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New England Patriots

L-R: Falcons QB Matt Ryan, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick

Not only do the Patriots have a short week to prepare for their matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, they don’t have a ton of prior experience to lean on. Since they last played in 2017, Atlanta has undergone a coaching change and a nearly complete roster overhaul.

“This is a team we don’t know very much about,” Bill Belichick said after Sunday’s game when asked about the limited time to prepare. “Coach [Arthur] Smith has gone down there and really gotten things going…We’ve got a long way to go on the Falcons and what they do.”

As Matthew Judon pointed out on Tuesday, with limited time to prepare teams tend to stick to their “bread and butter” for Thursday night games. That means if the Patriots can shut down what the Falcons do best, they’ll be in good shape.

So, who are the best players on the new-look Falcons? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Patriots receivers vs. A.J. Terrell

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 29: A.J. Terrell #24 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after stopping Devontae Booker #23 of the Las Vegas Raiders short of the end zone during their NFL game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Second-year cornerback A.J. Terrell has been one of the biggest league-wide surprises of the 2021 season. Terrell was the second cornerback to come off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft (after C.J. Henderson), taken 16th overall.

    Terrell didn’t do much to separate himself in year one, but this season has separated his assignments from the rest of the offense on a regular basis. He’s yet to allow over 30 yards in coverage in a game this season, giving up just 93 total through eight games (he missed the team’s Week 3 game against the Giants with a concussion).

    It’s not as though Terrell is turning away passes at a prolific rate. He has just six pass breakups and is yet to record an interception. He’s simply just not getting targeted. The 23-year-old is sticking to his assignments and removing them from the offensive picture entirely.

    “Terrell’s a very instinctive player,” Belichick said when asked about the former Clemson Tiger on Wednesday. “He has a good awareness and a good anticipation for the ball. He does a good job of matching routes.

    Terrell doesn’t typically shadow receivers, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees has talked about playing more zone in recent weeks. That should mean all of the receivers on the field for the Patriots should get at least a few chances to work against Terrell. Can any of them create separation where no other receiver has been able to? That’s worth watching, especially early in the game.

  • When Atlanta has the ball: Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger vs. Kyle Pitts

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 03: Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons warms up before the game against the Washington Football Team at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    The fourth-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, tight end Kyle Pitts got off to a slow start before finally turning the corner in mid-October. Over the last five games he’s averaging five catches and 83 yards per game.

    Pitts has caught the attention of the entire league the way he’s been playing recently, and Belichick isn’t excluded from that. In fact, Pitts’ name was the first Falcons player Belichick mentioned specifically this week.

    “They have some outstanding players starting with Pitts that is going to be a major problem,” Belichick said Sunday night. “A guy we haven’t faced and a guy they have done a great job of utilizing in different roles and has had tremendous production.” On Wednesday, Belichick raved about Pitts for six minutes.

    Against big, dominant tight ends in the past we’ve seen the Patriots just out-muscle them on the line of scrimmage. Using multiple defensive backs and even linebackers in press coverage, the Patriots have been able to neutralize the likes of Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez.

    If Belichick wants to go back to a version of that strategy that translates to today’s game, this iteration of the Patriots has no shortage of big, physical coverage safeties. Look for Adrian Phillips to play a key role here, with Kyle Dugger being another logical fit. If they can erase Pitts, with Calvin Ridley out and Cordarrelle Patterson’s status in question, the Falcons could be without their top three and four of their top five pass catchers on the season.

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Matt Ryan

    MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 24: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates a touchdown by Cordarrelle Patterson #84 (not pictured) during the fourth quarter in the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    In a five wins in six games stretch that has seen the Patriots’ defense dominate, they’ve leaned on disguises and misdirection to confuse the relatively young quarterbacks they’ve faced. Of the six starting QBs they’ve prepared for in that span, Dak Prescott had the most career starts under his belt with 74.

    That all changes this week with Matt Ryan under center for the Falcons. He’s made more career starts (214) than the previous six quarterbacks the Patriots have faced…combined (200). The only other starting quarterback the Patriots have faced this year with more than 100 career starts was Tom Brady (who the defense played well against).

    While the unfamiliarity mentioned above will certainly play in the Patriots’ favor here as they look to put Ryan in a blender, he likely won’t become as rattled as some of the less experienced quarterbacks the Patriots have seen in recent weeks. This could be one of the biggest tests the Patriots secondary has faced on this current stretch.

    “I think this year he’s really done a good job and has really improved his timing on the passing game and not holding the ball as long, getting it out on time more consistently,” Belichick said of Ryan on Wednesday. “He has a good arm, reads coverages well and all that. There’s never really been a question on that, but I feel like in watching him play last year to this year that his timing is good. He ball comes out quickly, and he’s just not holding it very much. He’s getting it to his outlet receivers quickly, getting the ball in their hands, and then they’re able to make positive plays. I think he’s just improved in that area. Whether that’s whatever, the coaching, Julio [Jones] not there, I’m not really sure what’s the cause of all that, but I think it’s noticeable how much more efficient he’s been in the passing game. His completion percentage is up. His sacks and interceptions are down. I think he’s playing well.”

    What kind of tweaks Bill Belichick and his coaching staff make to the defense will be important to keep an eye on early in this game. They could look to attack Atlanta’s pass protection which has allowed Ryan to get hit 45 times – the second most of any quarterback in the NFL – in nine games.

    It’s worth noting Ryan is coming off of one of the worst games of his career last week against Dallas. He completed just 9-of-21 passes and was intercepted twice without throwing a touchdown, recording a career-low 21.4 passer rating. Backup Josh Rosen ended up replacing Ryan late in the game.