can’t be productive. He spent much of the past two weeks facing Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis in coverage. Atlanta’s top corner, former Patriot Asante Samuel, has a nose for the football, but he looks a step slow on film and his best days are behind him. Rookies Robert Alford and the aforementioned Trufant are tremendously talented, but given their lack of experience, Brady will likely test them early and often.
Thompkins will still get his fair share of looks as the de facto No. 2 receiver. Look for Brady to find him on intermediate possession routes at the Patriots aim to once again dominate the number of offensive snaps.
Projection: 5 REC, 43 YDS, 0 TD
The forgotten rookie, Boyce has been a persona non grata to this point. It’s hard to honestly predict much work for him since he doesn’t even have a catch yet this season, but I think this is the week he finally cracks the box score.
Like Dobson, Boyce has the speed to burn the Falcons deep, and while they’ve proven vulnerable to faster receivers this season, they have to respect Boyce’s wheels when he’s on the field. He could bust out for a huge gain, but it’s more likely he gets free on a comeback or quick out for a minimal gain.
Projection: 1 REC, 8 YDS, 0 TD
I’m not married and I don’t have any children, so I can say without any reservations that the Patriots are the love of my life. As such, including Gronkowski in this week’s projections is undoubtedly the most joyful moment of my journalistic career.
As a fan, it’s sometimes difficult to strike a balance between my allegiance and the impartial perspective I’m expected to uphold as a journalist. That challenge has never been as daunting as it is now, in anticipation of Gronkowski’s 2013 debut.
I confess I’m deeply tempted to pencil him in for maximum Gronk-age and project him for 100-plus yards and a trio of scores—followed by touchdown celebrations in which he spikes the football so ferociously it explodes (I’m actually surprised he hasn’t done that already), bodyslams a referee into submission, then does push-ups with the rest of the offense literally riding his surgically repaired back.
But I won’t, because I’m looking at things objectively.
Still, imagining anything other than a supremely triumphant return for Gronkowski is painful. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, it’s best to just get it over with, so here it goes.
Gronk will not have a great game on Sunday.
He will play well, because he is, after all, the best tight end in football. His mere presence will dramatically impact everyone else around him. He will even make a few plays of his own, but his statistical output will be modest, at least by his lofty standards.
At 3-0, the Patriots won’t risk bringing Gronkowski back too soon, so if he takes the field on Sunday, which seems likely at this point, it’s a safe bet he’s 100 percent healthy and ready to go. Being healthy and being in NFL game shape are two very different things, though.
Expect the Patriots to closely monitor Gronk’s playing time, perhaps even keeping him on a snap count. It would be a shock to see him on the field for more than 60 percent of New England’s offensive snaps as he acclimates to game action after an offseason with enough surgeries to make Dr. Frankenstein proud.
He’s still the game’s preeminent red-zone threat, so a touchdown is well within the realm of possibility. Fear not, Patriots fans, there’s a strong chance you’ll witness the first “Gronking”—defined by Urban Dictionary as violently spiking an object, most commonly a football, to the ground in celebration, or the act of being the best at what you do—of 2013 this week.
I'm totally Gronking my column this week.
Anyway, as previously stated, the Patriots currently rank dead last in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage.
They can’t expect to go on the road and beat a team like the Falcons without scoring touchdowns, so Gronk should be on the field every time they get anywhere near scoring distance—even if it means he only plays a handful of snaps otherwise.
Whenever he is on the field, however, he’ll likely be Brady’s top target more often than not.
Projection: 4 REC, 39 YDS, 1 TD
Like Boyce, fellow rookie Zach Sudfeld enters this weekend without a catch to his name. Also like Boyce, I’m predicting he makes the first catch of his career in Atlanta.
Sudfeld’s been either inactive or limited since injuring his hamstring in Week 1, but he practiced in full on Wednesday and looks to be at full strength as we approach Sunday night. With Gronkowski suiting up, the Patriots will finally be able to feature their two mammoth tight ends together, which should help create some open looks for Sudfeld.
If Gronk can pull extra defenders into coverage, Sudfeld can just squat at the second level and wait for Brady to find him. He’s also athletic enough to get open on his own, and he showed during the preseason that he’s capable of making plays with the ball in his hands.
Look for the Patriots to find ways to utilize him as they continue to adjust to life after Aaron Hernandez.
Projections: 2 REC, 17 YDS, 0 TD
One of my proudest achievements as a writer is being confident enough in spelling the Hoo-man’s name to type it without having to look it up every time. I’m not nearly as confident in predicting him catching any passes this week, so I won’t.
With Gronkowski and Sudfeld both presumably in action, Hoomanawanui will once again assume his role as blocker extraordinaire, helping pave the way for Ridley and company while keeping Brady upright and unscathed.
Those are valuable contributions, but they won’t show up on a stat sheet.
Nothing to see here. Besides a dude who apparently has never been photographed in a Patriots jersey.
With Gronkowski, Sudfeld and Hoomanawanui all healthy, Mulligan probably won’t see the field on Sunday and almost certainly won’t feature in the box score.
Yeah, I know the kicker plays special teams, not offense. But he'll score points, so it makes sense to include him here.
The Patriots average 75 offensive plays per game. If they can turn that volume into sustained drives, they're looking at somewhere between eight and 10 possessions. For argument's sake, let's call it nine.
So in nine possessions, I have the Patriots scoring four touchdowns. Given their dismal red-zone production in recent weeks, it's safe to assume they'll need a field goal or two as well.
The Falcons allow opponents to convert roughly half of their third downs, so the Patriots shouldn't produce many three-and-outs. Let's say they commit three of them out of their nine possessions.
That leaves six remaining drives, four of which are projected to end in touchdowns. Just for kicks—get it?—I'll say they make it into scoring position on one of the remaining two drives, giving Gostkowski a field-goal opportunity.
Whether he converts it is anyone's guess.
Projection: 1 FG, 4XP, 7 PTS