Super Bowl LI could be one of the best title games in league history, with the NFL's top-ranked scoring offense (the Atlanta Falcons) taking on the No. 1 scoring defense (New England Patriots). With a bunch of time to prepare for the game, coaches are digging into the tape to determine the best way to match up with the opposition.
Given some time to take a look at Atlanta's most recent games, I've come up with the following five keys to a potential Falcons victory:
1) Matt Ryan must play like the MVP.
Whether or not Ryan actually walks away with the MVP award, he has clearly been the best quarterback in the NFL this season. The ninth-year pro finished the regular season with a passer rating of 117.1 and a per-game average of 309 passing yards, making him one of only four quarterbacks in history to post a passer rating of 115 or better while averaging 300-plus passing yards in a single season. Not to mention, he did so while averaging 9.26 yards per attempt, which was the highest yards-per-attempt mark of any quarterback in NFL history with at least 400 pass attempts in a single season. Considering Ryan also posted a 38:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he was arguably the hottest quarterback in the game heading into the playoffs.
In the postseason, Ryan has served notice that he is not only a top-10 quarterback, but someone who should be mentioned as a VIP at the position. En route to Super Bowl LI, Ryan completed over 70 percent of his postseason passes while posting 365.0 passing yards per game and a 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio. Most importantly, he's notched a 132.6 passer rating while helping the Falcons average 40.0 points in the playoffs -- the third-highest playoff scoring average in the Super Bowl era (only the 1994 and 1989 San Francisco 49ers averaged more, with 43.7 and 42.0 points, respectively).
I've studied the All-22 Coaches Film, and it's clear that Ryan simply needs to continue to drive the Cadillac without hitting a pothole. The Falcons have surrounded the QB1 with a stable of dynamic playmakers capable of turning short passes into explosive gains. Whether he's hitting Julio Jones on slants, crossers, corners and digs, finding Mohamed Sanu on various intermediate routes between the hashes or connecting with Taylor Gabriel on a home-run shot down the boundary, Ryan has to put the ball in the hands of his top targets in their respective sweet spots.
If the Patriots take away Jones, Sanu and Gabriel with an aggressive man or zone coverage scheme that uses double teams or brackets to neutralize pass catchers down the field, Ryan has to target his running backs (Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) on swings, screens and "specials" from the backfield. When the Falcons empty out the backfield, he should target Freeman or Coleman on a variety of isolation routes against linebackers and safeties in space.
On the play below, from that Week 5 victory, the Falcons align in an empty formation, with Coleman in the slot. He runs an under route against man coverage over the middle of the field. With the Broncos in man coverage, he is able to use the vertical route by the tight end to create a rub on his defender. This results in a 48-yard gain on a simple "pitch and catch" play:
Later in that same game, the Falcons align in an empty formation, with Coleman in the slot. The team executes a "smash-seam" concept, with Coleman running a fade from his slot position. Considering his speed, quickness and burst, the matchup with a linebacker is an obvious advantage for the Falcons. This play results in a 49-yard gain for the Dirty Birds:
2) The Falcons need to start fast.
When you have the most explosive offense in football, you want to impose your will on the opposition from beginning to end. The best way for the Falcons to put the squeeze on the Patriots is to jump on them from the opening whistle. As the son of a college basketball player, I learned at an early age that teams that press don't like to be pressed. Similarly, in football, high-powered offenses hate sitting on the sidelines. Thus, the Falcons would be wise to take the ball and force the Patriots to play "catch-up" from the opening bell.
Looking at Atlanta's strong finish, I noticed that the team has scored on its opening drive in eight straight games, including the NFC title match -- that's the most in the NFL since at least 2000. These fast starts have helped the Falcons enjoy a fourth-quarter lead in 17 straight games. Considering how the Dirty Birds' defense is built specifically to play from ahead with a fleet of dynamic athletes manning marquee positions (pass rushers, run-and-chase playmakers and cover corners), the Falcons need to jump out to a lead to keep the Patriots from making it a "grind it out" affair in Houston.
From a strategic standpoint, Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan uses the opening script to immediately attack the opponent's weaknesses while also setting the table for explosive complements to the Falcons' base plays. He will throw out a variety of spread, empty, bunch and stack formations within his "first 15" script to get a feel for how the Patriots plan to defend the Falcons' top weapons in coverage. In addition, Shanahan will feature a number of motions and shifts to gauge whether opponents are featuring man or zone coverage prominently in the game plan.
