Super Bowl 51 Preview: How the Falcons Offense Will Attack the Patriots Defense

Jan 22, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) speaks with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan after the game against the Green Bay Packers in the 2017 NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta defeated Green Bay 44-21. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY SportsFalcons QB Matt Ryan (left) and former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan

As mentioned in my earlier preview breaking down the New England Patriots offense versus the Atlanta Falcons defense, Super Bowl 51’s outcome will likely boil down to which offense will have the stronger days. So let’s now look at the Falcons league-leading offense against the Patriots defense.

In preparation for this breakdown, I looked at film of both the Patriots defense (primarily against the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks) while also checking out the Falcons offense in games against the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers and Seahawks over the second half of the season. I also visited how the Falcons exploited their most formidable defensive opponent of the Denver Broncos earlier in the 2016 season.

The Falcons will do what they’ve done throughout 2016, which is attack and try to put as many points on the board as possible. So a lot of this matchup boils down to how the Patriots intend to slow them down.

That starts with how they will try and deal with Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. How the Patriots intend to match up with Jones and the other Falcons wide outs will dictate much of the approach to the rest of their defensive game plan.

New England will key on preventing big plays from the Falcons offense, which was better than any other team in the NFL in producing them in 2016. Because of this, they’ll likely employ a lot of Cover-1 and Cover-2 looks with their safeties offering deep help over the top to the corners against the speedy Falcons wide receivers.

The Patriots’ next step will be figuring out which cornerbacks will line up against which specific Falcons wideout because of the differing styles each one presents.

Falcons Receivers Present Tough Matchups For Patriots Corners

While Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler shadowed Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown throughout the AFC Championship Game, it’s unlikely he’ll be tasked with doing the same against Jones on Sunday. Butler should have opportunities to cover Jones, but the Patriots have shown a tendency throughout 2016 to prefer matching Butler up against opponents’ quicker wide receivers rather than their bigger ones.

For example against the Houston Texans in the postseason, Butler lined up primarily against speedy, deep threat Will Fuller rather than DeAndre Hopkins. Against the Denver Broncos in Week 15, Butler was tasked with keeping pace with Emmanuel Sanders rather than Demaryius Thomas throughout the day.

Perhaps the best analog for Jones is Cincinnati Bengals A.J. Green, who the Patriots faced in Week 6 earlier this season. But it was the other cornerbacks besides Butler that were primarily tasked with keeping Green in check during that matchup.

Instead expect the Patriots to utilize third cornerback Eric Rowe against Jones when he lines up outside, with the second-year cornerback receiving plenty of safety help over the top. This was a major adjustment the Patriots made against the Bengals, with the strategy paying off in the second half by keeping Green better contained.

Green tallied 79 yards on five receptions in the first half before the Patriots made the switch, and he was thereafter held to just one catch for nine yards with Rowe lining up against him.

Yet Rowe isn’t a great matchup for Jones, since he struggles with speed. This is why he’ll almost always get safety help shaded to his side of the field. Here is an example of Rowe getting beat off the line by Steelers wide receiver Sammie Coates in the AFC Championship Game:

At bottom, Patriots CB Eric Rowe (25) misses jam vs. Steelers WR Sammie Coates (14), who gets behind him and makes a 30-yard grab against the Patriots Cover-4 look.

Logan Ryan is the Patriots other starting corner opposite Butler and also will likely see a lot of Jones, particularly when the latter lines up in the slot. Ryan plays outside in the Patriots base defense, but moves to the slot in their nickel sub-package. However Ryan’s main duties could come against Mohamed Sanu throughout the day, particularly when the Falcons employ three or more receivers on the field.

Ryan has the size and physicality to challenge both Jones and Sanu at the line of scrimmage.

At the bottom, Patriots CB Logan Ryan (26) does a good job pressing Bengals WR A.J. Green (18) on a quick screen, not letting the veteran WR get off the block and disrupting the play.

But he struggles against speed, which could create mismatches against Jones.

