Super Bowl Preview Part 1: Offense
Published on January 27, 2023
The Super Bowl is upon us! The build-up is over, and now after 20 weeks of competition, we are down to the final two teams set to square off and compete for the rights to call themselves World Champions.
Representing the National Football Conference in Super Bowl 51 will be the Atlanta Falcons, playing in only their second Super Bowl since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970 and their first Super Bowl in the 21st century, with their last appearance coming in 1999. To put that in perspective, the last time the Falcons made it to the big dance, current running back Tevin Coleman was just starting kindergarten.
The Falcons were the only one of the four franchises remaining in the conference championship round that had never won a Super Bowl, and Matt Ryan – despite having one of the best offensive seasons in the history of the league – has been continually thrust into the role of needing to prove himself as a legitimate superstar. But now, 60 minutes away from glory, both the quarterback and the franchise hope to never again bear these burdens.
On the other side of the ball, representing the American Football Conference, we have the New England Patriots. With their win against the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots secured their ninth appearance in the Super Bowl since the NFL-AFL merger, breaking out of a four-way tie with the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Denver Broncos for the most Super Bowl appearances of all time.
With seven of their nine appearances coming during the 21st century, the Patriots can also lay claim to enjoying one of the most prolific and long-standing NFL dynasties, with quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick now combining for more Super Bowl appearances than any other QB/coach tandem in history. If Tom Brady is able to win one more game this 2016/17 season, he will become the first quarterback of all time to have six Super Bowl rings, and only the second player all time to do so.
In this way, for both of these franchises, Super Bowl 51 ultimately comes down to a matter of legacy. With a win, Tom Brady could cement his legacy as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, based squarely on the amount of championships he was able to bring to his home franchise – the amount of times he caused his team’s name to be inscribed on the back of the Lombardi Trophy.
On the other side, Matt Ryan gains the opportunity, with a win, to convince both Atlanta fans, football fans, and even casual fans that he does, in fact, have a legacy worth mentioning, and one that will go down in the history books. Ryan may not have done enough to earn the right to call himself the best quarterback of all time, like Brady, but he could potentially lay claim to the honor of having orchestrated the single best offensive season of all time.
However, both of these potential legacies and both of these storylines have one thing missing – the Super Bowl victory. Only one of these two quarterbacks can win the game, and thus only one of these two quarterbacks can walk away from this season feeling that they have accomplished their goal: For Brady, having the most Super Bowl appearances only matters if you also have the most Super Bowl victories; for Ryan, having the greatest regular season of all time only matters if you capitalize.
The stakes could not be any higher, and if the course of this hot-or-cold 2016/17 playoffs has shown us anything, it’s that the two best teams remaining in the playoffs are the two teams that will be going head to head in Houston for Super Bowl 51. As both teams winning each of their two playoff games very handily, it’s abundantly clear that the cream has risen to the top.
With the stage set, it’s time to take a good look at the two teams competing in Super Bowl 51.
Whether you are a die-hard fan of one of the two remaining teams, a football fan whose team has fallen away sometime over the last month, or even just a casual fan who’s only tuning in for this final game of the 2016/17 NFL season, we’ve got you covered with a full, in-depth preview of the Super Bowl.
Here’s how things will go down:
Before we get to the picks, though, let’s take a look at the offenses we see headed into Super Bowl 51, broken down by the three sides of the ball: The quarterback and offensive line, the backfield, and the receiving corps, for both teams.
Even as recently as last year, the proposition of a Super Bowl featuring Tom Brady up against Matt Ryan would have been laughable for almost anyone who doesn’t root for Atlanta or know the truth about the Falcons offense.
But despite the fact that Matty Ice has received very little attention, respect, or due credit for his performance over the last decade, the fact of the matter is that the quarterback comparison between these two great talents is much closer than some might expect.
In fact, when considering adjusted net yards per pass attempt (a robust measurement of quarterback production that accounts for attempts, negative plays, and a number of other factors related to efficiency), we find that Matt Ryan and Tom Brady are only within .22 yards of each other throughout the 2016/17 regular season – and both within the top 10 all time.
What’s more, you could even make the case that these two quarterbacks play with a similar style: Both get the ball out of their hands quickly. Both effectively utilize a strong ground game. Both spread the ball to a large number of different receivers. Neither one is very mobile, but both can make plays with their legs when the opportunity presents itself.
Both quarterbacks come from offensive systems that place a high value on scheme, and which are called by two of the brightest offensive minds in the entire game. Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator of the Patriots, and Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator of the Falcons, have both been contacted for head coaching vacancies – that’s the kind of quality you see from these two coaches – and the smart money says that Shanahan will end up as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers next season.
