FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England’s Tommy Kelly doesn’t expect Atlanta to run the ball that much Sunday night.
The Patriots defensive tackle is so certain the Falcons will primarily pass, he’s focusing solely on quarterback Matt Ryan.
“That’s their offense,” Kelly said Friday. “You got a top-five quarterback, two big-time receivers, Hall of Fame tight end, they’re going to throw the ball.
“Me personally, I’m playing pass. I’m defending the run on the way to the quarterback,” he added with a chuckle. “I’m going to put all my eggs into that basket thinking they’re going to throw the ball.”
With Ryan under center, there’s no reason to believe Kelly is wrong, either.
Now in his sixth season, Ryan has developed into one of the game’s premier passers, due in part to the stockpile of receivers he has to choose from. Between deep threat receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan is a threat to throw a touchdown every time he touches the ball.
He is one of seven quarterbacks this season to average more than 300 yards passing per game, a tall task even for New England’s sixth-ranked passing defense.
Kelly, who faced Ryan last year while playing for the Oakland Raiders, grouped him with some of the league’s elite signal callers.
“Whoever is the best, he’s up there with them, with Tom (Brady) and Peyton (Manning) and Philip Rivers, Drew Brees,” he said. “He’s up there — top five, top 10.
“The whole offense runs through him. The game’s on the line, he’s going to have the ball in his hands. So, we’ve got to try to get him off the spot and try to make him make some hurried decisions.”
That’s a lot easier said than done.
Despite a 1-2 start, Ryan has completed 68.1 percent of his passes, third best in the league, and has lost just once in his last 13 regular-season starts at home. In fact, the two-time Pro Bowler is 34-5 at the Georgia Dome, and with a victory against New England (3-0) can tie Brett Favre for most wins by a quarterback in his first 40 home games.
When discussing Ryan earlier this week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick highlighted just about every desirable quality a quarterback can possess.
“He looks pretty good at everything to me,” he said. “He has a good touch, he does a good job throwing the ball down the field, reads coverages well, doesn’t make many mistakes, manages the game well, he’s accurate, he’s tough, he’ll definitely stand in there, throw the ball and take a hit.
“He has very few bad plays, let’s put it that way, very few. So, 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.”
Kelly is hoping to change that, even though New England has yet to face a quarterback of Ryan’s caliber. Rookies EJ Manuel of Buffalo and Geno Smith of the New York Jets posed plenty of problems for the Patriots, who escaped with two wins by a combined five points. They had no trouble Sunday handling Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who just three days later was benched in favor of another rookie.
Kelly, however, couldn’t care less who is under center. He just wants to hit them.
“All the glory comes from sacking the quarterback,” he said, “so if you can’t get up for a chance to play a quarterback who throws the ball a lot, you’re pretty much in the wrong league.”
Defensive end Chandler Jones said the key to rattling Ryan is pressuring him and pushing him out of the pocket.
“With a guy like Matt Ryan, you don’t want him sitting back there just picking your defense apart,” Jones explained. “You want to go out there and get after him, move him off the spot a little.”
There are benefits to facing a prototypical pocket passer such as Ryan, though.
Kelly, for one, knows exactly where he will be most of the time, making the job of the defensive line a lot easier.
“You don’t pretty much worry about those guys getting out of the pocket unless it’s a desperate situation,” Kelly said. “So, you can just get into your move and just know he’s going to be five yards behind the center.”
There’s only one caveat.
“Just need him to hold it a little bit,” Kelly said with a laugh.