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Battle in the Trench Presents Patriots' Best Chance to Slow Down Falcons Offense

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Battle in the Trench Presents Patriots' Best Chance to Slow Down Falcons Offense
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Patriots DEs Rob Ninkovich (left) and Chandler Jones (right) 17.5 sacks since last year.

Among wide receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has an armory of weapons at his disposal.

Buy six, get one free? 

If that were the case, the Falcons might use their coupon on an offensive lineman. Ryan has been under fire all season, having been pressured on 44.8 percent of his dropbacks thus far, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

He's been sacked only five times, but if the New England Patriots want to slow down the Atlanta aerial assault, their best bet is to dominate down in the trenches.

Quarterback pressure, 2013
Team Dropbacks Pressures Pressure % Sacks Sack %
Patriots defense 116 37 31.9 7 6.4
Falcons offense 125 56 44.8 5 4

ProFootballFocus.com

The Patriots will have to step their game up in that respect. They are getting pressure on an average of 31.9 percent of their opponents' pass attempts. The Falcons' offensive line has been far from Teflon, though, and the Patriots may have their chances to get pressure.

The Falcons are dealing with a shuffled deck up front. A Week 2 injury to left tackle Sam Baker has forced them to slide right tackle Lamar Holmes to the other side of the line, which in turn has forced Jeremy Trueblood into the mix at right tackle.

Trueblood hasn't been a full-time starter since 2011, and he finished that season as the sixth-worst offensive tackle in the NFL by PFF's metrics. Falcons head coach Mike Smith admitted that Trueblood's rust showed up in a lack of endurance.

"First game, I thought that he got tired," Smith said on Tuesday, via ESPN. "His first really significant playing time. It was our third game. It was his first game in quite some time."

Bardeen's struggles should come as a surprise to no one. Bleacher Report colleague Knox Bardeen knew this was coming a mile away:

Prior to training camp with the Redskins, Trueblood spent eight seasons with the Buccaneers. He lost his starting job at right tackle in 2012 and was later moved to right guard before he was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
    
Trueblood played just 34 snaps at tackle in 2012 and gave up one quarterback hit and two hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 2011, Trueblood gave up more quarterback pressures than any tackle in the NFL.

 

Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who was the team's most productive pass-rusher last year, has not harassed quarterbacks as much as in years past—he logged 14.5 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012 but has just half-a-sack through three games.

Trueblood, although he got a bit tired at the end, allowed only three pressures in Week 3. But he's in for a 60-minute ride with Ninkovich, who has a motor that never lets up. 

This play is Ninkovich on a fourth-quarter pass rush against Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman. The DE was able to get pressure simply by outworking Buccaneers right tackle Demar Dotson.

Could Freeman have gotten the ball out quicker? Sure, but Ninkovich simply hustled his way to the quarterback. 

He quickly won leverage and made use of it with a rip move, pinning Dotson's arms to the side. He hadn't completely evaded Dotson just yet, as the right tackle tried in vain to wrap his arm around Ninkovich (what referees might often call "holding").

The Week 4 battle between Trueblood and Ninkovich will bear watching, but any right tackle that has to slide over to the quarterback's blind side is going to be under a watchful eye.

Lamar Holmes has been an empty shell this year, having allowed pressure on 15.5 percent of his pass-blocking snaps. According to PFF, he ranks as the second-worst pass-blocking offensive tackle in the NFL this year, behind only Atlanta's Baker.

He squared off with Miami Dolphins defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan this past week when the Falcons traveled to Miami. On this rush, Vernon ran a counter move, starting off with a hard upfield rush before cutting back inside.

The move forced the offensive tackle to commit to moving one way, then quickly changing direction. Lacking a hair-trigger reaction, or the quick feet to make such a reaction, Holmes was caught out of position and Vernon got through for the pressure.

Vernon logged five pressures on the day, and Holmes gave up a combined seven pressures and one hit on Ryan. Considering Vernon has struggled this year, Holmes could really have his hands full with Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, who has really hit stride.

Last year, Jones victimized Denver Broncos All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady on exactly the same move which Vernon used on Holmes in the above example. Jones lined up in a two-point stance, and rushed hard upfield before cutting across Clady's face.

The move allowed Jones to get a free rush on quarterback Peyton Manning, and he delivered a huge hit just moments after Manning dumped the ball off to the running back.

As a whole, this matchup favors Jones, but at times, it's been like the pressure hasn't mattered to Matty Ice.

Thus far this year, Ryan is racking up 303 passing yards per game and is putting the ball in the air an average of 39.7 times. His average of 7.6 yards per attempt is respectable and serves as a reminder that, even while under fire, Ryan has plenty of bullets in his own chamber.

In an unusual twist of events, the Patriots defense is one of the league's best units against the pass, yielding just 200 yards per game and 5.1 YPA; both numbers rank in the top six in the NFL.

Their defense has yet to face an offense that presents anywhere near the number of lethal weapons the Falcons boast, but if their pass-rush can get pressure on Ryan, the Patriots may be up to the taller task.

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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