"Action" Jackson here. On Sunday, February 5th, 2017, the New England Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI (51) in NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The biggest game of the NFL season will feature two of the best teams in the league, one boasting a record setting offense, and the other possessing a suffocating defense tailor-made to stop its opponents each week. Below, I will break down each team's offense and defense as well as specific match-ups that I feel will have an impact on this game.
The New England Patriots
Thomas Edward Brady, Jr. That is all. I called this back in July. He can get suspended for DeflateGate for 4 games, and the Patriots went 3-1 without him. Impressive, but chalk it up to the system, right? When Brady came back, his vengeance was swift and terrible. He's one game away from making one of the ultimate comebacks in NFL history and rubbing it all in Roger Goodell's face. It's almost enough to make me root for the Patriots.....what am I saying? I would never root for the Patriots.
This offense gets the job done. It's probably the only offense in the modern NFL era that can line up with three white wide receivers and still beat your defense. All of the receivers benefit from the skills of Tom Brady, one of the best to ever do it, and Brady benefits from the knowledge of head coach Bill Belichick, one of the best to ever do it. The Patriots offensive approach is simple: run to set up the pass, pass to set up the run, and above all, get first downs. It's essentially a West Coast Offense that has evolved over the years depending on the strengths of the roster; when Randy Moss was the primary receiver, it was a deep passing attack. When Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez took the league by storm, it was a double tight end attack. Now, with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola running short routes and making people miss, it is a dink and dunk attack with a focus on the power running game that few teams have been able to stop.
This match-up will be a wild one: the Falcons' defense is fast, they play loose, and they can make lots of tackles in space. Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley actually led the NFL in sacks, something he'll look to duplicate in this high-stakes game. The Patriots make their money on yards after catch and making defenders think rather than react, causing mistakes; however, these Falcons can react with force and can make all their tackles. In order for New England to win, they will have to confuse the young defenders with quick passes, play-action passing, and trick plays, a specialty of Belichick's. This will be one of the better match-ups all game.
Belichick knows the NFL rulebook forwards and backwards, meaning he knows how to bend the rules so his team can win more easily. He's gotten in trouble for this, but if you're not cheating, you're not trying, right?
Contrary to popular belief, the Patriots' brand was not made famous by their offense and a certain quarterback. Before Tom Terrific took over and became arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, head coach Bill Belichick made his money in running one of the stingiest and most efficient defenses in recent NFL history. A former defensive coordinator and disciple of legendary coach Bill Parcells, Belichick has long been regarded as one of the greatest defensive minds in the game.
Boasting the top scoring defense (opponents scored an average of less than 16 pts per game) and one of the top defenses in terms of yardage, the Patriots' approach to defense is changed every week to take away their opponent's greatest strength. Look no further than last week when they played the Pittsburgh Steelers; with two main weapons to focus on (Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown), the defense did their job: after Bell went down with a groin injury, the secondary was able to limit Brown's production, resulting in a resounding Patriots victory. While the defense doesn't necessarily have a star/standout player, the defense as a whole plays within their system as a unit and gets the job done.
This week, Belichick and his defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will get a crack at soon-to-be NFL MVP quarterback Matt Ryan, star receiver Julio Jones, and the rest of the Falcons high-flying offense. Matt Ryan is coming off a stellar season, carving up championship-caliber defenses all season and putting up insane numbers. The emphasis of the defense's focus must be confusing Ryan and giving him looks and formations he hasn't seen before. While most teams would prioritize stopping Julio Jones, that's going to be nearly impossible. He's just too good to be completely shut down. The front seven of the defense will have to do their best to generate pressure on Ryan, making him leave the pocket and throw on the run, and force turnovers/mistakes in the game plan like they've done to opponents all season. The defense can shut down the run, no question about that, but they'll be forced to cover everyone in the passing game, something at which the Falcons excel. The Patriots view their defense like a chess board, and they are usually two steps ahead of everyone in terms of strategies and countering attacks. We'll see how well they play this week.
The Atlanta Falcons
Head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have put together one hell of an offense. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the various members of the NFL's top offense can put up points from anywhere on the field, most of the time while making the other team look silly trying to stop them. Matt Ryan finally understands how to run Shanahan's West Coast passing offense, and he has unleashed the best receiver in the NFL and some excellent complementary receivers and running backs. All season, top defenses have tried to slow them down, only to get lost in coverage and be forced to watch as the Atlanta offense dances in the end zone.