Near top, Patriots CB Logan Ryan (26) gets beat on a corner route by Bengals WR A.J. Green for 22 yards

Regardless of where he lines up, Jones is going to create problems for all three Patriots corners. Thus it’s likely that he’ll be bracketed regularly with safeties over the top or trailing defenders underneath.

That leaves Butler likely operating against Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who most fits the mold of faster receivers that the former usually covers. However, Gabriel is not an every-down receiver. In five games since their bye week in which the Falcons had all three of their top receivers relatively healthy, Gabriel played in a combined total of 41.6 percent of the offensive snaps.

This means that if Gabriel gets a similar workload on Sunday, Butler will be tasked with covering someone else for roughly 60 percent of the game. That leaves Jones or Sanu as the two likeliest candidates.

Which should reiterate that all three Patriot corners will likely have to bear part of the burden of keeping Jones contained. But with Jones drawing all that attention, it should create numerous opportunities for the Falcons’ other receivers to get several one-on-one opportunities against whichever cornerback is not tasked with shadowing Jones on that particular play.

These are the types of opportunities that the Falcons receivers have thrived upon throughout 2016. It is why the team is undefeated in the five games in which Jones was held to 60 or less receiving yards. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has excelled regardless of which receiver he’s thrown the ball to in 2016, and taking away Jones hasn’t hurt his production.

Matt Ryan Passer Rating By Target 2016 (Incl. Playoffs)

According to Pro Football Reference.
Julio Jones1499865.8%165611.1194112.2
Mohamed Sanu936873.1%7498.0560118.1
Devonta Freeman756282.7%5847.7931106.9
Taylor Gabriel594169.5%67411.4261134.4
Tevin Coleman473778.7%47810.1740137.4
Aldrick Robinson352057.1%3239.2320107.2
Justin Hardy322268.8%2056.4140125.7
Jacob Tamme312271.0%2106.7731108.3
Austin Hooper302273.3%30410.1330138.8
Levine Toilolo251664.0%29511.8020131.3
Patrick DiMarco11872.7%837.5510124.4
Nick Williams7571.4%598.430096.7
Josh Perkins5360.0%428.4010126.7
Terron Ward2150.0%115.500066.7
D.J. Tialavea11100.0%11.0010118.8

Because of the ability of the Falcons to spread the ball around to multiple receivers and still have a high-functioning offense, the Patriots can’t focus all of their attention on Jones at the expense of the multitude of other threats in the Falcons offense.

Thus a key decision for the Patriots will be to decide whether they spend the bulk of the game playing Cover-1 or Cover-2. If they trust that players like Ryan and/or Butler can hold their own against Sanu and Gabriel, respectively, they’ll likely utilize the former coverage. If not, they will likely use the latter to better guard against the big plays that Gabriel in particular, is capable of creating.

That will be important since Butler, while the best suited among the Patriots top three corners to handle Gabriel’s speed, can still struggle against it.

Patriots CB Malcolm Butler (21) gets burned by Texans WR Will Fuller deep.

Thus I suspect the Patriots will lean more readily on their Cover-2 defense to help guard against both Jones and Gabriel beating them downfield.

Jones’ Coverage Opens Opportunities For Others

Regardless of which defensive coverage shell the Patriots opt for, the Falcons have ways to beat them.

Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel beats Packers CB Quinten Rollins (24) over the middle. Packers showing Cover-2 look to prevent the deep ball, but Gabriel has no qualms working over their man coverage in the middle of the field.

Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu (12) wins on a fade at the top against Broncos CB Bradley Roby (29). Once again beating the Cover-2.

Falcons WR Justin Hardy (16) at the top beats Saints CB Sterling Moore (24) on a smash route for 17 yards. WR Julio Jones (11) is lined up beside him in the slot and his vertical route keeps the deep safety help from SS Roman Harper (41) at bay, leaving Hardy some room to run after the catch. The Saints are playing in a Cover-3 shell.

If the Patriots opt for more Cover-1 looks, that will put even greater stress on their cornerbacks.

