Super Bowl 51 is a matchup of juggernaut offenses and underrated defenses. Here’s what to expect from both teams from an X’s and O’s perspective:
When the Patriots have the ball
Expect the Patriots to spend their first couple drives combining fast paced tempo with information gathering. The Patriots use motion and non-traditional sets early to analyze the defense. For example, the Patriots line up fullback James Develin or a running back out wide to see who goes out to cover him. If a linebacker goes with the back, it’s man coverage. If a corner stays with the back, it’s zone coverage. From there, Brady picks the best matchup.
This will help diagnose the Falcons relatively simple defensive scheme. The Falcons primarily play Cover 1 or Cover 3, and don’t blitz often. Although the Falcons have blitzed more frequently during the playoffs, I don’t expect them to blitz Brady a ton in Super Bowl 51. Nor do I expect the Falcons to sit back in Cover 3 and let Brady pick apart zone coverage. Instead, the only consistent strategy for beating the Patriots in the playoffs has been pressure with 4, preferably up the middle.
The Houston Texans gave the most recent blueprint for how the Falcons can accomplish this. While only rushing 4 or 5, they lined up both Jadeveon Clowney (#90) and Whitney Mercilus (#59) over Patriots center David Andrews and rookie guard Joe Thuney throughout the game to cause pressure up the middle:
The Falcons can do the same with Vic Beasley consistently and use Dwight Freeney in this manner on obvious passing downs. They could also accomplish the same goal by twisting Vic Beasley from the outside.
Against Cover 1 and 3, look for the Patriots to go to their Post-Wheel-Out combination:
Against Cover 3, the safety and cornerback will take the two deep routes. This presents a problem for the underneath coverage; they must react to the wheel initially, leaving an opening for the out route. The Patriots had great success with this play against the Steelers:
The play is also a good scheme against Cover 1 because the deep safety will be occupied by one of the deep routes and Edelman will draw man coverage on an out route:
Another key will be how the Falcons decide to play Empty formation. Against the Packers in the NFC championship game, they largely played Cover 2-man with some bracket Cover 1 as well. Look for the Patriots to run their Hoss Y-Juke concept from Empty. If the Falcons don’t line up anybody on #3 strong or don’t have a wall defender on Edelman’s in breaking route, he’ll have a huge day:
Finally, with the Patriots being as multiple as they are, look for 6 lineman sets to run the ball. The Patriots have implemented this strategy against teams they deem to be undersized on defense, like the Colts. This could be especially useful if the the Falcons offense comes out hot and the Patriots want to slow the game down and get their defense time to rest and adjust.
When the Falcons have the ball
When the Falcons have the ball, it’s all about the running backs. Yes, Julio Jones is all-world, but the versatility of their running backs is what makes them a historically great offense. To win Super Bowl 51, the Patriots will have to do two things on defense: set the edge in the run game, and account for the Falcons dynamic running backs in the passing game.
The Falcons are primarily an outside zone team, and setting the edge could determine the outcome of the game. If the Patriots linebackers consistently over pursue or the Falcons are able to reach the edge defender, the Falcons will have success in the run game and be able to set up big plays down the field with play action. If the Patriots are able to maintain gap discipline, string out plays, and not over pursue, they can neutralize the run game along with play action.
Look for Patriots like Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, and Chris Long to constantly attempt to collision tackles and tight ends to create a new line of scrimmage in the backfield. When Atlanta runs outside zone or their crack toss from under center or shotgun, watch the edge instead of the running back or the ball– it’ll tell you how the play will end up long before the running back gets there.
The Falcons also use their running backs in the passing game better than any team in the NFL, with the highest target percentage of throws going to running backs in the NFL. Against Denver, one of the NFL’s best defenses, the Falcons repeatedly motioned to empty formation with Tevin Coleman (#26) and Devonta Freeman (#24) going from the backfield to the slot and creating mismatches:
In the example below, the Falcons are able to identify the coverage by putting a tight end and the fullback out wide to the right. With a linebacker coming out on the fullback, Matt Ryan knows its man coverage underneath. A linebacker also comes out to cover Tevin Coleman, and the safety widens to the three receiver side. Ryan hits Tevin Coleman for a touchdown on a seam route:
The Patriots have a few options on how to defend the shift to empty. They likely will have an automatic check to either Cover 2 or Cover 2-man. They could also drop defensive lineman in coverage to try and take away underneath routes. To counter, the Falcons could potentially use Coleman and Freeman together and shift them both from the backfield to out wide. This would give the Falcons a run threat to start with two running backs in the backfield, but then also force the Patriots to defend an empty set with both Falcons backs.
The Patriots will also have to deal with the Falcons running backs catching the ball from the backfield. If the Patriots are in man coverage, it may be best for the Patriots to keep a safety on Falcon running backs as opposed to linebackers. In the divisional round against Seattle, the Falcons ran a beautiful RB corner route against Seattle’s Cover 3:
With only 3 defenders on the left side of the picture, the Falcons attack the coverage with 4 routes. The corner carries the deep post, the flat defender takes the flat route, the strong safety comes up to Julio Jones dragging across the field, and this leaves Coleman wide open:
The key here is that there is over 3 seconds from snap to throw. This type of scheme will almost certainly result in somebody being open because regardless of coverage, the Falcons just have too many weapons from a personnel perspective to cover. To combat this, the Patriots front 4 will have to create enough pressure to disrupt Matt Ryan’s throwing lanes and line of vision.
Finally, the Patriots will have to decide how to matchup with the Falcons wideouts when they play man coverage. Like last week, expect Patrick Chung (#23) to have tight end man coverage duties, whether that be on Austin Hooper (#81) or Levine Toilolo (#80). Expect Malcolm Butler (#21) to cover Taylor Gabriel (#18) when he is on the field. Eric Rowe (#25), Logan Ryan (#26), and Butler will all get their chance to cover Julio Jones in spurts with some sort of help from Devin McCourty (#32) or Duron Harmon (#30). How the Patriots use McCourty will be particularly interesting. With so many weapons, McCourty’s versatility and ability to play man to man as well as deep safety will be invaluable.
Super Bowl 51 should be fascinating from an X’s and O’s perspective. Prediction: Patriots 34, Falcons 27.