At the conclusion of the NFC Championship game, the Atlanta Falcons stood victorious, having defeated NFC powerhouses the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers in consecutive weeks by decisive margins. Carried by a feisty defense and by far the NFL’s best offense, led by its MVP-caliber quarterback, Matt Ryan, the Falcons final challenge will take place at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas to face the AFC champion New England Patriots for the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl LI.
At first glance, things might look perilous for the Falcons. In terms of pedigree, Matt Ryan’s postseason resume doesn’t come close to Tom Brady’s, nor does Dan Quinn’s to Bill Belichick’s. In practice, it’s a far closer match-up. While the Falcons have the better offense, the Patriots are no slouches, and defensively, the Patriots are the better unit. The Falcons finished 11-5. The Patriots finished 14-2. During the regular season, both teams played the NFC West. Both beat the Cardinals, the 49ers and the Rams. Both lost to the Seahawks. What lies ahead is most likely a close championship game, perhaps decided by one careless turnover or one bonehead play, yet the Falcons have the firepower to get the lead and keep the lead.
Here’s how they can do it.
This Offense Is Lethal At All Three Levels
Being a Seahawks fan, I was fortunate (or unfortunate, however you want to look at it) to see the Falcons play the Seahawks twice and write about both games. I wrote a special report on the Kansas City Chiefs when the Chiefs played the Falcons. Also, my bye-week scouting report looked at the Falcons, so in one way or another, I’ve seen quite a few Falcons games this year. What I’ve seen is truly frightening.
Most teams suffer an exploitable imbalance. An offense relies too much on running the ball and gets in trouble when they fall behind (Dallas Cowboys). Or an offense relies too much on passing the ball and can’t get four easy ground yards to save their season (Green Bay Packers). And no team, no coaching staff, no set of players is better at exposing flaws than Bill Belichick and his Patriots…except for one issue. The Falcons have no weaknesses.
The Falcons Have Two Legitimate Deep Threats, But That’s Not How They Hurt Teams Don’t sleep on the Patriots DBs. They’re a mean unit, but it’s tough to imagine a secondary capable of handling Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu repeatedly attacking upfield, especially since those guys come off their routes so often. As the Packers discovered, the Falcons burn defenses with route running, not athleticism.
It’s 2nd and eight with the Falcons backed up to their own 27-yard line. On the top side of the field is Sanu (12) with Jones (11) in the slot. The Packers are playing press coverage on both, with only one high safety, leaving the Pack with little backdoor protection. In place of covering the field, the Packers intend to compress the time quarterback Matt Ryan (2) has to throw by sending a blitz from linebacker Joe Thomas (48). This plan falls apart when the pass rush falls short. Forced to respect the fake exchange between Ryan and Devonta Freeman (24), neither defensive end Julius Peppers (56) or linebacker Clay Matthews (52) work their way inside while Thomas never reaches the backfield. The result is Ryan standing stoically in the pocket, calmly making his read on Jones.
Meanwhile, Jones has used some fancy footwork and brute strength to get open. At the snap, Jones cuts inside quickly to prevent cornerback LaDarius Gunter (36) from establishing a solid jam on him. By the time Gunter adjusts, Jones is already crossing him over. Gunter spins around, so not to lose Julio but instead finds Julio changing direction yet again. As Gunter grabs hold of Jones, he almost resembles a trailer hitched to the powerful Jones and is now sliding wildly along the highway. Jones makes the catch and turns upfield with only one possible defender left to beat, the deep safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (18), who was lined up on the bottom side of field, runs a route that obstructs Clinton-Dix but does not interfere with him. Jones takes it to the house.
If You Manage To Stop Jones and Sanu, Ryan Will Attack The Underneath Let’s assume an opponent gets the right call in on the Falcons. Coverage-wise, they account for all the major routes, and they generate enough pressure to force Ryan to throw or be sacked, well, turns out the Falcons will probably still burn that defense for a major gain. What Ryan is doing with pressure in his face is incredible, delivering accurate passes to Freeman, Tevin Coleman or Patrick DiMarco before getting decked.
