The matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51 this coming Sunday will primarily be between two high-flying offenses trying to out-duel one another to determine which team walks away with the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the night.
In this half of my preview, I’ll focus on the matchup between New England’s offense and Atlanta’s defense. Click here to check out the second half of my preview, detailing how the Falcons offense matches up with the Patriot defense.
That Patriot offense is very different without the presence of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the year with a back injury. “Gronk” as he is affectionally known, functions in the Patriots offense in much the same manner as wide receiver Julio Jones does in the Falcons offense. Gronk not only creates mismatches by himself but also draws coverages and creates opportunities for other receivers.
Yet even without Gronk, the Patriots do an excellent job scheming their players to create similar opportunities that quarterback Tom Brady is surgical in exploiting.
Contrastingly the Falcon defense won’t win with scheme, but rather with individual execution to stagnate the Patriot offense. Stopping New England will depend on players at every level of Atlanta’s defense executing their assignments, but it all starts up front.
That’s because the teams that have been most successful at stymying Brady typically have been those capable of creating significant pressure with just four pass-rushers.
Looking at ESPN’s Total QBR metric, Brady’s four lowest games of 2016 came against the Los Angeles Rams (40.8), Denver Broncos (46.0), Houston Texans (56.9) and Seattle Seahawks (66.0). Not coincidentally, all four defenses are known for their excess of talent along their respective defensive lines.
I went back and watched the tape of all but the Rams game, and the eye in the sky also determined that a steady amount of pressure was critical for each team to keep Brady unbalanced and uncharacteristically ineffective.
Other games that were critical to my film study included the Patriots’ second matchups against the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, as well as their previous matchup against Falcons head coach Dan Quinn when he served as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl 49 two years ago.
Blitzing Brady Is a Bad Idea
It’s important to note that getting pressure with just four players is critical given how bringing extra rushers tends to backfire against teams that face the Patriots. Brady has been stellar against the blitz this year and throughout his 15 years as an NFL starter. According to STATS, Brady’s 122.3 passer rating against the blitz led the NFL this past season.
Blitzing Brady actually plays to his greatest strength: his intelligence, as evidenced by his rating against the blitz during this year’s postseason, where he’s been better than even in situations where he hasn’t seen any pressure.
Tom Brady vs. Pressure in 2017 PostseasonStats according to Pro Football Focus
|Play under pressure||17||8||47.1%||112||6.59||1||1||4||63.8|
|When not blitzed||59||36||61.0%||421||7.14||3||1||4||92.5|
The Falcons will have to be smart and selective with their blitzes. Against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons heavily utilized cornerback Brian Poole on blitzes from the slot, particularly when the Packers utilized an empty backfield. The Patriots aren’t likely to make that same mistake and will often keep a running back in the backfield to offer additional blitz pickup for their quarterback.
Instead the Falcons might try and utilize “A-gap” pressure to create pressure up the middle against Brady. Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones got a nice hit on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the opening drive two weeks ago on such a play.
However this type of blitz needs to be used in moderation. The Patriots could counter by utilizing the speed of their receivers on crossing routes to expose the vacancy that is now in the middle of the defense should Jones attack. The Patriots were successfully able to do so against the Quinn-led Seahawks back in 2014 in the Super Bowl on the following play:
Thus the Falcons will primarily rely on their front four to create the necessary pressure against Brady. The Patriots offensive line could oblige since they aren’t a particularly great group.
Falcons Can Win Against Patriots Offensive Line
Patriots rookie left guard Joe Thuney is unquestionably the weakest link up along their offensive line, giving up a team-high 47 pressures this season. He has been particularly susceptible to power throughout 2016, something that Falcons defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman specializes in.
Yet beyond Thuney the interior of the Patriots offensive line could be preyed upon by the Falcons, including center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason, both of whom are in their second seasons as starters.
