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Falcons vs. Patriots: De'Vondre Campbell's coverage skills will be tested, 5 things to know


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons (3-2) will kick off a three-game road trip, beginning with the New England Patriots (4-2) on "Sunday Night Football."


While Atlanta has scored just 17 points in each of its last two games, New England has struggled mightily on defense this season. Both teams are looking to get back on track, and this game provides the opportunity for each to do just that.

Let's dive into this week's key matchup.

KEY MATCHUP: Campbell vs. Gronkowski

It's no secret that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is their top offensive weapon. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound playmaker has 26 catches for 401 yards and four touchdowns this season, and he is rated the No. 1 tight end by Pro Football Focus.

Now in his second season, Falcons linebacker De'Vondre Campbell has made great strides in coverage against opposing linebackers. He already has four passes defended this season after registering seven in all of 2016 and has a better understanding of his own game.

"I think it's just technique," Campbell said when assessing the strides he's made. "It's just being more focused on my technique throughout the games and just understanding who I'm going against. The biggest thing that I've had to understand is that I'm faster than more tight ends I go against so, sometimes, I tend to play too fast and that's how I get beat. I think the biggest thing is just understanding my strengths and understanding who I'm going against."

In Gronkowski, Campbell will face his biggest test yet. Gronkowski has been held under 80 yards just once this season, and he is coming off a two-touchdown performance against the New York Jets.

"The thing that stands out to me on film is he knows himself really well," Campbell said. "He has great hands so he finds ways to utilize himself and get open. He's one of those guys who likes guys close on him so he can use his body and just overpower you."

Five more things to know about Falcons-Patriots 1. Julio isn't any less of a part of the Falcons' offense

One storyline that has really gained momentum in recent weeks is the notion that the Falcons have turned away from utilizing their star receiver. When looking at the stats, however, that opinion doesn't really hold up. Here are the stats from his first five games in 2016 compared to 2017:

2016 (first five games)

  • 41 targets (8.2 per game)
  • 24 receptions (4.8 per game)
  • 517 yards (103.4 per game)
  • 3 touchdowns

2017 (first five games)

  • 37 targets (7.4 per game)
  • 25 receptions (5 per game)
  • 367 yards (73.4 per game)
  • 0 touchdowns

The two big things to note are Jones' 12-catch, 300-yard game in Week 3 against Carolina last season, which skews his reception and yardage totals for 2016. He also missed half of a game this year. What's been lacking for Jones are the explosive plays, which may make things seem worse than they are. However, his usage rate is nearly identical through the first five weeks. 2. Patriots' defense struggling against the pass

New England's defense has really been susceptible against the pass this year. The Patriots are last in the NFL in yards per play and passing yards per play, giving up 6.64 and 7.83 yards, respectively. All six quarterbacks they've faced this season have passed for at least 300 yards, which is two more than the Patriots allowed in 2016 and 2015. 3. Time of possession key for Falcons

While this may seem like a hot take, it's not. The Falcons' offense has been good this season. They are second in the NFL with 6.18 yards per play, fourth in rushing yards per play, fifth in passing yards per play and second in third-down percentage. So what's the problem? Atlanta's 306 offensive plays this season are the second-least in the league.

In the second half against Buffalo, the Falcons ran 39 plays in the second half. It's important to note, however, that 14 of those plays came on the final drive in the two-minute drill, meaning that Atlanta had just 25 plays on offense to try and build on their lead. Against the Dolphins that number is even worse. The Falcons ran 23 plays on offense in the entire second half against Miami, and only 14 of those plays came before their final possession.

Atlanta is making the most of its possession, but it simply needs more of them. 4. New England's passing offense remains among the best

While the Patriots' defense has struggled, their offense has not. New England is third in yards per play, second in passing yards per play, first in first downs per game and fifth in points per game. The Patriots are averaging nearly 29 points per contest and are throwing for over 300 yards per game. Tom Brady leads all NFL quarterbacks with 1,959 passing yards and his 13 touchdowns are second just behind Deshaun Watson. 5. Falcons in midst of a losing streak against Patriots

Although New England holds only a two-game lead over Atlanta head-to-head, the Patriots are in the midst of a five-game win streak against the Falcons. Only one of those losses came in Foxborough, a 26-10 result in 2009. Prior to 2001, however, the Falcons had a four-game win streak against the Patriots and a 6-3 record against them, overall.

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