Atlanta’s defense scares me. After thinking about it for the better part of 10 days, I simply can’t back the NFC Champs to complete the deal Super Bowl Sunday in Houston.
New England has been doing the same thing game after game year after year. It’s the system, and they plug different guys in to execute with the best QB the game has ever seen.
On first down, Tom Brady flips a short 4-yard pass, and the receiver takes it another 3 yards. Now it’s second and three. It’s basic, but it works. Couple that with Atlanta’s ranking of next to last in the NFL when it comes to playing defense on first down. That’s a bad combination.
The Falcons also rank 26th in the league in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) against receiving yards for running backs. They allowed a league-high 53.5 yards per game to running backs catching passes. James White and Dion Lewis are going to be a problem as Brady looks to throw their way.
The Patriots are going to get it into the Red Zone (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line). That’s an even bigger problem for the Falcons as they rank dead last in the NFL’s Red Zone defense. They give up points in droves (406 over 16 games) compared to New England allowing just 250 (lowest in the NFL).
Stopping Brady is difficult enough. What about when he is on a mission, mad at the commissioner and attempting to be the winningest QB in Super Bowl history? I can’t see Atlanta winning a shootout.
Let’s assume New England gets to 31 points on Sunday. The current betting line has the Patriots over/under at 30 1/2. Atlanta must somehow bring the offense that whipped Seattle in the first round of the playoffs then shredded an injured Green Bay defense in the NFC Championship Game.
It’s also fair to say the Falcons you’ve seen this postseason have been a little lucky. They deserved to win both their games, but they received some help in terms of fumble recoveries. Atlanta has recovered each of the five fumbles in its two games, which is essentially a gift. Evidence suggests fumble recovery rates are entirely random after accounting for where they occur on the field, and the best number to use as an estimate of each team’s expected recovery rate is 50 percent.
We’ve all heard plenty of talk regarding Bill Belichick’s reputation as a coach who shuts down the opposing team’s best weapon. I believe it’s more a case of limiting that weapon, not necessarily shutting him down. Thus the great Atlanta receiver Julio Jones will likely be slowed by a defense that regularly plays with five or even six defensive backs most plays. And New England is so good at disguising its coverage. Somebody will absolutely smack Jones in the mouth when he comes off the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots do an excellent job of communicating on defense and transitioning coverage responsibilities between defenders, which is extremely important when teams place emphasis on stacking receivers to try to create confusion and mismatches before and immediately after the snap.
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Jones ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash during his pre-draft workout with a ridiculous 6.66-second 3-cone drill, 38.5-inch vertical leap, 11-foot, 3-inch broad jump and 4.25-second short shuttle. An absolute freak of an athlete. But is he better than other great ones Belichick’s Patriots have faced over the years?
Here is a list of the first team All Pros or Hall of Fame receivers over 6-foot tall New England has faced since Belichick was hired in 2000.
Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Calvin Johnson, Roddy White, Herman Moore, Muhsin Muhammad, Chad Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Torry Holt, Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall and Josh Gordon. The Patriots have allowed an average of five catches, 68 yards and 0.4 touchdowns per game with a 56.6 percent catch rate to those 18 players who span 89 games. The Patriots are 66-23 in those matchups.
We know Atlanta featured the best offense in the NFL during the regular season. There are many weapons other than Jones.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman truly excelled in creating big plays, which will be a point of huge contention Sunday. The Falcons had seven runs of 30 yards or more this year; a figure topped only by the Buffalo Bills, who ran the ball 78 more times than Atlanta’s 421 attempts. The only problem is that the Patriots allowed just one run of 30 yards or more, and that was to David Johnson in the season opener.
The Falcons’ running game and whether it’s successful will dictate a lot of what the Patriots can do with their defense Sunday. In order to be successful, Atlanta must run the football.
New England allowed only 16 pass plays of 30 yards or more this season, the fifth-fewest in the league and an impressive figure, given that teams threw the seventh-most passes in the league against them. The Patriots probably can’t stop Matt Ryan altogether, but if they tackle after the catch, something they do very well, and force the Falcons to march down the field, they have a decent shot of coming up with stops and/or forcing them into field goals.
As for the head coaching matchup, Belichick has been at it for longer than three other NFL head coaches have been alive – four if one includes Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan a 37-year-old who soon will be named 49ers head coach. The average NFL head coach is 52. Belichick’s Super Bowl counterpart, Falcons coach Dan Quinn, was 5 when Belichick first paid his dues as an assistant in Baltimore.
Ivan Fears – who has been on Belichick’s staff during his entire New England tenure, spending the last 15 seasons as the running backs coach – laughed when asked whether anything had changed about the structure of his coach’s days since they started working together.
“No. No. No. You go in early, leave late. It’s still a lot of work. Just get the job done – whatever it takes, you get the job done,” said Fears. “When you’re at work, and you’ve got things to get done, you don’t worry about the time as much as you worry about getting it done. The guys are going to be in the next morning. You’ve got to get it done. You can’t say, ‘Guys, I got tired, went home, went to bed. And here we are starting an 8 o’clock meeting not ready to go.’ No.”
Meanwhile, the inventive 37-year-old Shanahan shaped an offense that set franchise records for scoring and yards this season, and as the Falcons opened the playoffs, the Rams, Jaguars, Broncos, and 49ers all were interested in interviewing him for their head-coaching positions.
I believe that to be a distraction in focusing on the task at hand.
Managing the interview processes and the playoff run has been a juggling act and a lesson in time management. He used the bye week before the divisional round to travel to Denver to visit with the Broncos. Last week, he met with the 49ers, who are expected to offer him their job once the season ends.
If you are going to knock off New England in any game let alone one as big as what is on tap, you can’t be worried about your next move.
No team in NFL history has been built on a platform of adaptability as much as New England. The roster is not loaded with stars, although there was an attempt to do that when pairing Rob Gronkowski/Martellus Bennett at tight end, but instead with quality role players. That not only allows for a fresh game plan each week based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent they are to face, but also brings the distinct advantage of the opponent not being able to game plan for the Pats with much precision.
Five of the Atlanta defensive starters are in their first or second season in the league, and that goes to six when they are in their nickel packages.
There is a problem with that, of course – Brady eats up young defenders via so many different dimensions of offensive football. It will be a major challenge for Quinn to not only have those players calm enough when the game begins, but to remain steady against the various formations and play concepts that will be thrown at them, with likely several things that they will not have seen on film.
Like much of America I would love to see the drama of a late 4th-quarter drive by Atlanta with a chance to win it. In reality, I simply can’t picture that. I’m afraid the fairy tale won’t have the happy ending.
I’ve got New England 34 Atlanta 23.