The Falcons can further exacerbate the Patriots issues along the interior by effectively utilizing stunts and twists. They used these to great affect against the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Notably interior pressure also is the best way to attack Brady since it prevents him from stepping up in the pocket since he lacks the mobility to escape outside of it. This can be illustrated here:
Here are examples of defenses using stunts and twists to get effective pressure on Brady:
Yet the Falcons also will need to create pressure along the edge of their defensive line. Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon earned second-team All-Pro honors this year and should prove a difficult matchup for the Falcons and NFL’s sack leader in Vic Beasley (15.5) to overcome.
Cannon’s combination of size and length will make it difficult for Beasley to utilize power against him. It also could limit Beasley’s speed since Cannon could be successful in pushing the young pass-rusher wide of the pocket similar to how 49ers right tackle Trent Brown did in their matchup several weeks ago.
Beasley could be one of the primary beneficiaries of the Falcons use of stunts and twists this week, as he was able to create pressure on such plays late in the season.
Beasley’s production this year also means that he won’t sneak up on the Patriots and they will key on him. That potentially creates more one-on-one opportunities for other Falcons pass-rushers. One such player that could benefit is defensive end Dwight Freeney, who typically lines up opposite Beasley in the Falcons’ nickel sub-package.
There, Freeney could face a more favorable matchup against Patriots left tackle Nate Solder. Even for an aging veteran, Freeney’s first step and burst off the edge could prove problematic for Solder. Here are examples of Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark beating Solder earlier this season:
Freeney dominating that individual matchup could be pivotal to the Falcons being able to win with just four pass-rushers on Sunday. If accomplished, it’ll be a huge boost to the team in keeping the Patriots offense at bay.
However the Patriots will make efforts to offset this potential weakness with what could be their primary strategy against the Falcons: exploiting the Falcons base defense via the air, and their nickel front on the ground.
Patriots Will Look to Attack Falcons Base and Nickel Defenses
Quinn has built a Falcons defense that will play different fronts depending on the opposing team’s formation and/or the given down and distance. When teams put three or more wide receivers on the field, the Falcons almost always play nickel with an extra defensive back subbing in for a linebacker. When the opposing offense features an extra tight ends or a fullback, the Falcons will play typically play base with their standard three linebackers and four defensive backs.
This creates opportunities for opposing teams given that the Falcons feature very different personnel along their defensive line in both their base defense and nickel sub-package.
The Falcons have not stuck to one base group throughout the 2016 season, modifying it depending on health and performance. However most recently, the Falcons seemed to have settled upon Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw fulfilling roles at defensive end, with a healthy mix of Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux lining up inside beside either Grady Jarrett, Ben Garland or Joe Vellano at the other defensive tackle spot.
Their nickel rotation has been more consistent, being made up of Beasley and Freeney at defensive end with Jarrett and Hageman performing the majority of snaps inside at defensive tackle since Adrian Clayborn was been sidelined with various injuries.
Those combinations leave each group vulnerable to either the pass or the run. With the team’s two most reliable edge-rushers in Freeney and Beasley off the field, the Falcons base unit has a hard time creating effective pressure. With those same two players on the field in the nickel, the team can be susceptible to the run.
One can expect the Patriots to attempt to capitalize on this by throwing more out of traditional running personnel such as “21” and running out of what is traditionally passing personnel, or their “10” or “11” grouping.
Those numbers refer to the number of running backs, followed by the number of tight ends on the field. So “21” features two running backs and one tight end, while “10” features one running back with with no tight ends and “11” has one back and one tight end. The latter two groups feature four and three wide receivers, respectively, while “21” only uses two.
When Gronkowski was healthy, the Patriots featured a lot of “22” personnel. But since then, their offense has modified to feature a lot more “21” with fullback James Develin taking a significantly larger role.
In seven games with a healthy Gronk, Develin played in 21.6 percent of Patriots offensive snaps. In nine games since with Gronk out, that number has nearly doubled to 40.9 percent. Develin is being utilized not only as a fullback, but also occasionally lining him along the line of scrimmage as if he were a tight end or H-back.