But the most important comparison between these two quarterbacks is that this season, both Brady and Ryan have led their team not only to a strong enough regular season record to merit a first round playoff bye, but they have also both surged through the playoffs, and are now clearly playing their best football of the entire season and gearing up to lead their teams to a Super Bowl victory.
Let’s take a look at each of these two quarterbacks individually, as well as the offensive lines that support them, in order to try and give a sense of where these two quarterbacks come from, what types of seasons they have had, and what path they’ve taken on the road to Super Bowl 51.
As we mentioned above, this season Tom Brady has earned himself the opportunity to solidify his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever to play the game of football, based on number of championships. While of course there are many ways to define greatness, if Tom Brady wins one more game in 2016/17 he will be the first quarterback to win 5 Super Bowls, and no one would be able to take that away from him.
Of course his detractors would cite the amount of help he has received from external factors such as the brilliance of Bill Belichick, the low level of competition put up by the other three teams in the AFC East, and any number of other factors. And while we wouldn’t say that this takes away anything from Brady’s numerous accomplishments, we do feel it’s important to take note of Brady’s supporting cast.
Most notably, Tom Brady benefitted tremendously from a much improved offensive line in 2016/17.
The Patriots lost out on a Super Bowl trip in the 2015/16 season in an AFC Championship game (against the later Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos) that saw Tom Brady sacked four times, knocked down 20 times, and intercepted twice. While of course the stellar defense of the Denver Broncos deserves a lot of credit for this performance, the 25th-ranked Patriots offensive line also deserves a lot of the blame.
With this disappointing end to an otherwise promising run, it was clear that something had to be done. And true to form for the Patriots, something was.
Over the offseason, guard Josh Kline and center Bryan Stork were both cut, despite the fact that they were rated highest among all five starters. Fourteen-year offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia returned from retirement to once again coach the line, and the results speak for themselves.
During the final four games of the regular season, the two tackles protecting Tom Brady (Marcus Cannon on the right side and Nate Solder on the left side) were both rated in the top five of all offensive tackles overall, and were also rated the fourth-best offensive tackle combination in the league, after the Titans, Redskins, and Packers.
The line as a unit was ranked in the top ten in the NFL by both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsider, despite the fact that rookie left guard Joe Thuney’s youth and inexperience drag down the score considerably.
But not only do the stats tell a convincing story about the improved quality of the Patriots offensive line, their offensive production speaks additional volumes. The fact of the matter is that the Patriots have not trailed in a game since Week 12, and their prolific scoring offense both running and throwing the ball form the bedrock of this success.
And while there has never been any doubt that Tom Brady is the unquestioned leader of this prolific offense, there could have perhaps been the slightest shade of uncertainty creeping into the hearts and minds of some of the more casual Patriots fans, before the season started, as to whether or not Brady would still be able to play at an elite level at 39 years old.
These fears could have potentially been confirmed in the minds of some fans during the Patriots’ divisional playoff victory over the Houston Texans, in which Brady did look a little rattled, and turned the ball over uncharacteristically.
It’s possible that fans could have wondered whether Brady’s ability to hold up for a full season – even after missing the first four games with suspension – could have been compromised.
But the Patriots’ dominant performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship undoubtedly quelled all of the doubters, and illustrated more than anything the strength of the Texans’ defense in the previous game.
The game against the Steelers may have been the most dominant postseason performance of Brady’s entire illustrious career, and it was certainly one of his best games statistically. Brady went 32 for 42 (76% completion rate) for 384 yards and 3 touchdowns, with a quarterback rating of 127.5.
Brady was exceedingly efficient, with only 10 incomplete passes in the game. Of these, according to Pro Football Focus, 3 were dropped by the receivers, 2 were thrown away, and one was spiked. According to the eye test, Brady, at 39 years old, had only one pass out of 42 that was noticeably off target.
In sum, as if we needed any more proof of Tom Brady’s ability to lead the New England Patriots to their 7th Super Bowl title, last week’s dominant performance was more than enough. Brady and the Patriots are playing their best football of the season right now, and they will come in with guns blazing in Houston.
As we mentioned in the introduction above, Matt Ryan is a player whose legacy has yet to be established. Despite the fact that his career statistics, regular season performances, and postseason appearances have all done more than enough to convince the most attentive NFL fans of his greatness, for some of the stingier observers he has not yet done enough to prove himself.
Regardless of whether or not it was fair for us to judge Matt Ryan’s nine seasons critically simply because he hadn’t made it to the Super Bowl, it is true that the title of “The Best Quarterback to Never Have Made It to a Super Bowl” is certainly a rather stinging backhanded compliment.
However, after the Falcons’ crushing victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, we can no longer call Matt Ryan a quarterback who has never made it to a Super Bowl. It remains to be seen, however, whether we will still be able to call him a quarterback who has never won a Super Bowl.
