An open letter to Falcons coach Dan Quinn.
We’ve known each other for a long time. We go back to the days when we were both getting yelled at by Nick Saban, who was then with the Dolphins (coaching the defensive line for him must have been fun). I’m writing on behalf of football fans in America—well, at least the fans who don’t say “Tom Brady GOAT,” like Alabamans say “Roll Tide”—because this NFL season has largely been lame. The postseason so far, besides Packers-Cowboys, has been uninspiring. I don’t care whether you win or lose, but America needs a competitive Super Bowl.
I know you’re very smart, have coached against Bill Belichick in the past and largely have already formulated your game plan, but I’m here to offer you a couple of tips ahead of Super Bowl Sunday. For some reason, many coaches, even usually smart and capable men, lose their minds when they take on Belichick and the Patriots. What seems obvious, suddenly isn’t so. They’re coaxed into taking bad timeouts, issuing dumb challenges, thinking terrible gameplans are actually good (hello Mike Tomlin) and embarking on drives that take 10 minutes when you need two scores. I’m here to ensure that you know exactly what you’re getting into, only because America deserves to be entertained.
1. Listen to Scott Pioli: Anything I’m about to tell you, your assistant general manager should have already put into a book form for you, and hopefully you’ve worn out the pages. Pioli was around Belichick, roughly, from 1992-2008. From 2000-08, he was Belichick’s personnel consigliore. They were tied at the hip. Pioli has seen up close how Belichick studies an opponent, especially when the Patriots won their first three Super Bowl titles after the 2001, ’03 and ’04 seasons. General manager Thomas Dimitroff saw a lot as well, but he wasn’t as close to Belichick as Pioli was. Pioli knows how Belichick thinks, how he will analyze your Falcons, and how he will attack and defend you. Listen to him.
2. Be prepared for the unexpected: You have two weeks to prepare for this game, so there is absolutely no reason why your players shouldn’t be ready for everything. Basically, don’t be the Steelers.
The Patriots may very well play with tempo in an effort to keep you substituting and to keep your young defense from getting set up into any designer pressures or coverages. Be prepared to have simple checks in order to keep execution at a high level. The Patriots win, not by talent, but by executing better than their opponents. If going fast causes confusion or a coverage bust, they’ll pounce on it. Keep it simple. In defensive short yardage/goal-line situations, the Patriots will use a late line shift to get your offense to jump offsides. Don’t fall for it. Also, don’t run downhill against the run. At some point, they’ll either use deception or a playfake to hit you for a big play. Give up a 12-yard run if you must. Don’t surrender a 60-yard flea-flicker touchdown. When in doubt, your defenders should get back, especially at safety.
3. Prepare to play lefthanded: Whatever you do best on offense, be prepared for Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to take those things away from you—or at least limit them. The Patriots will have a plan for WR Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman out of the backfield and, to a lesser extent, Mohamed Sanu. I know your receivers are big, but you should expect all three of those players to roughed up throughout this game. When Belichick took on the high-powered Bills (as Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV) and the Rams (XXXVI), top WRs Andre Reed, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce had the collective snot knocked out of them. Now, those receivers were much smaller than Jones and Sanu, but the Patriots will be physical because they know the officials will let the players play.
Also, on any of your favorite routes for Freeman and Tevin Coleman (arrow, wheel), they will not be allowed a free release and the timing will be thrown off. My advice would be to a have a Plan B that answers the question, “If we can’t feed Jones or rely on Freeman, how are we going to move the ball?” One of those ways may be to rely on the run, but only if the Patriots are giving it to you, don’t force it.
Both the Bills’ and Rams’ coaches look back on those games (read Bob McGinn’s excellent The Ultimate Super Bowl Book) and regret that they didn’t run the ball more when Belichick was clearly giving it to them. Sure, you might not score as many points as you’re used to, but you’ll also be keeping Tom Brady off the field. The Patriots’ weaknesses on defense are in the intermediate to deep middle part of the field, whoever Eric Rowe is covering, when safety Patrick Chung is playing a deep safety spot, and when third safety Duron Harmon is put in a bind with two vertical routes. Attack those areas just before getting to the red zone, where the New England defense is at its best.
4. Don’t just do what you do on defense: The Patriots may use tempo, and they may dial up some trick plays. But assuming you hold your own in those situations, the Patriots are just going to have to lineup and execute against you on third down and in the red zone more often than not.
The only way to get stops against Brady is to vary your pre- and post-snap looks in coverage and pressure. If you play defense as you have to this point, and Brady has a pretty good idea what kind of coverage he’s going to get as he drops back, he’s already won and you’re in trouble. You have to make him think after the snap, which causes him to hold the ball a little bit more and pressure can get home. And if you can, figure out a way to take away Julian Edelman. Especially with Rob Gronkowski gone, Edelman is the engine of the offense. If you take Edelman away, more doubt will creep into Brady’s mind.
5. Bring pressure up the middle: Vic Beasley, with 15.5 sacks, is by far your best pass rusher, and the Patriots will take him away if you deploy him in his usual role (did you hear the names of James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Von Miller much against the Patriots?). You have to figure out a way to move him around (like the Texans did with Jadeveon Clowney), but it might be best to use him as a decoy. The best way to pressure Brady is attacking the young inside linemen (LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason) with twist, stunts and late pressure from the inside linebackers or Beasley.
That’s my “Dummies Guide to Hanging with the Patriots.” There are obviously some obvious things (like winning the turnover battle) that are out of your control, and many of the advice I gave is easier said than done (taking away Edelman while he lines up and goes in motion all over the place is nearly impossible), but there needs to be an effort made. Oh, and one more thing: if you win the toss, kick the ball. Patriots have only scored once on their last six Super Bowl opening drives.
Good luck, you’re going to need it.
Your resident “Wet Blanket of Reason” takes the temperature of the most intriguing storylines this week in the NFL:
Go crazy, folks
Roger, stop talking: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went on “The Herd” this week and tried to tell fans that “the quality of the game is better on Thursday night” because stats like completion percentage and turnovers show that. That actually doesn’t tell us anything. There were 18 Thursday Night games and only seven were decided by a touchdown or less. It’s not good football. Just stop.
Seahawks should be hit hard: There’s a lot of whining out of the Northwest because the Seahawks could lose a second-round pick for properly disclosing injuries to the league. It should be a minor infraction if the Seahawks weren’t found to be violating practice rules three times since 2012. They’re a repeat offender and deserve to be hit hard. It’s the same reasoning why the Patriots and Tom Brady were penalized so heavily for Deflategate.
Slow your roll
Roethlisberger isn’t going anywhere: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger caused consternation among Pittsburgh fans for telling 93.7 The Fan that there’s a chance he might not play next season. First he’s understandably frustrated with a season, filled with suspensions and lack of accountability from younger players, that ended with a whimper again. But also Roethlisberger is a little bit of a drama queen—he has some Brett Favre in him. This could be an annual Favre-ian dance between Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Get used to it.
Annual offseason reminders: For 30 other teams, we’ve started the annual silly season with draft evaluations and free agency coming up rapidly. A couple of annual reminders for this part of the offseason. First of all, a player is only a Pro Bowler if he is named to the initial team in each conference. Everyone else, including injury and Super Bowl replacements, merely play in the Pro Bowl. They are not to be considered Pro Bowlers. And finally, just because a team interviews a prospect at the Senior Bowl or combine, it does not mean they are showing interest in that player. They are collecting information, and often filling holes in some of the information on that player.