At the top, Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel (18) beats Seahawks CB DeShawn Shead (35) on a slant route and then makes a defender miss to gain 37 yards. He works well against the Cover-1 scheme since the opposing corner is mostly isolated on the outside.

Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu (12) lined up in the bottom slot, beats Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane (20) with a shake at the line of scrimmage and then on a corner route for 22 yards. Once again, the deep FS Steven Terrell (23) can’t cover the necessary ground in Seattle’s Cover-1 to help Lane out.

Yet even still, it’s not as if the Falcons will completely ignore Jones despite the extra attention and bracketed coverages he will inevitably draw. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has several tricks in his bag that can still get Jones the ball against even a defense as capable as the Patriots.

Nonetheless Jones Will Still Be Featured

One way teams have tried to slow down Jones is by jamming him at the line of scrimmage in order to disrupt the time of the route. Yet Shanahan loves employing the stack concept to allow Jones to get more free releases off the line.

Falcons WR Julio Jones (11) gets a stacked release with WR Justin Hardy (16), going against the Saints Cover-3. Saints CB Sterling Moore (24) opts to play off given Jones’ speed, with the Falcons WR able to win on a dig for a gain of 23 yards, attacking the zone behind the linebackers. Note the run action in the backfield that holds the attention of those linebackers, so that they don’t get depth and opening up a window for Jones behind them.

Near the top, Falcons WR Julio Jones (11) gets a stacked release in front of WR Mohamed Sanu (12) and Chiefs CB Steven Nelson (20) is unable to keep up with him on a corner route. Here the stack creates momentary hesitation from both corners, as Nelson is expected to cover whichever receiver releases inside. That delay gives Jones more than enough time to get on top of him and streak past him for a 20-yard gain.

One of the preferred ways of attacking the Cover-2 is going after the area near the sideline that is underneath the deep safety. The Falcons have utilized this route effectively with Jones throughout 2016. Jones’ unique talents allow him to win on such a route even against an adversary like All-Pro Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters.

Falcons WR Julio Jones (11) beats Chiefs CB Marcus Peters (22) on a post-corner route, making a diving grab as QB Matt Ryan throws over the defender towards the sideline for a 20-yard gain. Jones settles into the area of the field which is among the most difficult for the Cover-2 to defend, especially when he sells the inside post as hard as he does to force Chiefs FS Ron Parker (38) to bite inside.

Not only will Shanahan utilize Jones to pull coverages away from other receivers, but he’ll do the opposite and have vertical routes from receivers open up lanes for Jones. Here’s an example where the vertical routes from the other Falcons receivers push the defenders back, leaving Jones open for a drag route over the middle for a big gain in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers:

Falcons WR Julio Jones (11) at the top is able to get open on a drag route thanks to the vertical routes of teammates pushing defenders back deep. The design of this play is to pull the coverage away in the middle of the field and for the other receivers to be in a position to block after the catch.

But even with all the attention drawn by Jones and the other Falcons receivers as well as the havoc they are capable of creating for a defense like the Patriots, the Falcons running backs will also be a big component of the team’s passing attack on Sunday.

Falcons Running Backs Factor Heavily Into Passing Game

One of the weaknesses of the Patriots defenses is their linebacker corps. While players like Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy offer toughness against the run and the versatility to be effective blitzers, they each lack the fluidity and speed to handle dynamic running backs out of the backfield.

Other opponents have exploited the Patriots defense in similar ways. The Steelers occasionally took advantage of opportunities created by the extra attention paid to Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship to create opportunities for their other receivers, including running back DeAngelo Williams on this play:

Steelers RB DeAngelo Williams is able to get open in the flat as slot WR Antonio Brown (84) is able to draw coverage over the middle with a slant route. Falcons RB Tevin Coleman could feast in this same situation.

