Super Bowl Preview Part 2: Defense
Published on January 30, 2017
The wait is over: For the many football fans who consider the Super Bowl a national holiday, the Christmas of the NFL season is just around the corner, as Super Bowl 51 is upon us.
For casual NFL fans or individuals who have been living under a rock for the last 6 months, we will enlighten you and let you know that in this year’s Super Bowl, it’s the perennial postseason contender the New England Patriots matched up against the young upstart Atlanta Falcons who will be competing for the right to call themselves World Champions.
In Part 1 of our Super Bowl Preview, we introduced these two teams in terms of the historic storylines that they are bringing into Super Bowl 51: The Patriots as the dynastic powerhouse featuring the most Super Bowl appearances of any team; the Falcons as the young upstart franchise making only its second appearance and the first appearance in 18 years.
But it’s not just that these two teams have had very different postseason experiences throughout the course of their respective franchise histories. These two franchises also differ widely in the storylines that they bring into Super Bowl 51 based solely on the 2016/17 NFL season itself.
For the Patriots, there’s undoubtedly a good bit of interest in revenge. While it’s likely that this sentiment exists almost exclusively among the fans, and never really reaches into the locker room or the coaching meetings, New England fans across that nation are certainly angry at the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell.
The gravamen of the complaint? Tom Brady’s 4-game suspension. Without going into too much detail – no need to air out dirty laundry unnecessarily – the commissioner of the league handed down a 4-game suspension to Tom Brady based on the investigation of wrongdoing or cheating that surrounded the AFC Championship game of the 2014/15 season.
Did Tom Brady benefit from throwing footballs that had been inflated to a different volume than other footballs? At this point, two years later, the short answer is that it shouldn’t matter anymore. The Patriots won the Super Bowl two weeks after Deflategate; the Patriots won 3 of the 4 games they played during Brady’s suspension; the Patriots earned the #1 overall seed in the AFC and had the best record in football; and most recently, the Patriots won the AFC Championship once again and are headed to the Super Bowl.
And yet through it all, the city of Boston and New England fans across the nation still remember, and the emotions surrounding Deflategate remain high enough for Patriots fans in Gillette Stadium to start up loud chants of “Where Is Roger” during their huge AFC Championship victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For those who may not understand what is meant by this chant, the tongue-in-cheek rhetorical question chanted by the Pats fans essentially pits the fan base against the world, and wonders from where the other team could pull some unfair advantage that would handicap the Patriots from winning yet another world championship.
But no one can take away the incredible success enjoyed by the New England Patriots during these last few weeks of the postseason, during the course of the 2016/17 season, and even more broadly, during the entire course of the Brady/Belichick era, which spans the entire 21st century. Even if Patriots fans feel that everyone in the world conspires against them, including the commissioner himself, the fact of the matter is that it hasn’t made a bit of difference – they’re still the favorites in the Super Bowl once again.
So in summary, unlike the relatively vanilla Falcons organization whose chief concern is their ability to handle the fabulous and unprecedented success they’ve had on this Super Bowl run, the Patriots organization has a certified chip on its shoulder. This is the storyline that the 2016/17 Super Bowl competitors bring onto the stage in Houston.
With the stage set, it’s time to take a good look at the two teams competing in Super Bowl 51.
Whether you’re a die-hard Pats or Falcons fan, a fan of a different NFL team whose season ended either before or during the postseason, or even just a casual NFL fan who’s missed most of the action but wants to catch up on the two teams headed into the Super Bowl, we’ve got you covered with a full, in-depth preview of Super Bowl 51.
Here’s how we’re going to do it:
Before we get to our picks, though, we’ll first start with our in-depth preview of the defenses involved, and in particular try to find the ways in which the defenses match up favorably or unfavorably against the offenses previewed in Part 1. We’ll look at the front seven as well as the secondary, and finally take a brief look at the play of the special teams units.
Generally speaking, the “front seven” of the defense refers to the combination of linemen and linebackers that play up in “the box,” rather than lining up outside the hash marks and dropping back in coverage of the opposing team’s wide receivers.
More specifically, the front seven refers to any down linemen, run-stuffing linebackers, pass rushers, or anyone else who is lined up on or near the opposing offense’s linemen. The front seven, on any given play, can include nose tackles, defensive tackles, defensive ends, outside linebackers, middle linebackers, and any hybrid combinations of these positions.
While most defensive schemes in the NFL call for the front seven to line up in either a 4–3 formation (four linemen and three linebackers) or a 3–4 formation (three linemen and four linebackers), this is an oversimplification, as individual formations vary widely from play to play and situation to situation.
The reason we explain this is to demonstrate that it’s not so easy to specifically evaluate the play of a team’s front seven. Unlike the offensive line, in which (ideally), the same five players are present on each and every offensive snap, performing one of two roles (pass blocking or run blocking), the players who line up in the front seven vary considerably, with individual players cycling in and out depending on the situation, and the roles that these players perform also change drastically from play to play.
Furthermore, given the fact that secondary players are often brought down in run support or in blitz packages, and further given the fact that linebackers are often called back in pass coverage, it’s not so easy to differentiate the roles performed by the two main sections of the defense.
Nonetheless, with the above caveats being given, it’s still entirely possible to take a long look at the two defenses we will see matched up in Super Bowl 51, to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their respective front sevens, and finally to try and determine any matchups that could be exploited to the advantage of one team or the other.
In the case of the Patriots and the Falcons, we do see some differences in terms of their defensive personnel on the front seven, and the production therein. But the one thing that is immediately apparent is that both of the coaches responsible for coordinating the units are top of the line.
In the case of the Falcons, defensive coordinator Richard Smith’s recent pedigree includes, (in order): Texans’ defensive coordinator; Panthers linebackers coach; and Broncos linebackers coach (during the ascendance of Von Miller) – these are the types of defenses that a young coach can learn from! Now, Smith is currently in his second year as defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, presiding over their ascent from the 18th-ranked scoring defense last season to the 5th-ranked in 2016/17.