Regardless of titles and timing, though, the fans who have been watching the arc of Matt Ryan’s career closely know that it was bound to be only a matter of time before he had a career breakout.
The first thing that Matt Ryan had to overcome was simply his youth and inexperience, and Ryan ended up losing his first playoff game during his rookie season to an Arizona Cardinals team led by Kurt Warner, a putative future-Hall-of-Famer 15 years his senior. Ryan would go on to pass additional milestones in his third season, making it to his first divisional playoff game and his first Pro Bowl.
Two seasons later Matt Ryan continued to show growth and development, throwing for just shy of 400 yards in his first NFC Championship game. Another two seasons saw Ryan surpass the franchise record in passing yards, earn a 100-million-dollar contract, and find himself under new management, as it had become clear that Atlanta’s success was hampered by the ineffectiveness of head coach Mike Smith.
And then, finally, with new head coach Dan Quinn and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan established in their second years, all of the factors leading to the Falcons’ success were in place.
Not least among these was the offensive line. After moving from the offensive coordinator position with the Cleveland Browns, it seems that Kyle Shanahan took with him some positive feelings about Browns center Alex Mack, who subsequently came to the Falcons at the start of the 2016/17 season after 7 seasons with the Browns.
More than just the arrival of Mack, though, the Falcons’ offensive line has been healthy throughout the entire season, a fact that gets very little attention in the media and yet has a tremendous impact on an offense. For the five starters to play together in 18 straight games, and then to take that chemistry, experience, and continuity into the Super Bowl provides a massive advantage.
So in summary, Matt Ryan finally has the situation, the protection, the experience, and certainly the hunger to show the world what he’s capable of, and in the 2016/17 regular season he did exactly that.
This season Ryan reached a mark that only one quarterback had ever done before: Along with Aaron Rodgers in 2011, Ryan is the only QB to have reached the mark of more than 35 touchdowns, fewer than 8 interceptions, and an average passer rating above 115. Rodgers won the MVP Award for his effort in 2011, and it’s almost a lock that Matt Ryan will do the same in 2016.
For Ryan’s detractors, though, these incredible numbers will seem old hat; people could potentially say that Ryan is just one of the many quarterbacks breaking records simply because changes to the game have made the league more pass happy (we’re looking at you, Sam Bradford).
But Matt Ryan didn’t just make history by throwing the ball more often. Take a look at Matt Ryan’s adjusted net yards per pass attempt on the season, which is an indication of how long his passes went on average, (when factoring in efficiency ratings like turnovers and touchdowns, and standardized for the number of attempts): This robust, adjusted measurement of QB success per play places his 2016/17 season as the #4 effort in league history, just edging out Dan Marino in 1984, Tom Brady in 2007, and Peyton Manning in 2013, historic seasons in their own right.
And you can’t even say that these numbers were against bad defenses: Atlanta played the toughest schedule of opposing defenses in the league this year. Ryan squared off against six top-10 pass defenses, including the Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals, Chiefs, and Buccaneers (twice). In these games, Atlanta averaged above 30 points and turned the ball over only 6 times.
So we see that the list of counterarguments to Matt Ryan’s ascendant greatness this season just falls apart the closer you look. Now let’s say that we throw out the regular season, and look only at the playoffs: Ryan still takes the cake!
Matt Ryan annihilated the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, going 27 for 38 (71% completion rate) for 392 yards and 4 touchdowns, (plus an additional rushing touchdown), with a passer rating of 139.4 and an average of 10.3 yards per pass. The Falcons had just under 500 yards of total offense, and found themselves up 31 points before Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had even scored.
Ryan’s passing yards and passer rating in that game were both top six in post-NFL-AFL-merger history in a conference championship game. And before you (justifiably) cite the Packers terribly leaky defense as the reason for Ryan’s success, remember that he did the exact same thing against the Legion of Boom.
After notching the 5th-highest passer rating in league history throughout the regular season, with an average mark of 117.1, Ryan’s average passer rating in the playoffs – Packers and Seahawks combined – is the third-highest of any quarterback in league history going into the Super Bowl.
So in conclusion, not only is Matt Ryan playing at a historic level in terms of efficiency, but he’s also a much better game manager than he has been in years past. His yards-per-attempt average is much higher, indicating that he has better feel in the system, and his third-down conversion numbers are better, indicating that the system itself is set up for success and that he has what it takes to execute the game-plan.
The best thing we have to compare Matt Ryan to these days is a young Peyton Manning: He’s distributing the ball exceptionally well, getting the ball to 8 different receivers in the last game against the Packers. Though only one of these targets went over 52 yards (Julio Jones with 180 yards), no fewer than seven out of these eight averaged at least than 10 yards per reception.
