I sometimes think most teams that play the New England Patriots are beaten before they step onto the field. Imagine a speech that most head coaches might make to their team on Tuesday morning of Patriot week:
“Men, this week we play the Patriots. Can we beat them? Absolutely. But only if we put together our most complete game of the season. We can’t make mistakes, because this team will make you pay for each and every one of them. So this will be our challenge this week – to play our most perfect game of the season.”
I don’t know how a team plays this game afraid of what will happen if they make a mistake. But I have seen a lot of teams play New England with that kind of temerity.
Facing New England in the Super Bowl
Exactly what Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said to his team the week leading up to the Super Bowl I – of course – don’t know. But I strongly doubt it bore any resemblance to the statement above. From the game’s opening series this brash young team walked up to the four-time champion Patriots and punched them right in the mouth. For two-and-a-half quarters the underdog Falcons treated the team from New England to a football version of “shock and awe” that featured explosive running, circus catches and eleven defenders who seemed to be everywhere on the field at once. As the first half drew to a close, two shocking story lines were unfolding before the stunned Patriot team and dumfounded crowd of almost 71,000 at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
First, unbelievably, the Falcons were blowing out the Patriots. The Falcons are a good team and – everyone conceded – a team that could well beat New England (if they played a perfect game). But no impartial analyst that I know of would have predicted a blow-out victory. But that was exactly what was happening, and there seemed nothing that New England could do about it. For the first 36 minutes and 29 seconds of the game, New England was hopelessly outmatched on both offense and defense.
But even that might not have been as stunning as the second unexpected development. The New England Patriots – the model franchise of the NFL – was melting down on the sport’s biggest stage. After the game, they said there was no panic. But those of us who watched the game know differently.
New England is Melting?
Over a 27:13 span that began at the 14:19 mark of the second period and extended through the 2:06 mark of the third period, almost every single one of the Patriot stalwarts failed to execute in opportunities to halt Atlanta’s momentum. The skid began with the fumble by 1000-yard running back LeGarrette Blount. Atlanta quickly turned that into a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Moments later a tight-end named Austin Hooper beat safety Patrick Chung on a deep post pattern for the score that made it 14-0.
Then it was Tom Brady’s turn.
With 2:36 left in the first half, and the Patriots holding the ball at the Atlanta 23, Danny Amendola beat cornerback Brian Poole to the inside and Brady threw him the ball. But cornerback Robert Alford – who began the play trailing Julian Edelman – broke off his coverage and settled right in front of Amendola. His interception and subsequent 82-yard touchdown return pushed the Atlanta lead to 21-0.
Before the half would end, Brady – rattled by the heavy pressure he had been under to that point in the game – would badly miss two open receivers (Edelman streaking past Alford over the deep middle of the field with 1:43 left in the half, and Chris Hogan in the right flat with 33 seconds left), and throw the ball just enough behind another receiver (Edelman again) open on a short crossing route, that the defender (Alford, again) could make a play on the ball.
They settled for a field goal, cutting the deficit to 21-3 at the half.
The Second Half
With the Falcons up by 18 and getting the ball to open the second half, it was widely conceded that the first two possessions of the third quarter would be critical to New England’s ability to stay competitive in this game. First, they would need a defensive stop.
They got one.
After running back Devonta Freeman was dropped in the backfield for a three-yard loss on first down, he took a short pass for a seven-yard gain. Then, on third-and-six, cornerback Eric Rowe defended a pass into the left flat to Taylor Gabriel (at that point, just Matt Ryan’s second incompletion of the game). Atlanta punted. When Julian Edelman brought the kick back to the Patriot 47 yard line, the stage seemed to be set.
But now it was Chris Hogan’s turn. The 9-catch, 180-yard hero of the Championship Game, Hogan flew up the left sideline, gaining separation from cornerback Jalen Collins. Brady’s throw was right to the outside shoulder where only Hogan could get it. And it clunked off his hands.
A second-down screen-pass lost two yards, bringing up third and twelve. Julian Edelman lined up to the right and ran another short crossing pattern with Alford again in trailing position. This time Brady’s throw hit Julian perfectly in the hands. But now it was Edelman who watched the ball slide through his fingers.
With the momentum quashed, the Patriots punted. The Falcon’s would not go three-and-out again. Eight plays later, Atlanta had covered 85 yards and opened a 28-3 lead. That – for all practical purposes – seemed to clinch the title for the Falcons.
