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A Closer Look: Pass protection breakdowns and coverage sacks in the Super Bowl

There are many reasons behind the Falcons’ collapse. The offensive line’s poor play hasn’t been mentioned enough.

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Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When a team collapses in the most agonizing way possible, one scapegoat will be identified. The coaching staff usually takes a large portion of the responsibility for a loss. Kyle Shanahan received massive criticism for only calling five running plays following Atlanta’s 28-3 lead. While the new San Francisco 49ers head coach should have called a slightly more balanced game, he isn’t the sole reason behind the Falcons’ debacle.

Allowing 31 unanswered points doesn’t come from poor play calling. Neither does gaining only nine yards on five carries during the latter part of the second half. Shanahan is being called out, yet other key elements to this game aren’t being assessed. Matt Ryan was sacked five times against an ordinary Patriots’ pass rush. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was pressured on 16 of his 28-drop backs. That is a ridiculous amount, considering how the Falcons only had the ball for 23 minutes.

The offensive line did suffer from multiple injuries. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack basically played on one leg. Ryan Schraeder tore a ligament in his right ankle. Since injuring his knee against Kansas City, Jake Matthews has struggled mightily. It was an unfortunate scenario, yet all three players managed to play for the majority of the game.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are seven notable plays, which includes every sack allowed. Jake Matthews’ holding penalty is included as well.

1st quarter: 3rd and 5 at 50

New England’s secondary didn’t shy away from Atlanta’s wide receivers. They were going to play press coverage and jam them at the line of scrimmage. It’s difficult for Ryan to find an open receiver. Julio Jones creates some separation, but it would have been a dangerous pass. Austin Hooper needs to show better awareness, when running a flat route. The rookie tight end can’t allow Kyle Van Noy to completely erase him from the play.

While their secondary clearly won the battle, the same can be said for New England’s front four. Matthews gets his hands on Trey Flowers and seems to have decent leverage. As both players engage, Flowers possesses a clear strength advantage. Look at how the versatile defensive lineman uses his hands to knock Matthews off balance. Rob Ninkovich puts both hands into Schraeder’s chest and produces a solid bull rush as well. Ryan is doomed from both angles. The Falcons’ eight game streak of scoring a touchdown on the first drive is over.

1st quarter: 3rd and 3 at ATL 38

Bill Belichick isn’t shy about dropping an extra lineman into coverage. They did that constantly against Pittsburgh to force Ben Roethlisberger into checking down. New England runs a similar concept and earns a coverage sack. To compensate for not having Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, the coaching staff trusts their secondary to remain organized and take out the opposing number one wide receiver. That gives the defensive line more time to hit the opposing quarterback.

They drop eight players into coverage and execute it perfectly, along with using two defenders to keep Ryan from reaching the first down marker with his legs. Mohamed Sanu should make himself more available rather than stand near the sidelines. New England’s secondary forced this into becoming a broken play. Make yourself noticeable rather than wave your hand for the ball, especially when Alan Branch is closing in.

3rd quarter: 2nd and 11 at NE 42

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure reported Schraeder tore a ligament in his right ankle during the second quarter. The reliable right tackle was going to struggle without being able to move properly and counter speed rushes. Jabaal Sheard swats his right hand and explodes right past him. A tactician like Schraeder rarely lunges and whiffs badly. It doesn’t help that his punch isn’t very effective against a powerful edge rusher.

Ryan shows excellent pocket presence to evade Sheard and look downfield. Unfortunately, he can’t recognize Hooper is open underneath. This is a six-yard gain at minimum with better protection. Schreader’s poor block forces Ryan to find Hooper late, which gives Patrick Chung a good angle to break up the pass. On second and long, any positive gain is valuable. This puts Ryan in a difficult situation against one of the top secondary units in the league.

3rd quarter: 3rd and 11 at NE 42

A well-timed blitz forces Ryan into taking another sack. They use Van Noy on a twist, which the offensive line doesn’t pick up. Chris Chester continues to block Dont’a Hightower rather than pick up the free rusher. The Patriots use a very unique package here. They don’t have any natural defensive tackles on the field. Flowers and Hightower line up on the interior, while Van Noy is lurking on the backside.

Not only is Van Noy getting a free shot on Ryan, but also other pass rushers are collapsing the pocket. Andy Levitre can’t hold up against Flowers’ sheer power. Sheard moves Schraeder backwards without much resistance. Schraeder is unable to plant his feet and gain any sort of leverage. Sanu and Gabriel may have been open, as some separation is noticeable between both wide receivers. The offensive line’s inability to hold up wastes the first of many opportunities to score on a likely game-clinching drive.

4th quarter: 3rd and 1 at ATL 36

There are so many aspects to this infamous play. The play call has been disputed for days, so let’s evaluate the actual play itself. Devonta Freeman clearly misses his assignment. For an intelligent player and improving pass blocker, it’s rare for a great player to make such a massive blunder. One narrative about this play (besides Shanahan’s decision) is Ryan would have found a wide-open Aldrick Robinson streaking downfield.

While the speedy wide receiver gets past Malcolm Butler, Freeman wasn’t the only player allowing pressure. Chris Long is overpowering Matthews on the other side. If Hightower gets picked up, Long probably ends up earning the sack. It’s highly unlikely Ryan finds Robinson, due to Matthews’ inability to keep an aging pass rusher from generating pressure. The only gripe about this play is Chung possibly holding Hooper past five yards. Unfortunately, nobody provided a closer angle to make a strong case about a potential holding penalty. Fox was understandably fixated on the game changing fumble.

4th quarter: 2nd and 11 at NE 23

Mack was blamed for the sack, but Ryan can avoid taking it. The franchise quarterback panics and loses his composure. After looking poised all season, he commits a costly mistake at the worst possible time. Ryan sees Hightower coming off the edge and essentially runs right into pressure. While Shanahan’s play calling is questioned again (and rightfully so based on the design), an offensive coordinator has every right to believe in his MVP quarterback against any opposing defense.

What makers worse is Jones is running a go route. As mentioned above, you want to pick up some positive yardage on second and long. Sending a superstar wide receiver downfield against double coverage isn’t putting your quarterback in the best situation. The pass protection holds up for the most part. Scrutinizing Mack for getting overpowered against New England’s best pass rusher is harsh. It’s remarkable that he played the entire game. This sack should be charged to Ryan and a low-percentage play design.

4th quarter: 3rd and 23 at NE 35
How Shanahan continues to get berated, yet Matthews barley gets mentioned is astounding. The former first round pick was called for two huge holding penalties in the second half. He held Hightower recklessly on a second and one, where Tevin Coleman wasn’t going to pick up any positive yardage. That forced them out of field goal range. After getting back into field goal range on a different drive, the Falcons suffer another setback from Matthews’ continued struggles against Long.

Some people questioned the call based on Long using a rip move. When a defensive lineman decides to utilize a rip technique, they rarely draw a holding penalty. If the offensive lineman is unsteady and makes the pass rusher lose their footing, a penalty will be called. Eric Fisher made the same mistake against James Harrison on a decisive two-point conversion. Matthews is rightfully penalized and forces the Falcons into an unnecessary situation. Sanu’s catch should have put the Falcons in an excellent position to win the game. An unacceptable penalty played a pivotal role in their heartbreaking downfall.