On the other side of the ball, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has much less diversity on his résumé, having only worked for one NFL team in his entire pro career. Patricia gave up a promising career in aeronautical engineering to pursue his love of football, and after being hired by the Patriots to collect and review game film in 2004, he steadily climbed the ladder and has now served as defensive coordinator for five seasons.
Patricia’s analytical brilliance and training in rocket science certainly come out in his role with the Patriots, as he is known primarily for his ability to simply out-smart the opposition. One play on particular cemented this legacy for Patriots fans everywhere.
On the famous game-saving end-zone interception in the closing 30 seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, the big question on everyone’s mind afterwards was why in the world the Seahawks didn’t run the ball with Marshawn Lynch. The one person who wasn’t asking this question was Matt Patricia, who had in fact called specifically for an extra defensive back to be on the field, because he sensed that the Seahawks would throw it.
That extra defensive back that Patricia had called onto the field? None other than undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler, who on that very play made the Super Bowl-winning interception that will go down in history.
So both defensive coordinators are certainly among the best in the league, and both will have their hands full going up against the 1st- and 3rd-ranked scoring offenses, respectively, during the regular season.
The play of the front seven will be particularly important in Super Bowl 51, as both offenses feature quarterbacks who are extremely prolific, but not altogether very mobile. Brady and Ryan can both make plays with their legs when they have to, but their escapability is not a hallmark of their game such as it is for, say, Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.
With this being the case, the key to stopping both of these two quarterbacks, or at least to slowing them down, will be the ability to bring pressure without blitzing. Both Brady and Ryan get the ball out of their hands so quickly that it becomes a very risky proposition to bring extra defenders on the blitz, as even those split seconds in which receivers are left uncovered could end up being costly.
With all this in mind, and also keeping in mind that the Patriots rank slightly worse on the offensive line, let’s take a look at the front sevens of these two teams.
One of the most amazing and underappreciated storylines of the 2016/17 season going into Super Bowl 51 is the personnel changes made in the Patriots front seven.
In 2015/16, linebacker Jamie Collins and defensive end Chandler Jones combined for 9 of the Patriots 22 forced fumbles, 2 of their 12 interceptions, 18 of their 49 sacks, and were in on 14% of all tackles for the Patriots. Both players were voted into the Pro Bowl by the fans.
Fast forward to Super Bowl 51: neither player is on the team, and the defense has improved statistically in almost every category.
The trading of Chandler Jones, during the offseason, was unexpected, but not unbelievable. Not so for the surprise departure of Jamie Collins, who was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a middle-round draft pick at the halfway mark of the season.
Not only did many of the fans consider Collins to be the heart and soul of the defense, but Patriots players also commented on what an integral role he played on the team. Safety Devin McCourty said, in the aftermath of the trade, that Collins was “a huge piece of our defense, arguably our best defensive player.”
But while the news may have come to a shock for fans and players alike at the time, in hindsight, the takeaway is that between Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Matt Patricia, this Patriots team features probably one of the best coaching staffs in the entire league, and that Belichick is likely one of the best team-builders in the history of the game.
Even setting aside rumors of how Collins’ level of effort didn’t sit well with the coaching staff, the proof is ultimately in the pudding:
And it’s not just which players the Patriots cut; it’s also which players they picked up as replacements: Consider defensive back Eric Rowe and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Barkevious Mingo, who were all signed after the final roster cuts were made this season, and who have played in a total of 32 games, getting starter reps for only 10 games between them.
These three late season acquisitions have combined for two interceptions, one forced fumble, ten passes defensed, a sack and 57 total tackles throughout the season. Van Noy himself, during his five games, was fifth on the team in combined tackles, and he recorded four solo tackles and forced a game-clinching fumble in the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Steelers.
So it would seem, looking at the individual players that Belichick and Patricia have either removed from their front seven or added back in, that the Patriots have one of the most well-constructed squads in the league.
And in aggregate, too, the numbers bear this out. When you look at the Patriots’ defense in terms of DVOA, which is a robust statistical measurement of the combined value of having a certain group of players compared to the average across the league, the Patriots’ defense, scotch-taped together with players that most people have never heard of, was ranked #1 in the league during the regular season, even after making the curveball roster adjustments throughout the year that were described above.
To break this down more specifically, what this means is that Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia are so good at understanding exactly the type of players that they need to put out on the field against the opposing team in order to be successful that they can essentially pull players from anywhere in order to make that happen.
But when looking at how this defense matches up against Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ prolific offense, we must admit that even this carefully constructed squad may have difficulty measuring up.
In the AFC Championship game, the Patriots focused more on dropping men in coverage than they focused on bringing pressure with their front seven. The goal was to give Big Ben looks that would confuse him, and force him to make mistakes – and it worked. Roethlisberger threw one too-easy interception that was clearly the result of misunderstanding the coverage.
But Kyle Shanahan’s group is too deep and too well-coached for this to work two games in a row.
According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan stands head and shoulders above the rest of the league when opposing defenses are unable to get to him, holding a 131.1 passer rating when he is left unpressured. In the 29 pass plays against the Packers in the NFC Championship game in which he was left unpressured, Ryan torched Green Bay for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns, going 22 or 27 for a passer rating of 153.5 – five points below perfect.
So the fact of the matter is that the Patriots are going to need to get a pass rush going if they hope to have any chance of getting stops against the Falcons.
Unfortunately, this is not their strong suit. According to Pro Football Focus, the Patriots had the 18th best front seven in the league during 2016/17, and the bulk of their strength came in stopping the run. Defensive tackles Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch were ranked 3rd and 2nd, respectively, amongst all D-tackles in run-stop percentage, but the Patriots defense as a whole was ranked 24th in pass rush.