That the Patriots went on to mount the most remarkable comeback in Super Bowl history doesn’t diminish all that the Falcons achieved to that point of the game. In the aftermath, individuals have surfaced who have wanted to criticize how the Falcons handled the rest of the game (play-calling, etc.). While I’m sure that – if they had it to do over – they might make some different choices, what happened over the game’s last 27 minutes is more a credit to the New England Patriots than it is the fault of the Falcons. If there were a few things Atlanta might have done differently or better, there were a myriad of things that New England needed to do almost perfectly to make the comeback happen.
That they were able to do that adds to the legendary status of some of the Patriot stars. But even in defeat, there were several reputations either made or solidified on the Atlanta sideline.
Let’s start first with quarterback Matt Ryan. Everyone knew the backstory. Five years into his career as a much-hyped franchise quarterback, Ryan had led his team to a 56-22 record with a 90.9 passer rating. But he was just 1-4 in the playoffs. Everyone heard the whisper. Matty Ice (as he is called) is not a big game quarterback. If there is one misperception that should be laid to rest after this year’s playoff tournament, it should be that.
On the heels of a season where he scorched defenses to the tune of a 117.1 passer rating, Ryan spent the playoffs slicing up opponents like Japanese knives slice through tomatoes on TV. Up to the point where his 6-yard touchdown toss to Tevin Coleman pushed the Falcon lead to 28-3, Ryan had racked up the defenses of the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots to the combined totals of 65 completions in 89 attempts (73%) for 923 yards (10.37 yards per attempt and 14.2 yards per completion). Fifty-one of his 65 completions had achieved first downs – including 9 that resulted in touchdowns with no interceptions. This all adds up to a 139.9 passer rating. There are a lot of descriptors that could be applied to that performance. Choking is not one of them.
Against the Packers and the Patriots he completed 7 of 10 deep passes for 171 yards. His passer rating on throws of more than twenty yards in the two biggest games of his season was 145.8.
Matt Ryan is pretty good (this just in).
And then there is uber receiver Julio Jones. The Super Bowl concluded Julio’s sixth season in the NFL. He has already caught more than 100 passes in a season twice (and has 497 for his young career). He has also been over 1000 yards four times (twice over 1500 yards) and has averaged 15.3 yards per reception for his career. Over the last three seasons alone, Julio has caught 323 passes for 4873 yards and 20 touchdowns. If there is a better receiver and more dangerous weapon out there than Julio, I have yet to see him.
His status in the Falcon offense set up one of the most intriguing matchups of the game. How would Bill Belichick’s defense deal with Jones. One of the trademarks of the New England defense is their ability to mostly neutralize their opponent’s most dangerous offensive weapon. But is it possible to neutralize Jones? If so, how would they go about it?
As I speculated about this a couple of weeks ago, the concept was exceedingly simple. They double teamed him with a cornerback and a safety over the top. I guessed that it would be Malcom Butler, but in the first half the defender on the spot was Ryan Logan. Eric Rowe got that opportunity later. Jones wasn’t exactly neutralized, but his four catches for 87 yards were well below the 180 yards he had accounted for against Green Bay.
On the one hand, you could call that “contained.” On the other hand, remember that Atlanta only ran 46 offensive plays the entire evening and threw only 23 passes. Had Ryan tossed up the 40 or so passes that he usually does, Julio’s numbers are probably more in line with the Green Bay game.
But even that is not the story.
Behind his 4 for 87 line are three highlight reel catches – a 19-yard over-the-middle catch that he pulled out of the hands of the defender (Logan Ryan), and two sideline catches that were varying degrees of impossible. Anyone less than Julio Jones finishes the night with one catch for 23 yards. The New England defense did what they came to do. They forced Julio to play like the best receiver in football and kept him from hurting them at the key moments of the game.
After surpassing 1000 rushing yards for the second straight season, Freeman dazzled under the bright lights of the Super Bowl. At just 5-8 and 206 pounds, Freeman will never get the 25-30 carries a game that more durable backs (like Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas) might get. But on a field littered with offensive talent, Freeman ended the day with the game’s longest run (a 37-yard sprint around left end) and the game’s longest pass reception (a 39-yard sprint with a dump pass into the left flat). Davonta ended the day with 121 scrimmage yards and showcased his blazing speed and elite cutback ability.
Freeman also committed one of the most telling errors of the night. It was Freeman in pass protection who was caught by surprise on the Dont’a Hightower blitz that produced the fumble that set the Patriot comeback in full motion.
In spite of their early success, by the time the Super Bowl ended there wasn’t much cheering for the Atlanta defense. But one highlight was Alford. His was the signature defensive play of the night (the 82-yard interception return). He also recovered a fumble and made 9 tackles on the night.
