This article is for football nerds like myself who enjoy the X’s and O’s.
A chess match. That’s how many, including myself, are describing this Super Bowl matchup that pits great offensive and defensive minds against one another. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia continue to do special things on the defensive side of the ball, even with lesser known players. Also, Josh McDaniels continues to work well with Tom Brady and company on the offensive side of the ball. On the other side of the field, you have Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan. Dan Quinn took his defensive principles he implemented in Seattle and is building “Seattle East” in Atlanta. Kyle Shanahan has been brought to the forefront this season as a top coordinator in football, and it’s easy to see why. The Falcons have been rolling all season with Matt Ryan and a plethora of weapons. In a game full of intriguing matchups, let’s dive in to look at how both teams will try to outsmart each other come Sunday.
Atlanta’s Offense of Weapons
Kyle Shanahan has revolutionized the Falcons offense this season. The secret to their success? It hinges on the Falcons ability to move their pieces all over the formation and create matchups that they like. Yes, a lot of the offense revolves on Julio Jones and his ability to create separation and draw coverage to free up other weapons. But make no mistake, Atlanta can beat you without even throwing to Julio Jones. Jones has had a few games with under five receptions, and that is a testament not only to the amount of weapons the Falcons have, but it also shows that Shanahan runs an offense that is about finding the open guy, whoever it ends up being.
So how does Atlanta beat you? Well, even though the weapons are there outside, the Falcons will run the ball to churn clock and keep defenses honest. With the two-headed monster they have at running back, they can balance the carries so neither player gets run into the ground. If Atlanta can run the ball effectively, that brings out the best element of their offense: their play action game. The Falcons run the most effective play action in the league. How effective is it? You can find plenty of examples of busted coverages on the Falcons play action game. With the weapons and separation they can create, the play action leads to big plays down the field. When you have explosive playmakers like Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Aldrick Robinson, you can sell play action, and know guys will be open down the field. Another big time element in Atlanta’s offense involves spreading you out. They use plenty of five wide personnel, with a running back usually occupying one of those spots. Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman are both great options in the passing game, and they usually draw linebackers in coverage, resulting in a quickness mismatch. Those matchups will be key for Atlanta’s offense.
There’s one other wrinkle in this offense. Atlanta has enough confidence in Mohamed Sanu and Gabriel outside that they can move Julio Jones wherever they want to give him better matchups. Much like Green Bay can do with Nelson, Julio Jones is so good that he can work well in the slot. Odds are, we will see this on Sunday. This is a test that New England hasn’t seen this season.
Do Your Job on Defense
How do the Patriots, even after getting rid of top players, still become one of the league’s best defenses by the end of the season? You can answer that in a simple, three word sentence: “Do your job”. The Patriots constantly bring in guys who they believe fit their system in one specific way. The moves they have made this season show that. Two players they traded for this year, Kyle Van Noy and Eric Rowe, have made big impacts in their spot for the Pats this season. So, how do the Pats continually stop opponents. Let’s take a look.
We know the Falcons like to run the ball, and they could do so early and often. But, if you’ve paid close attention to the Pats defense of late, you know that they have the ability to slow down the run game and make teams one dimensional. It all starts with the defensive line being disciplined. Each guy on the line needs to stay within the system and control their gap in the run game. Belichick and company have made this a staple this season. If you go back and watch the early part of the AFC title game, the Patriots stayed in their gaps and made sure there wasn’t room to run between the tackles. The excellent gap play is dictated by Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown, who consistently get a push up front to shut down trap and dive plays. That is followed by second level defenders Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts, two linebackers who do a great job filling gaps against the run. Even though Bell got hurt in that game, DeAngelo Williams didn’t have much room to run either. That is what the Pats can do up front, and it could easily happen on Sunday.
It gets tougher for this Patriots defense in the passing game. We have already discussed the amount of weapons the Falcons have, and we know about the Patriots and shutting down Julio Jones. They could use the same formula they implemented against Antonio Brown in the AFC championship game. They varied their looks against Brown in that game. At times, they put top cornerback Malcolm Butler on Brown and let him do the work. Other times, they would have a corner running underneath Brown and have a safety roaming over the top, forcing Ben Roethlisberger to look elsewhere at different matchups, where the Pats felt they had the advantage. This time around, even if the Pats neutralize Julio, the Falcons know they have other players to get the ball to. Taylor Gabriel presents a problem because of his speed. Mohamed Sanu runs good routes and is big and physical. The good news? The Patriots have a lot of physical corners and hybrid defensive backs that match up well with the weapons the Falcons have. Malcolm Butler can line up against anyone. Odds are he will line up against Julio for a chunk of the game, but he could be elsewhere. You could see him matched up on Sanu because of his physicality. Eric Rowe is another good situational defender. He is a bigger corner with plenty of physical prowess. There’s a good chance you see him on Julio Jones with some safety help over the top to prevent Jones from getting down the field. Rowe could also be a problem for tight ends going over the middle of the field. Don’t forget about versatile defenders Logan Ryan and Patrick Chung, both of whom can line up in different spots. Ryan has played a couple of really solid games in the playoffs, and he could be matched up against anyone on Sunday. I see him going up against Taylor Gabriel more often than not. Patrick Chung is a safety who could end up seeing time against Jones and Sanu, once again showing that the Pats could mix and match a bunch to confuse the Falcons.
