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New England Patriots

Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates with linebacker Matthew Judon (9) after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons Thursday night 25-0, improving their record to 7-4 and matching their win total from 2020. It was their fifth straight win.

Working off a short week of preparation, the defense turned in a dominant effort. They only had three days to prepare, and that may have been all they needed. The result was their first shutout of the season, and the 13th of the Bill Belichick era.

Atlanta’s goose egg on the scoreboard only tells part of the story though. Just how smothering was the Patriots’ defense on Thursday night? Here’s some numbers that highlight the performance…

  • Overall

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Ja’Whaun Bentley #8 of the New England Patriots and Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots react after a turnover in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    Let’s start with the big picture. The Falcons totaled just 165 yards of total offense. That’s both a season-best for the Patriots defense and a season-worst for Atlanta’s offense. In fact, it was just the 10th time under Belichick the Patriots have allowed 165 or fewer yards in a game, and just the fourth since 2006.

    It’s not as though the lack of yardage was due to a shortened game, either. The Falcons managed just 3.2 yards per play, another season-best for the Patriots. That’s two weeks in a row the Patriots have reset that number, after holding the Browns to 3.7 yards per play last week.

  • Third downs

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Christian Barmore #90 of the New England Patriots tackles Qadree Ollison #30 of the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Coming into this game, the Falcons were a slightly above-average third down offense. They were converting 40.4 percent of the time, which ranked 14th in the NFL.

    Thursday night they finished 2-of-11, and closed the game by failing to convert seven straight. That stretch included two 3rd & 1’s and a 3rd & 5. Atlanta averaged just 1.6 yards per play on their 11 third down snaps, with an interception.

  • Red zone

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Perhaps one of the most impressive feats the Falcons had coming into this game – they were the only team in the NFL to come away with points on every red zone trip this season. In 28 tries, they’d scored 17 touchdowns and kicked 11 field goals.

    On Thursday night, Atlanta made it into the red zone twice – and didn’t score once. The Patriots’ seventh-ranked red zone defense held firm, ending the Falcons’ streak.

    Their first trip inside the Patriots’ 20 was brief. Matt Ryan hit Kyle Pitts for a seven yard gain on 2nd & 8, to set up a 3rd & 1 at the New England 14 midway through the second quarter. Ryan was sacked by Kyle Van Noy for a 13-yard loss on the next play. After an illegal formation penalty nullified a Younghoe Koo 45-yard field goal, Koo then missed from 50.

    The second red zone chance game late in the third quarter. Facing a 3rd & 1 from the Patriots’ 16, New England stuffed back-to-back runs at the line of scrimmage, forcing a turnover on downs.

  • Getting after the quarterback

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons is sacked by Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots in the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Atlanta has one of the worst offensive lines in the league, especially when it comes to pass blocking. Coming into this game Falcons quarterbacks had been hit 45 times this year, the second-most of any in the league.

    The Patriots didn’t let the birds off the hook in this regard. Ryan was hit 12 times and sacked four. He often had defenders in his lap immediately after taking the snap.

    Still, Ryan hung in strong early on, as veteran quarterbacks tend to do. He didn’t seem fazed by the pressure until midway through the third quarter – when the turnovers kicked in…

  • Turnovers

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots intercepts a pass against the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    The Patriots tied a season-high with four forced turnovers this year. All four came via interceptions in the second half.

    Three of those four interceptions came in the final 5:16 of the game, with two coming against backup quarterbacks. While that may minimize those plays to some, it’s a sign that this defense is committed to a true 60-minute effort. The unit wasn’t ready to quit and let the Falcons move the ball down the field in garbage time. Instead, they stayed aggressive.

    That kind of complete effort is generally a sign of Bill Belichick’s best defenses. For example, the 2003 unit stayed on until the final whistle in a Week 17 blowout to preserve a 31-0 shutout.

    “Playing team defense and communicating. Guys are where they are supposed to be playing their keys. Also when you got smart guys who can play you are always going to make plays like that,” J.C. Jackson said after the game regarding the turnovers.

  • Stopping Star power

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons is tackled by Kyle Dugger #23 of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    On Wednesday, Belichick raved about rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. It was a six-minute soliloquy on Pitts’ unique skillset and the kind of personnel stresses he puts on a defense.

    Once the game began though, Pitts became irrelevant. He caught three inconsequential passes  for 29 yards on five targets, and was targeted on Devin McCourty’s momentum-changing interception.

    “He’s a beast, he’s a big challenge. I thought our players did a good job that good awareness,” Belichick said after the game when asked about Pitts. “They hit a lot try to throw a bunch of play-action passes. And I thought [Ja’Whaun] Bentley and [Dont’a] Hightower, Phillips and Kyle Dugger. Those guys had some good awareness on some of the over routes. Kyle made a good play there one of the third down plays early in the game where they’re trying to go to him but he’s, a tough guy to handle. He’s got a really good skill set. He’s a great player and got a quarterback that can get him the ball. I’m glad we don’t have to play him every week.”

    Pitts’ lackluster performance doesn’t mean Belichick over-hyped him, or that he’s a bad player – he’s not. Instead, Belichick and the defensive coaching staff went to their textbook. They identified an offense running through a single player, and forced that player out of the game by overwhelming him away from the ball. Whether it was Kyle Dugger or Adrian Phillips – who had the majority of the assignments on Pitts – it was a long night for the 2021 fourth-overall pick.

    “I thought they had a plan coming in to try and disrupt some of the things that Kyle does for us, whether it be dropping guys into zone underneath, some of the crossing routes he had, some of the corner routes that he had, then trying to jam and reroute at the line of scrimmage,” Ryan said after the game when asked what the Patriots did to limit his top target. “Credit to them. I thought New England had a good plan and played very well.”