And now Matt Ryan and the Falcons will try to keep this incredible success rolling for one more game. Matt Ryan has proved all of the doubters wrong for 18 games now, but if he can’t do it for one more, it will all be for naught.
Having established that both of the two teams we will see in Super Bowl 51 have incredible passing offenses, let’s now turn our attention to the ground game, to see how well these remarkably efficient quarterbacks are able to run a balanced offense.
In aggregate, both of these teams boast a very dynamic run game, which only serves to make the remarkable passing statistics listed immediately above seem all the more incredible. Much in the same way as we said above that both quarterbacks in this matchup play with a similar style, it could also be said that both teams have a strong dedication to running a balanced offense.
And this will come as no surprise to the more seasoned NFL fans, who are well aware that over and above quarterback play, dramatic storylines, and historical trends, the teams that ultimately win the Super Bowl usually have two things: they are generally healthier than the other team, and they are generally more balanced.
So while in today’s NFL it may not be sexy to hand the ball off a high percentage of the time (particularly when your run game is not as flashy as, say, that of the Dallas Cowboys), it’s important for a team’s ultimate success. It’s very obvious that the two brilliant offensive minds involved in this game – Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan – are both intimately aware of this.
And the two coordinators’ dedication to the run game is clearly demonstrated by the statistics. The Patriots ran the ball on 46.7% of their offensive snaps this season; the Falcons on 43.9%. These two numbers would likely be closer, excepting the fact that during the first four games of the season (in which Tom Brady was absent due to suspension) the Patriots notched 16 more total rushes than passes over the four game span, as Bill Belichick was trying to keep his young backup quarterbacks from getting exposed.
For reference, compare these remarkably similar rushing percentages to that of the Green Bay Packers, who ran the ball only 37.6% of their offensive snaps. Clearly, it did not stop the Packers from scoring points: With the Falcons 1st in scoring and the Patriots 3rd, the Packers were not far behind during the regular season, ranked 4th in total points. Nonetheless, they had a much lower commitment to the running the ball.
So in summary, rushing balance is one of the reasons why the offenses we will see in Houston for Super Bowl 51 are so prolific: Despite all the attention that is given to their virtuoso quarterbacks (and justifiably so), the fact of the matter is that both of these two teams complement their dynamic passing games with a productive ground game, to give both teams the balance necessary to win at the highest level.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these two rushing attacks individually.
In order to properly illustrate the role of 30-year old LeGarrette Blount on the New England Patriots’ squad, let’s make a quick comparison between the Patriots and another team. The results might surprise you.
Everyone knows that the Dallas Cowboys had one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the NFL this season, with Ezekiel Elliot emerging as the NFL’s rushing leader and putative Offensive Rookie of the Year behind the best run-blocking offensive line in football.
Take a look: One of the following teams is the Patriots; one of the following teams is the Cowboys.
The answer: Team 1 is the Cowboys, with Ezekiel Elliot, and Team 2 is the Patriots, with LeGarrette Blount.
Of course, with the numbers framed this way, it clearly demonstrates how strong the Patriots’ commitment to the run game has been throughout the 2016/17 NFL season. Even while the Patriots were sporting one of the absolute best quarterbacks in football for 12 games, and the Cowboys were utilizing an unproven rookie, the Pats still maintained their balance.
Of course, the numbers listed above conveniently ignore the fact that Elliott managed to earn roughly 500 more yards than Blount on only 23 more attempts, (yielding an average of 1.2 more yards per carry), and had exactly double the number of 20+ yard runs.
But for Blount, an undrafted player plugging through holes opened up by two second-year offensive linemen and a rookie, 9 years older and 25 pounds heavier than the 21-year-old Elliott, 1st overall pick in the draft running behind three Pro Bowl linemen, we think it’s pretty impressive that Blount could even get up into the top 10 in rushing, much less match up favorably against the NFL rushing leader.
More than anything, this illuminating statistical exercise is a credit to Patriots coaches Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, who have clearly figured out the importance of balance. Because while Blount has undoubtedly been the workhorse of the offense (as illustrated above, with his receiving 300 carries and 62% of the total carries at age 30), Belichick and McDaniels have also utilized some change-of-pace backs as well.
Specifically, Bill Belichick likes to use the distinction of a “sub back” to refer to wide receiver/tailback hybrid James White, who has caught 551 yards and 5 touchdowns coming out of the backfield this season to supplement his 166 yards on the ground off of 39 attempts.
