With the 51st Super Bowl on the horizon, we’re looking at how to each team can be beaten, unit by unit. First up, the Atlanta Falcons’ defense.
When Dan Quinn took over from Mike Smith as the Falcons’ head coach two years ago, one of his main stipulations was that the defense had to get younger and faster. Through skillful drafting and some astute acquisitions he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff have managed to make both of these a reality, to the point where even Bill Belichick has commented that they seem to be the speediest in the NFL.
Speed isn’t everything, though. Atlanta started out under Quinn as a flat-out cover three defense, but have evolved over time – and in particularly over this season – into a hybrid of that and a man coverage unit. Given that unusual look, the speed and the fact that they boast the NFL’s sack leader for 2016 in Vic Beasley Jr, how can they be beaten?
One clear way is simply to use that youth and aggression against them. The Falcons like to drop six men into coverage, but they aren’t afraid to rush the remaining five. Releasing the ball quickly – something the Patriots do well anyway – helps to negate that rush and in Dion Lewis New England have one of the best catchers out of the backfield in the NFL. Such a tactic often leads to short yardage gains and there are a lot of teams who eschew that, but New England hasn’t had a real deep threat receiver for years and their offense is actually designed to work on that basis, with Tom Brady often throwing underneath to the likes of Lewis, Julian Edelman and even (when he holds on to the pill) James White.
Another trick is to use the defense’s youth and inexperience against them. Rub routes were very much in vogue a couple of years ago and, although officials are wise to them, bunch formations at the line of scrimmage, followed by the receivers running crossing patterns, confuse even experienced defenders in man coverage. With strong receivers such as Edelman and Chris Hogan these plays become attractive options and we saw against the Steelers in the AFC Championship game just how well the Patriots use them to get a man free in coverage.
Finally, don’t believe the hype. For all of the talk about this defense, Atlanta won most of their games by outscoring their opponents, not by stopping them. Their pass defense ranked only 28th in the NFL during the regular season and even their run defense was only 17th. Those aren’t the sort of statistics to scare New England.