Similarly, when looking at DVOA, the Patriots’ defense was ranked 4th in rush defense, and currently have a streak of 25 games – stretching back to the 2015/16 regular season – in which they have not allowed an individual opposing rusher to gain more than 90 yards. But at the same time, they were ranked only 23rd in pass defense for DVOA. And it’s important to keep in mind that this was against the easiest schedule, statistically, in the entire league. The Patriots played the Bills, (twice), the Browns, the Bengals, the 49ers, the Jets, (twice), and the L.A. Rams.
At the same time, though, it is important to note that it would be shortsighted to say that this has all to do with the Patriots’ personnel: The Pats were thrown on the 26th-most in the NFL by opposing offenses, and concomitantly rushed against the 3rd-least. This is a testament to how prolific their offense was: With the opposing team usually spending most of the game trying to dig themselves out of a multiple-possession-deficit, the offense would end up passing the ball almost exclusively, which skews the numbers.
So in conclusion, the Patriots have a very carefully selected front seven that has been very stout against the run all season, which is testament both to the players as well as to the overall game management of the Pats. But if they hope to slow down or stop Matt Ryan in Super Bowl 51, edge defenders like Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard, or Rob Ninkovich will need to step up more than ever before to force a game-changing quarterback pressure or two.
The Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl victory may depend on it!
So far, across both our offensive preview and our progress thus far with the defensive preview of the two Super Bowl teams, there have been very few negative things to say: Both teams have incredible quarterbacks, productive running games, excellent receiving corps, and we saw immediately above that the Patriots – while not ranked highly in pass rush – have a very stout front seven against the run.
And of course when we are talking about Super Bowl teams, we understand that both teams made it this far in the playoffs for a reason – there isn’t likely to be very many weaknesses, at any level. But when talking about the Falcons’ front seven, we must admit that this particular group is undoubtedly the weakest unit that we will review across both teams – offense, defense, and special teams.
It’s very easy to note that the Patriots have a better defense than the Falcons: The Pats were ranked #1 in scoring defense on the season, allowing just 15.6 points per game; the Falcons were ranked 27th in scoring defense, allowing 25.4 points per game. That’s just under 10 points per game – an entire touchdown and a field goal – that was given up by the Falcons, but not by the Patriots.
And it’s just as easy to find the reason why: The front seven.
The Patriots and the Falcons both have trouble rushing the passer, and the fact that they are ranked 15th and 18th in interceptions, respectively, is partly attributable to this. This fact probably matters more for the Falcons, too, given that the three NFC South teams that play the Falcons twice each year feature Cam Newton, Drew Brees, and Jameis Winston at quarterback, meanwhile the AFC East teams playing the Pats employ Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
But the more important difference is that even though both of these teams have difficulty rushing the passer, the Patriots are able to stop the run. The Falcons, not so much.
Overall, the Falcons’ front seven was ranked 24th in the league by Pro Football Focus. While we saw above that the Patriots feature two players almost every down who are ranked 2nd and 3rd at their position in stopping the run, the highest-ranked front seven player on the Falcons in terms of run support is nose tackle Grady Jarrett, and he’s only ranked 52nd among interior defenders.
And it’s true that Atlanta’s unit did improve throughout the course of the year. Looking at the defense holistically, the Falcons were ranked 22nd in the league in terms of defensive DVOA, but improved marginally over the course of the year, ending up three DVOA percentage points better in weighted rating (which downplays performance in earlier games) vs. overall rating (which counts each game equally).
But even this improvement does little to take the sting off of the fact that the Falcons are ranked 13th-worst in the league in terms of the overall value of their players in stopping opposing passing offenses, and 4th-worst in the league in stopping opposing running offenses. And all this despite the fact that they played the 9th-easiest schedule in the entire league.
There’s no telling how low the Falcons’ front seven would have been ranked if it hadn’t been for the breakout performance of second-year player Vic Beasley, who took advantage of the absence of incumbent sack leader J. J. Watt to lead the league with 15-and-a-half. The Falcons overall were exactly in the middle of the league for sacks, ranked 16th with 34 sacks on the year, meaning that the rest of the Falcons’ defense combined for only 18.5 sacks, with no player other than Beasley getting above 5.
So in summary, both the Patriots and the Falcons have difficulty getting a pass rush on opposing quarterbacks, but unlike the Pats, the Falcons also struggle in the run game, being ranked 17th in rushing yards to the Patriots 3rd despite the fact that both teams were in the bottom 5 for total number of opposing rushing attempts. The Falcons gave up 14 more first downs than the Patriots on the ground, and put simply, they’re not nearly as sound against the run.
And this is key: Last week’s championship games quite vividly demonstrated the difference between a front seven that gives up passing plays but then stops the run, and one that gives it up altogether.
When the Steelers’ Jesse James got free off of an unbalanced 3×1 set and brought the ball all the way to the goal line, everyone thought he would score. And when he was stopped by a tough tackle on the ½ yard line, everyone thought that the Steelers would punch it in on the next play. Three stops later, Pittsburgh had to settle for a field goal, and the Steelers left the field completely demoralized, turning what could have been a quick tight end touchdown into a momentum play for the home team.
On the other side, with the Packers well in hand (having already gone up 31–0), the Falcons gave up some garbage time passing yards to Aaron Rodgers, and after scoring a second touchdown the Packers were on the goal line for a two-point conversion, much the same as the Steelers had been on the goal line against the Pats. But differently from the Steelers, the Packers succeeded in punching the ball into the end-zone with their run game, giving them continued hope that they could crawl back in the game.
And while of course the final scores of these two games clearly demonstrates that the difference in the two teams’ ability to stop the run on the goal line ultimately didn’t turn out to be all that important, when a World Championship is on the line, even the most infinitesimal detail can turn out to be crucial.
It’s possible that to address their deficiencies in the front seven, the Falcons will try to bring creative blitz packages against Tom Brady in the same way that they did against Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game.
