Super Bowl LI Preview

It’s finally here! That first Sunday in February where we all gather around the television set, laugh at pointless commercials, and consume more calories than the largest offensive lineman on the gridiron. Yes, football fans, Super Bowl Sunday is once again upon us. This year the big game will take place at Houston’s NRG Stadium and will feature two of the best offenses the NFL has to offer, with the New England Patriots squaring off with the Atlanta Falcons. In this article, we take a closer look at the matchups for both sides, what the Falcons defense must do to slow down Tom Brady, and give predictions for the big game ahead.

Brady and Belichick

The bright lights and big stage certainly no longer phase the future hall of fame duo of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. This will be their seventh Super Bowl appearance together after a 14-2 regular season despite Brady missing the first 4 games of the season due to suspension after the whole DeflateGate debacle. Ever since he came back in week 5 though, Brady has been in peak form, throwing for 28 touchdowns with just two interceptions in the regular season and leading New England to a first round bye. Even without superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady has gotten the most out of the sum of his parts as he has so many times before. Newly acquired receivers Chris Hogan and Michael Floyd have now become centerpieces of New England’s explosive offense. Danny Amendola has made his mark as Brady’s favorite outside threat.

The Emergence Of Matt Ryan

It’s typically rare to see someone hit their peak in their 10th NFL season, but that’s exactly what Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has done in 2016 as he has put together what has been far-and-away the best campaign of his career. Ryan threw for 38 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while passing for just under the 5,000-yard mark. A huge amount of Ryan’s success is attributed to superstar wideout Julio Jones, who tallied 83 receptions for over 1,400 yards in 2016 to go along with six touchdowns. Jones, along with a host of skill-position weapons in the offense, have helped Ryan tremendously improve as a passer this year and the numbers back it up. This year, Ryan’s average pass traveled fewer yards down field since 2012 but his completion percentage has jumped up significantly and his receivers have gotten him more than twice as many yards per completion with their ability to create yards after the catch. 

Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan deserves a great deal of credit for Ryan’s stellar season as well. Statistically, he has turned Atlanta into one of the best regular season offenses in NFL history. Shanahan’s high-powered offense finished 2016 with the 2nd best mark in total offense and league-best in points at just over 33 per game. Due in large part to Shanahan, his quarterback is at the forefront of the MVP discussion and has made himself one of the most sought after coordinators to fill head coaching vacancies across the league next season. 

As for Ryan, his masterful play has continued into the postseason where he has led the Falcons to the Super Bowl with wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. Ryan torched the Seattle secondary in the divisional round for 339 yards through the air and three touchdowns en route to a 36-20 victory. Coming into the NFC championship game, Ryan was overshadowed by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who led Green Bay to eight straight victories after a 4-6 start to the season, including an impressive road win in the divisional round against Dallas the previous week. When it was time to lace ’em up though, it was Ryan who outdueled Rodgers in the Georgia Dome last weekend. Ryan went for 392 yards passing and five scores (1 rushing TD) as Atlanta clinched its 2nd Super Bowl birth with a decisive 44-21 win over Rodgers’ red hot Packers. So far this postseason, Ryan has been just about perfect and he’s as hot as anyone in the league right now. In the two games against Seattle and Green Bay, he’s thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He’ll have his work cut out for him this weekend, as New England’s number one scoring defense is no easy task.

Blount & Lewis VS Freeman & Coleman

Both of these offenses are known for moving the ball through the air but what I am most excited to see this weekend is the match-up at running back for both sides. It’s no secret that the NFL landscape has shifted in recent years to make teams more likely to use a running back by committee system and this game features four exceptional feature backs. On Atlanta’s side you have the explosive tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. And on the other side, it will be Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount lining up behind Tom Brady for New England. 

A former 5th round draft pick, Dion Lewis bounced around the league a lot in the early parts of his career, spending two seasons with Philadelphia before moving to Cleveland in 2013 and Indianapolis in 2014 where he was cut just a week after signing with the Colts. He found his home in New England in 2015 after signing a reserve contract and subsequently making the team’s 53 man roster. He made his first career start for New England in week one of the 2015 season in place of suspended LeGarrette Blount. He played remarkably well and has split time with Blount ever since. The main issue for Lewis though, has been his ability to stay on the field. His 2015 season was cut short after tearing his ACL against the Redskins and he spent the majority of this 2016 season on the PUP list after requiring a second knee surgery. When healthy, as he has been in these playoffs, Lewis can be a huge X-factor out of the backfield. He ran wild against Houston in the divisional round, tallying a rushing, receiving, and kick return touchdown, becoming the first player in the Super Bowl era to accomplish this feat. 

The other runner who will likely see the majority of snaps for the Patriots is LeGarrette Blount. He’s a power back who is built more like a defensive tackle but can outrun most linebackers. For being in a pass-heavy offense, Blount has had a ridiculous season running the ball. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry, over 1,100 yards and a league-best 18 touchdowns on the ground on less than 300 attempts. That’s almost unprecedented, especially for someone who splits carries. He’s been relatively quiet this postseason but he did have a touchdown against Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game. He’s not quite as adept at catching passes out of the backfield as Lewis, but he’s nearly unstoppable in short yardage situations. Both Lewis and Blount are sure to make an impact for New England on Sunday.

The Falcons have their own dynamic duo to help out Matt Ryan on Sunday. One of them is a speed back by the name of Tevin Coleman. Coleman was drafted by the Falcons as a 3rd round pick out of Indiana in 2015. He led the Big 10 with 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2014. Coleman became a central part of the Falcons offense after starter Devonta Freeman went down to start the 2015 season. In his debut, Coleman piled up 80 yards on the ground on a season-high 20 carries. He finished the 2015 campaign averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. Due to his success, Coleman found himself in a greater role to begin his breakout 2016 season. He had over 500 yards on just 118 carries this season, but after scoring just once the season before, he found paydirt on running plays eight times in 2016. He also had three receiving touchdowns and was a reliable option catching passes out of the backfield.