The Falcons can be expected to match this “21” grouping with their base defense due to the heavy blocking front from Develin and tight end Martellus Bennett. However the Patriots know how to counter to this, which they utilized to perfection against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
This play not only signals the Patriots ability to operate an effective passing game from run-based looks, but also represents a microcosm of their excellent scheming to identify and expose their opponents’ greatest deficiencies.The Falcons should not expect any different treatment this weekend.
The Patriots may further exacerbate this vulnerability by utilizing their no-huddle attack to keep the Falcons from properly substituting if/when they get caught with the wrong defensive package.
Stopping Blount and Patriots Run Critical to Success
Arguably the Falcons’ greatest weakness on either side of the ball is their run defense. The Ringer’s Robert Mays cited Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric to show that the Falcons were the worst run defense in the league over the second half of 2016.
The Falcons biggest saving grace against the run has largely been thanks to their offense’s ability to build early leads, forcing opponents to abandon the run sooner rather than later.
This was evidenced two games ago against the Seahawks when running back Thomas Rawls rushed for 29 yards on six carries on an opening drive that bled eight and a half minutes off the clock. But Rawls only rushed the ball two more times in the remainder of the first half, by the end of which, the Seahawks were down 19-10.
Unlike the Seattle, New England is less likely to abandon the run one quarter into the game given how big a part it is of their overall game plan to beat Atlanta. The Patriots will want to use their run game and offense to sustain longer drives, giving their vulnerable defense a respite from a potent Falcons offense.
The Patriots should be able to accomplish this by leaning on their run game when the Falcons’ nickel defense is on the field. Throughout 2016, the Patriots have primarily featured reserve running backs Dion Lewis and James White when they utilize their “11” personnel with just a single tailback. But this week, they are very likely to insert a heavy dose of leading rusher LeGarrette Blount in those same situations.
In fact, all three running backs including Blount have been far more effective running with three or more receivers on the field. Blount simply hasn’t gotten as many opportunities compared to his duties when the team utilizes their “21” or “22” personnel.
Patriots Rushing Stats By Wide Receiver CountAccording to ESPN.com
Runs With Two Wide Receivers
Runs With Three or More Wide Receivers
|LeGarrette Blount||118||446||3.8||4||LeGarrette Blount||35||206||5.9||1|
|Dion Lewis||27||113||4.2||0||Dion Lewis||23||107||4.7||0|
|James White||7||30||4.3||0||James White||28||123||4.4||0|
Blount’s size and power would already be problematic given the struggles of the Falcons run defense, but it could wreak even more havoc against their lighter nickel front.
Blount will put stress on the Falcons defenders to wrap up and tackle. Given the focus of the Falcons defense on superior team speed, they’ll rely less on one-on-one tackling instead rallying to the ball for more gang tackling.
But the Patriots hope to successfully get Blount into those one-on-one situations, where he can win against a undersized defender in Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones.
The Falcons have had issues throughout the season defending draws like the one above. Here’s an example of the Carolina Panthers effectively running against the Falcons nickel front from Week 16:
Jones in particular needs to do his utmost to maintain better gap discipline and shed blocks. On the following highlighted play, Jones’ poor discipline is only bailed out by cornerback Jalen Collins stripping the ball out at the end of the run. In the biggest game of the year, there’s no guarantee teammates will be there to cover for his mistakes.
The Falcons can plausibly offset any inconsistencies from their young linebackers by winning up front along the defensive line. Penetration proved to be very effective against the Patriots when they attempted to run against a nickel front as seen here:
This once again puts the onus on the Falcons defensive front but it doesn’t mean that the back end doesn’t have to do their jobs either. After all, one of the more compelling matchups of the game will be if and how the Falcons handle the Patriots wide receivers and tight ends.
Falcons Corners Face Issues Matching Up in Secondary
As mentioned earlier, the absence of Gronkowski will makes things relatively easier for the Falcons defense, but the Patriots still have more than enough weapons to present some unique challenges.