Despite the mobility of Rodgers, the Falcons were clearly able to get him off the spot and ruffle his feathers. Richard Smith game-planned linebacker blitzes, aggressive stunts and twists, and especially slot blitzes with Bryan Pool that were very effective, with Poole several times looking like he literally caught Rodgers off guard, very unusual for such an intelligent, well-prepared player.
If Bryan Poole can be similarly effective against Tom Brady (6 solo tackles and 2 quarterback hits against the Packers), and if Vic Beasley can bounce back from a poor performance last game (nothing on the stat sheet of any kind except for one pass defense), then it’s possible that the Falcons will be able to disturb the rhythm of Tom Brady enough to generate a key stop or a turnover that could prove the turning point.
It’s not something that we would be confident in, however: The front seven for Atlanta is undoubtedly the weak link in the chain, and it could prove their undoing.
Now that we’ve covered the role of the front seven on a defense, as well as the specific strengths and weaknesses of the two front sevens that we will see in Super Bowl 51, let’s turn our attention to the other four guys on the field for the defense – the secondary.
In the same way that we provided several caveats during our explanation of the front seven, we must also make sure that we don’t oversimplify the role of the secondary.
Similar to the front seven, the formation of the secondary, the composition of the group, the role that each position must play in the overall coverage scheme, and the individual players that rotate in and out over the course of a possession or over the course of a game can all vary widely.
Generally speaking, the role of the secondary is to line up against the receivers, and to cover the area more than 10 yards down the field from the line of scrimmage. However, secondary players are frequently called upon to come down in run support, particularly when a running back breaks through the line and the second level, and can also be called to bring pressure or to blitz the quarterback.
In this way, the secondary can and must be graded both on run support and pass defense, despite the casual fan’s general conception of the unit as primarily specializing in coverage and pass defense.
Given how good both of these quarterbacks are, and with the matchup problems presented by Julio Jones and the creative route combinations of the Pats, as covered in Part 1, it’s critically important to be fundamentally sound, to bend but not break, to not give up the big play, to keep everything in front of you, and to help keep your team in the game.
For reference, let’s think back on this 2016/17 postseason. In the preceding four playoff games played by the two Super Bowl teams – divisional games against the Texans and Seahawks, followed by championship games against the Steelers and Packers – both the Pats and the Falcons rolled, winning by an average of 19 points across all four contests.
Looking at the secondary play, it’s abundantly clear that the two Super Bowl teams’ championship opponents provided very little competition in the secondary. The Packers very much resembled Swiss cheese, and even though the Steelers had a much better, much healthier, much more disciplined group than Green Bay, they nonetheless put up very little fight against the creative route combinations of the Patriots.
So for both the Falcons and the Patriots, the divisional round opponents provided a much stiffer defensive test: Matt Ryan took on the Legion of Boom, and Tom Brady went up against the stout Houston Texans defense.
However, even though the secondaries for the Seahawks and Texans are ranked 5th and 8th in the league, respectively, this still wasn’t as great a test as it could have been. The Texans didn’t have the offensive production to go toe-to-toe with the Patriots even after their defense played well and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands, and the Seahawks were a completely different defense after losing Earl Thomas.
Before Thomas went down, the Seahawks were only allowing a passer rating of 61.3 to opposing quarterbacks on throws of 20 yards or more. After his absence? 112.0.
The point we are trying to make is that both the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons have yet to test their offense against a stout secondary in the playoffs that is accompanied by a balanced, complete team. We have yet to see Tom Brady and Matt Ryan perform against a top 10 secondary with everything on the line, all else being equal.
But with the Falcons’ defense probably lying somewhere between the Texans and the Steelers, as far as diversity of potential schemes and general playmaking ability, and with the Pats’ defense probably being better than both defenses the Falcons have faced in the playoffs thus far, the stage is finally set for fans to be able to witness two great quarterbacks face off against two great secondaries.
Let’s take a look at the secondary units for the Patriots and the Falcons and see how they match up.
Though this should be no surprise, given the way that we have been lauding the coaching and team-building ability of Bill Belichick throughout the course of our Super Bowl preview, the Pats somehow ended the 2016/17 season with the 3rd-ranked secondary in the league even after being ranked dead-middle (#16) after 7 weeks.
This improvement impresses, particularly given the fact that the Pats were passed on the 26th most in the league. Their defense is the definition of “bend-don’t-break:” Being passed on the 26th-most, they then only gave up the 12th most yards, the 8th most touchdowns, and the 6th fewest yards per pass. Despite all of the attempts, when it counted, the Pats D stepped up.
And while the lack of pass rush abilities of the front seven was adequately covered above, the pass defense of the secondary usually makes up for whatever weak pass rush the front seven puts together. The Patriots had multiple All-Pro selections in the secondary, with safety Devin McCourty earning the highest coverage grade of all safeties in the league in 2016/17.
Additionally, the aforementioned Malcolm Butler, who forever solidified his place in the Patriots history books with the game-saving interception in the end zone the last time the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, was ranked 3rd in coverage and 4th overall among corners in 2016/17, making 16 plays this season either that ended up as either interceptions or pass breakups.
Additionally, Logan Ryan has continually improved throughout the season, at cornerback on the other side of the field, but long-time Patriots safety Patrick Chung has regressed in 2016/17, ranking 81st among NFL safeties from a possible 91 after having a career year in 2015/16.
In addition to their strong pool of secondary personnel, the coaches who decide how these players are to be utilized happen to be masterminds. Not only is rocket scientist Matt Patricia a savant at designing schemes, but Bill Belichick is also famous for his ability to take away an opposing team’s best player.
Consider what the Patriots did against Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship game against the Steelers. Of course Belichick obviously got a lot of help by the fact that Le’Veon Bell – the Steelers other best player – took himself out of the game, going out early with a groin injury. Regardless, though, Belichick and Patricia’s defense held Antonio Brown to a quiet 77 yards, with no TDs and no real splash plays.