A budding star, Devonta Freeman has been a big reason why Atlanta is in the position they’re in this week. The Florida State product has now rushed for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns for the 2nd straight season. Freeman started his career splitting time with former Falcons running backs Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. Once Freeman earned the starting job in 2015, he took off. He finished his first career start with 130 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Dallas. His rushing stats for both the 2015 and 2016 seasons are virtually identical but impressive nonetheless. Where Freeman really excels, maybe more than any other back in the league, is his ability as a receiver. In 2015 he had a whopping 73 catches, good for number one in the league amongst running backs. With the addition of more outside weapons like Mohamed Sanu and having Julio Jones healthy again, Freeman saw his catches drop to 54 this season but he did average more yards per catch than in 2015. He’s stepped up this postseason as well, scoring once in each of the Falcons’ playoff victories. Both Freeman and Coleman serve as threats that can do a little bit of everything for Atlanta’s offense. Look for them to make an impact this weekend. 

So Who Guards Julio Jones?

In case you haven’t heard yet, this Julio Jones guy is REALLY good. He’s got good size at 6’3″ and 220 lbs, he might be faster than any other receiver today, and he’s almost impossible to bring down in the open field. He’s already had a game this season where he eclipsed the 300 yard receiving mark and he’s been slicing up secondaries all year long. One of the main questions Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has to deal with this week is, just how do you cover Matt Ryan’s number one target?

The most likely case is that Jones will see a lot of man coverage from Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. Butler, famously known for his game-sealing interception on the goal line against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, has come into his own as New England’s top outside corner. He was named 2nd team all-pro after notching career highs in pass deflections and interceptions in 2016. He made his mark in the AFC championship game against the Steelers, holding star wideout Antonio Brown to just two catches for 24 yards when guarded by Butler. The tactic will probably be to put Butler in a lot of press coverage situations with Jones to try and disrupt the timing of his routes. 

If that doesn’t work and Butler can’t keep up with Jones, New England will have to commit a safety over the top, leaving room for one of Atlanta’s other options to burn the Patriots secondary. They may even try and line Butler’s opposite side corner Devin McCourty up with Jones from time-to-time. Butler though, has been waiting for this match-up for a while, as evidenced by this tweet made while he was still a little-known corner at West Alabama in 2012:

Dreams really do come true, Malcolm!

Getting To Tom Brady

Atlanta’s defense has had its share of problems this season but their offense has been able to cover up a lot of their mistakes. In the month of January, the young defense has improved drastically. The Falcons defense likes to play fast. They’re inexperienced but they’re as athletic and as quick as anyone. They boast four rookie starters in safety Keanu Neal, slot corner Brian Poole, and linebackers De’Vondrae Campbell and Deion Jones. Atlanta has nine defensive players who hadn’t yet celebrated their 10th birthday when Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2003.

While it is true that the youth of Atlanta’s defense has stepped up this postseason, that doesn’t seem to bother Tom Brady in the slightest. He just faced a Pittsburgh defense that is very similar to that of the Falcons. Dan Quinn likes to run a lot of cover 3 with one single high safety. And that’s the problem here for the Falcons because no one is better at beating zone coverage than Tom Brady. 

To have any chance of slowing down the Patriots offense, Atlanta has to do what Pittsburgh didn’t and play more man-to-man coverage disguised as cover 3. New England is just too good at creating matchups against linebackers with motion before the snap. This also means the Falcons will probably have to bring less pressure. 

In Quinn’s scheme, you will have five defenders covering each of the five eligible receivers, with one safety patrolling the deep middle of the field. That leaves five defenders that he can scheme any way he wants. Some defenses will send all five at the quarterback and hope that the man coverage holds up, but with as quick as Brady gets rid of the ball, Quinn may be reluctant to do so. Instead, we will likely see Atlanta rush four most of the night with the other defender (usually a linebacker) lurking the middle of the field. Because the Patriots favor a lot of drags and short crossing routes, it makes sense to play that extra defender in the shallow-middle part of the field. 

Alternatively, we may see some sets where Atlanta will show blitz but only rush three defenders. This might give Brady more time to throw, but it allows for another defender that can be schemed any way that Atlanta wants to use him. Most teams will play this defender over the top alongside the safety. This favors Atlanta because it cuts off passing lanes in the middle of the field and will force Brady to throw outside, where he’s less comfortable. Plus, the sideline will limit the run-after-catch yardage that makes New England so deadly. 

If executed properly, this physical man and press coverage should disrupt the timing between Brady and his receivers enough to allow second year standout Vic Beasley and long-time veteran Dwight Freeney to pressure Brady and coax him into making a bad decision.

Prediction

As of now, New England is currently a three point favorite to hoist the Lombardi on Sunday night. Here are just some “expert” predictions:

EA Sports Madden Sim

Patriots 27 – Falcons 24


Odds Shark Super Computer

Patriots 21 – Falcons 29


Michael Bruton (Bleacher Report)

Patriots 31 – Falcons 27


Dan Salem (Fox Sports)

Patriots 29 – Falcons 24

As for myself, there’s too much offense on both sides for this to be a low scoring affair. Ultimately, I think the Falcons can do enough scheming on defense to confuse Brady and force a turnover late in the game and win it for Atlanta. Matt Ryan throws for three scores and Keanu Neal picks off Brady twice and forces a fumble to win Super Bowl MVP.

Final Score

Patriots 27 – Falcons 38

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