This “sub back” position contrasts more traditional backs like LeGarrette Blount or the younger, explosive relief back Dion Lewis, who is also utilized in the return game. Over the last five games, including the two playoff victories, Dion Lewis saw his number of carries increase dramatically in his second year with the Patriots, and along with more opportunities came more production. Lewis gained 95 yards in Week 15 on 18 attempts, for a mark of 5.28 yards per carry.
Many Patriots fans believed that Belichick was “saving” Lewis as an ace in the hole for when he was truly needed, namely during the playoffs to provide opposing defenses with an un-scouted look. When, in the first round of the playoffs, Lewis became the first player since the NFL-AFL merger to score a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown, and a return touchdown in the same game, it seemed they were right.
However, during the second game, against the Steelers, the run game in general wasn’t utilized very much, primarily due to the fact that Brady dominated with 384 yards. It remains to be seen how big of a role the Patriots backfield will play in Super Bowl 51 – it will be exciting to watch the kind of game plan that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will roll out against the fast, hard-hitting Falcons defense.
But if our review of the Patriots’ backfield has demonstrated anything, it’s that the Pats have just as dynamic a run game as any team in the league, and they won’t be afraid to use it in Super Bowl 51.
In contrast to the Patriots, who committed strongly to one primary featured back, the Falcons (particularly during the latter half of the season) utilize a two-headed running attack. For the Falcons, time gets split between Devonta Freeman, the 24-year old starter, and Tevin Coleman, the 23-year old reliever.
While it would be an oversimplification to say that one of these two running backs is primarily a north-south runner, and the other is primarily an east-west type of scat back, this doesn’t change the fact that Freeman and Coleman are definitely utilized differently in the Falcons’ offense.
Freeman starts off the game and receives the majority of carries, particularly early on. With an average of 14.2 carries per game to Coleman’s 9.1, it’s clear that Freeman is generally utilized more in the run game. Coleman, on the other hand, averages a full 5 yards per reception more than Freeman, indicating the he is generally utilized more on screen passes and third down dump-offs.
Yet at the same time, fans who have been watching every Falcons offensive snap throughout the entire regular season will even find these characterizations overly simplistic.
A closer look at the passing attempt numbers finds that Freeman does, in fact, have 15 more targets and 23 more receptions throughout the season, as well as 41 more receiving yards than Coleman. Coleman’s 3 touchdowns in the passing game barely edge out Freeman’s 2, while Freeman’s 11 rushing touchdowns are only three better than Coleman’s 8.
So in summary, it may be better to simply talk about these two players as if they were the same player – “Tevin Freeman,” or “Devonta Coleman,” as some media talking heads have started to say during the playoffs.
Statistically speaking, the biggest difference between these two backs throughout the regular season was that Coleman missed the three games leading up to the Falcon’s Week 11 bye, meaning that he missed out on the chance to pad his stats with the opportunities that presented themselves during the Falcons’ November games.
With Freeman ending the regular season with over 1500 yards from scrimmage and Coleman nearing 1000, if you add those three missed games back in it’s possible that the Falcons simply end up with a backfield that features two players good for roughly 1200 yards apiece, something that very few teams in the league can say.
Even more improbable than the ability to put out two such dynamic playmakers on the field week in and week out is the fact that the coaching staff and the backs themselves are able to seamlessly work both players into the offensive game-plan without either one limiting the other and without either player becoming selfish and hurting the team.
And the numbers demonstrate the Falcons’ incredible success in this regard: Over and above the amazing success of Matt Ryan, described above, the Falcons were also ranked 5th in rushing yards throughout the regular season, 3rd in rushing touchdowns with 20, and 5th in yards per attempt at 4.6.
In the playoffs, the Falcons have utilized the ground game less than their season average, putting up only 99 yards on the ground against the Seahawks and only managing 101 rushing yards against the Packers. Specifically, in the NFC Championship game, the Falcons running backs only ended up with 78 yards, between them, as quarterback Matt Ryan took 23 of the rushing yards and the game’s only rushing touchdown.
This was primarily because Atlanta was throwing the ball almost exclusively, and with phenomenal success, and because they were exploiting the primary weakness of the Green Bay defense, namely their atrocious secondary. Even still, though, between the two running backs and the quarterback, the Falcons did manage to get above 25 carries, which is a big reason why their time of possession was 3 minutes higher than the Packers’.
So in summary, the Falcons’ two-headed running attack has ranked among the most productive in the entire league throughout the 2016/17 NFL season, and there’s no reason to think that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will not pepper in a generous dose of the run game in Super Bowl 51.
To review for a moment what we’ve seen so far in comparing the New England and Atlanta offenses, we have seen two exceptionally efficient quarterbacks with really no major holes in their game whatsoever, and we’ve seen two offenses very committed to running the ball and achieving balance on offense.