And taking away an opponent’s best player is not just a “feel” thing; it’s backed up by the hard numbers. In imagining what Belichick will be able to do against Julio Jones, let’s look back. Historically, when Bill Belichick has faced a tall, elite receiver in the playoffs (i.e. over 6 feet tall, during or fresh off of an All-Pro or Pro Bowl season), that receiver averages less than 5 catches for 62 yards, with a 53% completion rate. The Patriots are 10–2 in postseason contests going against receivers of Julio Jones’ caliber.
But it’s important to remember that like we discussed when reviewing the Falcons’ receiving corps in Part 1 of our preview, by no means is Julio Jones the only reason for their success. Play design and play-calling by Kyle Shanahan is the reason he’s likely to get the head coaching job in San Francisco next year – other than Josh McDaniels, Shanahan is probably the best offensive coach/play caller in the NFL.
This is what makes the matchup between Matt Patricia/Bill Belichick and Kyle Shanahan such an intense, exciting battle. Whether you’re playing man-to-man, dropping into a zone – even if you’re one of the best tackling teams in the league, like the Patriots are – all of these approaches haven’t been able to touch Atlanta’s offense all season.
Put simply, the Patriots will have to throw out some sort of a creative scheme change that the Falcons have never seen before, or Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s offense will likely out-execute the Patriots. Let’s take a closer look at what the Patriots are able to do well, in order to guess at what this scheme could be.
First of all, throughout the season the solid tackling by the cornerbacks and intelligent safety play by Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon have been two of the most important reasons why the Pats have been able to limit the amount of big plays put out by opposing quarterbacks. New England has given up just 5 passing plays of more than 40 yards, the second fewest in the league during the regular season.
Logan Ryan has been particularly good as a tackler: Ryan leads NFL cornerbacks with 92 tackles, despite allowing only 56 receptions. Only seven of the 53 plays that the Patriots allowed which went for 20 yards or more during the regular season went to Logan Ryan, and none of the 7 plays that went for more than 40 yards were given up against him.
However, it must also be said that Logan Ryan is sometimes a terrifying player for Patriots fans to watch. At least twice during the AFC Championship game against the Steelers he failed to get his head around, and clumsily walked a very fine line between getting two game-changing defensive pass interference calls and two big broken passes. Ryan is a physical, loose cannon kind of player.
Young cornerback Eric Rowe also got lucky once or twice in the last game against Big Ben. Rowe was acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles in September (though it’s clear from their woeful secondary performance that they really needed him) after being drafted by the Eagles in 2015.
It’s clear in hindsight that the young man needed consistency, as he has already been required to learn three different defensive schemes as a second-year player, enduring the coaching and scheme changeup in Philly after the departure of Chip Kelly only to immediately go to a new team with the Patriots. Rowe was injured against the Rams but since combing back he has steadily improved.
Both of these cornerbacks were bailed out in the championship game by the poor play of Big Ben and particularly the young Pittsburgh receivers (really, anyone other than Antonio Brown). So this wasn’t that big of a challenge for the Patriots’ secondary.
Against Matt Ryan and the disciplined Atlanta offense, they are not likely to receive such help, or any help for that matter. Instead, the Pats will have to do something big – like, for example, place Patrick Chung in individual coverage on one of the minor receivers like Mohamed Sanu or Taylor Gabriel, and then double team Julio Jones.
The Patriots certainly can’t rely on turnovers. Ranked 15th in interceptions over the course of the regular season, the Pats did improve throughout the year, but they’re still not nearly as confident in the ball-hawking abilities as, say, the Kansas City Chiefs.
After Tom Brady’s return in Week 5, the Patriots caused only 2 turnovers in 5 games, getting no takeaways in three of those games. After this, though, the last 6 games of the regular season and the two games of the postseason each contained a defensive turnover, for 19 total and a +13 turnover ratio over the last 8 games.
A big reason for this excellent turnover ratio was because they were tied for the #1 rank in giveaways, which is ironically part of the problem: The team they were tied with happens to be none other than the Atlanta Falcons.
So in summary, the Patriots do not have the pass rush necessary to rely on generating turnovers, particularly considering how smart Atlanta has been with the football throughout the season. Additionally, while the Pats are certainly talented enough to match up against the Falcons, with two of the most brilliant schemers locked in competition every time the Falcons are on offense, it will be a matter of who can outsmart who.
The Patriots and Steelers both dropped 8 in coverage at times during the AFC Championship game; we may see more of that from both teams during Super Bowl 51. If the Patriots are unable to generate pressure against Matt Ryan with only 3 or 4 rushers, then ultimately the World Championship will be won or lost based on whether their incredible individual secondary players make incredible individual efforts, and whether or not these efforts outmatch those of the Falcons’ offense.
The story of the Falcons’ secondary is primarily the story of young players that simply needed time to develop in a solid system: The Falcons secondary was ranked 13th after Week 6, and ultimately climbed to #6 in the end-of-the-season rankings. The unit may not be overly talented or full of big-name guys like the Giants’, but they have very few holes, and can do a lot of different things.
For example, despite the fact that the Giants and Cowboys both played primarily zone against the prolific Packers’ passing offense in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Falcons played man-to-man against Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game and had great success.
It’s true that the receiving corps of the Packers was very banged up in that game, but it still speaks volumes that the Falcons demonstrated full confidence that their corners could match up against the Packers receivers – two of which were ranked #1 and #2 in touchdowns on the season. It remains to be seen, though, if they will have the same confidence against Tom Brady.
It’s impossible to stop Brady; you just hope to contain him.
The Patriots saw great improvement in their offense between the Texans to the Steelers in part because of execution on offense but also because of the play of the secondary. Houston disguised their coverages much more because they were able to rely on superior cornerback play.