Against the Patriots, the Falcons can expect to see a game plan similar to the one Bill Belichick used against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI (and against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, when Belichick was the Giants' defensive coordinator). Belichick instructed his defenders to rough up the wide receivers and tight ends at every turn. Although the rules have changed a bit since those days, I couldn't help but notice how physical the Patriots played against the Steelers and Antonio Brownin the AFC Championship Game. Malcolm Butler and Co. aggressively harassed Pittsburgh's perimeter players at the line and eliminated free access to their routes. The corners also jumped into trail technique (Cover 2 Man) to undercut any short or intermediate routes, with the deep safeties discouraging deep throws from the half-field positions.
With that in mind, I would expect Shanahan to script in a few man-beaters from stacked or bunch alignments early in the game, to see if the Falcons can bust up the coverage for a big gain. If Shanahan can set the terms in the first quarter, the Falcons could become the first team to explode on the Patriots' defense in a long time.
3) Kyle Shanahan should unload his bag of tricks in the red zone.
New England's defensive philosophy revolves around the premise of limiting big plays and forcing opponents to settle for field goals in the red zone. Belichick wants to force opponents to drive the length of the field on a series of short passes and runs until the field shrinks and the defense can use the sideline and end line as extra defenders. The Patriots' superb execution in the red zone forces quarterbacks to be precise with their throws or risk turning the ball over on a tipped ball that lands in the hands of a hustling defender.
Looking at the Patriots' scheme, the Falcons must be prepared to deal with umbrella coverage (Cover 2 and quarters) from the 20-yard line to 5-yard line and Cover 0 (man coverage) inside the 5-yard line. The soft coverage inside the 20-yard line forces quarterbacks to squeeze the ball into tight windows, particularly when throwing the ball between the hashes. In addition, the "catch" technique occasionally employed by the corners takes away some of the boundary throws for the quarterback. I would expect the Falcons to attack the coverage by using stacked alignments with various scissors and levels concepts to lure a defender out of his area.
The Falcons used a scissors concept from a stacked formation against the Green Bay Packers in Week 8 that could be effective against the Patriots' umbrella coverage, as you can see below. Sanu is positioned behind Jones on the left, with Freeman offset to the stacked side. When Jones releases up the field to run a corner, he occupies the safety assigned to play the deep half. Sanu runs an inside vertical route behind the middle linebacker to the middle of the end zone. With Freeman running an angle route to that side, Ryan has a high-low read on the linebacker over the middle. He floats an elevated pass to the goal post to Sanu for an easy game-winning score:
When the Falcons are operating at close range, I would expect to see Shanahan exploit his running back matchups against the Patriots. Coleman and Freeman are exceptional route runners with sticky hands, which makes them difficult to defend in space. If the Patriots stay true to their philosophy of playing man-to-man inside the 5-yard line, the Falcons can use an assortment of pick or rub plays with their running backs to cash in on a scoring opportunity.
Against the New Orleans Saintsin Week 17, the Falcons used a clever rub play to get Coleman free against man coverage, as you can see below. From a trips alignment, with No. 26 set to the weak side, the Falcons run a multi-layered crossing route concept (short, intermediate and deep crosser) from the trips side, with Coleman sneaking underneath on a slide route into the flat. The crossing action by Jones picks off Coleman's assigned defender, leaving him wide open for an easy score:
4) Dan Quinn should steal a few defensive concepts from the Seahawks.
It's no secret that good teams borrow ideas from other squads when crafting game plans. Smart coaches will study the game film to see which tactics give opponents problems and then immediately implement those concepts in the game plan, particularly when they mesh with the team's base scheme. Considering Quinn's ties to Seattle (where he was the defensive coordinator in 2013 and '14) and the Seahawks' success defending the Patriotsearly in the season, I believe the Falcons should use a similar blueprint.
Now, I know that the Patriots fully expect the Falcons to utilize some of those tactics based on Quinn's connections, but the Dirty Birds have the scheme and personnel in place to pull it off. I studied the All-22 Coaches Film of the teams that effectively slowed down New England (the Seahawks and Texans), and they were able to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing game with a four- and five-man rush and aggressive man-to-man coverage on the outside.
