- Featuring LeGarrette Blount against the Falcons and limiting Julio Jones's yards will be crucial if the Patriots want to make sure Tom Brady leaves Houston with a fifth ring on his finger.
HOUSTON – After taking a look at how the Falcons could pull off an upset of the Patriots, here is the path New England will likely take if it ends up claiming its fifth Super Bowl title for coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday:
1. Slow it down: The Patriots can win in a variety of ways, and they’re specifically built to have the ability to play any style against any opponent (the Falcons are too, from two-back power to no-huddle spread). The Pats could choose any avenue offensively against the Falcons and have great success (they’ll mix and match to be sure). But the best formula for a Patriots victory is to feature the power running game with more LeGarrette Blount than Dion Lewis and an extra fullback/tight end. The Falcons’ defense is more fast than strong, and the opportunity is there for the Patriots to simply overpower them in the front seven. Keeping three linebackers on the field is also to the advantage of the Patriots. By taking this approach, New England will also be helping its defense. More time off the field for Matt Ryan means less of a chance that he’s able to get into the rhythm that the Patriots coaches are wary of.
2. Play-action it up: Using the power running game as the engine for the Super Bowl also gives the Patriots an opportunity to showcase their play-action game, which is among the best in the league when they choose to use it. And the Falcons are exactly the type of young, inexperienced, fast and aggressive defense to fall for the fakes and give up big plays as a result.
3. Get off to a good start: The Falcons have scored a touchdown on their opening drive in eight-straight games, which is so crazy it seems like a misprint. The Patriots have not scored a point in the first quarter of any of their six previous Super Bowl appearances. If both of those things hold true—the Falcons going down the field to open the game and the Patriots sputtering—New England is going to be in for a four-quarter dogfight. The Patriots have a big-time experience advantage in this game, and while I don’t think it matters much, it does at the start of Super Bowls. You can’t win a Super Bowl in the first seven minutes, but you could lose one. If the Patriots can flip the script and jump on the Falcons early, we could be headed for a blowout.
4. Julio can catch it, he just can’t run with it: The Patriots have been dedicating a lot of practice time to defending Julio Jones, but I highly doubt it’s to prevent him from getting touches (outside the red zone). Jones is a terrific talent, but where he’s especially dangerous is after the catch because he’s so strong and fast in the open field. Rather than trying to shut him out completely, expect the Patriots to be more focused on tackling Jones as soon as he catches the ball. They may very well achieve that with CB Eric Rowe, the biggest of New England’s CBs, underneath with S Devin McCourty, the best tackler, over the top, plus help from linebackers.
5. Re-route the running backs: Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman figure prominently in the passing game, especially against teams that have LBs with questionable coverage skills (like New England). Atlanta loves using WRs to create space for the running backs and the mismatch that affords them. The Patriots will likely counter this by either having SS Patrick Chung be physical with the RB in coverage and/or by having the DEs “butch” or hit the RBs after the snap, then riding them a bit down the line to throw off the timing.
6. Test Alex Mack: Falcons C Alex Mack is the straw that stirs the drink with the Falcons’ offense, and he’s been less than 100% as he deals with an ankle injury. If I’m the Patriots, I’m sending superstrong LB Dont’a Hightower repeatedly to start the game in order to test where Mack is. If he’s not effective, the Falcons are in trouble.
7. Brady needs to be smart: This might seem like blasphemy, but in his last two Super Bowl appearances Tom Brady has thrown three interceptions and had an intentional grounding penalty for a safety. Also, with his increased mobility, Brady has tried a little too hard to keep plays alive to the detriment of the team, and has thrown a few up for grabs (vs. the Texans, for example). The last thing the Patriots want to do is to give the Falcons an easy turnover or a short field. Brady needs to be careful about picking his spots to scramble against Atlanta’s defense, because it has the type of speed to catch him by surprise.
8. Hold up on the interior: When the Patriots have had troubles offensively in the Super Bowl, it’s been on the interior line dealing with twists and stunts, which for whatever reason has been a bit of a weakness for Dante Scarnecchia’s units. Expect the Falcons to throw the kitchen sink at the Patriots’ young interior of LG Joe Thuney (the weakest link), C David Andrews (who has trouble with speed) and RG Shaq Mason (who doesn’t anticipate well). Atlanta will hold, grab, and delay-blitz Deion Jones and throw Vic Beasley into the center of that line hoping to spring leaks like the Giants and Seahawks found previously against New England. The Patriots’ young linemen better have their heads on a swivel because the initial rush won’t be the final rush.