On this play, linebacker Thomas Davis (58) sneaks his way into the backfield on the backside of center Alex Mack (51) when Mack goes to double team defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (98). As Davis crosses into the backfield, he runs alongside fullback DiMarco (42). Here’s where it gets weird. In most systems, DiMarco is supposed to pass protect, picking up Thomas. Instead, DiMarco escapes past linebacker Luke Kuechly (59), who only chips DiMarco but stays home to spy on Ryan. With Davis barreling down on Ryan, Ryan must be must be thinking about throwing the ball away, right? Nope. He manages to locate DiMarco and fires off a pass with no forward step and a compressed motion that still has juice on it. With no available linebacker to cover DiMarco, he runs for a big gain.
Against the Seahawks, Ryan was able to replicate his success.
The Hawks intend to send a double linebacker blitz with Bobby Wagner (54) and KJ Wright (50). To do so, the defense will require defensive end Cliff Avril (56) to become a coverage defender. While it may sound strange to sacrifice Avril, the Seahawks’ best pass rusher, the intent of this particular blitz is as much about confusion as it is athleticism. The Falcons offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, but even the best will struggle when they do not have time to figure out their assignments. Ryan makes life easier for the Seahawks by waiting to snap the ball until only one second remains on the play clock, allowing Wager and Wright to time their blitzes perfectly. Center Alex Mack (51) takes out Wagner, but the line never has time to communicate on how to handle Wright. Left guard Andy Levitre (67) is in a no-win situation, with Wright attacking his inside shoulder and defensive end Frank Clark (55) attacking his outside shoulder. Clark ends up running past Levitre.
This play should be over. Except Ryan is not fooled. Ryan adjusts to the blitz by never coming out of his drop. He keeps backpedaling until he finds a small throwing window to Freeman.
So you cover the wide receivers, you get pressure on Ryan, you get a linebacker to cover the underneath route, you’ve won the game, right?
The Falcons can run off-tackle, power football. The key block here is offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder (73) on defensive end Justin Houston (50). While Houston is not exactly the world’s greatest run defender, he’s no slouch. Getting Houston (or other defensive ends) to take that extra step backward, which springs Freeman, is a critical component to the Falcons’ desire to break defenses. Opponents are put in a difficult place because they need to keep their speedier guys in to protect against the pass, maybe even sacrifice a linebacker for a third cornerback, but doing so comes at a cost. This offensive line will hammer the ball forward.
Why It Must Be Now
For the Atlanta Falcons, there can be no tomorrow and no next season. If not only for their desire to win the Super Bowl, but for the torrid history of their franchise and their division. The Falcons are entering the sweet spot in a four-year rebuild that took them from four regular season wins in 2013 to 11 regular season wins in 2016. It feels like the team is trending up and will continue to do so but the NFC South is rarely so simple. In this division, having two back-to-back elite seasons is a rare luxury, with the greatest example of inconsistency being the Carolina Panthers, who’ve somehow managed to turn in records of 12-4, 7-8-1, 15-1, and 6-10 over the last four seasons.
In the South, when it’s your year, you better win the Super Bowl.
As a Seahawks fan, I can attest to the shortness of the championship window. The Seahawks could’ve won the Super Bowl in 2012 had they completed the comeback against the Falcons. In 2013, they did manage to win it. In 2014, they made it back but lost to the Patriots. In 2015, Marshawn Lynch hit a wall and his body quit on him. In 2016, the injuries started, with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett missing significant time.
One day, you’re slaying the entire league. The next, you’re looking at the roster and going, “Wait, he’s been in the league for seven years?” and, “Wait, he’s twenty-nine years old?” A lot is made of losses in free agency, but a surprising amount of names stay the same, yet it doesn’t feel like the same team. Kam Chancellor used to play sixteen game seasons. Now, he plays 12-13 game seasons, and those missed games were all close games and, in my opinion, cost the Seahawks at least three wins. And those three wins paired with just one other x-factor could’ve swung the Hawks into a playoff bye-week for the 2015 and 16 playoffs.
