Super Bowl LI’s premier storyline seems to be centered around the battle about to take place between Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. Sure, it’s one of the most compelling quarterback matchups in Super Bowl history. After all, both had historic 2016 seasons: Brady throwing for an absurd 28 touchdowns compared to only 2 interceptions, while Ryan nearly set all-time marks in quarterback rating and yards per attempt.
Yet the Brady vs Ryan matchup is essentially irrelevant to the outcome of the game. This isn’t like basketball: The two quarterbacks won’t be jostling for post position with each other. Generally speaking, Brady can’t do anything to stop Ryan, and Ryan can’t do anything to slow down Brady. I say generally speaking, though, because if you really want to get technical, I suppose one team could force the other team into using a different strategy, say by jumping out to an early lead. Nonetheless, you should understand what I’m saying!
For this reason, it’s more important to analyze the key positional matchups that project to play a crucial role in determining the outcome of Super Bowl LI. I’ll start by taking a look at the player many people deem to be the most intriguing element of this game, Julio Jones.
Julio Jones versus the New England secondary
How might the Patriots try to slow down Atlanta’s star?
You tend to hear names like Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr thrown around when people discuss who they think is the best receiver in the NFL. But Julio Jones certainly made a convincing case for himself in the NFC Championship game. I mean…
…I rest my case. Apparently Jones has been battling a toe injury in recent weeks, too. It doesn’t appear to being slowing him down very much.
So how will the Patriots attempt to stop one of the NFL’s more gifted playmakers in recent history? To get a sense of how Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia might go about this challenge, look no further than their game plan against Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship. For instance, take a look at this photo of the Patriots’ alignment on a third-and-1 early in the first quarter.
Malcolm Butler lined up in tight man-to-man coverage on the right-hand side of the formation while Devin McCourty shaded to the same side in order to provide help over the top. That left receivers Marcus Wheaton and Sammie Coates in single coverage, as you can see at the top of the image, with no help over the top. Belichick was essentially saying to Ben Roethlisberger, “you can beat us with your other guys, but you’re not going to beat us with Brown.” And that’s exactly what Roethlisberger tried to do on this play, throwing a deep ball down the left sideline to Coates that fell incomplete.
This strategy ultimately proved to be very effective by game’s end. Faced with similar defensive alignments as the one above, Pittsburgh’s secondary receivers were rarely able to take advantage of their one-on-one matchups while Brown, who was held under 100 receiving yards, never found space to break off a big play. To be fair to the Steelers, though, the outcome was certainly made worse by the fact that Le’Veon Bell left the game early with a groin injury.
Nonetheless, New England’s ability to contain Brown served as another testament to Butler’s continued emergence as one of the game’s best corners. Though he was snubbed of his second Pro Bowl appearance, the former Super Bowl hero was still named to Pro Football Focus’ All-Pro team for 2016. For the record, this honor discredits the notion that Butler benefits the help of other players in the New England secondary like McCourty: Pro Football Focus’ grades are based on individual rather than team performance on a play-by-play basis.
In short, there’s reason to believe that Butler can hold his own against Jones too. However, if Belichick deploys the same strategy against Jones and the Falcons as he did against the Steelers, this could be a mistake. Atlanta’s “other” receivers, namely Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, are more dangerous than Wheaton and Coates. Not only that, but it’s not like the Falcons have been unbelievably reliant on Jones to produce this season, either. In fact, Atlanta has had three victories this season in which Jones was held to under four receptions and 30 yards, and they still won each game and averaged close to 34 points in the process.
Ryan clearly has no trouble finding other solutions when his preferred target is unavailable. For that reason, Belichick and Patricia clearly need to implement a more balanced game-plan than the one they used against the Steelers in order to pay attention to Sanu and Gabriel while showing respect for Jones.
I wouldn’t be surprised if New England brought back a strategy used often during their last Super Bowl run in 2014 when they had another All-Pro-caliber corner in Darrelle Revis. When the Patriots encountered elite receivers that year, such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, they often decided not to put Revis on the opposition’s top target. Instead, Belichick typically assigned Brandon Browner to the number one receiver and provided serious safety help over the top. Revis, meanwhile, shadowed the team’s number two target.
The Patriots haven’t seemed to use this strategy as often in 2016–if at all. But given the depth of Atlanta’s receiving corps, it would make sense for Belichick and Patricia to deploy two defensive backs to Jones and leave Butler to guard either Gabriel or Sanu. That may be the most effective way they can hold Atlanta under 30 points.
New England’s offensive line versus Vic Beasley and the Falcons’ pass rush
It will be imperative for Atlanta to find a way to harass Brady
The Patriots have spent the last decade perched atop the NFL leaderboard in seemingly every key offensive statistic. So how have teams in the past slowed them down? It’s really not rocket science: Get serious pressure on Brady without using more than five men. Easier said than done, though.
Of course, it has been done before. The Giants, most notably, executed this tactic perfectly in their two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots, holding Brady and company to under 20 points in both meetings. Denver’s win in last year’s AFC Championship was sparked by their ability to give Brady little time and space to operate as well.
With Vic Beasley, the NFL’s sack leader, leading the charge, Atlanta’s pass rush will look to have similar success. This, however, could be a daunting task. Despite Beasley’s monster numbers (15.5 sacks), Atlanta ranked only 24th in adjusted sack rate during the regular season, which measures sacks per pass attempt. Meanwhile, after Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware brought about the Patriots’ demise last season, New England’s offensive line has protected Brady far better in 2016. They rank a solid sixth in the NFL in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. In particular, right tackle Marcus Cannon has emerged as a surprise stud, as Pro Football Focus also named him to their All-Pro team for 2016.
Nonetheless, Atlanta must find ways to disrupt Brady’s rhythm. For that reason, it will be intriguing to see where head coach Dan Quinn ultimately decides to line up Vic Beasley for a majority of his snaps. He could decide to let Beasley battle Cannon on the right side, or put him on the left to take on Nate Soldier. Neither matchup is a pushover, but Beasley should have the advantage in either case. His success at getting into the New England backfield will play a large role in whether the Falcons are able to prevent the Patriots from marching down the field at will.
The interior of Atlanta’s offensive line versus New England’s front four
A true “strength” vs “strength” matchup
After suffering from replacement-level play from the center position last season, center Alex Mack, one of the year’s best free agent acquisitions, has helped Atlanta turn into an offensive juggernaut. The four-time Pro Bowler has transformed the Falcons’ running game, in particular, as they made a jump from 25th to 7th in rushing DVOA this season. His presence has certainly enabled Matt Ryan to produce his best season as a pro as well.
Mack and the rest of the Atlanta front have an interesting challenge in front of them, though. New England’s defensive line has been a catalyst for the league’s top-scoring defense all season long. With big run-stuffers Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown in the middle, along with Trey Flowers and Chris Long on the edge, the Patriots finished 4th in rushing defense in 2016. While the Patriots’ front-four doesn’t disrupt the pass as well as other units, it’s still reasonable to infer that their success at containing the opponent’s running game has allowed for Belichick and Patricia to devote more resources to stopping the pass. A necessary ingredient for Atlanta’s unbelievable success, however, has been their ability to use the run to set up the play-action pass. Refer back to the clip of Jones’ highlights above and note how many of his catches come off hard play-fakes from Ryan.
In a matchup between the NFL’s two best offenses, the battle up front between Atlanta’s interior lineman and New England’s defensive front is the main strength vs strength battle in this year’s Super Bowl. Whichever unit comes out on top will give their team a decided edge.
Dont’a Hightower and the New England linebackers versus Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
An opportunity for the game’s x-factor to emerge
Though I was just discussing how New England does an excellent job at neutralizing the opponent’s running game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about their weakness at defending running backs in the passing game. The Patriots finished just 20th in this area in 2016; and a quick recap of their regular season helps illustrate how. Back in week one, New England struggled to defend David Johnson, who finished with over 120 yards from scrimmage. A few weeks later, Le’Veon Bell caught ten balls out of the backfield for close to 70 yards despite having Landry Jones at quarterback. And most notably, Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise had 87 receiving yards in their victory over New England in mid-November, one of only two defeats the Patriots suffered all season.
Because Bell went out early in the AFC Championship, the Patriots have still yet to be tested by a running back who excels at making plays in the receiving game. Unfortunately for New England, they’ll be dealing with not one, but two backs with this capability. Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman both finished in the top ten of receiving yards among running backs; and their combined output amounted to over 80 receptions and 800 receiving yards.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots will have their hands full defending Jones and company on the outside. That leaves room for either Freeman or Coleman to emerge as the x-factor in Super Bowl LI.
Predictions to come later this week! Stay tuned for a guide of the best prop bets to make for Super Bowl LI, Check Down’s roundtable predictions, and, last but not least, my final breakdown and ultimate prediction for Patriots/Falcons.