The last time the Patriots played in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they won the greatest defensive struggle in Super Bowl history.
Thursday night’s kickoff against the Falcons should play out much differently.
The red-hot Pats are riding a four-game win streak highlighted by their best offensive performance in years last Sunday. Against the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots totaled a season-high 184 rushing yards, while Mac Jones fired three touchdowns and played his best game as a pro. They broke Cleveland’s solid defense with a mix of clever play-calls and unrelenting physicality.
If the Pats merely show up in Atlanta, they should win. Of course, they’ll want more.
Here’s how Jones and the Patriots can blow out the Falcons in prime time:
Spread them out
Atlanta’s defense ranks near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories, but they are dead last in pressure percentage.
The Patriots should trust their now healthy and ascending offensive line to handle the Falcons’ pass rush in five-man protections, and deploy all other players as receivers. Jones has nullified a significant amount of pressure this season by delivering most of his passes within 2.5 seconds after the snap. The combination of a strong O-line and his quick trigger should keep Atlanta’s pass rush at arm’s length most of the game.
Sending five receivers will also exploit another weakness outside. The Falcons rank among the league’s eight worst defenses at covering No. 1 receivers and receivers in the slot, per Football Outsiders’ opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric, DVOA. Against opposing No. 2 receivers, they rank dead last. Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne or Nelson Agholor should break out Thursday.
Additionally, no defense has allowed a higher rate of successful plays — those that gain at least 40 percent of yards-to-go on first down, 60 percent of yards-to-go on second down and 100 percent of yards-to-go on third or fourth down — when facing three-receiver personnel than Atlanta, per Sharp Football Stats.
Bottom line: spread them out, and pick them apart.
Neutralize DT Grady Jarrett
If there’s one Falcons defender who could single-handedly upset the Pats’ plans, it’s No. 97.
Grady Jarrett, a two-time Pro Bowler, is Atlanta’s highest-graded pass rusher at Pro Football Focus, among those with at least 100 pass-rushing snaps. He also ranks among their best run defenders. Pats right tackle Trent Brown singled out Jarrett this week when discussing the Falcons defense.
“It’s a lot of experienced guys out there, a lot of guys that are explosive, a lot of guys that make a lot of splash plays. They’ve got one of the best 3-techiques in the league, Grady Jarrett. ... Hopefully we can do our best to minimize that,” he said.
Stopping Jarrett will fall primarily to center David Andrews and guards Ted Karras and Shaq Mason. Last week, they allowed one pressure combined versus Cleveland. Another performance like that should do the trick against Jarrett.
The Falcons play the highest rate of Cover 2 in the league, a defense that discourages deep passes, but like all others comes with its weak points.
Look for the Patriots to attack down the middle of the field between two deep safeties and the intermediate areas along the sideline. Akin to the Browns blowout, the Pats can string long drives together against Atlanta, especially considering the Falcons have committed the most defensive penalties per game in the NFL. They also miss seven tackles per game.
If the Patriots don’t fumble and Jones doesn’t force the ball into coverage, Atlanta will give them free yards. Keep plugging, take them and run away with a win.