Julian Edelman has settled in as New England’s No. 1 weapon in Gronk’s exit. The Falcons would be smart by utilizing Robert Alford, their best cornerback, to shadow Edelman as much as possible throughout the game. Alford has the best skill set with the ideal combination of size and speed to deal with Edelman’s own quickness and explosive abilities.
However one problem with that plan is that Edelman spends a lot of time in the slot, which is where Falcons rookie cornerback Brian Poole has typically lined up throughout 2016 at nickel cornerback. Poole has been more than solid considering his undrafted status, but as the season has worn on, his limitations in man coverage have been exposed a bit too often. Edelman could potentially be the toughest matchup he’s faced all year should he be stuck working primarily out of the slot again this week.
Even if Alford shadows Edelman, that still puts Poole on the outside where his shorter stature and lack of long speed could create issues if he’s forced to line up against the Patriots’ outside receivers Chris Hogan or Michael Floyd. Both receivers stand at least 6’1″, giving them at least four inches of height over the diminutive Poole.
Rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell stands only 5’11” but also is the fastest of the group, timing 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash at last year’s Scouting Combine. Mitchell offers Poole a better potential matchup than the others, but it still not might be ideal.
The Falcons could tinker with the notion of starting either backup in C.J. Goodwin or Deji Olatoye as their third cornerback to better handle the size of the Patriots receivers on the outside, while Alford sticks to Edelman like glue when he goes into the slot.
Collins shouldn’t have Poole’s issues when it comes to matching up with either Hogan or Floyd on the outside thanks to his 6’2″ frame. However should he be matched up with someone like Edelman or Danny Amendola on the outside, their quickness and speed could create serious problems for him.
But more than likely, Collins will get plenty of opportunities to go against Hogan, who has become the Patriots primary deep threat in the latter half of the season. Collins has been a bit too susceptible to deep passes this year and will need to do a better job this week if he sees Hogan the majority of snaps.
Regardless of how the Falcons decide to match up their cornerbacks, the Patriots will probe for weaknesses, whether that’s Alford, Poole, Collins or someone else. If any of the Falcons defensive backs are having trouble sticking with their man on Sunday, expect the Patriots to target them repeatedly. They did this superbly against Seahawks corner Tharold Simon in the Super Bowl two years ago once Jeremy Lane exited the game early with an injury. The Pats have no qualms about bullying an overwhelmed defender within a national spotlight.
The Falcons are likely to lean heavily on man coverage against the Patriots. Brady carved up Pittsburgh’s zone defense last week and the Falcons young defenders have been less susceptible to mental breakdowns when allowed to play more man coverage this season. But the Falcons aren’t expected to exclusively employ man coverage, utilizing an ample mix of zone against the Patriots. The foundation of Quinn’s defensive scheme is the Cover-3 zone defense.
The Patriots know how to attack that coverage, using specific routes to exploit the holes in the zone over the middle of the field or attacking safeties that don’t react quickly enough.
The Falcons will minimize these opportunities by playing more man. But the Patriots also know how to beat man coverage as well with their scheming, utilizing pick routes, bunch formations and the same stack concepts that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan often employs.
The Falcons defensive backs will have to be on top of their games to keep up with the Patriots wide receivers, particularly since they are so effective after the catch.
Tackling Critical to Slow Down Patriots After the Catch
Solid tackling will be a critical component if the Falcons secondary is to be successful on Sunday. The Patriots wideouts have thrived after the catch throughout 2016. According to ESPN, Hogan’s average of 6.1 yards per reception (YPR) after the catch ranks sixth among wide receivers with at least 30 receptions this season:
Top 10 Wide Receivers By Yards Per Reception After Catch (2016)Minimum of 30 receptions. According to Elias Sports Bureau
Mitchell isn’t much further down the list, averaging 5.2 YPR per after the catch. Both Edelman and Amendola average a healthy 3.9 and 3.5 YPR after the catch, respectively. Edelman’s 385 total yards after the catch also ranks sixth overall among wideouts.
