by Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
September 24, 2009

The Patriots come into this week’s game against the Atlanta Falcons fresh off a disheartening loss to the New York Jets. No doubt many questions have arisen amongst NFL observers about these Patriots after such a poorly played game last week. But for the Patriots and their fans, here is the really disheartening news…..the Falcons are better than the Jets. The Falcons have it all over the Jets in skill position players, in the trenches, in leadership on both offense and defense and in overall talent. Now for the good news. They’re back home. They certainly can’t play as badly again as they did last week. They match up better against the Falcons defensive scheme and the Falcons won’t be as motivated for this game as the Jets were for their “Super Bowl” last week.

It’s not going to be easy. The Patriots appear to still have two key injuries that could hinder them. Defensive leader Jerod Mayo will not play, and wide receiver Wes Welker, who missed the Jets game, did not practice on Wednesday. The Patriots come back to Foxboro a bit shaken, perhaps. In the past, they’ve rallied to some of their best performances just when many began counting them out. Does this year’s team, devoid of so many leaders from the past, have that in them as well? We begin to find out this week.

Historically, the Patriots have only met the Falcons 11 times since both joined the NFL. They are 5-6 versus Atlanta, but 2-0 since Bill Belichick took over. Their last meeting was in 2005 when the Patriots topped them 31-28 in Atlanta.

So let’s take a look at some of these Falcons:

General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, Jr.

Dimitroff has longstanding connections to both the Patriots and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Dimitroff left the Patriots to become Atlanta’s General Manager prior to the 2008 season and immediately helped turn them around from a bottom-tier team to a playoff team. He was born in Ohio but grew up mostly in Canada and went to college in Ontario at the University of Guelph, where he played football and was a two time captain. His dad, Thomas Dimitroff, Sr., had been a head coach there previously and then coached in the CFL. The elder Dimitroff also played for the Boston Patriots in their inaugural 1960 season. In 1987 the father was hired as a scout for the Cleveland Browns and he’d remain there as a scout while Bill Belichick was coach from 1991 to 1995. The younger Dimitroff followed a similar route as his dad, starting in the CFL as a scout. In 2002 the Patriots hired him as a National Scout and just a year later he became Director of College Scouting. Of course, Bill Belichick knew him long before hiring him through his dad’s work in Cleveland, a time period during which the younger Dimitroff worked on the Browns’ground crew. While director of college scouting, the Patriots successfully drafted many excellent players thought at the time to be “reaches” in the spot where they were selected. Now in Atlanta, Dimitroff is off to a similar successful start as he returns to his professional roots in Foxboro.

Quarterback Matt Ryan

Of course Ryan is another Falcon making a homecoming of sorts; he was a star QB for Boston College before joining Atlanta as a rookie last season. Ryan has made a remarkable transition to the NFL, and he’s looking like he will continue to improve into this season. Ryan isn’t real mobile, but he can make all the throws if the Patriots give him too much time. Atlanta is as well balanced a team between run and pass as there is in the NFL. The Patriots will have to do a good job on the early downs to get Ryan in long yardage situations. But it says here they’ll need to blitz effectively more than they have in the first two games or Ryan has the smarts, arm and accuracy to really hurt them.

Head Coach Mike Smith

Smith joined Dimitroff last year in his first year with the Falcons and also did a remarkable job leading them to their first playoff appearance since 2004. Prior to joining Atlanta, Smith was the defensive coordinator for Jacksonville. It’s interesting to note that the Patriots faced Smith’s defense in the playoffs in 2007 and his approach was to drop everyone in coverage and rarely if ever blitz Tom Brady. That would be a distinct change for the Patriots if Smith sticks to that philosophy. The approach wasn’t real effective as Tom Brady went 26 for 28 with 3 touchdowns and a 141.4 quarterback rating. The Patriots ran for 145 yards that night as well. In fact, Smith was defensive coordinator in Jacksonville from 2003 to 2007 and Brady faced his defenses four times and had QB ratings of 103.6, 116.4, 97.1 and the aforementioned 141.4 in going 4-0. You’d think Smith would try something different, particularly once he sees the trouble the Jets gave the Patriots last week. But, it may be a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and just doesn’t fit to mimic the Jets approach with the personnel or scheme of the Falcons. Through two games, the Falcons have 5 sacks, only 1 of which came from a linebacker. So it should be interesting to see the approach Smith takes here.

RB Jerious Norwood

Norwood is Atlanta’s change of pace and third down back and also returns kicks for the Falcons. He had 5 catches in the opener. He is a very dangerous open space runner and one of the fastest players in the NFL. He can literally take it the distance any time he touches the football from any spot on the field. But he suffered a head injury against Carolina last week and missed practice this Wednesday and is possibly out against the Patriots. That is something to monitor and would be a definite loss for the Falcons.

LB Curtis Lofton

In New England fans have witnessed the 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo’s outstanding play for the Patriots. Lofton was a rookie last year as well who was nearly as good as Mayo. Just 23 years old, the 248 lb. Lofton is as important to the Falcons defense as Mayo is to the Patriots. Atlanta has struggled a bit against the run this year and Lofton stepping up will be the key if they plan on shutting down the Patriots. Getting the running game going may be one area the Patriots can exploit against this team. The Falcons, despite a 2-0 start, have given up 120 yards rushing per game and a very high 5.1 yards per carry.

WR Roddy White

White has to be one of the least talked about great players in the NFL. The last two years he has put together seasons of 1,202 and 1,382 yards receiving respectively. Last year he averaged nearly 16 yards per catch, and he has largely done that without another major receiving threat on Atlanta’s roster. Until this year, that is, when All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez joined the Falcons. This makes White even more difficult to focus on and even more dangerous. The Patriots still gelling in the defensive backfield and they will have their hands full trying to contain White Sunday with so many of the other problems Atlanta can present both running and throwing.

Atlanta Falcons Website

Atlanta Journal Constitution Falcons Blog