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 New England's most recent games, I've come up with the following five keys to a potential Patriots victory:
1) Lean on LeGarrette Blount and the ground game.
Despite all the pregame chatter and anticipation of a high-scoring shootout in Houston, the Patriots would be wise to play this game at a snail's pace. Sure, we've seen Tom Brady carve up defenses with surgical precision throughout this season, but the Falcons' biggest vulnerability could be their suspect defense.
The NFL's 25th-ranked defense surrendered 104.5 rushing yards per game during the regular season and struggled against teams committed to playing power football. Granted, the league has fewer teams that lean on the run these days, but the Falcons' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 10 might've exposed the unit's fatal flaw. In a 24-15 win, the Eagles rushed for 208 yards with Ryan Mathews topping the century mark (109 yards) on 19 carries and Wendell Smallwood adding 70 yards on 13 attempts. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I was surprised at how effective the Eagles were running the ball -- between the tackles, as well as on the edges -- from run-heavy and spread sets. Mathews, in particularly, gashed the Falcons' defense on an assortment of runs.
"We made it a point to grind it out a little bit," an Eagles offensive coach told me. "We wanted to run the ball early and often to wear them down and to keep their offense on the sidelines. They are so explosive that you want to limit their opportunities on offense."
With that in mind, the Patriots should prominently feature their power-based running game. As New England's designated RB1 in one- or two-back formations, LeGarrette Blount should shoulder the bulk of the workload on a host of powers and counters directed between the tackles. Although uprooting Falcons DT Grady Jarrett in the middle certainly will be a challenge, the Pats could use double-teams to spring Blount into the second level, where his combination of size and strength could overwhelm the Falcons' linebackers. Remember this run from Championship Sunday?
Remember, Blount finished the regular season with 1,161 rushing yards and led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns, thanks to his "bull in a china shop" running style. Against a set of fast but undersized Atlanta LBs, the Patriots should test their collective courage and toughness by running right at them early and often.
If the Falcons hold up against New England's power-based run game, the team could give the ball to Dion Lewis from a variety of spread formations to attack the Dirty Birds' nickel package. The diminutive runner has been extremely productive for the Patriots whenever he has been featured in the backfield. Lewis is a threat to score from anywhere on the field and his versatility as a runner/receiver puts defenders on notice whenever he steps on the field.
It is well known in league circles that the Pats rely on a snowflake approach to game planning. Basically, they change their offensive philosophy each week, based on the opponent's strengths or weaknesses, to give their offense the best chance to control the game. Considering how the Falcons fared against the run in their losses, the Patriots would be wise to commit to ground-and-pound on Super Bowl Sunday.
2) Continue riding Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan in the aerial attack.
The Patriots might be the only team in the league that can run roughshod over elite competition without a true WR1 on the field. While that statement might rankle Patriots Nation -- based on Julian Edelman's success as a slot machine in the team's scheme -- the football world views the team's WR corps as a blue-collar unit compiled of "system" guys ideally suited to play in a unique catch-and-run scheme.
Despite that perception, New England's perimeter playmakers are tough to defend in isolated matchups, particularly for "handsy" defenders with a penchant for drawing illegal contact or holding penalties. The deep collection of jitterbugs is adept at getting away from tight coverage using quickness or picks early in routes. Studying the All-22 tape, Pats pass catchers routinely shake free on crossing routes and option routes inside the numbers. The slippery route runners excel at using stair-step releases (pushing upfield a step or two before getting into the route), jerk moves and push-off maneuvers to break away from defenders in tight coverage. This is particularly important against a Falcons defense that will play a lot of man coverage to complement a traditional Cover 3 zone.
That's why I would expect to see the Patriots lean on their quick-rhythm passing game. From simple concepts like slant-flat combinations to various stick routes, New England can employ a quick-rhythm passing game to attack the vulnerable areas of Atlanta's zone concepts. Edelman has a terrific feel for finding voids in coverage. He sits down quickly between defenders and boasts dynamic running skills with the ball in his hands. Against man coverage, the veteran uses his crafty route-running skills to throw defenders off with stutter-step and wiggle moves at the top of his routes. Edelman routinely scoots away from coverage to pick up critical first downs in key situations.