It was also Alford who was the key to the defensive strategy. It was Alford who would be asked to cover New England’s top receiver (Julian Edelman) all over the field. This would prove to be one of the most enjoyable and competitive contests-within-the-contest of the night.
Edelman was targeted 13 times in Super Bowl LI. On 9 of those targets he was working against Alford in man coverage. Alford won 5 of the 9 battles. Edelman turned his 4 catches against Alford into 78 yards – including the pivotal 23-yard impossible catch of a pass that Alford had deflected with just slightly over two minutes left in regulation and New England still down by eight.
Julian caught his third pass of the Super Bowl on the very first play of the second quarter. He would not catch another until that catch – the much replayed juggling catch of the deflected pass – with 2:28 left in regulation broke a streak of seven straight incompletions on throws in his direction.
Head Coach Dan Quinn and his Coordinators, Kyle Shanahan and Richard Smith
Not only did the Falcons play the game with fearless abandon, but the game plan was exceedingly well conceived and crisply executed.
Offensively, riding the hot quarterback was the easy part. New England played a little bit of zone against Ryan, and watched him complete 7 of 8 passes for 93 yards. Mostly they played man and saw Matty rip them to the tune of 10 of 14 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns. The passer rating for Ryan when throwing against New England’s man coverage was 153.3. Of course, the Patriots also accumulated 4 of their 5 sacks when in man coverage – 3 of them with the aid of their frequent blitzes. Nine of Ryan’s 28 drop-backs featured Patriots blitzes.
In addition to the hot passing hand, Atlanta found unexpected success running on the perimeter. They rarely challenged Alan Branch and the other big boys in the middle of the line. Of their 18 running plays, only two were designed to go inside the tackles – and those two runs lost two yards. But the perimeter attack featured several quick pitches and some better than expected blocking by the wide receivers sealing the edge. Notable in this effort was Mohamed Sanu, who mixed it up pretty well with the big boys.
New England – whether by design or not – was singularly unable to diffuse the big play nature of the Atlanta offense. As opposed to New England’s grinding offense, the Falcons averaged 7.5 yards per offensive play. Six of their 46 plays broke for at least 20 yards. Atlanta’s scoring drives took 1:53 (71 yards in 5 plays), 1:49 (62 yards in 5 plays), and 4:14 (82 yards in 8 plays).
New England triumphed, though, because its defense never allowed Atlanta anything sustained. The Falcons ended Super Bowl LI just 1 for 8 on third down (Ryan’s second-quarter, 19-yard touchdown pass to Hooper came on a third-and-nine play. Ryan was just 1 of 4 on third down with his other four passing attempts ending in sacks. Of all the necessary pieces of the Patriot comeback, perhaps this uncanny success on third down was the most improbable.
About the Falcon Play-Calling
Why didn’t Atlanta run more in the second half? Nine first-half running plays (out of 19 total plays) earned them 86 yards and a touchdown. Of their 27 second half plays, only 9 of them were runs. Especially as New England was mounting their comeback, you would think the Falcons would see the benefit of controlling the game with the run. There were, I think, two probable influences.
First, when they did run the effectiveness of the attack dried up. Of their 9 second half running plays, only 3 gained more than three yards. Three other runners were tackled for losses.
Second, when your offense doesn’t see the field for over an hour (which happened to Atlanta as the second quarter ran into halftime), you can’t have your MVP quarterback hand off three times and punt. If you have Matt Ryan in your backfield with thirty minutes to win the Super Bowl, you have to put the ball in his hands. And blocking for him would be a good idea, too.
Really, if you only have 46 offensive snaps, you just don’t have enough plays to run your offense. I’m sure there were a lot of things Atlanta wanted to get back to, but never had that chance.
The Defensive Challenge
On the defensive side, the game belonged to the linemen – especially the ageless Dwight Freeney and the surprising Grady Jarrett (who matched his season sack total of 3 in the Super Bowl). For two and a half quarters, the unheralded Falcon defense frustrated the high-flying Patriot offense. They snuffed out the Patriot running game and hang with the Patriots in man coverage long enough to let the pass rush disrupt Tom Brady.
Their speed and aggressiveness took away the Patriot screen game (Brady’s five screen passes gained a total of 3 yards). They also consistently dropped defenders into the short middle area that Brady loves to exploit. Against the Steelers, Brady was 8 for 11 for 91 yards throwing into the short middle. He was only 11 of 16 for 98 yards and an interception in that same area in Super Bowl LI.
