Bill Belichick

4 Falcons players to watch against the Patriots in Week 11

The Patriots will have their hands full against the Falcons keeping rookie tight end phenom Kyle Pitts in check.

Kyle Pitts Patriots Falcons
Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts runs after a catch against the Dallas Cowboys. AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth
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On paper, the Patriots are catching the Atlanta Falcons at an extremely advantageous time heading into Thursday night’s Week 11 matchup.

Quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense could be severely undermanned coming into this game, with top wide receiver Calvin Ridley out indefinitely and running back/receiver extraordinaire Cordarrelle Patterson (ankle) a game-time decision.

Last week’s 43-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys showed how Atlanta’s offensive struggles can put added pressure on a defense that can’t stop anyone through the air, which is something New England will likely try to take advantage of.

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Still, the mental and physical grind of a short week can lead to some unexpected results on Thursday nights, and the Patriots will have to maintain their focus against the players Atlanta still has left.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 24: Kyle Pitts #8 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after making a catch in the fourth quarter of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Here are five Falcons players to watch:

Kyle Pitts

The No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft is who every freak-athlete tight end wants to be when he grows up.

“You hear them comparing him to a cross between Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones, and I’d say that’s about right,” Bill Belichick said of the rookie pass-catcher’s tape. “That’s what it looks like. This guy is one of the superstars of the NFL already.”

Pitts has the physical profile of a Madden Create-a-Player at 6-feet-6-inches, 240 pounds, an unofficial 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, and hands that make the football look small. Scouts have even compared his rare size, athletic ability, and ball skills to Hall-of-Fame receiver Calvin Johnson.

The Falcons use Baby Megatron as a receiver whenever possible. He runs routes on 91 percent of his pass snaps and lines up as a traditional “in-line” tight end only about 20 percent of the time.

And why not? Safeties aren’t fast enough to run with Pitts. Most cornerbacks aren’t big enough to check him or stop him from hauling down jump balls over their heads. He finds weak spots in zone coverage and plucks the ball out of the air with ease. What’s not to like?

The former Florida Gator is already third among NFL tight ends in receiving yards (606), behind only Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and Baltimore’s Mark Andrews. And that’s with every team in the league knowing they’re going to get a heavy dose of Pitts.

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Belichick might be the best coach in the NFL when it comes to taking away a team’s top receiving threat. Pitts will be his next assignment.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – NOVEMBER 14: Olamide Zaccheaus #17 of the Atlanta Falcons completes a catch against Trevon Diggs #7 of the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at AT&T Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Olamide Zaccheaus

Who, you ask?

The 2019 undrafted free agent is likely the second-most dangerous pass catcher the Falcons have outside of Pitts.

Zaccheaus is far from the imposing physical specimen his high-pedigree teammate is, checking in at 5-feet-8-inches and about 190 pounds. He also doesn’t have the blinding speed needed to be a true threat to beat the Patriots deep.

But the diminutive receiver is quick in and out of his cuts, does a good job of finding holes in zone coverage (which the Patriots are playing a lot of these days), and has the toughness to come down with contested catches over the middle of the field.

He also stretches the field more than you’d expect from someone without great speed, with his targets coming at an average depth of 11 yards down the field.

Zaccheaus’s three touchdown catches are second on the Falcons behind Patterson. All of those scoring grabs have come in the low red zone (between the 10-yard line and end zone), making him someone to watch if the Patriots devote extra attention to Pitts.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) runs after a catch against Atlanta Falcons cornerback Avery Williams (35) in an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Nov, 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Avery Williams

If you smell something burning, it just might be Williams following last week’s rough patch against the Cowboys.

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The slot cornerback gave up catches on all of his four targets in Sunday’s blowout loss, including a touchdown to CeeDee Lamb—the first Williams surrendered all year up to that point.

On the season, opponents have had their way with Williams, posting a 124.2 passer rating and 76.9 completion percentage (10-of-13 passing) when targeting him. The corner also doesn’t have a single pass-breakup or interception in 2021.

None of the Falcons’ current cornerbacks exactly shut down wide receivers, but Williams has by far the worst coverage grade of any Atlanta cornerback and has the second-worst mark on the team ahead of just linebacker Deion Jones.

Whether it’s Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne or Nelson Agholor in the slot, look at whoever No. 35 lines up over. They’re probably going to be open.

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones (45) in action during an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

Deion Jones

The Falcons’ defense hasn’t done too much to get excited about this season, ranking 31st in points allowed and 22nd in yards surrendered according to Pro Football Reference.

But they do a decent job stopping the run, allowing a respectable 4.2 yards per carry on the ground (11th in the NFL).

Jones is a big part of that. The sixth-year linebacker’s 61 tackles rank eighth league-wide, and he also leads the Falcons with 29 “stops,” a more comprehensive measure that accounts for his ability to shed tackles and blow up plays (per Pro Football Focus).

“Deion Jones is one of the best linebackers we’ll play,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Wednesday.

The former second-round pick makes his name with speed and explosiveness as a run defender and has added 10 pressures as well. He also has solid ball skills in coverage with 11 career interceptions, five of which have gone back to the house.

He hasn’t been as good a cover man this season, though, allowing a 90 percent catch rate with only one pass-breakup (no interceptions) in 2021. His passer rating allowed when targeted has also risen for the last three seasons.

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Still, Mac Jones and the Patriots should be careful if they want to try the speedy linebacker in one-on-one situations: PFF has the Falcons’ Jones graded significantly better in man coverage than in zone, and the Patriots’ remaining running backs aren’t exactly James White in the passing game.

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