The Steelers, on the other hand, weren’t so comfortable bringing a wide diversity of blitz packages because they were hamstrung by their cornerbacks. Being required to leave safety help over the top for fear of a cornerback being beat in one-on-one coverage prevented the Steelers from disguising their coverages and confusing Brady with unseen blitzes in the same way that the Texans had.
Additionally, the Steelers had been running a zone defense throughout the entire year, which Brady picked apart due to the creative route packages and unseen combinations that Belichick and Josh McDaniels put out on the field.
The Falcons are faster in the secondary than the Steelers, and they’ve seen their scheme expand throughout the course of the season, but it remains to be seen whether they will want to go man-to-man against the Patriots receivers when they know they’re usually unable to generate pressure on the quarterback with a 3- or 4-man rush.
Scheme-wise, it’s important to note that Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has actually played against the Belichick Patriots in a Super Bowl already: In Super Bowl 49, two seasons ago, (the Super Bowl we have already mentioned, pitting the Seahawks against the Patriots and ultimately won by the Malcolm Butler interception with 20 seconds remaining), Dan Quinn was in fact the defensive coordinator in Seattle.
Injuries hit that team hard, making it hard to compare, but Quinn’s defense did hold the Patriots to only 28 points and gave their offense the opportunity, on the goal line with 20 seconds left, to take the lead, down by four points. And more importantly, regardless of the outcome, there is at least some history and some familiarity here.
But at the same time, of course nearly everything can change over the course of two seasons, and for the Falcons, it has. Atlanta’s head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator were all hired after that Super Bowl victory by the Pats.
During this span, Atlanta’s defense began to improve on the defense, going from giving up 26.1 points per game (good for 27th in the league) in 2014/15 all the way down to 21.6 points per game (14th in the league) in Richard Smith’s first season as defensive coordinator.
However, this season they are back down to 27th in the league in scoring defense, with 25.4 points allowed per game. As we mentioned above, the pass defense is particularly bad: The Falcons were thrown on more than any team in the league, but unlike the Patriots, it showed. Instead of “bend-don’t-break,” it was more of just “break”: Atlanta gave up the 5th-most passing yards of any team, and the 5th-most passing touchdowns.
One of the key reasons that these passing drives were converted into touchdowns (beyond the fact that the NFC South is better at throwing touchdowns than the AFC East) is the fact that the Falcons were only ranked 16th in takeaways, the definition of league average.
They have steadily gotten turnovers throughout the year, having only three games out of sixteen in which they did not get a turnover. Their ball control on offense has also steadily gotten better as the year has progressed, (going +12 in turnover ratio since their Week 11 bye, including the two playoff games), but they shouldn’t rely on turnovers in this game.
While they have four takeaways in the playoffs, without a single giveaway, this was going against two of the most dysfunctional offenses in the playoffs (at least, the two offenses were ineffective during those specific games), and so it’s hard to believe that the Patriots (who were tied with the Falcons for fewest giveaways during the regular season) would be so generous with the football.
One reason for the Falcons’ slide in defensive performance this season compared to last season as well as their low number of turnovers could be the absence of #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant was voted to the Pro Bowl last season as a third-year player, and before leaving for the season after Week 9 with a torn pectoral muscle he had notched 7 career interceptions along with 3 forced fumbles, 48 passes defensed, and 168 solo tackles.
In the absence of Trufant, the Falcons no longer have a player that ranks above 17th in the league in terms of overall grade (Jalen Collins comes in at #17 among cornerbacks), and so it has needed to be a collaborative effort in the secondary.
Specifically, young cornerbacks Brian Poole and Jalen Collins have needed to step up. Poole responded by being targeted the least among all slot cornerbacks in the league, demonstrating his ability to play fast and loose off the line.
Collins, for his part, either broke up or intercepted 18% of the balls thrown his way, good for 5th-most among all corners in the league. It was Collins that ripped the ball out of the hands of Green Bay fullback Aaron Ripkowski in the NFC Championship game and recovered the ball in the end-zone for a touchback, turning what was likely to be 7 points for the Packers into another offensive possession for Matty Ice, and significantly changing the momentum of the game.
Another player that has been called into service is first-round draft pick and rookie Keanu Neal, who has been streaky. While it’s true that Neal has given up the 2nd-highest number of receiving yards among all the safeties in the league, he’s also forced 5 fumbles and notched 13 defensive stops, earning him the #3 rank in the league among safeties despite being a rookie. His accompanying safety Ricardo Allen has also improved significantly in his second season as full-time starter.
In summary, from the Falcons we clearly see a defense built around young playmakers, and those young playmakers will have to make big plays on the biggest stage if they want to come away victorious in Super Bowl 51.
In the NFC Championship game, one of the major turning points in the game was the unlikely contribution of Brian Poole, who made a huge impact on the game in blitzing Aaron Rodgers and rattling him. It’s unclear whether Dan Quinn and Richard Smith will try and bring these types of creative blitzes two weeks in a row against the offensive genius of Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia, but whatever the scheme ends up being, the young players will have to make plays.
Now that we have reviewed both units of the defense for both of the teams heading into Super Bowl 51, we have to do our due diligence in looking at the entire team holistically, which includes the special teams units for both the Patriots and the Falcons.
Special teams units are notoriously hard to evaluate. To understand why, consider the following example.
Every team in the league will begin a certain percentage of their drives on the 25-yard line, due to kickoff touchbacks. The best teams, most of the time, will subsequently take the ball 75 yards down the field and score, leaving their punters on the sideline the entire time. For example, in the Falcons’ NFC Championship victory over the Packers, they managed to score on 7 of their 9 drives; Matt Bosher punted only twice in the entire game.
Average teams, by contrast, could hypothetically end up punting the ball from around midfield much of the time, with their offense generally able to get a few first downs, but then stalling. The worst teams could very easily go three-and-out a high percentage of the time after getting a touchback, and thus frequently punt the ball from the 25 or 30.
