In what will be the last match up of the 2016-17 season, the Falcons offense may be facing one of it’s hardest tests in months, going up against the Patriots top-scoring defense. Much has been made of this clash, but as we all know, football is about match ups - not rankings. So how do these two units match up? Let’s take a look below.
* All assessments are based on PFF 2016 scores for consistency
In the trenches
Over the 16 game regular season, the Falcons offensive line graded out as one of the top units in the league. Spear-headed by All-Pro center Alex Mack, this unit excelled in run blocking while also giving QB Matt Ryan time to operate in the pocket. It’s not a perfect unit, with Chris Chester being the weakest link this year, but it’s a highly effective one overall. Jake Matthews is a good run blocker, but can struggle against the power rush, while Ryan Schraeder has proven to be one of the best right tackles in the league. Left guard Andy Levitre has had a very good season and is one of our best pass blockers. This is also a battle-tested unit, having faced some of the best pass rushers in the league throughout the year.
The Patriots will use quite a few players to try and disrupt this Falcons offensive line. Chris Long is a “name” but is not as effective as he used to be, while Jabaal Sheard is a well rounded defensive end who doesn’t particularly excel at any one thing. Defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch are a good pair that can cause issues in the middle, and are very productive at stopping the run. In nickel sets, Trey Flowers can be disruptive coming off the edge, while Rob Ninkovich is not the player he once was. Vincent Valentine has tons of potential at tackle, but is not yet delivering on it. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is a legit top-10 linebacker that is solid in run defense, but very good in pass defense. Shea McClellin is nowhere near that level. He’s not particularly good at run stopping and is average at best in coverage. Along those same lines, Kyle Van Noy is also poor against the run and only average in pass coverage.
As you can see, the Patriots defensive front offers more than their linebackers once you get past Hightower. This is a defensive front that legitimately does well against the run, but struggles to continually generate pressure against the QB. Against this top-notch Falcons offensive line, I don’t expect that to change dramatically. This is a mostly good defensive front for the Patriots, but the few holes they have give Atlanta the advantage here.
The skill positions
The Falcons are led by MVP front-runner Matt Ryan at QB, who is playing his best football in the postseason. All-world receiver Julio Jones is unstoppable, even on one healthy foot. Mohamed Sanu has gotten better as the season has progressed, becoming a reliable option over the middle. Taylor Gabriel has become the team’s WR3 and is as fast as they come. Guys like Aldrick Robinson and Justin Hardy offer great quality as receivers further down the depth chart. Simply said, this is one of the deepest and best WR classes we’ve ever had for the Falcons. Tight end is not a position of strength, with Levine Toilolo being a better blocker than receiver and Austin Hooper being a rookie. However, running back is also a considerable strength, with 2x Pro-Bowler Devonta Freeman being a shifty runner who has great hands and Tevin Coleman being a home-run threat who also excels in the passing game. There is no unit in the NFL as deep and as explosive as this one, and it’s nearly impossible to stop.
Make no mistake: the Patriots have a good secondary. Malcolm Butler has turned into a top corner in the league while Logan Ryan has developed into a quality CB2 as well. In nickel sets, Eric Rowe has stepped in and played well in spots, but is the weak link of these three corners. Safety Devin McCourty is very good, excelling in both coverage and against the run, while Patrick Chung is quite possibly the opposite. Duron Harmon is a better safety option than Chung, proving to be about average against the run and the pass.
Bluntly, while this Patriots secondary has several good players, they have enough holes for the Falcons to take advantage. The sheer depth of talent that the Falcons have can overwhelm even the best defensive secondaries, much less one that has holes at both linebacker and safety. This offensive unit has faced more formidable defensive units this year and played well, and I believe the same will be true on Sunday.
Forget the statistics. Forget the points-per-game and other metrics being thrown about. On pure match ups, the Falcons feature a nearly unstoppable unit that can run the ball and stretch the field vertically and horizontally. They have speed across the board and are bolstered by a good offensive line and an MVP quarterback. No disrespect to the Patriots, but as good as their defense is, it’s still not capable of shutting down this Falcons offense. No surprise here, no matter what the simple stats may say.