Patriots-Falcons in Super Bowl 51 is being billed as a showcase of the NFL’s two most prolific offenses, at the height of their powers. The Patriots, of course, are the known entity: Tom Brady and [insert name here] on offense, along with a defense that frequently schemes its way into being greater than the sum of its parts. The Falcons’ offense, new to the scene but with season-long stats to back it up, proved their mettle during the postseason by steamrolling the Seahawks and Packers. But how might Atlanta’s defense, with its four rookie starters, stack up against New England’s variety pack? Can the Falcons do to Brady what they just finished doing to Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers?
Upon initial inspection, what the Falcons’ defense has to offer isn’t encouraging. They were 27th in DVOA during the regular season, and 29th against the pass. They averaged a league-high 132.9 yards after catch allowed—a worrisome total considering New England’s ranked third in the NFL in yards after catch. The Falcons won the NFC South and tore through the playoffs largely because their offense is a scythe: Atlanta averaged 33.8 points per game during the regular season while also churning out 6.69 yards per play—totals that ranked eighth- and fourth-best in the NFL since the 1970 merger. And in their playoff wins against Seattle and Green Bay, they maintained that breakneck pace by averaging 40 points and 6.68 yards per play. (In fairness, DVOA takes situations including score gap into consideration, but opponents did frequently have to air it out to play catch up, so some of the Falcons’ defensive numbers may not be as awful as they appear.)
The formula for beating Brady—dating to the Giants’ two Super Bowl wins against him—typically involves getting pressure without blitzing. And while edge rusher Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15½ sacks, Atlanta hasn’t consistently gotten in quarterbacks’ faces: It ranked just 24th in adjusted sack rate overall, and Beasley converted pressure into sacks at a rate of 28.6 percent, which Pro Football Focus described as “unsustainably high.” Beasley will also be lining up opposite Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon, who PFF says hasn’t yielded a sack since Week 1.
Atlanta is especially vulnerable (26th in DVOA) against running backs who can catch passes—a wrinkle the Patriots put to good use during their divisional-round win against the Texans, when Dion Lewis and James White combined for a timely 42 receiving yards and a pair of receiving touchdowns. And even though the Falcons held Russell Wilson to 225 passing yards and a 75.0 rating in the divisional round, they had difficulty in coverage on the outside: Per PFF, CBs Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole combined to give up 10 catches on 13 targets for 178 yards, and a touchdown. This could be a problem against a team like the Patriots and their wide array of pass catchers. Depending on whether the Falcons play man or zone (more on that in a bit), the Patriots can hit them with Chris Hogan or Malcolm Mitchell toward the sideline, Martellus Bennett up the seam, Julian Edelman on a crossing route, and Lewis and White in space. And I haven’t yet mentioned Danny Amendola. But which receiver does what is largely irrelevant; the Pats can frequently mix and match most of them while running a specific combination of routes designed to either create space or to exploit what the defense gives it. And Brady, more often than not, will find a way to get the open guy the ball.
In these playoffs, the Falcons’ offense has been its best defense. In 10 first-half possessions against the Seahawks and Packers, Atlanta piled up six touchdowns and two field goals. And there were huge swings in each game that benefited the Falcons’ defense:
- Against Seattle, Seahawks backup rookie right guard Rees Odhiambo, playing for the injured Germain Ifedi, made a pair of critical mistakes: Once for failing to pick up Falcons outside linebacker Brooks Reed, leading to a third-down sack, and once for stepping on Wilson’s foot, leading to a safety. Before the Seahawks even knew what hit them, their 10-7 lead was a 19-10 deficit, and the rout was on.
- The Packers marched 52 and 64 yards, respectively, on their first two possessions. But they wound up with a missed field goal and a fumble in the red zone that was caused by Jalen Collins stripping fullback Aaron Ripkowski. By the time the Packers got the ball for just the third time in the game, they were already down 17-0.
This type of bend-but-don’t-break approach will be much more difficult to win with against the Patriots. The Pats had the fewest turnovers per drive (.046) during the regular season, and they also had a league-best lead per drive of 7.41 points, nearly three points better than Atlanta’s second-best 4.92. The Pats don’t often fall behind, and they rarely beat themselves.
So what do the Falcons offer to counter the Pats? For one thing, they’re fast as hell. “I’d say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed, the team speed that the Falcons have,” Bill Belichick said. “They have a lot of fast guys. Defensively they close up space very quickly.”
Like the Steelers, the Falcons play a lot of Cover 3, which leaves one safety deep and spreads the zone coverage across the width of the field. The Falcons will need safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen to help bail out their corners. But the Pats are still likely to find ways to create mismatches and to attack whatever part of the field Atlanta might leave vulnerable. Brady, of course, abused the Steelers in the AFC championship game because he and his pass catchers were capable of finding spots in that zone by 1) having Brady look off one receiver for another; and 2) making quick reads based on how linebackers turned as pass catchers broke into their routes.
Something else to consider, based on something else Belichick said about the Falcons: “[T]hey have a lot of athletic players on defense and they play a lot of guys, too. It’s a lot different than Pittsburgh who basically played the same players the whole game.” Don’t be surprised if we see some hurry-up from the Patriots, just to keep the Falcons from rotating their personnel.
Now, as Andy Benoit explained over at The MMQB, the Falcons have deployed some man-to-man concepts, and their speed and physicality might allow them to play man by playing press coverage to screw up the timing and rhythm of the Pats’ offense. This, too, has its risks because of how frequently the Patriots use motion and how much they bunch their receivers while also using pick routes and crossing patterns. Brady is also difficult to blitz; the Falcons sent blitzers at Rodgers on 32.7 percent of his dropbacks in the NFC title game, per PFF, but Brady would exploit that by throwing the ball quickly, as he so often does. Benoit, in turn, suggested a man scheme with just a three-man rush, which he suggested could accomplish two things:
One: It virtually ensures that the middle of the field is always clogged, forcing Brady to throw outside, where he’s a little less comfortable. And if the throw goes outside, the sideline leaves less space for New England’s lethal run-after-catch.
Two: It presents the element of disguise out of man-to-man, which is rare. Usually with man-to-man, the quarterback sees things clearly: Defender A has Receiver A; Defender B has Receiver B; and so on. But with two unattached defenders roaming around, it’s possible for Defender A to switch to Receiver B after the snap, or for Defenders A and B to unexpectedly both take Receiver B. There can be a lot for the QB to process. This means a greater likelihood of the QB holding the ball, which diminishes the drawback of rushing only three. True, Brady has been great when forced to hold the ball this season, but you’re still picking the less lethal poison here. If Brady is holding the ball, the game is being played on your terms, not his.
Maybe the Falcons can force Brady into holding the ball and checking down. Maybe they’ll be able to prevent big gains by making tackles in space. Maybe they can even hit Brady a few times and rattle him. But for how long can they sustain it? Because all of that is a lot easier said than done. New England can always counter by pounding LeGarrette Blount, and even by controlling the clock—the Pats ranked fifth during the regular season in time of possession (31:13), while the Falcons (30:12) ranked 18th. Atlanta’s offense is every bit as diverse and as dangerous as New England’s. The Falcons’ best hope may be to just try to keep up.