Poor tackling can turn what should be minimal gains into bigger ones, allowing New England to move the chains and sustain longer drives to keep the Falcons offense off the field.
But the Patriots’ wide receivers aren’t alone in their ability to win after the catch as tight end Martellus Bennett has been very effective there as well. His 406 yards after the catch and 7.4 YPR after the catch ranks second only behind the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce for most among their position group with at least 30 receptions.
Bennett doesn’t shine after the catch due to exceptional speed or quickness, but rather with physicality and strength. He’ll present a tough matchup for rookie Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal, who will often be tasked with covering him man-to-man. Neal struggled at times in the NFC Championship Game keeping up with Green Bay’s Jared Cook. Cook is more explosive and athletic than Bennett, more easily creating separation. Yet Bennett’s physicality can still create problems for defenses as he did against the Seahawks in one of his most productive games of the season. He finished that game with a season-high seven receptions for 102 yards.
The Patriots also like to use Bennett on throwbacks off play-action, leaking him out the back side for big gains.
Bennett hasn’t been a huge part of their passing game since Gronkowski’s injury, but the Patriots won’t hesitate to get him more involved if they discover the Falcons’ safeties and linebackers struggle to account for him.
James White Will Test Falcons Young Linebackers
Not only will the Falcons linebackers be compelled to deal with Bennett throughout the game, but their primary responsibility in coverage will be defending the Patriots’ capable group of running backs. James White was very effective against the Texans earlier in the playoffs, exploiting a mismatch against inside linebacker Bernardrick McKinney for multiple big gains. Here’s one example:
Fortunately the Falcons feature much faster linebackers in Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, as neither of whom should have as much trouble as McKinney had keeping pace with a fast back like White. But their speed doesn’t make them perfect in coverage, as a comparable back in New Orlean’s Travaris Cadet gave them both problems in the regular-season finale:
But even with their superior speed to keep pace with White, the rookie linebackers still can be exploited if they can’t make open-field tackles. Simple check downs can go for big gains if neither is able to make needed stops. White is more than capable of exploiting poor attempts such as this:
Instead, those plays now need to mirror the following:
Forcing Fumbles Key to Falcons Winning Turnover Margin
While backs like White and Blount could create problems for the Falcons defense if the team’s linebackers aren’t up to form, the Falcons could find advantageous opportunities if/when the Patriots’ other tailback, Dion Lewis, gets the ball. Lewis has had issues securing the football in recent games, fumbling in against the Broncos in Week 15 and twice against the Texans two weeks ago.
That equates to three fumbles on his last 73 touches, even worse than the turnover rate of Falcons running back Tevin Coleman a year ago when he had the same number of fumbles on 89 total touches as a rookie.
Turnovers could be critical to the Falcons ability to slow down Patriots, and it’s likely that they’ll to rely heavily on stripping the ball since it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to bait Brady into too many bad throws.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brady only made four passes that were “turnover-worthy”, describing it as such:
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the turnover-worthy throw — a play so hideous that no podcast would ever dare name itself after it — which are the lowest-graded plays in the PFF system, and per the name, passes that should become turnovers due to a poor decision or dangerous throw into coverage. Brady is also miles ahead of the field here, as he has only four turnover-worthy throws on the season — including his two interceptions — and he had the lowest percentage of turnover-worthy throws in the PFF era at 0.81 percent.
If the Falcons are going to capitalize on a mistake by the Patriots, it likely won’t stem from Brady’s throws. Instead the Falcons will rely on their high-level defensive speed to fly around the field, delivering hits and stripping out the football when given chances.
The Falcons have forced at least one fumble in five of their last seven games and 11 of their last 14 games. Lewis isn’t alone in his propensity to give up the ball, as Brady himself had four fumbles in the Patriots’ last five regular-season games. Fortunately for the Patriots, none of those loose balls were recovered by their opponent.