The Falcons have done an excellent job getting both of their running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman involved out of the backfield. Both runners give the team two contrasting options and create headaches for opposing defenses. Freeman’s slashing running style is hard to handle in the open field, making him great on screen plays:

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (24) wins on a late-developing screen play. Different from your typical screen, the Falcons blockers and Freeman wait a couple of beats before releasing downfield. This prevents the bulk of Chiefs defenders from recognizing the play until it is too late, leading to Freeman’s 16-yard gain.

Meanwhile Coleman’s pure speed makes him a nearly impossible matchup for any linebacker, let alone ones that are as stiff as the Patriots:

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman (26) wins on an option route, beating athletic Packers LB Joe Thomas (48) with pure speed in the flat. Thomas’ only shot is a poorly thrown pass by QB Matt Ryan, which nearly happens as Coleman is so fast that it is hard for the Falcons QB to properly lead him on throws.

Shanahan has often employed splitting both running backs out as wide receivers also to dictate favorable matchups. He used this excellently against the Denver Broncos in a Week 5 matchup. Given the ability of the Broncos cornerbacks in matching up with the Falcons receivers, Shanahan targeted the one weakness within the Broncos’ coverage: the lack of speed from inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis.

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman (26) is split out and runs a cross underneath a pick route by TE Austin Hooper (81) and then turns on the jets to beat several defenders for a 48-yard gain.

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman (26) uses speed to roast Broncos LB Brandon Marshall (54) with a vertical route down the seam, scoring on a 31-yard strike. Broncos SS T.J. Ward (43) has deep responsibilities but favors WR Mohamed Sanu’s (12) go route on the outside, finding himself out of position to help out Marshall and make a touchdown-saving tackle.

Like the Broncos, the Patriots don’t have the athletes at linebacker to handle either Falcons running back in one-on-one situations either out of the backfield or when they are in the slot.

One way the Patriots could try and counter this is by blitzing more than usual, with the hopes that the Falcons keep either Freeman or Coleman in the backfield to help out in pass protection. The Patriots were effective at launching blitzes at other quarterbacks earlier in the season.

Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower (54) gets a sack on Bengals QB Andy Dalton for a safety on a delayed blitz. Bengals RB Jeremy Hill (32) misses his blitz assignment. Hightower shows his instincts, waiting a beat and taking the path of least resistant right past LG Clint Boling (65) through the A gap.

Patriots CB Logan Ryan (26) is lined up in the slot against the Bengals three receivers near the bottom. His pre-snap alignment masks the fact that he’s blitzing to the Bengals offense. His pressure forces Bengals QB Andy Dalton into a late pass that is jumped and nearly intercepted by Patriots CB Malcolm Butler (21).

However that strategy depends heavily on the Patriots’ blitz creating problems for the Falcons early on. If the Falcons don’t fear the Patriots blitz, then they will attack it. And if that blitz isn’t successful at disrupting the Falcons passing attack, it could really burn New England as it has done to other opponents in 2016:

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (24) beats Seahawks DE Cliff Avril (56) on an angle route. He then makes a juke after the catch to beat the safety for a 53-yard gain. The Seahawks bring five rushers up the middle, and LG Andy Levitre (67) does an excellent job slowing up both LB K.J. Wright (50) and DE Frank Clark (55) to buy Ryan enough time to get rid of the ball.

Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel (18) makes several cuts on a screen pass with the Cardinals blitzing up the middle. This blitz leaves less defenders over the middle to stop Gabriel, allowing Gabriel more room to create and make defenders miss because of limited pursuit.

Yet even in instances where teams blitz, get burned and then play more conservatively, it doesn’t stop Shanahan from still finding ways of getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers for big gains. Later in that same game, the Arizona Cardinals opted against the blitz but were still gashed by Gabriel on a screen thanks to the superb blocking of several Falcons players.

Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel (18) follows blocks on quick screen. Even though WR Mohamed Sanu doesn’t hit his block on Cardinals CB Tyrann Mathieu (32), he gets enough to allow Gabriel to shake him. Note the athleticism of four of the Falcons five starting offensive line getting downfield to make blocks to help spring Gabriel for the 25-yard touchdown.

