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:
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.
But he struggles against speed, which could create mismatches against Jones.
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.
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.
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.
If the Patriots opt for more Cover-1 looks, that will put even greater stress on their cornerbacks.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
Meanwhile Coleman’s pure speed makes him a nearly impossible matchup for any linebacker, let alone ones that are as stiff as the Patriots:
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Here is a play where the Bills were effective at using a similar play against the Patriots.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
When Ryan shows better patience, then he has the instincts, intelligence and toughness to make something happen.
Final Word: Don’t Get Cute
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.