The point we’re trying to make is that the punter had nothing to do with this field position situation, and yet his season stats are undoubtedly influenced immensely by it. A great punter can take 75 yards of open field and work it like a blank canvas. But when you’re standing at midfield or beyond, there are just fewer options available to you, and a much greater probability for punting it into the end-zone for a touchback, which would yield only 25 net yards.
This is why, when we see that the Rams punter is holistically rated almost double the value of the second-ranked punter, we take it with a grain of salt. And by extension, this also provides a good example of why, across most all aspects of special teams, it can be quite difficult to provide an objective statistical evaluation: The rest of the game bleeds over into special teams plays unavoidably.
Even still, though, there are certainly methods available to statistically evaluate special teams units, and we’ll do our best to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the special teams units that could potentially be exploited by one team or another in Super Bowl 51.
In fact, we think that the Patriots’ storyline we used to introduce this piece is particularly relevant when we consider the special teams, and here’s why.
While we made it very clear that we believe the Patriots’ players and coaches definitely aren’t talking about the events of Deflategate two seasons ago anymore, and while we’re very confident that they would never make any sort of a comment about Roger Goodell (Tom Brady denied even hearing the chants in Foxborough during the AFC Championship game, which is physically impossible), it’s nonetheless true that Bill Belichick has a track record of putting his foot on the gas and leaving it on.
We believe that the Patriots are interested not just in winning a single Super Bowl, like the Falcons are after not having even appeared in a Super Bowl for 18 years. We believe the Patriots want more. They don’t just want to win; they want to win handily. They want to clearly demonstrate to “those people” – be they fans, players, or even possibly executives – that they are the best team in the history of football.
And once again, this has nothing to do with the reality of what actually happened two years ago, or what the real result of the court cases demonstrated (or didn’t demonstrate). The point is that this is the mindset of Patriots nation.
And the reason this is relevant to the special teams it that the Patriots will be trying to gain every single possible advantage at every point in the game, which means that we believe the Falcons should be on high alert for trick plays – fake punts, surprise onside kicks, fake two-point conversions or fourth down fake field goal attempts. We believe that the Pats will try to press their advantage in every way possible.
Let’s take a look at both of these two units individually, and try to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses, with a particular eye for whether or not they might be able to gain any sort of advantage through the play of the special teams unit.
To evaluate the Patriots’ special teams, we’ll rely primarily on the gross DVOA evaluation by Football Outsiders. As we’ve mentioned above, DVOA (short for Defensive Value Over Average), is a ranking of value, which is to say how much value an individual player or a unit as a whole adds compared to the league average.
In order to make their assessment, Football Outsiders looks at every single play individually and assigns points intelligently, keeping in mind a variety of different factors which impact that play including the down, distance, position on the field, game situation, weather, altitude, and a host of other factors.
So when we use the numbers that we will use to evaluate the special teams units we’ll see in the Super Bowl, the simplest way to describe the numbers that we are using is to say that we’re evaluating how much value is added to the team by their special teams compared to the average value of an average NFL special teams unit.
According to this global DVOA value, the Falcons do in fact rank more highly than the Patriots in gross overall value relative to other teams, primarily based on their superior field goal and extra point numbers, as well as their overall better punt returning.
However, it’s important to note that the Patriots play six of their games in Foxborough, and with an additional two games at the Jets and Bills each year, their special teams performance and overall special teams philosophies are ultimately greatly influenced by the fact that it’s very difficult to kick a cold football – whether towards the goal posts or towards a returner – for both teams.
This is one of the reasons it’s so impressive that the Patriots could edge out the dome-team Falcons in DVOA ratings for kickoffs and punts, a testament to the coaching of the Pats and the discipline of their players.
And we see that when the DVOA is adjusted to account for weather, and how difficult the cold makes special teams play, in terms of overall adjusted ratings, the Patriots’ special teams unit does add more value to their team, relative to the league average, than does the Falcons’. Specifically, the Patriots have the 6th-ranked special teams unit; the Falcons have the 13th-ranked special teams unit.
Looking more specifically at the Patriots, we see that their return units are the only two aspects of special teams that are negatively rated (which is to say, below league average) amongst the five categories (field goals/extra points, punts, kicks, punt coverage, kick coverage), which is important to note.
It’s especially important to note when you consider that the Falcons’ punt return unit is their highest ranked kick or punt unit overall, and one that compares favorably against the rest of the units in the league, meanwhile the Patriots have one of the worst punt return units in football according to the rankings at Football Outsiders.
Adding even a further layer of intrigue to this storyline (which will undoubtedly be greatly underreported in the media amongst the focus on the offenses and defenses), the Patriots could be down one of their best punt coverage players, potentially giving the Falcons even a greater advantage for punts.
Nate Ebner, who led the Patriots with 19 special-teams tackles in the regular season, received a concussion in the first half of the AFC Championship game against the Steelers, and it remains to be seen whether he will be cleared in time to play in the Super Bowl (or at least in time to practice before-hand).
Ebner is a 5th-year veteran who specializes primarily in special teams. This season, Ebner received 12 votes for the Associated Press All-Pro team for special teams; Matthew Slater (14), his teammate, was the only player who received more votes. This is Ebner’s second concussion of the season: The last time he received a concussion he didn’t practice for two days, and then ultimately played in the following week’s game.
In aggregate, special teams could potentially be the Patriots’ weakest unit, as they also had multiple turnovers throughout the regular season. Rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones (who is not likely to be active against the Falcons in the Super Bowl, having missed the previous three games with a knee injury) had five muffed or fumbled returns on the season. Unit leader and aforementioned All-Pro Matthew Slater also lost one, despite having gone to 5 straight Pro Bowls for his work on special teams.
Following the retirement of Scott O’Brien in 2015, the Patriots promoted assistant special teams coach Joe Judge, who has now completed his second full regular season as special teams head coach. Judge was lucky enough to inherit Stephen Gostkowski as his kicker, who has led the league in scoring each of the last four seasons and was elected to the Pro Bowl in three of the last four seasons, as well as being voted first team All-Pro in 2015.