Falcons Will Strive For Balance With Running Game

Obviously the Falcons running backs will also be heavily involved in supporting the Falcons ground attack. Balance is critical to the Falcons offense success because it creates even more ways that their offense can attack either via the air or on the ground.

It also helps them open up their play-action passing game, in which they’ve been exceptional throughout 2016.

However running against the Patriots is not an easy task. Their run defense has been strong, with a DVOA ranking of fourth against the run and haven’t allowed an individual back to eclipse 90 rushing yards in 24 consecutive games. This stout front is helmed by a physical group of interior defensive linemen and their linebackers.

Second-year defensive tackle Malcom Brown is one of the standouts in that front due to his ability to win both at the point of attack and behind the line of scrimmage.

Patriots DT Malcom Brown (90) is lined up to the outside shoulder of Seahawks RG Germain Ifedi (76). Brown does an excellent job shedding the block of Seahawks RT Garry Gilliam (79) at the point of attack to make the stop and force a fumble against RB Alex Collins (36)

Also nose tackle Alan Branch has been outstanding throughout 2016 in terms of holding the point of attack and commanding double teams. When teams have tried to block him one-on-one, it has been an extremely tall order. Even an All-Pro center like Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey struggled to handle Branch in the AFC Championship Game.

Patriots NT Alan Branch (97) does an excellent job getting leverage vs. Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey (53), using his long-armed and bulky 350-pound frame to become an immovable object that is successfully able to wrap up by Steelers RB DeAngelo Williams on a one-yard gain.

Hightower is well known for his abilities against the run, but middle linebacker Elandon Roberts is also a key, emerging contributor there. His physical playing style makes him a lot more effective at defeating blocks and filling run lanes up the middle. He’s outstanding when allowed to play downhill and running right at him will be tough as the Buffalo Bills found out in Week 8:

Bills RB Mike Gillislee (35) runs for five yards on a stretch play. But notice how effective Patriots MLB Elandon Roberts (52) is at blowing up the reach block of Bills C Eric Wood (70) to prevent an even larger gain. Rather than trying to disengage and go around Wood’s block, Roberts tries to go through him, pancaking the veteran blocker and actually tripping up Gillislee, who potentially only had to defeat one more Patriots defender to a huge gain.

The Falcons will try and counter the strength of the Patriots down the middle of their defense by running laterally. Shanahan’s outside zone-blocking scheme is well suited to attacking the Patriots in this manner, through the usage of stretch plays and other outside runs to get the Patriots defenders on the move rather than allowing them to just hold their blocks and gaps.

Simply put, running into the teeth of the Patriots defense is unlikely to garner the Falcons much success on Sunday. This could prove even more problematic for the Falcons given the ankle injury to center Alex Mack. While Mack is expected to play, he may not be as effective creating push up the middle given the concern over his leg. That same injury could also affect his ability to make those reach blocks on the second level on a player like Roberts.

Other teams have found some success attacking the edges of the Patriots defense throughout this year.

Bengals RB Gio Bernard (25) runs for 11 yards on an inside zone run with RG Kevin Zeitler (68) and RT Eric Winston (73) doing a good job on the double team against Patriots DT Alan Branch (97) to create a cutback lane. While C T.J. Johnson (60) gets blown up by Patriots LB Elandon Roberts (52) on his reach block, it still allows Bernard the necessary space to find daylight behind him and pick his way to the first down.

Seahawks RB Christine Michael (32) runs for nine yards on a sweep to the left. If Seahawks LG Mark Glowinski (63) had not outright whiffed on his pull block against Patriots CB Malcolm Butler (21), this run could have potentially gained many more yards. Potentially should Falcons LG Andy Levitre find himself in a similar situation, he’ll be more effective.

Seahawks RB C.J. Prosise gains 10 yds on a zone run. Watch as Seahawks C Justin Britt (68) does a good job getting the reach block on Patriots LB Elandon Roberts (52), to give Prosise a clear lane on the second level. Take note that RG Germain Ifedi (76) is also able to effectively block DT Alan Branch (97), one-on-one.

