What to watch for when the Falcons are on offense
Former NFL QB Zac Robinson explains what to watch for when the Falcons are on offense in Super Bowl LI.
What to watch for when the Falcons are on offense
The flexibility the Falcons offense has with their personnel, formations, mixing up tempos and a high volume of both run and pass concepts has made them a nightmare to stop for opposing defenses all season. The reason they are able to throw so much at you is simple: Matt Ryan. Ryan’s ability to digest the information needed pre- and post-snap, click through reads while feeling the pocket leave every passing option viable on every play.
The Patriots defense has quite a bit of flexibility of its own. Built on a stout and powerful front, with the ability to play tight in their man to man schemes, and disciplined in their zone schemes leave this group more than up to the task.
Of course neither one of these defenses is going to completely slow the opposing offense down, but limiting what they do will be the difference. Here are a few things to watch for when the Falcons have the ball:
Falcons’ O-line must create movement horizontally in the running game
The Patriots are a stout group up front and can be difficult to get movement on. They primarily play a five-down front with two-gap techniques holding their ground at the line of scrimmage and shedding blocks to make the play. Running downhill right at them is a tough task. To counter the Patriots’ power up along the defensive line, the Falcons will look to play to their own strength – their speed and athleticism in their much-talked-about wide outside zone schemes.
This season, the Falcons have averaged the second-best yards before contact on outside zone plays at 2.1, and the third-best yards per carry at 4.9. Can the Falcons shock them enough with their speed horizontally to create creases and make the Patriots uncomfortable, or will the Patriots defensive front be able to run with them and hold their ground as the play stretches and prove to be too difficult to move and find lanes to run through?
The key matchup here is Alan Branch (eighth-best run defender) vs. Alex Mack (second-best run blocker). Most outside zones after they get stretched end up hitting on either side of the center. If Branch is disruptive either making the play himself, or creating space for a teammate to make the play, the Falcons may have a difficult time running the football.
Winning on first down
The Falcons are averaging a league-best 7.0 yards per play on first down this season. Much of their first-down success can be attributed to them being able to maintain balance running the football mixed in with their much talked about play action game to get chunk yards. This leaves them in more third-and-manageable situations, not to mention leaving the playbook wide open for Kyle Shanahan to dial up some of their longer developing mid-level pass concepts.
The Patriots allow just 4.6 yards per play on first down, which is good for fifth-best in the NFL. If they want to limit the amount of yards on first down they must be able to stop the run while being able to play their two deep safeties, a look that will protect them from some of the deeper developing play action concepts.
How Patriots will choose to cover on the back end
This is the obvious main storyline of the game. The Patriots will mix up their coverages well, but they predominately settle in to cover-1 man-to-man, and cover-2 zone, doing them both at a high level, giving up just 6.3 yards per attempt on the season (sixth-best). They are likely to change up some coverages at times depending on the flow of the game and get to their two-deep safeties man-underneath coverage as well.
The Patriots know in order to have success they must challenge the Falcons receivers at times and be physical at the line of scrimmage. They have the personnel to play tight man-to-man coverage to try and disrupt some of the timing and rhythm in their passing game.
How the Patriots treat the Falcons receivers in man-to-man is a key to watch early in the game. Who they decide will stay on Julio Jones will tell a lot with how they view the other threats of the Falcons attack. Eric Rowe is a physical player in man coverage and could be the guy to shadow Julio Jones as the speed threats of Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson could leave Malcolm Butler in assignment for them. There are quite a few scenarios that raise a question but will be sorted out depending on the flow of the game.
Big plays in the passing game
Trying to limit big plays in the passing game is something the Patriots pride themselves on, where on the other side Matt Ryan has been the game’s best passer on throws traveling 20-plus yards in the air, leading the NFL with a 136.1 rating. The Falcons will take their shots down the field either on go routes or perhaps a double move on a corner or cover-2 safety. The guy for them to stretch down the field vertically if Julio Jones get the expected safety cap over him is Taylor Gabriel. If Gabriel draws single coverage matched up with either Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe look for the Falcons to attack down the field with him at some point. With the cover-1 safety leaning toward Julio Jones, there is a lot of space for him to work. The Patriots have defended deep balls fairly well, but have also lucked out with 9 drops coming on go routes against them this season.
How the Patriots defend the Falcons play-action passing game will be a big factor in their success. Matt Ryan led the NFL with 11.3 yards per attempt on play action. Whether it be on bootlegs moving the pocket or set up inside the pocket, most of their play action concepts come off of their wide zone action. The linebackers’ ability to recognize and get depth will be key. Something also to look for is quick snap counts from the Falcons. Much of the time when the Falcons lineup and snap the ball quickly, a deeper developing route concept is coming
The Falcons average 6.4 yards after the catch, which leads the lead the NFL. How well the Patriots can keep the ball in front of them and come up and tackle — specifically when they play their 2-deep zone looks — will be vital.
Can the Patriots front disrupt the passing game with pressure?
The Patriots will mix in their five down pressures, rush three drop eight, but the key will be if they can push the pocket up the middle to force pressure on Matt Ryan and potentially a bad decision. Ryan is the only quarterback in the NFL to not throw an interception under pressure all season.
The guy to create pressure for the Patriots is from the inside, Trey Flowers. His length and athleticism could present a few problems for the interior line of the Falcons. He will need to push the pocket with effectiveness when he is matched up with guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester on first and second downs, and right over center Alex Mack on third downs. Sometimes he may not directly force the pressure, but his movement can free up other players along the line.
How Patriots can slow down Matt Ryan
I think everyone can agree the Super Bowl winner will be most likely be decided by which quarterback takes care of the ball, plays the best on third down, in the red zone, and under pressure. Ryan has been good in each area, posting the third-best passer rating on third down at 112.3, a 29:1 TD-to-INT ratio in the red zone, and his under-pressure passer rating of 88.2 is second in the NFL over the course of the season.
The Patriots may try to get after Ryan a little bit early to speed up his process with some 5 man pressures to push the middle of the pocket. After that make Ryan play patient and earn everything up and down the field. Mixing up what he’s looking at, and timely changeups of dropping 8 into coverage are way the Patriots may try to limit the Falcons passing attack. Much of the game will be decided on how accurately Ryan’s ball placement is vs man to man coverage in the crucial downs of the game.
The Patriots defense has forced at least one turnover in each of the last eight games, and seven out of eight games have seen them force two or more. They’ve grabbed 12 interceptions over that span, with five coming in either cover-1 man or cover-2 man, and the other seven coming in zone, showing they are capable of playing both effectively.
Of course, both teams will come in showing different things and will be about making adjustments as the game rolls along. The Patriots have the flexibility with personnel to at least limit what the Falcons want to do offensively, but the majority of this game will come down to who can win in man-to-man coverage.
Matt Ryan is likely to make a couple throws into coverage — whether they end up in the hands of Patriots defenders will be decided on Sunday. The Patriots have to feel they will have a good chance to win the game if they can keep hold the Falcons under 30 points. The matchups on this side of the ball are the most intriguing to watch this game and should not disappoint.
Zac Robinson | Analyst
Zac Robinson is a former three-year starting QB for Oklahoma State. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round in 2010, and spent time with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions before finishing his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals.