I’ve never played in a Super Bowl but I can imagine the feeling of the players right now. It’s been two weeks of intense focus and preparation, with media obligations mixed in. Family and friends are in town, taking some of your free time away. The players are ready for the game. I’m ready for the game.
Here’s how I think the game goes down.
There are some general game plan ideas each team will use. They will both try shortening the game by running the ball, limiting the offensive opportunities for each high power offense. Both teams have a small margin of error. Along the same lines of limiting opportunities, turnovers will be huge. Giving the ball back to the other team, and even worse, in your own territory, is a recipe for disaster.
Atlanta’s outside zone and the Patriots’ five-man front
My favorite matchup of the game isn’t a player vs. player matchup. It’s Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan vs. the Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia (and Bill Belichick). Belichick is a genius. I’ve discussed before how he morphs his defense each week to fit the game plan. How they decide to stop the Falcons’ explosive offense will be intriguing.
The Falcons run a heavy outside zone run scheme. I discussed it earlier in the week. In an outside zone scheme, each lineman takes a first step in the direction of the run. Then, they try to widen the front side of the run and cut the backside, so the running back can either run outside the widest player or cut back and burst up the field.
You stop outside zone with edge pressure, forcing the running back into the middle of the defense. The Falcons prefer not to double team, so the guards can get on the linebackers fast. In base personnel, The Patriots will run a five-man front, with wide defensive ends. These ends will force the runs backside. When you have a five-man front, it forces the backside lineman to double team, a scoop block, to the linebacker. This leaves the backside defensive end open to chase down the run.
Like I wrote in my previous piece, the Falcons can slide back the tight end to cut down that defensive end, but that leaves them a man short on the front side.
Two ways the Falcons get the Patriots out of this. They can stay in 11 personnel, forcing the Pats to play nickel, where a five-down front isn’t common. It’s the second option that the Falcons will use to attack the Patriots
The Patriots love to double the No. 1 wide receiver, which is Julio Jones. They double him with their second corner, Logan Ryan, and a safety over the top. They use their top corner, Malcolm Butler, to match up against the Falcon’s No. 2 receiver, Mohamed Sanu. When you’re using a safety to help so much on a wide receiver, that player can’t help in the run game. That’s why the Patriots use a five-man front so much, to help stop the run.
This is where the Patriots are vulnerable. When the Patriots are doubling a receiver, it leaves a linebacker to cover the running back. The Falcons’ running backs are excellent pass catchers and a huge part of the pass game. I’d expect Kyle Shanahan to exploit this ... often.
The Falcons’ first 15 plays will be scripted to see how the Patriots will matchup to their backs. They will motion the backs out often, start the back on the edge and motion him back in, just to get reads on man coverage. I’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots check to a zone coverage if the Falcons go empty. If the Patriots are playing tons of zone coverage, the Falcons can run the ball. This matchup will be one to watch.
Quick throws and power runs
I see no way for the Falcons stop the Patriots’ offense. The Falcons’ young defense has improved as the season has gone along. They can play fast and confident knowing that if they make a mistake, the offense can make them right.
When Tom Brady has struggled in Super Bowl games, it’s because he’s getting battered by the opposing defenses. Look at their divisional game against the Texans. Brady got knocked around. He looked uncomfortable.
But, the pressure applied to Brady has to come from the middle. He throws the ball quick enough to not be affected by pressure from the edge. The Falcons don’t have the interior defensive players to continuously apply that pressure. They have to scheme some stunts and twists. Brady will see that coming and get the ball out to his offensive playmakers in space, against a young secondary with fewer players in the back to make the tackle.
If the Falcons decide to play a cover two look to limit Brady’s passing attack, the Patriots are well equipped to pound the rock. Unlike the Falcons’ zone schemes, the Patriots are a power run team. They like to run downhill with LeGarrette Blount and outside with Dion Lewis. I’d expect the Patriots to use Lewis early to run to the edges, get the defense running sideways, then run it up the middle with Blount. The Falcons aren’t stout up the middle, and the Patriots can exploit that.
The Patriots have been here before, and I trust them in this situation. Brady and Belichick are the best coaching/quarterback combo in NFL history.
I like the Patriots, 30-24, in this game.