The Patriots win over the Falcons is being talked about a lot less than the loss of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
Re-watching the game, the focus naturally shifted to the defensive tackle position at times. That's where the focus will remain in the near future, as the Patriots turn to defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Joe Vellano to step up in big roles with big Vince out of the big picture.
Several other players stood out, as well, including cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and others.
Here are some thoughts on the game after a second watch, using NFL Game Rewind's All-22 for assistance.
Defensive line scheme
After Wilfork left the game, the Patriots used a mix of different looks on the defensive front. That trend is likely to continue in his absence for the remainder of the season, at least until they find a mix that works.
Traditionally, the Patriots have been a two-gap defensive line with Wilfork. Sometimes, they have run a unique hybrid defense, with a one-gap scheme on one side of Wilfork and a two-gap scheme on the other side. We've also seen them utilize a different mixture of techniques, with the defensive tackles responsible for two gaps while the defensive ends are responsible for one gap.
The above is the Patriots' first defensive snap after Wilfork left the game. Defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Tommy Kelly are both responsible for the A- and B-gaps on either side of the center and guards, while defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were responsible for setting the edge and containing the C-gaps.
Later in the first quarter, though, we saw another interesting alignment. This time, Kelly lined up over the nose, but two yards away from the line of scrimmage. It wasn't something we've seen a lot in the past.
"It's similar to when a linebacker blitzes," Belichick said on WEEI's Salk and Holley show on Monday. "Sometimes a little space can clear things up as to if the line is going to slide and how the protection is going to go and all that, rather than being right on top of it and getting off on the ball and trying to get on the offensive linemen in a hurry."
One thing this might do is force the interior offensive linemen into a bind, where they must be ready for the potential of Kelly rushing in their direction. In theory, this would occupy blockers, without actually having them all block Kelly.
Who knows if we'll see that look on a consistent basis, but the Patriots will probably test out multiple methods to replacing the presence of Wilfork, and these are two that stood out on Sunday night.
Joe Vellano set for bigger role
The Patriots might still call on practice squad defensive tackle Marcus Forston, but after playing a career-high 33 snaps against the Falcons, Vellano figures to be a big part of the Patriots contingency plan to replace Wilfork unless the Patriots add a new defensive tackle -- which looks like a longshot.
On this 2nd-and-2 running play in the third quarter, Vellano had both the A-gap between the left guard and center, and the B-gap between the left tackle and left guard.
Because Kelly was washed out of the play behind two blockers, Vellano had to make sure he could get inside to wrap an arm around Falcons running back Jason Snelling. Vellano was able to shed the block of the left guard and brought down Snelling.
He showed his two-gap ability on that play, but his ability to split a gap and get into the backfield came up on the next play.
Vellano pulled a nifty swim move to get around center Peter Konz, splitting the A-gap and getting a good interior rush on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who tried to evade the rush but was unable to do so.
The Patriots have been searching for a defensive tackle that can create some pressure up the gut, even when they had Wilfork at their disposal, and it appears Vellano may contribute in that respect. He finished Sunday with three total pressures (two hurries and a sack).
The burden of replacing Wilfork is not all on the shoulders of Kelly, Vellano or any one man; it's up to the entire coaching staff to figure out ways to keep the defense trending in the right direction even without their best player.
Solid blocking opens up running game
The Patriots running game has really found their legs in recent weeks, and it's thanks to a combination of more determined running from their backs and better blocks from the guys up front.
Right from the very first offensive snap against the Falcons, it looked like the Patriots offensive line would have their way with the falcons front seven when running the football.
Running back Stevan Ridley picked up five yards simply by following the huge lane in front of him, created by left guard Logan Mankins and center Ryan Wendell quickly getting out to the second level to block a linebacker. Had wide receiver Julian Edelman gotten a block on safety William Moore, Ridley might still be running.
As it was, the run picked up five yards, but the Patriots were hardly done running the ball right down the throat of the Falcons defense.
The Patriots came out with the 12 personnel grouping -- one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. The Falcons responded with a base 4-3 defense.
Ridley was set to take the handoff on a zone run through the A-gap between center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly, with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui helping to block defensive tackle Corey Peters while Wendell peeled off and to the second level.
Wendell and left tackle Nate Solder found a linebacker to block in a hurry, opening up a lane wide enough that Ridley could have driven a Cadillac through it.
As a result, Ridley built up enough momentum that safety Thomas DeCoud probably felt like he'd been hit by a Cadillac when bringing him down.
Even at halftime, the Patriots weren't done.
Ridley can thank Mankins for his seven-yard run off the right side in the third quarter.
The All-Pro left guard got out in front as a lead blocker on this stretch run, coming from the opposite side of the line to clear out linebacker Joplo Bartu.