The one final note to mention about the Patriots special teams is the spark provided by speedster Dion Lewis, who has been reasonably productive in his role as the Patriots sub back, catching balls out of the backfield from Tom Brady, and also recently ran for a return touchdown.
Lewis ran for a 98-yard touchdown return against the Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs, becoming the only player since 1950 to have a return touchdown, a receiving touchdown, and a rushing touchdown in a single playoff game. While he followed up this historic performance with only having return against the Steelers for 18 yards, he’s demonstrated his ability to break one.
And against the Falcons, Lewis could potentially be the x-factor that provides the Patriots the spark they need. We would watch for Bill Belichick to utilize Lewis in Super Bowl 51 in some unexpected capacity.
As we already covered immediately above when describing the possible absence of coverage specialist Nate Ebner for the Patriots, we do believe that the Falcons could potentially press an advantage in returning punts (assuming that their defense is able to force the Patriots to punt in the first place).
While many casual fans watching punts and kickoffs see them as very haphazard, random plays, if Nate Ebner is out and you see the Falcons “haphazardly” break off a 15 or 20-yard return against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, don’t say that we didn’t warn you.
More broadly, the Falcons saw a lot of improvement on their special teams from last year to this year, being ranked 22nd in 2015/16 and moving all the way up to 6th in 2016/17. As we mentioned above, this still doesn’t edge out the Patriots’ 6th-ranked unit (when adjusted for weather performance), but it’s undoubtedly a step up. Nine-year incumbent special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong has continuously provided a steady hand, particularly over the last five years.
The Falcons’ primary strength is in their kicking unit, which is the most highly-ranked element of their entire special teams production. Undoubtedly, the fact that they are the league’s top scoring offense and that they play in a dome helps them out tremendously, as it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort for Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ prolific offense to get into Matt Bryant’s range.
As the Super Bowl will be in Houston, there should be no disadvantage for either team based on weather conditions, but we still know that Bill Belichick is going to try and press any and every advantage he can get.
The Falcons have been exceptionally good at keeping from turnovers on the offensive side of the ball, tied with the Pats for #1 in the league in giveaways. However, youth and inexperience often show up most on special teams plays, where individuals who receive fewer snaps have more at stake, and where plays can often come and go in a blur.
This is where Belichick, who has a history of getting explosive plays including blocks, punts or kickoff coverages, etc. – not to mention Dion Lewis – could potentially try and press his advantage. Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong might want to trap or double-team Matthew Slater, and he’ll definitely make sure that ball security is a focus.
This is especially important for Atlanta considering that the Kansas City Chiefs successfully pulled off a fake punt against the Falcons in Week 13, with Albert Wilson taking a direct snap and scampering 60 yards right through the middle of the coverage formation for the touchdown. While of course the Chiefs have one of the best special teams coaches and the most disciplined special teams units in the entire league, it’s undoubtedly true that Belichick will have studied this play and will be getting ideas.
In order for the Falcons to ensure that they don’t let the youth of their team and their lack of Super Bowl experience shine through on special teams, they will need to be extra disciplined, making sure to coach their young players to stay gap sound and not to try and be heroes.
And just as the Patriots will potentially be looking to exploit Atlanta with trick plays, the Falcons will be aware of the Pats’ penchant for putting the ball on the ground during kickoffs and punts, and will be trying to exploit this as well.
As we mentioned above, young cornerback Jalen Collins had a phenomenal punch-out fumble recovery against the Packers in the NFC Championship game, and if he is able to do the same thing in Super Bowl 51, then it just might come about that the special teams unit could end up being a game changer in determining the World Champion.
In short? The Patriots.
Working backwards, while both teams could potentially press an advantage on special teams, New England’s Dion Lewis is probably the most exciting potential game-changer on either unit, and anyway it’s not all that likely that there will be enough meaningful special teams plays for one team or another to be able to press their advantage.
In the secondary, the Patriots gain the slightest of advantages, primarily based on experience, giving them the ability to do more things on defense. If Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia decided to bring extra players on the blitz during certain situations in Super Bowl 51, they would likely feel more confident in this than the Falcons, who are noticeably younger and would have to feel more nervous about relying on young cornerbacks to line up man-to-man against the Patriots receivers without safety help.
But the biggest and most obvious advantage for New England comes in how well they match up against the Falcons’ front seven. Despite the fact that both front sevens have difficulty putting pressure on the quarterback, Atlanta’s front seven is demonstrably worse against the run. Patriots fans have to feel comfortable in their ability to chew up the clock running the ball with Blount, provided that the game remains close and they don’t have to abandon the run game to engage in a shoot-out with Matty Ice.
The final nail in the coffin that gives New England an advantage is simply playoff experience. The player with the least experience among the Patriots’ defensive starters in the secondary is none other than Malcolm Brown, who in his third year with the Patriots has already caught a Super Bowl-winning interception. Meanwhile, the Falcons have three starting players in the secondary with 2 years or less of football experience due to the absence of veteran Trufant, and six defensive starters overall who are rookies or sophomores.
If Atlanta’s defense plays as well against the Patriots as Houston’s defense did, if they’re similarly able to create pressure on Tom Brady using only the front seven without bringing additional players on the blitz, and if Matt Ryan and the offense holds up their end of the bargain, the Atlanta Falcons are probably going to win their first Super Bowl. Tom Brady probably can’t be stopped, but the Texans proved that he can be slowed down.
However, it remains to be seen whether the young players on the Falcons’ secondary will be able to handle the adversity of being in their first Super Bowl, and it’s very unlikely that they’ll receive any support from a front seven that has been suspect all year.
With offenses this good, Super Bowl 51 will absolutely prove the moniker correct that football is a game of inches. And considering the two defenses and special teams units involved in this matchup,
We have to give the advantage – even by an inch – to the New England Patriots.