All season long, defenses focused on star wide receiver Julio Jones, trying to limit his yardage. That was a mistake. Julio will get his yards, regardless of who covers him. Simply put, Julio Jones is not human. He landed in Foley, AL in a rocket from the planet Krypton and we all got to watch him be Superman every week. With Julio getting open as often as he does, it would seem that he's the only one getting the ball. Unfortunately for other teams, Matt Ryan has learned how to spread the ball to his other weapons. Mohamed Sanu Sr., Taylor Gabriel, Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman....the list goes on. These guys can get open, they can catch touchdowns, they can run the ball, and they can run Wildcat quarterback plays. This offense can and will hurt you in a variety of ways.
Against a defense as stout and as intelligent as New England's, the key match-up will have to be the running backs, Coleman and Freeman, getting open in the passing game when covered by linebackers. The secondary will have their collective hands full trying to stop Julio, Sanu, and the rest of the receivers. Just like when they beat the Denver Broncos earlier in the season, these running backs will have to come up huge in this game and be clutch when their number is called. Matt Ryan will face pressure coming from all angles, and historically when he gets punched in the mouth, he folds under the pressure. He'll have to find his comfort zone against the Patriots' pass rush and win the game for his team.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn used to be the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, and he has rebuilt that aggressive Cover 3 scheme in Atlanta with his new team. I like to call this defense "Seattle 2.0" for many reasons beyond the obvious. The defensive line can generate pressure from all angles; they have fast linebackers who can tackle in space as well as cover receivers in the passing game; they have tall, lanky corners who aren't afraid to physically press the receivers they cover; and the defense as a whole can make plays and force opponents to make mistakes.
The most important thing Dan Quinn has carried over from his role in Seattle? His usage of a Cover 3 zone scheme and his emphasis on aggressive defensive backs. No Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor in your secondary? No problem. Quinn drafted Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, two young safeties who play in similar roles to the Seattle standouts. Allen is a cornerback turned safety who plays the Earl Thomas role of "center-fielder" free safety; he can track the ball from sideline to sideline in the Cover 1 or Cover 3 looks, and he can play over the top of the cornerbacks, stopping the big plays to which the Patriots are so accustomed. Neal is a linebacker turned safety who plays the Kam Chancellor role of "enforcer" strong safety. He can play the 8th man in the box because he hits like a linebacker, but he can also drop into coverage in the middle of the field in the Cover 3 scheme and act as the heavy hitter of the secondary. Neal will have his work cut out for him this game; he draws the responsibility of covering tight ends, meaning he'll have to guard standout Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett.
Probably the most underrated defense coming into the postseason, the Falcons also have probably the youngest defense in the NFL in terms of starters' age; the majority of the starters are either rookies or second/third year players. Because of this, Tom Brady will test them early and often with quick passes, audibles, and screen plays. Brady is basically a machine at this point in terms of his preparation and football intelligence, and the defense will have to find a way to get him out of his rhythm and make him uncomfortable. The best way to beat Tom Brady: rush up the middle with either a defensive tackle or blitzing linebacker and get him out of his "sweet spot", or where he feels most comfortable standing in the pocket. Once he's off his spot, he isn't nearly as mobile as other quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson), meaning he can be chased down and sacked while he looks for his check-down receiver. The New York Giants beat Brady twice in Super Bowls by doing this; the Steelers tried it last weekend, but he was able to change the protection and defend himself from pressure. If these Falcons can step up and disrupt Brady's timing, they just might be able to pull this off.
This game will come down to who has the more prepared coaching staff: Belichick and his evil Empire, or Quinn and his up and coming staff. Atlanta has clear advantages on both sides of the ball in terms of skill players and athleticism, but New England has the better quarterback and coaching staff. Atlanta needs to use this as an opportunity to show the world who they are; everyone's focusing on Brady and the Patriots. No one expects the Falcons to have a chance in this game. I do, though. I see a defensive struggle early in the game as Atlanta figures out what plays it can run against the machine that is Belichick's defense, and I see Tom Brady poking and prodding this young Falcons defense, trying to find the weak spot. This game will end up being a shootout, with the final possession going to the winning team. Field goals count, and they are especially important in Super Bowls with good defenses. I see a Falcons victory, final score 31-26. Matt Ryan wins Super Bowl MVP to go along with his NFL MVP award, the Falcons prove that they are major players in the NFC, and will be for the next decade.
Agree? Disagree? Please let me know in the comments section or connect on Twitter: @mrjackson__
Enjoy the game!
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