These types of runs are where both Coleman and Freeman can thrive. Coleman certainly has the speed and burst to get the corner in a hurry, but it may be Freeman’s slashing run style coupled with excellent vision that might prove most effective in picking apart openings against the Patriots run defense.

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (24) finds a cutback lane on a stretch play, gaining 16 yards. Rather than running to the outside behind the block of LG Andy Levitre (67), Freeman’s vision shows him that Cardinals DE Calais Campbell (93) has managed to get outside leverage against Falcons C Alex Mack (51) and thus that avenue is collapsing. Freeman makes a pair of cut backs against the flow of the Falcons blockers for a big gain.

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (24) follows his blocks for a 17-yard gain on a rush to the right side. Every blocker hits his assignment with the down block from WR Mohamed Sanu (12) against Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins (27) and reach block from C Alex Mack (51) on LB Jordan Hicks (58) being critical to allowing Freeman to turn the corner without threat of pursuit.

But Coleman and Freeman won’t be the only ones asked to try and get the Patriots moving sideline to sideline against the run, as the Falcons have made effective use of end arounds to Gabriel this year to gash teams for big yardage.

Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel (18) gains 27 yards on an end-around. Cardinals OLB Markus Golden (44) bites on the misdirection in the backfield, losing outside contain against Gabriel, even with a good read by Cardinals LB Deone Bucannon (20), who shoots upfield to chase Gabriel. Falcons TE Levine Toilolo (80) avoids both defenders, allowing him to get downfield to block Cardinals S D.J. Swearinger (36).

Here is a play where the Bills were effective at using a similar play against the Patriots.

Bills WR Brandon Tate (15) is lined up in the slot and is able to gain 14 yards on an end-around, with the Patriots defense falling prey to the Bills misdirection. Both Patriots LB Barkevious Mingo (91) and SS Patrick Chung (23) read the swing pass to the RB at the bottom, while Tate’s speed and shiftiness is able to force Patriots FS Devin McCourty (32) to take a bad angle inside before he bounces the play outside.

One can expect the Falcons to also play the numbers game, by trying to spread the field with multiple receivers and get the Patriots into their nickel formation with one less linebacker. With Patriots safeties more concerned with helping out their corners deep, they won’t have as much ability to support against the run. Thus the Falcons can get a favorable matchup with only six defenders in the box, with the potential of six blockers (five offensive linemen and a tight end) to have even numbers.

In a similar vein, the Falcons can dictate favorable matchups by utilizing their “13” personnel (one running back with three tight ends). Normally this would force the Patriots to counter with their base defense to match up against the run-heavy look from the Falcons. If so, the Falcons can exploit them via the air thanks to the abilities of their respective tight ends.

Falcons TE Josh Perkins (82) lines up at the end near the bottom in Falcons “13” personnel. He runs an out and up, beating Panthers LB Thomas Davis (58). Ryan shows excellent placement on the throw and Perkins makes an outstanding contested, leaping grab for a 26-yard touchdown. Note that even if Ryan wanted to be less aggressive, he had an easy check down to RB Tevin Coleman (26) in the flat for a substantial gain.

And if not, then the extra blocker makes it easier for the Falcons to pound it down the Patriots throats as seen here with this outside run by Coleman:

Falcons RB Tevin Coleman (26) gets to the edge in “13” personnel. Note that TE D.J. Tialavea (86) cuts off the pursuit of the only box defender, LB Dannell Ellerbe (59) that can prevent Coleman from turning corner. Coleman’s speed beats the angles any other pursuing Saints defender for a gain of 25 yards.

Shanahan has a bevy of weapons at his disposal and has built an offense capable of gashing teams in multiple ways. Thus the Patriots may be forced to concede to the reality that they’re going to give up yards throughout the game to the Falcons offense. But it’s possible they’ll happily make that trade off it those yards aren’t the sort of big plays that lead to points as they often have for the Falcons in 2016.

