Bill Belichick isn’t one to dote on the past, so it should come as no surprise that the Patriots head coach isn’t thinking about the glory of Super Bowl LI ahead of the New England-Atlanta rematch at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. In February, the Patriots notably came back from a 25-point, third-quarter deficit against a Falcons squad that has stayed relatively intact throughout free agency. Belichick knows, however, that the NFC South powerhouse will provide stiff competition.
“This is a really impressive team to watch and study,” Belichick told reporters on Wednesday. “I think that Thomas Dimitroff and his staff have done a tremendous job assembling a very high quality football team. They’ve got a lot of outstanding players at every position: good on the offensive line, good quarterback, good at running back, good at tight end, receiver, have good specialists in the kicking game, kickers, returner, good on the defensive line, good at linebacker, good corners, good safeties, strong in the kicking game.”
“They have a very talented roster — one that presents a lot of challenges for us and a lot of match-ups, he continued. “They’re very fast, very athletic. They play with great tempo. It’s going to be a big challenge for us this week. Obviously, well coached. Fundamentally very sound in what they do. They’re a tough team to compete against, so we’re going to have to do a lot of things right Sunday night and that’s what we’ll prepare for this week.”
One area of personnel that underwent a lot of changes during the offseason was the coaching staff. Two days after the Super Bowl, the team hired Steve Sarkisian to replace Kyle Shanahan as their offensive coordinator. Shanahan is currently the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
“Coach Sarkisian has a very well-balanced offense that’s explosive and can score from anywhere on the field in a number of different ways with a number of different players,” Belichick said. “They run the ball. They’ve got two good backs that they seem very comfortable leaving either one of them in the game. They throw the ball at all three levels well. They have a lot of catch-and-run plays. They have intermediate routes, and they can throw the ball deep. They get the ball to their tight ends, the receivers, backs involved in the passing game as well as the running game.”
In the aftermath of the team’s devastating loss, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn also dismissed coordinator Richard Smith and defensive line coach Bryan Cox. To replace Smith, the team promoted assistant coach Marquand Manuel to defensive coordinator, while they hired former player Bryant Cox to replace Cox.
“I don’t really care about what some other coach did some other year,” Belichick said in regards to the different staff. “We’re focused on the team that we’re playing this weekend. Like right now we’re getting ready for the Falcons, Coach Sarkisian’s offense, Coach Manuel’s defense and Coach Armstrong’s special teams under the direction of Coach Quinn. That’s who we play this week. That’s what we’re getting ready for. What somebody else did some other year, it’s really not that relevant right now.”
Here’s what else the head coach add to say:
On quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to extend plays with his legs: “I don’t think he’s a guy that’s going to rush for 150 yards, I don’t think. But he can certainly pick up key first downs in his ability to run and he’s a guy that can extend plays and has great accuracy and vision down the field to make big plays. Running in and out of the pocket to extend plays, I don’t think that’s really a good idea, but he’s certainly capable of running for first downs on third down.”
On the speed of the Patriots offense versus the speed of the Falcons defense: “It’s as fast of a defense that we’ve played or that I think we will play. They have great team speed. They have speed on the defensive front, linebackers, in the secondary. They’re a very fast team, explosive.”
On whether he think his offense is better suited for their defense this year: “Well, I mean, look, their defense is what it is. The guys they put out there are the ones they put out there, so those are the ones we’ve got to block. Those are the ones we’ve got to throw against. Those are the ones we’ve got to pass protect in the passing game, so that’s what we’ll do. With the players and the scheme that we have we’ll set up the plays in the offense that we feel is best suited to go against what we anticipate from them or what they actually put out there.”
On whether he plans to devote more time to preparing for quarterbacks with better mobility: “I don’t know. We look at the guys that we play every week and those are the guys that we prepare for. What those players’ skills are, the types of plays they run, those are the plays that we practice on. Those are the players that we prepare for every week, so next week is next week. Last week is last week. This week is Matt Ryan and Coach Sarkisian’s Atlanta offense. That’s what it is that we’re preparing for. So, all of the elements that they bring, which are numerous, certainly not one thing you have to stop, you’ve got to stop – it’s a long list. We work on all of those and they’re all difficult. They make it hard on you. They do a good job and so it’s a big challenge for us.”
On wide receiver Julio Jones: “He’s an outstanding player. He’s a great blocker, strong after the catch. He’s made tremendous catches down the field. Again, he can take short plays and turn them into big plays, break tackles, gain a lot of extra yards, makes some tough first downs. He helps them in the running game, too, blocking on the perimeter. He’s a complete player.”
On the Falcons defense: “Again, I think it’s a very talented group of players. They’re explosive, fast on the defensive line, very athletic at linebacker. They have good corners, good safeties. Again, they have a good scheme. They’re well-coached. They pursue the ball well. They tackle well. They’re a very fast and aggressive group.”
On the Patriots rushing game against the Falcons defnese: “Again, Atlanta’s got a very athletic group there, guys like [Dontari] Poe, [Adrian] Clayborn, [Grady] Jarrett, obviously, very hard to block. So, none of the holes that are there stay open for very long. They pursue and close very quickly, so we’re going to have to do a great job of making our blocks and staying in our blocks and running with the ball to have any success in the running game.”
On Rob Gronkowski’s match-up against the Falcons defense: “I think [Keanu] Neal, [De’Vondre] Campbell are both very competitive guys in coverage for the Falcons. They do a great job, and again, nobody has very long to get open against this pass rush that Atlanta has. In the passing game, we’re going to have to do a great job of not only protecting, but running good technique routes so that we can create separation for the quarterback to throw the ball because there’s just not a lot of time to get open. So, we’ll have to move quickly on that.”
If something has worked for you offensively in the past against an opponent, will your revisit it until they can prove they can stop it or is it more assumed that they will be keying on that aspect of your offensive attack?
“That’s always an interesting game plan question. You have to make a decision on that. There’s usually more than one game to look at though. Unless you’re the only team that runs a certain play, there’s probably other plays to evaluate besides yours that have a similar, if not the exact same play, a similar concept to it. Maybe they’ve made an adjustment to a concept or maybe they haven’t. You’d probably make your decision on that. You can usually get more than a couple looks at something that you want to get a look at, whatever it happens to be. It might not be the exact same thing but you can usually get an idea of conceptually what they’re trying to do and how you would want to formulate the play to take advantage of a weakness that you might have identified.”