Mankins was able to drive Bartu backwards and into the lap of cornerback Robert Alford. That allowed Ridley to get the edge and pick up seven yards before being chased out of bounds by Moore.
The importance of the offensive line getting downhill quickly cannot be overstated; the Patriots' ability to run straight at the Falcons defense affected the strategy for the offense over the course of the game.
Play-action effective in second half
The Patriots ran the ball for 64 yards on 15 carries in the first half, averaging 4.3 YPA. With their linebackers getting abused up front, it was no surprise that they began to bite a bit on play-action to close up the running lanes.
However, it quickly opened up the passing lanes over the middle of the field.
People often talk about running to set up the pass -- that's a concept we haven't seen in awhile in New England, but it began to rear its head against the Falcons as a weapon the Patriots may turn to again in the future.
I charted Brady as going 10-of-14 for 201 yards and a touchdown when using a play-action fake against the Falcons.
This particular play went for 34 yards. The Patriots lined up in the 12 personnel grouping, and Brady had used play-action on the previous throw, and had also gone to Edelman on an in-breaking route.
This time, Edelman (circled in black) ran a variation of a sluggo route, faking a slant and then running straight into the heart of the Falcons secondary.
It helped that he was being covered by Bartu, who bit on the play-action, but Edelman's slant fake was so violent, he stumbled, but that didn't prevent him from collecting himself and running through the middle of the Falcons defense.
The entire offensive line pulled to the right, faking the run to that side, and the defense played along, completely opening up the middle of the field. DeCoud (circled in blue) also came way up, opening the deep half on the right side of the field -- right where Edelman was headed.
Brady waited for Edelman to get deep into his route before releasing the ball, allowing Edelman to work his way through Moore and DeCoud.
With explosive threats at the receiver position, the Patriots are in a better position to take advantage of play-action than they've been in recent years. If they can keep the running game going, those opportunities will be available all season long.
Aqib Talib is going to get paid a lot of money this offseason
Talib has long had the ability to be a shutdown cornerback, but this year, he has also been a model of consistency. He has allowed no more than three catches for no more than 60 yards in each game, and has made at least two plays on the ball (pass break-up or interception) in each of the past three games.
On Sunday, Talib lined up at different spots and on different receivers. He was mostly on the perimeter, covering either Julio Jones or Roddy White. It didn't matter who he was covering; he was in position to prevent the pass from being caught.
Ryan targeted Talib seven times, and Talib didn't allow a single completion into his coverage.
This is a trend that's quickly developing this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Talib is one of the best starting corners in the league in several categories:
- He leads all cornerbacks in snaps in coverage per reception allowed, giving up a catch on just one of every 28.7 snaps in coverage.
- He yields a 24.8 passer rating on throws into his coverage, the second-best in the NFL.
- He allows completions on 30 percent of throws into his coverage, the best rate in the NFL.
Talib is having a great season for himself, and on a one-year deal in 2013, he couldn't have started playing his best football at a better time.
Kenbrell Thompkins shows big play potential, still needs to be consistent
Thompkins' ability to win one-on-one matchups on the perimeter and to keep a defense honest when running vertically are key assets the Patriots offense has lacked in recent years.
How many times have we seen the Patriots run this double-reverse-fake to an epic failure? It will always stand out to me as the first of many failed pass attempts for Brady in Super Bowl XLII.
Everything worked out perfectly, with the defense keeping their eyes mostly in the backfield while the play unfolded. The Patriots sold the play perfectly; nine of 11 players were somehow involved in the run, while Thompkins and Edelman both ran routes.
With the ball up for grabs, Thompkins leaped over safety William Moore and snared the football off the side of Moore's helmet, keeping his balance and control of the ball as he went to the ground.
He won a jump ball situation the likes of which we haven't seen a Patriots receiver win in quite some time.
The Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings right around this time in the 2010 season. They have been searching for a boundary threat at wide receiver ever since. It's unfair to compare anyone to a Hall of Fame candidate in Moss, but Thompkins has the skill set that Moss had, just not to his "Freak" extent.
Before he broaches that territory, he'll need to clear one very important hurdle: catching the ball on a consistent basis.
Thompkins made progress in terms of his production, but at some point, the hot-potato drops have to stop -- like this one in the first quarter, on a third-down pass that could have kept the Patriots first drive alive. This would have been a great catch, but it is still a catch he has to make.
On the day, Thompkins caught eight of the 11 passes thrown his way -- but it could have been 10, had he not dropped two. It's hard to expect 100 percent consistency, especially from an undrafted rookie, but a recent Bill Belichick quote comes to mind: "We like to say that dependability is more important than ability."
Thompkins has plenty of ability. Top that off with some dependability, and the Patriots could be looking at one of their go-to receivers for the future.
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