While these similarities are two of the primary reasons that these are the last two teams still standing, this doesn’t hide the fact that there are still differences in how the two offenses operate: Both quarterbacks utilize a quick passing game that gets the ball out of their hands quickly, both quarterbacks utilize an up-tempo offense, and both quarterbacks rely heavily on the run game.
But as we saw above, the Patriots primarily utilize one featured back, in LeGarrette Blount, meanwhile the Falcons utilize a two-headed attack with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The wide receiver units of these two teams fall into this latter category, namely the differences between the two teams. While the results of the passing game certainly speak for themselves, demonstrating just how prolific both of these teams’ receiving units have been throughout the year, the models upon which they are built are fundamentally different.
For the Falcons, they have the great pleasure of employing Julio Jones, who by all rights is either the best wide receiver in football, or could easily be put up against any other receiver who you might place in his stead. The Falcons’ entire scheme benefits from the amount of attention opposing defenses place on Julio Jones.
In the case of the Patriots, their success down the field is based primarily on scheme, especially in the absence of star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was lost for the season after getting surgery on his back. Without Gronk, the Patriots no longer have one player whom defenses must pay attention to simply because of the matchup difficulties caused by his physical presence.
The difference between these two models was nicely illustrated by last week’s stat lines: In their respective championship games, one receiver on either Atlanta or New England had the following stat line: 9 catches on 12 targets for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns: Who was it? One would think that it must have been Julio Jones, no? No one on the New England Patriots could have put up such huge individual numbers without Gronkowski.
As it turns out, this was a trick question. Funnily enough, both Julio Jones of the Falcons (#6 overall pick) and Chris Hogan of the Patriots (undrafted) had the exact same stat line, even down to the exact number of targets and the exact number of yards. Both of these two players now currently share the accolade for the 4th-most receiving yards in a championship game in NFL history.
There’s no better way to demonstrate the fact that despite the fact that both of these two teams employ very different models for how to utilize receivers and how to get open for their quarterbacks, both of these two teams can put their offensive model to use to huge effect. Let’s take a look at the receiving corps for both the Patriots and the Falcons.
The biggest thing that you’ll hear Patriots receivers say about their unit during interviews is that they are “cattle in the herd of Josh McDaniels.” The point they are trying to get across is that no individual player feels more important than any other; that they all play a role in the offense; that they do their job, and that’s all.
Another way you’ll hear people talk about this model is that each Patriots receiver is a “puzzle piece.” And it’s true, the fact of the matter is that the Patriots are much less interested in drafting and acquiring individual star players than they are about plugging in players that fit into the general scheme of the offense.
Take this season, for instance. Even with Tom Brady missing the first four games of the season and Rob Gronkowski playing in only 8 games, they still managed to have a phenomenal statistical season.
Including Gronkowski, the Patriots had 8 receivers catch more than 10 passes in 2016/17 (including the running backs James White and Dion Lewis). Consider these 8 receivers, listed by number of receptions over the course of the regular season, with their draft status: Julian Edelman (7th round); James White (4th round); Martellus Bennet (2nd round); Chris Hogan (undrafted); Malcolm Mitchell (4th round); Rob Gronkowski (2nd round); Danny Amendola (undrafted); Dion Lewis (5th round).
Meanwhile, let’s look at the Falcons, by comparison. Of the 10 players who caught 10 or more passes during the regular season, only one was drafted later than the 4th round, one was undrafted, and of course one (Julio Jones) was drafted with the 6th pick overall. Even Matt Ryan himself was the 3rd overall draft pick, meanwhile Tom Brady wasn’t selected until the 6th round – the 199th overall pick.
No matter how you look at it, the fact of the matter is that the Patriots receiving corps is built out of players that no one else would have expected to have productive careers. This year’s Patriots squad has the fewest number of Pro Bowlers of any team coached by Bill Belichick that went to the Super Bowl, indicating just how little the fan voters appreciate the value of the offensive skill players on the Patriots.
Last week, undrafted former college lacrosse player Chris Hogan was the big contributor against the Steelers. Hogan was originally on the Buffalo Bills, and Buffalo could have kept Hogan as a restricted free agent for roughly $12 million.
However, as is so often the story, Bill Belichick liked his football IQ, and saw something in him that other teams didn’t; something that showed Belichick how Hogan could be a good fit in the Pats system.
It turns out he was right, as Hogan caught more passes in the AFC Championship game alone as he did in his entire one-year collegiate football career: In college at Monmouth University, Hogan had 12 catches for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns; against the Steelers he had 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.
