Key one-on-one matchups to watch in Super Bowl LI
The 2016 NFL season has been a good one. While the New England Patriots had to play the first quarter of their season without their quarterback, Tom Brady emerged from his suspension to put together the best season of any quarterback in the PFF era (since 2006), propelling a jaded Patriots team to a 16-2 record (including an outrageous 15-3 record against the spread, counting playoffs).
Unlike their more-balanced opponent, the Atlanta Falcons have rebounded from three-straight non-playoff seasons by virtue of the highest-graded offense in the league, featuring the second-highest-graded quarterback in football, Matt Ryan, and the league’s best wide receiver, Julio Jones. The Falcons’ ability to win this one will be dependent on how their defense, grading out as the league’s 14th-best unit, fares in Atlanta’s first league championship game since January 1999.
In a Super Bowl full of compelling one-on-one matchups, we analyze the top 10 using PFF data:
Falcons OLB Vic Beasley vs. Patriots RT Marcus Cannon
Beasley led the NFL this season with 16 sacks, while adding five quarterback hits and 42 hurries for an improving Atlanta defense. While he has certainly elevated his game from a season ago (where he had just four sacks, five hits and 33 hurries), a lot of his production came at the expense of weaker tackles such as Arizona’s Ulrick John (32.6 overall grade), Denver’s Ty Sambrailo (34.7) and Seattle’s Gary Gilliam (38.0). Cannon (88.1) has not been a weak tackle in 2016, increasing his pass-blocking efficiency from 93.3 in 2015 (45th among tackles) to 96.2 in 2016 (11th), while producing the fourth-highest run-blocking grade among all players at his position. The fact that Tom Brady gets rid of the ball more quickly than all but seven quarterbacks in the league also helps Cannon’s cause. After grading negatively in the first four games of the season, Cannon allowed zero sacks and no more than one quarterback hit or three hurries in any of Brady’s 12 starts.
Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler
Malcolm Butler has produced a great season, surrendering just a 78.2 passer rating on the 90 attempts into his coverage, which is among the top 20 qualifying cornerbacks. His 12 pass breakups in the regular season were fourth among all cornerbacks, while his four interceptions ranked sixth. That said, he hasn’t faced a receiver with the size\speed combination of Atlanta’s Julio Jones, whose 3.12 yards per route run and 11.27 yards per target are first and second, respectively, among qualifying receivers this season, and are up from his marks of 3.04 and 9.69 from a year ago. If the Patriots give Butler help over the top on Jones, who also led the league with 665 yards after the catch during the regular season, the Falcons still likely win this matchup, as secondary players like Taylor Gabriel (2.45 yards per route run—third among all wide receivers) have given opposing defenses fits all season.
Patriots WR Julian Edelman vs. Falcons SCB Brian Poole
Edelman ran 53.5 percent of his routes from the slot in 2016. If this trend continues into the Super Bowl, he will spend a lot of time matched up with the Falcon’s rookie free agent form Florida. While Poole has done some nice ancillary things from the inside, generating 10 pressures and 17 stops during the regular season, he has struggled in coverage at times , surrendering the fifth-most yards after the catch (230) among slot cornerbacks, with his nine missed tackles a concern against Brady’s elusive favorite target. Edelman’s 14 missed tackles forced were fifth among all wide receivers during the regular season, helping him to the fourth-most yards after the catch among that position group. Look for this matchup to be squarely on the side of the Patriots in this one.
Falcons C Alex Mack vs. Patriots DT Alan Branch
Branch, who was a liability on New England’s 2014 championship squad, has emerged as a key contributor on the Patriots’ top-graded defense this season. Among qualifying defensive tackles, he recorded the third-highest run-stop percentage (11.2), while chipping in 17 total QB pressures along the way. He’ll have a tougher go of it this week against Mack, who in his first season with Atlanta responded by generating a 89.9 overall grade (ranking third among centers). Like Branch, he was stronger in the run game, with just one negatively-graded game as a run blocker all season. If the Patriots choose to run the 3-3-5 defense they employed regularly against the Steelers in the AFC Championship, these two will be lined up directly across from each other for much of the game—a matchup for which Atlanta has a clear advantage.
Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman vs. Patriots ILBs Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy
Edge: Freeman and Coleman
After trading linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns midseason, New England has entrusted at least some the middle of their defense to two players that entered the year with just 133 total snaps played (and none with the Patriots). If the Patriots choose to use Dont’a Hightower on the outside (as they did against Pittsburgh a week ago), the responsibility of slowing the combination of Freeman (eighth in breakaway percentage among running backs and seventh in yards per route run) and Coleman (fifth and first, respectively) falls on Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy. Neither player was particularly good this season, with both ranking 50th or below in our terms of PFF overall grade among linebackers. Van Noy, specifically, allowed the second-most yards per coverage snap (1.85) among his position group, while Roberts surrendered 13 of 15 targets for receptions for 174 yards and a touchdown himself in coverage, leaving the Falcons with a big edge in these matchups.
Falcons RG Chris Chester vs. Patriots DT Malcom Brown
For an offensive line that has been great this season, ranking first in team run-blocking grades and 12th in pass-blocking grades, Chester has been the weak link. While he allowed the most quarterback hits (12) among all guards during the regular season, Brown generated 26 total QB pressures (15th among defensive tackles) during the regular season, and two more in the playoffs. He’s been even better against the run, earning the fourth-highest run-stop percentage (11.0) among his position group. While some of Chester’s best games as a run blocker have come recently, look for Brown to have a disruptive evening against the 11-year veteran from Oklahoma.
Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu vs. Patriots CB Logan Ryan
Sanu ran 59.1 percent of his routes from the slot this season, with a respectable 1.73 yards per route run to his name from the inside. In New England’s nickel defense, Ryan generally plays on the inside, where he allowed 1.35 yards per coverage snap (ranking 38th out of 52 qualifying players) during the regular season. While the Patriots’ handling of Julio Jones may be more complicated than simply shadowing him with Malcolm Butler, it’s likely that the Sanu/Ryan matchup will one of the more compelling one-on-ones throughout the game, given Bill Belichick’s ability to eliminate a team’s No. 1 option. One thing in Ryan’s favor is that he’s tackled well this season, missing just one stop in the passing game. Sanu’s average depth of target was 113th of 130 qualifying wide receivers in the 2016 regular season, meaning that if Ryan can make tackles in the open field, this should be a matchup that favors the Patriots.
Falcons TE Austin Hooper vs. Patriots S/LB Patrick Chung
After playing sparingly the first half of the season, Hooper has really come on of late, turning 28 targets into 304 yards and three touchdowns. Chung has played numerous roles in the Patriots’ defense, from a safety in the deep half of the field to an in-the-box linebacker type in one-on-one coverage with tight ends. While he has seen a bit of a career resurgence during his second stint with the Patriots, he had a poor season this year, grading out as the 86th safety out of 90 qualifying players. Look for Hooper, who has caught all three of his deep targets this year for 120 yards and a touchdown, to be a matchup problem for Chung, who is in the bottom half of the league in yards per coverage snap, both from the slot and from his traditional safety position.
Patriots WR Chris Hogan vs. Falcons CB Robert Alford
Hogan emerged in the AFC Championship game with 180 yards and two touchdowns in a rout of Pittsburgh. To the uninitiated, it appeared as if he had come from nowhere, but Hogan has actually been a big part of the Patriots’ offense all season, playing 930 snaps and earning 70 targets (including playoffs). He’ll likely match up on the outside with Robert Alford, who assumed the role as the Falcons’ top cornerback when Desmond Trufant (78.9) landed on IR after nine games with a shoulder injury. Alford has been better as the season has progressed, but has still surrendered 70 receptions on 114 passes into his coverage, for 896 yards and nine touchdowns (105.0 rating allowed). His 12 penalties allowed and 13 pass breakups during the regular season were second and third among cornerbacks during the regular season, showing the potential for boom or bust that might be an inflection point in this game. While I think this matchup ends up being a close one, look for the Patriots to exploit weaknesses where they see them, and to give Hogan an opportunity for his second-straight big game.
Patriots RBs Dion Lewis and James White vs. Falcons LBs Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell
Edge: Jones and Campbell
Much like on the other side, the Patriots have a pair of running backs that can change the game through the air in Dion Lewis and James White. The pair combined to turn 77 receptions on 98 targets into 645 yards and five touchdowns (while forcing 17 missed tackles) in the regular season, while adding eight catches on 12 targets for 58 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason so far. Much of the Falcons’ defensive improvement can be attributed to the speed they added this season by acquiring Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the 2016 draft. While both had their struggles early, each has graded positively in Atlanta’s last three games, with both putting together nice games in pass coverage over the course of the last six weeks. While the Falcons’ 26th-highest-graded run defense makes me believe this may be a sixth-offensive lineman, LeGarrette Blount-type affair, if the Patriots choose to test the young middle of the Falcons’ defense, look for the improvement of Jones and Campbell to shine in this one.