Super Bowl LI Preview: Atlanta Falcons vs New England Patriots Keys to Victory

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The Super Bowl showdown between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons is less than a day away. With that, it’s time to examine some keys for both teams as we approach the big game. We will go in-depth and examine just what both Atlanta and New England will need to accomplish in order to come away hoisting the Lombardi Trophy as the Super Bowl champions.

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Gameplan on using Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the receiving game – Freeman and Coleman form one of the best (if not the best) running back duos in the NFL today. Not only for their abilities in the run game, but also for what they bring to the Falcons’ potent aerial assault. On 85 receptions, they combined for 883 yards and five touchdowns. What may be even more impressive is that of those 883 yards, 719 of them came after the catch. The Falcons face a Patriots defense that gave up the third most receiving yards to running backs (808) this season.

With New England secondary trio of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Eric Rowe performing extremely well this postseason, the Falcons will have a tough time moving downfield with their wide receivers. Using two of the better pass-catching running backs in the league against a team that allows quite a bit of yardage and receptions (102, second most in league) will likely prove to be a solid method of moving the chains against one of the best statistical defenses in the league.

Put extra emphasis on defending against the Patriots slot receivers – While the Falcons’ secondary has performed well above expectations even with the loss of #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant halfway through the season, the team has struggled defending against slot wide receivers. Atlanta’s typical nickel back has been undrafted rookie Brian Poole. Now, while Poole has done much more than could have been expected of an undrafted free agent, his play has been a weakness for the Falcons. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a 107.8 passer rating when targeting Poole this postseason. And with the Patriots deploying two terrific wideouts that play the slot, in Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, something will need to be done to slow them down.

Edelman and Hogan combined for 298 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game and will look to dole out the same amount of punishment in the Super Bowl. Poole will have his struggles against both of these players as he expects to see a lot of action with the Patriots often using three and four wide receiver sets. Giving Poole assistance with some over-the-top safety help on occasion could be the difference maker between an OK day and a great day for Hogan and Edelman.

Make sure tackling is a focal point for the defense – According to PFF, the Falcons missed 136 tackles this season, which is second most in the NFL. Not only that, but Atlanta has struggled to bring down running backs on first contact. The Falcons have allowed 2.89 yards after contact in the run game this season, which is the most in the NFL. Facing the tandem of LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis is no easy task for any team, but even more so against a team that has struggled to tackle all season.

Between Blount’s size (6’0”, 250 lbs) and Lewis’s shiftiness in the open field, the Falcons will need to focus on sound tackling this Sunday for a shot of slowing down the Patriots offense. Also, according to PFF, Blount went down 23.5% of the time after first contact during the regular season. That equates to just under 76 of his 323 carries this season. If the Falcons can turn this into their advantage by shoring up their tackling, it could turn into a strength of theirs for this weekend.

Use Deion Jones in coverage against Martellus Bennett – Rookie Deion Jones has been a revelation for the Falcons this season. Not only was he their leading tackler during the regular season, but he also led the team with three interceptions and was second with 11 passes defended. He has been a true three-down linebacker for Atlanta, being equally as important against the pass as he is against the run. And according to PFF, from Week 14 on (including the playoffs), opposing quarterbacks have a 53.1 passer rating when targeting him, which is third best among all linebackers during that span.

Going up against Bennett, the Falcons could use Keanu Neal  in coverage, but Jones is a better fit. Neal has proven to be a terrific coverage safety and with the Falcons facing a very talented wide receiving corps, he might serve better helping his cornerbacks out. Not to mention, he is one of the better blitzing safeties as well, which could come in handy. Jones is more than capable of covering Bennett, so having him on the big tight end will serve the Falcons better.

Focus on applying pass rush through the Patriots’ interior O-Line – While the Patriots’ offensive line has improved since last season, they still have a weak link or two that need to be accounted for. Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder form one of the best offensive tackle duos in football. And while the starting trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason has  performed well this year, they have been a liability at times.

According to PFF, Thuney has allowed 45 quarterback pressures this season, which is most among offensive guards. The Patriots also allowed eight quarterback hits against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round, with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus having success blitzing against New England’s interior line. To keep Tom Brady under duress and unable to complete his reads throughout the game, the Falcons will need to attack this unit.