But once again, it would defeat our purpose here to talk about the Patriots receiving corps as though the most important thing is individual contributions from individual players. Chris Hogan was only open because the Patriots tore up the Steelers’ zone coverages with very creative route combinations. It was the scheme that won the game, not the individuals; Hogan was simply the piece of the puzzle that made it all lock into place.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’ ability to put together a game-plan that exploits whatever the offense is giving them, combined with their ability to adjust and flexibly fine-tune the game-plan even outside of the locker room, mid-game, on the sideline, is what enables them to have such phenomenal success.
When your receiving corps is as deep as the Pats’, you become able to find favorable matchups throughout the game, regardless of the situation. Last week against the Steelers, Julian Edelman was occasionally covered by Lawrence Timmons, the coverage equivalent of taking candy from a baby. Edelman ended up with 8 catches for 118 yards.
So in conclusion, while the Patriots’ receiving corps may not feature any players that attract huge media attention or that were sought after by every team in the draft, and while they further may be missing their best player in Rob Gronkowski, the fact remains that the Patriots are still as deep and talented as any team in the league not because of individual talent, but because each player knows who they are in the system, and believes in the scheme.
On the side of Atlanta, the conversation about their receivers necessarily starts with Julio Jones, who in his six seasons since being drafted by the Falcons with the #6 overall pick in 2011 has been voted to four Pro Bowls, selected twice to the First Team All-Pro, has led the league in receiving yards, and is now headed to his first Super Bowl.
Over the past few weeks and months, the emotions of Falcons fans throughout the nation have ebbed and flowed with news of Julio’s injury status, as he has been battling through several foot injuries throughout the season that have kept him out of two games. Currently, Jones is dealing with two torn ligaments in his toe and a mid-foot sprain.
This injury situation, and the fact that he missed two games, makes the fact that he was only 39 yards away from leading the league in receiving yards for the second year in a row all the more impressive. (In case you were wondering, he did lead the league in yards per game.)
Jones has been breaking records in the postseason as well. He is now the first receiver in NFL history to put up at least 180 yards in two conference championship games. And last week, against the Packers, in addition to the amazing stat line mentioned above that matched Chris Hogan’s, Julio Jones also added two splash plays that authoritatively demonstrated why he merits strong consideration as the best receiver in the league.
The first play, one of the opening plays of the Falcons’ first drive of the second half, saw Jones catch a 10-yard pass from Matt Ryan while cutting across the middle, and then subsequently turn on the jets and torch the woeful Green Bay secondary for a 73-yard touchdown run, putting down a pair of vicious stiff arms on two Packers cornerbacks and accruing a defensive holding call at the beginning of the route.
In another, Jones made a sensational catch in the middle of the field that had two Packers defenders run into each other. Julio was so high up in the air that he ended up getting flipped almost a full 360 degrees before landing rather awkwardly. While Falcons fans must have held their collective breath, Jones popped right back up without so much as even bobbling the ball – it was the defender who ended up injured on the play.
These two splash plays in the NFC Championship game, amongst the rest of his huge litany of big plays throughout the season and throughout his career, illustrate just how valuable Julio Jones is to Atlanta’s offense. But importantly, though the conversation about the Falcons’ receiving corps does certainly start with Julio Jones, it doesn’t end there.
The Falcons also feature Mohammed Sanu, an offseason acquisition from the Cincinnati Bengals who replaced the 35-year-old mainstay Roddy White; Taylor Gabriel, one of the several Cleveland Browns players who followed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan over to Atlanta; as well as the rotating cast of tight ends including injured veteran Jacob Tamme, young upstart Austin Hooper, and tall specimen Levine Toilolo. All of these receivers have benefitted greatly from the attention paid to Julio Jones.
As very few NFL cornerbacks have the physical talent necessary to shut down Jones one-on-one, Julio most often either gets double-teamed or commands safety help over the top for many of the offensive snaps he participates in. This can very easily open up holes in the zone or open spaces on the field which can then be exploited by Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
So in summary, the overall takeaway about the Atlanta Falcons is that while it’s true that Julio Jones is such a matchup problem that he fundamentally changes the way that a defense plays the Falcons, as opposed to another team, the fact of the matter is that Atlanta’s receiving corps is talented enough across the board that they can challenge a defense in a variety of different ways.
One way in which they could present problems for the New England Patriots was something that became clear in the AFC Championship game, namely that the Steelers were able to utilize a particular unbalanced set effectively against the Patriots.
With a 3×1 set and the tight end on the weak side, the Steelers were able to hit Jesse James for two plays that could have been big, but were botched by the young tight end. The first was a touchdown throw that ultimately ended up being not a touchdown but rather a goal-line stop for the Pats. The second was a key third-down conversation that ultimately ended up a drop and a missed opportunity for the Steelers.
The Falcons did run an unbalanced set several times against the Green Bay Packers last week, even once or twice utilizing the tight end Justin Hooper on the weak side. No splash plays came from this formation, however, because none needed to – there were multiple wide receivers open on just about every single play due to the weakness of the Green Bay secondary.