In fact, the Patriots overall strategy may be to play a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense that isn’t geared to stopping the Falcons offense outright.

Red-Zone Efficiency Critical for Pats

That’s because the Patriots greatest strength on defense might not be their physical run defense, but rather their stinginess in the red zone. While much has been made over whether the fact that the Patriots sit atop the rankings as the defense that has allowed the least amount of points thanks in part to a lack of premium competition, it is fair to note that a big reason for that is due to how difficult it is for opponents to convert inside the 20-yard line.

The Patriots will likely know that stopping the Falcons between the 20s will be tough and thus why they’ll lean heavily on the Cover-2 to prevent big plays over the top.

In the open field, the Falcons offensive speed and explosiveness just might prove too much for them to keep up with. However, the speed advantage the Falcons have can be somewhat mitigated once the field begins to shrink in the red zone. And that’s potentially where the Patriots defense and Falcons offense could meet on a more even playing field.

And it’s arguably that the Patriots have the advantage in that area of the field given their physical defensive line play. A key moment in their AFC Championship win over the Steelers two weeks ago came on an early red-zone stop when the Steelers failed to punch it in from the one-yard line on three tries. Here is one of those failed attempts, thanks to the strong play up front for the Patriots:

Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert (77) whiffs on blocks of both Patriots DT Vincent Valentine (99) and DT Alan Branch (97), allowing him to blow up a second-down run along the goal line. Gilbert’s indecisiveness of trying to block both defenders rather than one leads to the break down and loss of yardage.

And while the Patriots corners might have difficulty keeping pace with the Falcons receivers elsewhere on the field, their physical style can be an asset in the red zone.

In this replay, Patriots CB Malcolm Butler (21) does a good job getting positioning on a fade pass to Bengals WR A.J. Green. Bengals QB Andy Dalton doesn’t show ideal placement with this throw, but Butler’s coverage is solid, showing his willingness to use his physicality on tight window throws.

The Falcons have converted 63.2 percent of their trips into the red zone into touchdowns this year (including the playoffs), which ranks as the 10th best unit in the league. So it won’t be an easy task for the Patriots defense to slow down this particular red-zone attack.

But they can potentially rely on their defensive front to lead the way. Often times on the 36.8 percent of drives in which the Falcons failed to convert, it was thanks to a negative play pushing the team back at the wrong time.

That 37 percent amounted to 28 red-zone trips in which the Falcons failed to produce a touchdown. Nearly half of those failures (11) featured at least one play that resulted in a negative play that forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal. Those negative plays included sacks (six), tackles for loss on runs (three) or an offensive line penalty (two).

Two of those red-zone failures by the Falcons resulted directly in turnovers, nine were due to disrupted throws thanks to pressure (six) or passes broken up (three). There was one drop and three times where Ryan simply missed a throw with a relatively clean pocket. While the last two were due to time expiring.

If the Patriots defensive line can penetrate and create pressure, then they could stall the Falcons in the red zone. The Falcons’ lateral running ability won’t be as advantageous as they near the goal line, where they will be forced to run into the teeth of the Patriots defense.

Even one or two scoring opportunities that result in three points instead of seven could be the difference in deciding the winner of what should be a closely contested ball game.

Falcons Have Tools to Win in Red Zone

Yet despite the obstinancy of the Patriots red-zone defense, the Falcons can still devise ways to attack them. Here are a couple of plays that the Falcons have used throughout 2016 that could keep the Patriots on their toes:

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman (24) is split out in the slot near the bottom and beats Broncos LB Brandon Marshall (54) on a whip route. Ryan gets plenty of time in pocket for this late-developing route with the offensive line doing an excellent job picking up a stunt by both Broncos defensive tackles.

Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu (12) lines up in the shotgun in the wildcat formation. He fakes a read option to RB Tevin Coleman (26) and takes the ball up the middle for a seven-yard gain. The Falcons have the potential to exploit the versatility of this formation by allowing Sanu to pass out of it, given his experience playing quarterback in high school.