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Use Logan Ryan with safety help as primary coverage against Julio Jones – While Ryan struggled to begin the season, he has turned into one of the Patriots’ best defensive players. Since Week 15 (including playoffs), opposing quarterbacks have a 44.5 passer rating when targeting the cornerback, according to PFF. In the postseason, Ryan has stepped up his game: On 20 targets, he has allowed 13 receptions for 92 yards for 7.08 yards per reception while giving up no touchdowns and snagging an interception.

While Ryan has settled into more of a nickel role for the Patriots, he performed extremely well against DeAndre Hopkins in the Divisional Round and is still capable of working on the outside. With the help of either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon in dime packages, Ryan should fare decently at the very least against All-World wide receiver Julio Jones. It is by no means an easy task, but Ryan has proved capable, clearing the way for Butler and Rowe to have favorable match-ups against Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.

Apply pressure early and often on Chris Chester – While the Falcons boast one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, the unit’s one weak link has given rise to some issues. Right guard Chris Chester has allowed six sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 45 pressures this season, according to PFF.

Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Chris Long, and Trey Flowers have all had solid, if not great seasons for the most part. Between the ability to apply pressure to the quarterback, seal the edge, and stop the run, this unit has performed well above expectations and is a key factor for the Patriots dominance on defense. Going after Chester seems like a wise decision for the Patriots if they want to try and slow down the Falcons’ dangerous run attack and the passing performance of Matt Ryan.

Continue to use Chris Hogan as a main target in passing game – While this would seem obvious, it still cannot go without saying. Hogan only had the fourth-most targets during the regular season among all Patriots playmakers, behind Edelman, James White, and Bennett. The fourth-year wideout still managed to get 17.9 yards per reception during the regular season, tied for best in the league with DeSean Jackson. Hogan has been even better in two playoff games, with 13 receptions on 16 targets for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

With his ability to function in both the slot and on the outside, Hogan has proven to be a legitimate deep threat for Brady and the Patriots. He will be especially difficult to cover for the Falcons as his route running has improved as the season has progressed along with his ability to beat single coverage frequently downfield. And with Brady having a perfect passer rating (158.3) this postseason when targeting Hogan, it would be wise for them to continue to feed him the ball.

Run the ball … and then run it some more – While the Falcons pass defense has been better than expected this year, their run defense has been average at best. During the regular season, Atlanta surrendered the 16th most rushing yards per game (104.5), the 12th most rushing touchdowns (15), and the seventh most rushing yards per attempt (4.5). And as mentioned above, Atlanta has allowed 2.89 rushing yards after contact, which is the worst in the NFL.

Facing one of the weaker run attacks in the league  in the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons still managed to cough up 99 yards rushing on 17 attempts (5.8 yards per attempt). Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns this past season while he and Dion Lewis have combined for 130 yards and two rushing touchdowns this postseason. Along with the high-powered passing attack, the Patriots also have a formidable ground game that will have a plus matchup against the Falcons run defense. Running the ball early and often will be key for the Patriots.

Avoid passing over the middle of the field on intermediate and deep throws – One of the staples of the Patriots passing offense is attacking the middle of the field whether it is in the short, intermediate, or deep game. For the Falcons, despite losing their #1 cornerback to injury earlier in the season, Atlanta has done well for the most part defending downfield. Since Week 10 (including the postseason), the Falcons have been near-elite defending the middle of the field.

According to PFF, on pass attempts at least 10 yards downfield, the Falcons have allowed only one touchdown as opposed to garnering six interceptions. Furthermore, they have given up 21 receptions on 54 targets for 391 yards. That equates to 2.33 receptions and 43.44 yards per game (nine games) toward that portion of the field. That is beyond terrific and even with the Patriots proficiency toward that part of the field, it may be best for the Patriots to stick to the boundaries downfield or keep their passes over the middle to either behind the line of scrimmage or in the short game.

Follow Doug on Twitter @DMooreNFL. Check out Doug’s articles on 2016’s most underdrafted fantasy players and bounce back candidates for the year.

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