The Patriots' receiver corps obliterates opponents employing zone coverage due to their unbelievable knack for finding voids over the middle of the field. In addition, the free access at the line of scrimmage allows Tom Brady to deliver the ball on time to receivers at their expected spots. Look no further than the Patriots' dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers' zone coverage in the AFC Championship Game as proof of their explosive scoring potential against a zone.
That's why the Falcons must throw caution to the wind and challenge the Patriots' receivers at every turn. Dynamic tight end Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve, while the Patriots lack a true WR1 -- and no one else on the roster demands a consistent double team. Sure, you have to account for Julian Edelman working his magic from the slot and Chris Hogan running down the seam on vertical routes, but neither guy warrants special attention on the perimeter.
"You have to put your hands on them," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "You have to harass them all over the field and make them work for their catches. If you sit back and play soft, they will wear you out on 'dink and dunk' routes."
When electing to play man coverage, the Falcons must have answers for the rub routes and pick plays the Patriots will use to free their receivers from harassment at the line. Defenders will need to play at different levels when multiple Patriots receivers are aligned in cluster or stacked formations to have better angles to cut off the crossing routes underneath picks. Falcons' defenders will also need to "hug up" (cling to the receiver) at the top of the routes to avoid being pushed off on option routes at the first-down marker on critical downs. Considering how well the Patriots sustain drives with key receptions on third downs, the Falcons' man coverage has to be flawless for the defense to get off the field when it matters most.
Despite the sticky coverage Atlanta can employ in the back end, the pass rush ultimately will decide the game. Brady operates with a surgeon's precision when he is allowed to throw from a clean pocket. He rarely misfires on short and intermediate tosses unless he is forced to move off his spot. That's why it's important for the Falcons to find a way to pressure Brady up the middle to force him to slide or roll to his right or left to get rid of the throw.
"It's always best to pressure non-athletic quarterbacks up the middle, because they see the rush and it quickens the clock in their heads," said a former long-time NFL defensive coordinator. "Most important, 'gut' pressure forces them off their spot and makes them throw from different launch points."
Brady is a 39-year-old quarterback with limited athleticism. Constant harassment and the occasional battering can throw him off his game a little.
"They (quarterbacks) all change when they get hit," said the AFC defensive coordinator. "Pressure can make even the great ones wilt. It's hard to get to him (Brady), but if you do, you can definitely throw off his rhythm. You have to make him feel you to have any chance of slowing them down."
Having studied the All-22 Coaches Film, I think the Falcons would be wise to attack the Patriots' interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. These three struggled mightily against Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilusin the AFC Divisional Round on isolated pressures up the gut (as you can see in the video below), and the Falcons have personnel that can be used in a similar capacity:
Vic Beasley is athletic enough to attack from various starting points, and he has enough complementary pieces (Ra'Shede Hageman, Jonathan Babineaux, Dwight Freeney and Brooks Reed) around him to generate pressure on a variety of stunts, games or exotic-pressure fronts. If the Falcons can win on early downs with man coverage and solid run defense, the pass rush should be able to tee off on Brady on favorable downs.
5) The Falcons must avoid the critical error in the kicking game.
The kicking game is rarely discussed leading up to big games, but it is frequently the deciding factor in matchups between great teams. The Patriots have consistently found ways to steal points in the kicking game since Belichick's arrival in 2000. Whether via a critical block or a well-designed punt or kick return, the Patriots have a knack for generating an explosive play on special teams.
Consider the 98-yard kick return by Dion Lewis that changed the momentum of the win over the Texans in the Divisional Round. In other games, it's been a timely strip of a punt or kickoff return that has set the offense up in the scoring zone. Thus, the Falcons need to be on high alert when taking the field on a kicking-game play.
Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong will preach ball security to his returners and stress the importance of maintaining possession whenever the ball is in their hands. Not to mention, he will urge his return units to pay close attention to Matthew Slater, to keep the perennial Pro Bowl selectee from making a big play in coverage. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Falcons use a double-team or set a trap on Slater to minimize his impact on the game.
If I had to point to one area of concern, I would cite the Falcons' fake-punt defense. The Kansas City Chiefs had success on a fake from midfield in Week 13 (see: Albert Wilson's TD), and the Patriots surely will examine Atlanta's return unit to see if there is a weak link in the group. In addition, the success of that play could encourage New England to look for other areas to steal field position or points on a trick or gadget play in the kicking game.