Misdirection plays like the one above will be important to keep New England off balanced. This is also another reason why it’s important that the Falcons can establish the run early, to provide confidence that they can punch the ball into the end zone. But not only that, because it creates play-action opportunities in the red zone as well.

But it’s also important that the Falcons show patience in the red zone. A few times too often against the Packers in the NFC Championship, Ryan appeared a bit overaggressive trying to go for the jugular in the end zone rather than taking easier completions underneath. Here is one such example:

Falcons QB Matt Ryan is looking for a well-covered WR Aldrick Robinson (19) on the shake route in the back corner of the end zone off the play-action fake, when he has an easy completion to WR Mohamed Sanu (12) right in front of him. Ryan was simply too greedy on this play and the “check down” to Sanu likely would have scored with the defense vacating the middle.

When Ryan shows better patience, then he has the instincts, intelligence and toughness to make something happen.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan makes a better decision on this play, which comes right afterward. While looking to hit RB Devonta Freeman (24) on the angle route underneath, he sees the two bracketing Packers defenders and opts to tuck it and run for a 14-yard touchdown, knowing he has daylight since the Packers are playing man coverage.

Final Word: Don’t Get Cute

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Quinn (right) embracing his quarterback Matt Ryan

The Falcons have a bevy of ways to attack and beat the Patriots. Their biggest issue might be trying to do too much in a bid to out-scheme the Patriots.

There’s no denying that there can be a clash of egos from the coaching staffs in addition to the clash of players actually on the field. And when looking across the field to see Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the opposing sideline, it might cause the Falcons to feel the need to up their game in order to prove themselves to be on an equal playing field with one of the greatest football coaches ever.

However they simply have to do the same things that brought them to this point in the season. What they’ve done all year is outscore opponents with their explosive plays, maintained a balanced multi-faceted attack and convert inside the red zone.

This is a game where the Falcons have the capability of taking whatever the Patriots defense gives them and exploiting it. If the Patriots are resigned to conceding yards with the hopes of stiffening up the in the red zone, the Falcons will happily use their playmakers to match down the field and test their mettle against a physical Patriots defensive front when things get claustrophobic near the goal line. There’s little reason to believe that the Falcons can’t best one of the league’s best red-zone defenses, especially when one considers that the Patriots defense probably benefited from playing several lesser quarterbacks down the stretch.

The average ranking of the red-zone efficiency of opposing offenses going against the Patriots over their final 10 games was 22.6, with five of their final eight games (including the postseason) going against teams that finished in the bottom six among the league, none able to convert 50 percent or more of their red-zone trips.

Over the course of that 10-game span, the Patriots allowed red-zone trips to be converted into touchdowns on just 12 of 28 tries (42.9 percent). Those five weaker opponents down the stretch managed to convert just three of nine red-zone trips, helping to skew the Patriots totals down a bit more.

If the Patriots are less willing to make those concessions with “bending” on defense, then Falcons are certainly capable of exploiting that to a great deal of success as they have done throughout 2016.

Simply, the Falcons aren’t in a position where they have to do anything “extra” to get the job done on Sunday. Just focus on their strengths and that should be more than enough to overcome any sort “genius” that Belichick may possess.

A weak Patriots pass rush should afford Ryan plenty of time to pick apart the Patriots defense. And that lack of a rush could ultimately prove most problematic for the Patriots when things get tight near the goal line.

The Falcons biggest obstacle is going to be whether or not the spotlight of playing in the biggest game of the year will prove too bright for them. Fortunately, head coach Dan Quinn’s experience of serving as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks in two Super Bowls should help the team be well-prepared for being on center stage.

If so and the Falcons offense can do exactly what it’s done throughout 2016, there is little to no reason to think that a defensive-minded coach in Quinn can lean heavily on his team’s offense to bring this franchise its first Super Bowl victory in their 51-year history.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of

Comments are closed.