So even if Matt Ryan ends up getting a little bit jittery and a little less “ice cold” in his first Super Bowl appearance, the Atlanta offense is built to win even if he is not playing at a superstar level, and this unbalanced formation could be one way to accomplish this. Their receiving corps has played tremendous all year, and throughout the postseason, and they’ll play a big role in Super Bowl 51.
In fact, to demonstrate the improvement in the receiving unit, Atlanta’s receivers earned more than double the amount of yards after the catch as they had the last time that Matt Ryan made it to the NFC Championship game in 2012.
The Falcons’ receivers ran for just under 200 yards after catching the ball against the Packers. And while 30% of these YACs came on one play – Julio Jones’s aforementioned 73-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter – that doesn’t diminish the fact that this is the 6th-largest number of yards after the catch since ESPN starting keeping stats on this in 2006.
So in Super Bowl 51, while all eyes will undoubtedly be plastered on the two quarterbacks and their ability to lead their team to a victory, it won’t just be Julio Jones that will matter, but all the receivers down the field for the Falcons have a great chance in this game to sway the outcome and help their quarterback look good, as they have all season.
Now that we have reached the conclusion of the first part of our in-depth preview of the two teams competing in Super Bowl 51, it’s time to evaluate which team gains an advantage on the offensive side of the ball.
To briefly review, in looking at the quarterbacks playing in this matchup we found two men that are playing the best football of the season and the best football of their respective careers, both backed up by stellar offensive line groups that are fully healthy heading into the Super Bowl.
We saw that both quarterbacks are distributing the ball exceptionally well, both quarterbacks utilize the ground game to great effect, and both quarterbacks are backed by brilliant offensive coordinators that currently have a full complement of offensive weapons at their disposal.
We don’t find any advantage in either direction for the quarterbacks: It’s easier to think about this matchup not as Brady vs. Ryan, but rather as Brady vs. a young Peyton Manning. Brady’s playoff and Super Bowl experience certainly help, but in terms of raw quarterbacking ability, we call it a wash.
The running games also balance out: Despite the fact that the Patriots utilize one primary featured back and the Falcons have a two-headed monster, the overall aggregate numbers are pretty similar, and both offenses are able to not only ground and pound but also to utilize backs in the passing game.
We would give the slightest advantage to the Falcons in terms of the receiving corps, based primarily on the ascendant talent of Julio Jones. The fact of the matter is that without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots don’t have that same dominant physical presence that causes a team to need to make considerable adjustments on the defensive side of the ball. For the ultimate test, consider a Hail Mary situation.
So for our overall conclusion about the offenses, we’re calling it even: It’s a wash. There are two very different models at play; both teams are just about entirely healthy and will feature most all the regular starters; and most importantly, both teams put up incredible numbers throughout the postseason – against solid defenses in the divisional round, and weaker defenses in the championship round.
It’s important not to oversimplify: The two offenses we see in this matchup have a definite flow to them. In both cases, it starts with a brilliant offensive mind. In the case of Atlanta, Kyle Shanahan knows exactly what he has: He has a wide receiver that creates unique matchup problems for every single defense he faces, and the amount of attention he draws opens up lanes for other players.
When lanes open up, it takes a well-designed scheme and a disciplined group of receivers and dynamic pass-catching backs behind the line of scrimmage to exploit these openings, and get separation from defensive backs. When receivers get separation, it takes a very intelligent quarterback who knows the offense through and through to distribute the ball to a variety of different targets, not just to Julio Jones.
When a variety of receiving targets are getting the ball in the passing game, it causes the defense to start putting more players in coverage to close some of the open lanes. When there are more defenders in coverage, it takes a stout offensive line and a talented running back to take advantage of this opportunity, gouge the opposing team for 10+ yard scampers, and force the defense to respect the run.
And so on, and so on, and so on — for both teams, not just the Falcons. What we see from both of these offenses is an incredible degree of balance, which creates huge challenges for the opposing defenses.
So with that, we see that we’ve now developed a strong, holistic appreciation for what each of these two teams brings to the table offensively, across all different situations.
Clearly, it was impossible to give either team the edge in Super Bowl 51 based solely on the play of their offenses, and so in Part 2 of our preview we will take a similar dive into the defenses we see in this matchup, in order to gain the same type of holistic appreciation and to be able to consider individual matchups.
Subsequently, in Part 3 of our Super Bowl 51 preview, we’ll see how all of the knowledge we’ve accumulated about the two teams in the Super Bowl stacks up to a prospectus for how the game should play out, and what the implications are for interested gamblers.
The Super Bowl is upon us! And we’ll be ready for it.