At the point where Atlanta led 28-3, Brady had completed just 17 of 29 passes (58.6%) for 182 yards (6.28 per attempt and 10.7 per completion) with no touchdowns (to his own team, anyway) and one big interception. His passer rating at that point was just 62.7.
The problem with the Atlanta game-plan, though, was that it was unsustainable. As the Falcon defense remained on the field for a soul-sapping 99 snaps (including penalties and two-point conversions), the pass rush slowed and came to an almost complete halt. As his time in the pocket increased, Brady’s comfort level and confidence both rose. He completed 26 of his last 33 passes (78.8%) for 284 yards (8.61 per attempt, but still just 10.9 per completion) and the two touchdowns. He closed with a 122.7 passer rating during the comeback.
Along the way, the Patriots exploited quite a few matchups. Jalen Collins was a particular target. With 14 targets, Collins was the most thrown at defender in the Super Bowl. Those 14 throws resulted in 12 completions for 116 yards and both touchdowns. But Collins was at least as much a liability in zone coverage as he was in man. In man coverage, Brady completed 5 of 7 against Jalen for 58 yards. In zone, Brady was 7-for-7 against Collins for another 58 yards and both touchdowns.
Collins also gave up 3 of the 5 catches that Patriot receiver Malcom Mitchell made in the fourth quarter alone. Mitchell’s 63 fourth-quarter receiving yards were the most by any of the receivers from either in team in any quarter of the Super Bowl.
There were two other man-to-man matchups that the Patriots returned to with great frequency. One was Danny Amendola working against Brian Poole. Seven times Brady threw to Amendola with Poole working against him. Danny caught five of those passes for 62 yards and 4 first downs.
The Falcons biggest matchup problem, though, wasn’t with any of the wide receivers. In the middle of the comeback was running back James White. Mostly, James drew the attention of middle linebacker Deion Jones. Of his game-high 16 targets in Super Bowl LI, 8 came while covered by Jones in man coverage. He caught 6 of those for 46 yards and caught 2 more against Jones in zone coverage for another 20 yards.
After watching Pittsburgh’s zone defenses struggle against the Patriot offense, Atlanta decided to rely on man coverages. Of Brady’s 67 drop-backs, he saw some form of man coverage 44 times. Brady completed 28 of 42 throws (with two sacks) for 355 yards. All of his big passes came against man coverages. When Atlanta dropped into zones, Tom completed 15 of 20 (75%) but for only 111 yards (5.55 per attempt and 7.4 per completion).
Would Atlanta have won the Super Bowl if they had run the ball more and played more zone defenses? It’s impossible to say for sure, but my gut feeling is that I don’t think they would. I don’t believe that hanging on and hoping the clock runs out wins this kind of game against this team. Atlanta could have iced the game at any number of points in the second half. They just needed to make one more play.
How to Make a 25-Point Comeback
One last remarkable aspect of this comeback was the Patriot approach. For 23 of their 93 plays, New England trailed by more than 20 points. Trailing by 20 points in the Super Bowl is a big deal. But the Patriots showed admirable restraint, calling 6 runs among those 23 plays and only throwing two deep passes (both incomplete). During this stretch, Brady nursed his team back into contention. He completed 11 of 15 passes (73.3%) for just 97 yards (only 8.82 yards per completion). But Atlanta did not sack him during any of those attempts. Those passes included a short touchdown toss to White. His passer rating during the plays when he trailed by 20 points was 112.4.
Throughout the long, impossible road back from a 25-point deficit, the Patriots resisted the urge to get ahead of themselves. Instead of the eye-catching, 30-yard up-field passing that Atlanta featured, New England played within themselves and ground down the young Falcon defense.
Emotion is a two-edged sword in the NFL. Atlanta left the tunnel wound up almost to the snapping point. They fell on the Patriots with an energy and passion that took New England by complete surprise. But emotion is like a sugar rush. There is almost always a crash at the end of it.
Maybe the single most impressive aspect of the Patriot comeback was the discipline of it. It wasn’t at all unemotional. But it was a clinical – almost surgical – exposure of the Falcon defense. In a way, the comeback was an act of faith. It was the response of a team that believed completely in its process.
It was the response of a team that didn’t believe it could be beaten.
With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror and baseball still a few months away (yes I know pitchers and catchers are reporting already), it’s time for me to take a short vacation. After 189 posts and many hundreds of thousands of words since last April, I intend to take a few weeks of to re-charge for the long season ahead. Look for my posting again in early March as we start preparing for the 2017 campaign.
See you then.