We are days away from Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. Everyone acknowledges that this will be an offensive game and it may come down to which defense can make just enough plays to win the game.
Tom Brady and the New England offense is as efficient as any the Falcons have faced this season, and will present the biggest hurdle for this young defense. They’ve surprised us the last two postseason games—can they do it again? Let’s take a look at the matchups and find out.
In the trenches
This game presents a unique challenge for the Atlanta defensive line for a number of reasons, but the primary challenge is in the speed with which Brady can get rid of the ball. The Falcons defensive line could fly off the line of scrimmage, shed blocks, and still arrive a split second too late to impact Brady. However, there are some weak spots the Falcons can try to exploit.
Like we’ve seen a number of teams, including the Houston Texans, do is attack the interior of the New England offensive front: David Andrews and Joe Thuney are the most suspect when it comes to consistent play along the offensive line. However, the three remaining members of that unit have been very good this season and should be able to stand their ground against the Falcons defensive front.
Assuming the Falcons continue to use twists, stunts, and blitzes to create confusion and capitalize on the athleticism they have on defense, Atlanta will have its chances to make plays along the line of scrimmage in this game. If the Falcons can get Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Dwight Freeney into some space, they can disrupt Brady, at least. Also, don’t sleep on Ra’Shede Hageman in this game.
In terms of the running game, I would expect the Falcons to hold their own and limit the success the Patriots and Dion Lewis (or Legarrette Blount) have on the ground. As a whole, I don’t think either unit is poised to dominate this game in the trenches, but I think the Patriots will be efficient enough to frustrate Atlanta up front through the solid play of Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder.
Advantage: New England Patriots
This is where things start to get a little more interesting. If we just look at the receivers that New England will put on the field and compare them to the defensive backs and linebackers the Falcons have, the Falcons would have the advantage in almost every category. However, once we throw in 1) the system in which those receivers play and 2) the guy throwing them the ball, that advantage quickly becomes a concern for a young, athletic defense.
The Patriot’s wide receivers are not simply products of a system and they aren’t scrubs that are made great by Tom Brady, but they also are not a group that really can take over a game if the defense stays somewhat disciplined. Kevin Hogan, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola all have the capability to make plays after the catch. Martellus Bennett is no Gronk but he is a great target for Brady in the middle of the field and has been playing very well this season for New England.
In light of that, the speed of Atlanta’s young secondary is going to be a huge factor in this game. If Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and the Falcons corners can make tackles in space and limit big plays, they will be in a great spot to force turnovers or get some stops. I think it will be tough to shut down the Patriots’ wide receivers but if the Falcons can simply limit their ability to generate chunk plays, it may be just enough. Keanu Neal will play a large role in limiting Bennett’s production and I think that may be one of the tighter matchups in this game.
Atlanta’s defense has been playing very well lately against some pretty stiff competition. The Patriots, however, are much more capable of frustrating this Atlanta defense in a way we haven’t seen since the game against Kansas City. Dan Quinn and Richard Smith will have a great gameplan to try and minimize success for Tom Brady, but it will be nearly impossible to completely shut them down.
I expect Atlanta’s defense to play better than a lot of people do, but I am not under any illusions that they will shut down the Patriots offense. If Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and the rest of the Falcons defenders can limit the amount of big plays and perhaps create some big plays of their own, they will put their team in a great spot to win the game. With the entire game in mind, though, the Falcons defense will allow some points and struggle with this New England attack—let’s just hope they don’t struggle too much.