With the Falcons likely to play a lot of man coverage on the perimeter, the Patriots should create big-play opportunities for Edelman by isolating him against a defender on the back side of a formation. In Week 10 against Seattle, the Patriots positioned Edelman at "X" on the opposite of a trips set in the play clip just below. As you can see, he runs a fade down the boundary against DeShawn Shead to register a big play:
Although he isn't necessarily a blazer, Edelman flashes enough quickness and acceleration to win on vertical routes.
Over the last 10 games, Edelman has averaged 7.3 receptions on 12 targets as the Patriots' WR1. Most impressively, he has averaged 100.9 receiving yards in that span -- tops in the NFL, just ahead of Julio Jones at 99.6. If that's not enough, Edelman has averaged 103.4 receiving yards in his last five playoff appearances. Simply put: The Patriots would be wise to feed this man the football.
Hogan has emerged the Patriots' most explosive weapon during this postseason. The ex-lacrosse star has added some juice to the passing game with his speed and acceleration. Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Hogan is capable of running away from defenders down the seams or along the boundary on vertical routes. As a powerful runner with the ball in his hands, he is also dangerous on crossing routes between the numbers -- as you can see in this play from the AFC title bout:
In the playoffs, Brady has leaned on Hogan to exploit favorable matchups on the perimeter. After averaging only 45.3 receiving yards per game during the regular season, he has exploded for 275 yards in two postseason outings. Most importantly, he has given Brady another option to target in critical moments. Edelman and Hogan have accounted for 79 percent of the Patriots' receiving yards in the playoffs, and I don't expect the AFC champions to deviate from their approach in the Super Bowl.
3) Keep the ball in front of the defense.
The Falcons come into Super Bowl LI as one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. They led the NFL in scoring during the regular season (33.8 ppg) relying on a sexy, big-play approach that's reminiscent of the Golden State Warriors' reliance on long-range bombing in the NBA.
Fueled by Matt Ryan's spectacular play from the pocket, the Falcons led the league with 120 big plays (runs of 10-plus yards + passes of 20-plus yards) and averaged a franchise-record 415.8 yards per game. Atlanta was the only team in the league this season to rank top five in both passing (No. 3) and rushing (No. 5). And with Ryan operating at an absurly efficient rate (69.9 completion percentage and 117.1 passer rating) while averaging a whopping 9.3 yards per attempt, the Falcons love to push the envelope with their high-powered offense.
New England must take away the Falcons' "shot" plays to prevent easy scores. While this is always the premise of a Bill Belichick team, Atlanta's diverse offense will challenge the Patriots at every turn. In the passing game, the Pats must fully concentrate on containing Julio Jones. He is a handful for any corner on the perimeter and he requires special attention in the game plan (as I cover in the next section).
The secondary also should pay close attention to Taylor Gabriel whenever he is in the game. The diminutive playmaker averaged 16.5 yards per catch during the regular season and scored six times as the Falcons' designated deep-ball threat. He is an exceptional vertical route runner, particularly on post routes from bunch or slot formations. In addition, Gabriel is a dangerous catch-and-run guy capable of taking it the distance on a quick screen to the perimeter. To keep Gabriel in check, the Patriots must find him in every formation and put their hands on him at the line. Sure, he is a speedster with exceptional burst and acceleration, but he only weighs 165 pounds and constant harassment will knock him off his stride.
Additionally, the Patriots will need to come up with a plan for dealing with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Falcons' electric RBs are not only dangerous runners but they are polished receivers with outstanding route-running skills. Kyle Shanahan certainly will tap into their versatility to create mismatches in the passing game against one of the Patriots' lumbering linebackers. To combat this tactic, I would suggest New England finds a way to keep more defensive backs on the field in key moments. Utilizing their nickel or dime defense would ensure that a safety or corner matches up with the backs when they are positioned out wide in an empty or spread set.