What to Watch for in This Matchup
When Shanahan and his offense go up against this Belichick/Patricia coached defense, expect to see the best matchup of the day. Atlanta will be tested with a bunch of different looks, and they know that New England will be extremely disciplined and won’t bust coverages like other teams have. I think the middle of the field decides this matchup. If the Pats can find a way to seal up the middle of the field, it creates much tougher throws outside the numbers for Matt Ryan.
An Unexpected Journey
That was for all of you Lord of the Rings fans out there. What am I describing with this? The Patriots offense, of course. It’s hard to determine what we will see out of this Patriots offense. The obvious answer is that they will mix it up (no kidding). What isn’t obvious? How the Patriots will attack you in every dimension of their offense. We have caught on to the tendency that the Patriots have a new star each game. You see it with their running backs almost every game. Their passing game features a multitude of looks, and a little trickery. Let’s take a look.
As far as the running game goes in Foxborough, the Pats could simply ground and pound with LeGarrette Blount against a weaker Falcons run defense. I think that will happen on Sunday, because the Pats know where Atlanta’s weakness lies. Blount should get his in this game, but don’t forget about the speedsters behind him. Dion Lewis and James White are always involved in the Pats gameplan, but mostly in the passing game. They could get a few carries here and there, but I would expect more stretch plays for them to get in open space. Blount will handle the downhill runs.
The Patriots usually employ a dink and dunk strategy in the passing game, something that has gone on for years now. When you have players like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, you are able to continually move the ball down the field based on their ability to separate quickly. They also have a reliable tight end in Martellus Bennett, who has the size to separate and stretch the field for Brady. What they have sorely missed is Rob Gronkowski, who was a TD waiting to happen anytime he hit the seam. But, they have some players who fill the hole. Malcolm Mitchell has very good top end speed to get by defenders. Chris Hogan, acquired in free agency last offseason, has become a savvy deep threat who can separate down the field. With two dynamic running backs who can come out of the backfield, there are plenty of guys Brady has to throw to in this game. What will we see? The challenge is a little different this time around. The Falcons have two speedy linebackers in Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell, which could mean that Dion Lewis and James White could be neutralized coming out of the backfield. Atlanta does have a weakness in the secondary. Robert Alford and Jalen Collins aren’t exactly world beaters on the perimeter, so Julian Edelman could have a field day. Martellus Bennett might struggle if Atlanta opts to put Keanu Neal on him, who has continued to gain confidence up near the line of scrimmage. With Atlanta primarily running a cover 3 matchup scheme, the Pats should be able to single out matchups they like and take advantage. Atlanta will play plenty of zone coverage in their base scheme, but the matchup quality of the scheme and the ability to disguise blitzes will be something familiar but tough. The Pats have dealt with Dan Quinn before in a Super Bowl, and they came away on top. This time, though, there is more speed on this defense. But, the ability of the Pats receivers to separate will do two things for them. It will neutralize speed rusher Vic Beasley, and it will help against the blitzes Atlanta likes bringing from the nickel spot and with their linebackers. All the Pats have to do is find the hole and take advantage.
Quinn’s Own Twist on A Classic Defense
Dan Quinn brought his principles to the southeast, and it has worked for the Falcons, especially down the stretch and in the playoffs. Like I have addressed above, the Falcons do primarily run a cover 3 matchup scheme. What that means is that the Falcons do play off coverage outside and drop guys back into zones, but they have their zones based to look like players have a player manned up in certain spots on the field, and those spots can change. The key in this game is to hit Brady early and often, and to not give up big plays down the field. You have to make the Patriots earn every yard. What you will see Atlanta do is bring some blitzes against Brady, but not so many that he can see it coming and carve the Falcons up. The Falcons need to be careful with their blitzes. A favorite of Quinn’s is to bring linebacker Deion Jones on a delayed blitz up the middle. This blitz is effective because the offensive line is usually engaged somewhere when Jones finally comes, resulting in a sack or a throw away by the quarterback. With Jones’ speed, you will not get away. Another common blitz in Quinn’s scheme is to bring a corner from the nickel spot off the edge to again fool the protection. What can happen is the panic of the nickel blitz can screw up the protection and free up an edge rusher, resulting in a sack. It could also mean a hit on the quarterback. Quinn will need to mix these up with dropping enough guys back into coverage to make sure no one gets down the field. In the passing game, you will only be able to slow down Brady. You can’t completely stop him.
Ultimately, this game could boil down to whether the Falcons can stop the run. LeGarrette Blount has been a force this season, especially in goal to go situations. The Falcons need to be able to slow down Blount. The problem with that? If the Falcons commit more bodies to the run game, the Pats can switch out of a run to a quick pass that takes advantage of the defense. The key will be to be disciplined in your gaps and commit enough to contain Blount and company. The good news with Atlanta is their speed. Their linebackers have enough speed to recover if they are outsmarted. Another key against the run? Vic Beasley. The second year rusher needs to be able to set an edge in the run game when Lewis or White gets the call, and also be able to get a push inside to contain Blount. Beasley needs to have a big game to keep the Pats in check.
What to Watch for
The key will be the Pats offensive line against the Falcons defensive line. If the Patriots get that push in the run game, they will dominate the Falcons defense in all dimensions. Another matchup to watch is the speed backs against Atlanta’s linebackers. Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell need to patrol the middle of the field and have discipline. Speaking of discipline, watch out for a Patriots trick play. Atlanta needs to stay disciplined and don’t fall for the flea flicker or backwards pass.
Tune in Sunday to watch this cerebral matchup.
Jake Schyvinck covers the NFL and NFL Draft for The Sports Guys. Follow him on Twitter @JSchyvinck13 for great sports conversation.