But on Sunday, there’s a chance that the Falcons will get an opportunity to jar a ball loose and capitalize on it for a much-needed stop.
Final Word: Red-Zone Defense Could Prove Critical Deciding Factor
There should be no doubt that the Patriots offense present a very difficult matchup for the Falcons defense. Expect the Patriots to correctly identify and potentially exploit what I would argue has been the Falcons’ biggest vulnerability throughout 2016 on either side of the ball: the dichotomy between their base and nickel defenses.
Too often in 2016 the Falcons have been victimized thanks to inferior pass-rushers being on the field in their base defense. The Falcons could also be gouged mightily against the run by the Patriots, particularly when their nickel sub-package takes the field. Fortunately the latter hasn’t been much of a problem this season, thanks to the power of the Falcons offense to seemingly engineer points instantaneously and putting the defense in more favorable situations.
The team’s offensive firepower has been their bulwark against exposing this chink in their defensive armor and could conceivably be so again on Sunday. But it’s possible that the Patriots will be the first (or last) team to fully expose this flaw. Helmed by an elite quarterback in Brady and one of the greatest coaching minds ever seen in Bill Belichick, they certainly won’t be lacking the requisite tools to penetrate the Falcons’ shields.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that one can’t be optimistic, particularly when looking at the Falcons defense, in overcoming these obstacles. That unit is coming off arguably its best performance of the season against a similarly dangerous Packers offense in the NFC Championship Game.
The Falcons defense will have to perform well at all three levels in order to pull off a consecutive strong performance. The defensive line is going to play perhaps the most critical role for the team to offset any deficiencies at linebacker or in the secondary that may arise.
Looking beyond this game to the offseason, it’s likely to be a high priority of the Falcons to address some of the deficiencies the team has along its front group. Adding more playmakers that can bridge the gap between the base and nickel fronts by playing on either unit is a need heading into the spring. Hopefully that need won’t become even more obvious after Sunday’s game.
Fortunately the Falcons defense shouldn’t have to be great to pull off the win in Super Bowl 51. As they have been throughout 2016, they simply have to be good enough to win. The team’s offense will carry much of the burden of pulling out the victory and the defense just has to get enough stops to maximize those opportunities.
Some critical stops here and there will be important. A turnover would certainly help, but most importantly the Falcons are going to have to find ways to get off the field on third downs while also making the Patriots settle for field goals when they inevitably find their way into the red zone.
Thankfully the Falcons defense has improved in the former category over the course of the season, particularly when it comes to starting strong early.
Since their bye week in Week 11, the Falcons defense has allowed a conversion rate of 36 percent on third and fourth downs in the first half. That ranks 10th best among all NFL teams (including playoffs) over that span:
Third/Fourth Down Defense in First Half (since Week 12 Incl. Playoffs)Only counting third and fourth down plays during the first half of games starting in Week 12 through Championship Round of Playoffs.
That stinginess on third and fourth down has declined as games have worn on, but another strong start on Sunday should allow enough time for the Falcons offense to get going and start putting points on the scoreboard.
Unfortunately the Falcons’ red-zone defense hasn’t been quite up to par. Over that same nine-week span since their bye, the Falcons have allowed touchdowns on 60 percent of opposing offense’s red-zone trips during the first two quarters. That’s by no means the worst mark in the league, being closer to average as the team ranks 18th in the league.
However that contrasts heavily with the Patriots, who have allowed touchdowns on just 33 percent of red-zone trips since Week 12, which is tied for second best in the league in that span. It’s likely that one or two red-zone trips turning into three points instead of seven could mean the entire difference in the outcome of this Super Bowl.
If the Falcons indeed rise (up) to the challenge, then there is a very good chance that owner Arthur Blank will have the opportunity to hoist the franchise’s first-ever Lombardi Trophy over his head on Sunday evening.