"It's a passing league," a former NFL defensive coordinator said to me. "You can live with a team getting 100 to 120 rushing yards, but you can't give up the big plays in the passing game. I'm sure that's how the Patriots will approach this game."
In the end, this game will come down to whether the Patriots are able to force Atlanta to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. If they can eliminate the home-run plays and force the Dirty Birds to rely on singles and doubles, the Pats can keep the score down and give their offense a chance to win it.
4) Double-team Julio Jones at all costs.
Belichick is not afraid to pull out all of the stops to take away an opponent's top weapon, particularly in the passing game. He has used a variety of brackets and double-teams to slow down WR1s in the past, but he will need to come up with a special recipe to contain one of the most dynamic playmakers in the game. Sure, the same kind of stuff could've been said of Antonio Brown prior to the AFC Championship Game, but Julio Jones presents a different set of problems with his rare combination of size, speed and strength on the perimeter.
The 6-3, 220-pound pass catcher overpowers defenders with his sheer strength and physicality, yet he also displays enough wiggle and stop-start quickness to run away from hitters in space. With the Falcons intent on featuring Jones prominently in each and every game plan, it is not a surprise that was the NFL's leader in receiving yards per game as the only pass catcher to average 100-plus yards (100.6, to be exact).
Considering how the Patriots have effectively neutralized top WR1s in previous encounters, I would expect see plenty of "2-Man" (two-deep, man under) and hybrid forms of man-trail coverage with a safety directly over the top of the perennial Pro Bowl receiver. Against the Steelers, the Patriots routinely instructed the safety to lean towards Brown's side while Malcolm Butler shadowed his every move to prevent Ben Roethlisberger from feeding his No. 1 weapon.
The Patriots also used some Cover 1-Rat (man coverage with a linebacker or safety sitting in the low hole between the hashes) to neutralize Brown on any crossers or in-breaking routes. This is one of their common tactics for dealing with most passing games, but the "Rat" pays close attention to the WR1 when the Pats are making a concerted effort to minimize his impact.
Looking at the potential matchup with Jones, I believe Logan Ryan could draw the assignment, to allow their CB1 (Butler) to nullify Mohamed Sanu on the opposite side. Although Ryan is not quite the player that Butler has become, he is a feisty competitor willing to challenge receivers at the line. That competitiveness will come in handy as the Patriots instruct their CB2 to battle Jones with a safety routinely playing over the top.
In addition to the schematic tweaks that the Patriots will make for Jones, I would expect Ryan (or whoever is assigned to Jones) to attempt to make it a fist fight on the perimeter. Although Jones enjoys size and strength advantages over most defenders, you have to put your hands on him and make him work throughout the down. The constant harassment could disrupt his timing with the quarterback and frustrate him over the course of the game. This is the kind of treatment the Patriots used against "The Greatest Show on Turf" and their dynamic playmakers in Super Bowl XXXVI. I would expect them to break it out again this Super Sunday.
5) The Patriots must win the special teams battle.
The kicking game is rarely discussed prior to big games, but the Patriots have dominated the NFL this millennium thanks in part to their ability to routinely steal points with special teams. While most would assume that means using an onside kick or a fake punt, I'm pointing to the field-position battle -- winning the ping-pong game leads to points for the Patriots.
Studying the Patriots' special teams play from the regular season and playoffs, I've been impressed with the way they are able to steal yardage on kick exchanges. Whether it's Ryan Allen pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line with pinpoint coffin corner kicks or the coverage team knocking the ball loose on a kickoff, the Patriots routinely have set up their offensive and defensive units in prime position to create scoring opportunities.
Although he lacks a sparkling résumé in the return game, Lewis' big-play potential could be a game changer for the Patriots.
Looking at the Falcons' special teams, there are some flaws. The Falcons allowed a 55-yard touchdown on a fake punt by the Kansas City Chiefs. In addition, Devin Hester gave Atlanta a lot of trouble in the Divisional Round. With those holes showing up on tape, the Patriots should spend a little more time devising a strategy to exploit those units on Sunday.
In a game that could come down to the final possession, the Patriots could get an edge by winning the special teams battle.