Lastly, the Falcons are the better overall team.
Even though the Patriots have incredible defensive backs, the AFC didn’t test them like the Falcons’ receivers will. Even though the Patriots have great linebackers, the AFC didn’t test them like the dual-headed monster of Freeman and Coleman will. And even though the Patriots defensive line is good at run-stuffing, they don’t have that signature pass rusher—the Michael Bennett, the JJ Watt, the Von Miller—who can single-handily blow-up the Falcons’ offensive line, force mismatches, sow confusion and ultimately put Ryan on the ground. Ryan will get time in the pocket. He will get the opportunity to go through his reads. Nothing should be able to stop the Atlanta Falcons from dropping thirty on the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Can The Defense Do Enough To Keep The Patriots At Bay?
Tom Brady will never be a bad quarterback. But, if you can get hands on him, if you can push him around and knock him down, his level of play does go down a notch or two. The issue is that, with how fast Brady gets the ball out of his hands, it’s almost impossible to scheme a defense into defeating Brady. What a team needs to stump Brady is a defensive end/tackle hybrid-lunatic, the likes of which I just listed (Michael Bennett, JJ Watt, etc), who can not only hit Brady, but disrupt the pocket. Even at 6’4″, Brady needs to be able to see the field, and if he sees a receiver he wants to hit, he needs to have a throwing lane. Just creating an ever-loving mess in the pocket aids the Falcons because Brady may not be able to hit his first read cleanly.
Do the Falcons have that player? In my watching, no, they do not. And that will undoubtedly hurt them.
Two areas cause me the greatest concern.
Vic Beasley A lot has been made of Beasley and his explosive sophomore season. This previously soft Falcons’ defense needed a spark, and Beasley becoming the NFL’s sack leader certainly registers more like an explosion. That said, the Falcons scheme and usage of Beasley will give Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels some wiggle room. Hard as it is to believe given Beasley’s stats, Beasley only plays 60% of the snaps in the Falcons’ system, as he is frequently the linebacker who gets substituted out for a cornerback when the Falcons play nickel. Without a doubt, the Patriots will try to put the Falcons in their nickel defense as often as possible and keep Beasley watching the game from the sidelines.
The Falcons’ defense must find a way to prevent the Patriots from forcing them out of their base defense with Beasley as a hand-down pass rusher.
Not Surprisingly, Dan Quinn’s Defense Looks Like The Seahawks’ Defense The Falcons play a lot of single-high safety, or they play two safeties deep but cheat one down, which is what the Seahawks do.
The goal is to jam receivers at the line and disrupt routes, but it is also vital that defensive players prevent their man from getting behind them, or they risk giving up a touchdown. Ideally, disrupting routes and keeping receivers in front of a defender forces opposing offenses to convert several first downs before entering scoring range, meaning the defense gets plenty of opportunities to create a negative play and put the opposing offense in a 2nd or 3rd and long situation.
The Falcons don’t place such a high premium on jamming at the line of scrimmage as the Seahawks. Perhaps the coaching staff doesn’t feel its defensive backs can handle the responsibility, but the way these DBs back off press coverage plays into the Patriots’ offense, an offense that likes to run a lot of crossing routes to create confusion.
In this example, the defensive backs show press, but they dump out of it at the last second. By the time wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (15) comes out of his break, his defender, Jalen Collins (32), is so far downfield he’s beyond the first down marker, meaning contesting this catch is an impossibility.
This kind of soft coverage is how Patriots’ wide receiver Julian Edelman gets many of his yards-after-the-catch.
Play To Your Strengths
The Atlanta Falcons are a team who wants to set a pace with its offense and manage the game with its defense. For the entirety of 2016, the plan has worked. If the Falcons can get a lead, any lead, on New England and get into their game plan, they can force a shoot-out that the Patriots may not be able to outpace.
Hang onto your hats. Super Bowl LI could go down to who has the ball on the game’s final drive.