FOXBOROUGH – Unlike the Buccaneers, who currently have the 31st-ranked offense in the NFL, the Patriots' opponent this Sunday has one of the strongest offenses in the league, and has for a couple of years.
Led by former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons are ninth in the league in total offense, including seventh in passing yards per game (289 yards).
On Wednesday, Bill Belichick called the Falcons' offense "explosive" and in particular singled out Ryan, who is by far the best quarterback the Patriots have seen thus far this season.
"(Ryan) is very good; he does a good job with his pre-snap reads, uses all of his weapons – running backs, tight ends, receivers – I wouldn’t say he’s a big scrambler, but he can run and he can hurt you scrambling if you give him the opportunity, so you have to be cognizant of that. But he doesn’t have many bad plays; he has a lot of good ones. He’s a real good quarterback."
Asked about Ryan's progress since being taken third overall in 2008, Belichick said, "He’s pretty good at everything to me. He’s got a good touch, does a good job throwing the ball down field, reads coverages well, doesn’t make many mistakes, manages the game well, he’s accurate, he’s tough – he can definitely stand in there and throw the ball and take a hit. He has very few bad plays, let’s put it that way. Very few. Consistency, I think that's the mark of any great player, he’s pretty consistent. Every play, every game, every series, he does a lot of things right."
Ryan has most often gone to star receiver Julio Jones in the passing game, but 37-year old tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is the last season of his career for the second time, has also contributed, along with running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. Roddy White has been on the field despite an ankle injury, but he's primarily been a decoy to this point.
Free agent pickup Steven Jackson was injured in Week 2 (hamstring), but last week it was Rodgers who carried the load against Miami, with 86 yards on 18 carries.
As for the Patriots, here is your (near-) daily exchange on the progress of tight end Rob Gronkowski:
Q: How much of a steady progression have you seen from Gronkowski since he started practicing? BB: He’s definitely made progress.
Q: You upgraded him from doubtful to questionable last week - what kind of steps have you seen him take recently?
BB: Just – doing better. Football conditioning.
Q: Is there a strength element for a player like him, with the arm injury and back injury and that took time away from his being able to lift weights?
BB: Well, like any player – any player that’s not able to do some things, they do what they can do. Things they can’t do, they can’t do. Things that they can do, they can do. Hardly anybody has a full-body injury – they have an injury in one part of the body, they can still train other parts of the body. The part that’s injured, that’s the part that needs to be rehabilitated. But that’s a medical thing; it’s not a coaching thing.
Q: From a playing standpoint, do you feel his strength is in a good place?
BB: It’s better than what it was.
Q: Gronkowski has been a big part of your red-zone offense in the past; you're currently ranked 32d in that category. If he were to return, what kind of boost can he give the red-zone offense?
BB: I don't know.
Asked in general about what needs to improve for the Patriots in the red zone (they've scored four touchdowns in 13 opportunities), Belichick said, "Well, No. 1, not turn the ball over, that would be No. 1."
While the New England defense has looked good in the first three games, allowing just 27 points to opposing offenses, that group was not getting any special love from Belichick. Everyone, he said, has work to do.
"It’s September – we’ve still got a long way to go, a lot of things that we can improve on individually, fundamentally, the units, collectively as an offense, defense, special teams units, and as an entire team," he said. "That’s coaches, players, all of us. I think as a coaching staff you’re trying to maximize your talent, your players, your scheme, and we’re going through that process too.
"There are some things that we’ve found out over the first three weeks that we would do a little bit differently knowing what we know now that we didn’t know then. I’m sure that will be true in some of the succeeding weeks. That’s part of our job too, is to figure out what’s best for this team, not some other team, but this group of players, and what’s our best chance to put together a good team that can win, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
"I think that’s incumbent on all of us, it’s not limited to any individual or any group or any unit, it’s the entire football team. There’s a lot of room for improvement, we need to keep working hard and gain ground on that. That’s what we’re trying to do every day."