When the Falcons Have the Ball

Posted: 02/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

It’s the league’s #1 scoring offense vs. its #1 scoring defense. Strength vs. strength, just like it’s supposed to be in the Super Bowl, right? Well, not exactly. Atlanta’s offense is scary-good. That much is for sure. They have talent at every position, and they have the best receiver in the NFL along with the MVP. They were one of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history, and then they scored a combined 80 points against the Seahawks and Packers. But while the Patriots do indeed have the #1 scoring defense (by far), that’s largely because they’ve left their opponents with horrendous field position and have had a very plush schedule. They should meet their match in the Falcons, who are incredible at generating long touchdown drives. Let’s get to the particulars of this matchup.

If I got a nickel every time someone mentioned: “Bill Belichick takes away the opponent’s best player,” I’d surely be a millionaire by now. And I think it’s wayy overblown. Of course Belichick is going to try to take away the opponent’s top weapon (usually receiver). But is he really that successful? Check this out:

This is a list of every first-team All-Pro receiver who’s faced the Patriots since 2000, courtesy of Bill Barnwell. The average (rounded) numbers for each receiver are on the left, and the numbers against the Patriots are on the right. Playoff games are asterisked. Guess what? Great receivers are great receivers, even when playing against the vaunted schemer that is Bill Belichick. All this means that the people who are taking for granted that the Patriots are going to shut down Julio Jones are misguided-at-best. Julio Jones is relatively healthy, and a relatively healthy Julio Jones is the league’s most unstoppable receiver since Terrell Owens. That’s right: I’d put him ahead of Antonio Brown (he can do everything Brown can and is half a foot taller). I’d put him ahead of Calvin Johnson (his route tree is much more expansive than Megatron’s. Calvin ran a lot of fly routes and deep crosses. Julio does everything). The Patriots will not shut him down.

The good thing for the Patriots is that I don’t think Belichick expects to shut him down. He’s going to put a safety over the top every play, and he’s going to try to eliminate the explosive plays, but he’s not going to panic when Jones makes a few big plays. There’s been a lot of talk about how the Pats will defend Julio. I think they’ll mix and match between Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, and Logan Ryan (again, always with safety help over the top. Devin McCourty’s going to see a lot of action). But the Patriots won’t get spooked by a bunch of eight yard receptions by Jones. I guarantee you that Belichick would love to see Julio end up with 12 catches for 100 yards. His goal is to eliminate the big plays.

After last week’s destruction of Green Bay’s secondary, Jones has had eight 100+ yard games this season. Four of them have come in losses — and the Falcons have only lost five games all season. They lose when Matt Ryan relies too heavily upon Julio — in the regular season, he had a 35% target share in their losses and a 25% target share in their wins. It makes a lot of sense, because the reason that Ryan has made a huge leap this year is because he’s had to rely less on Julio. He’s had Jones for years, but the offense has never been great, let alone all-time awesome. Kyle Shanahan, who really does seem to be an incredible offensive coordinator, makes it easy for Ryan to find other open options. Belichick’s real challenge is to slow down those weapons.

The most important facet of this game — on either side of the ball — is Atlanta’s dynamic run game against New England’s stingy run defense. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman form a scary 1-2 punch, as both have the ability to catch the ball, to run through the trenches, and to break a big gain off the edge. They’ve been best running up the middle, thanks in large part to the tremendous play of center Alex Mack. Unfortunately, Mack has an ankle injury. He’ll likely play in the Super Bowl but it’s worth keeping an eye on that ankle. If he’s slowed and his pass and/or run blocking is hampered, Atlanta’s offense gets a lot less explosive. The Patriots ranked fourth in defensive DVOA this season, and they’ve completely throttled Houston’s and Pittsburgh’s run games. They held Lamar Miller to 74 yards on 19 carries before limiting Le’Veon Bell to 20 yards on six totes (before Bell injured his groin) and DeAngelo Williams to 34 yards on 14 carries. It would be nice if Freeman and Coleman could consistently break off big chunks, because it would allow the Falcons to really take control of the time of possession battle, which could prove vital for their young defense. More importantly, though, they need to establish the run game in order to open up their favorite plays: play-action ones.

In the regular season, Atlanta used play-action on 26% of its plays (tops in the NFL) and averaged 10.4 yards per play (second to the Redskins). And the Patriots gave up eight yards per play-action pass, compared to just six yards per pass otherwise. So it seems very likely that the Falcons will be able to generate a couple of big plays off the play-action, especially since the Patriots don’t have a particularly strong pass rush. Ryan has been otherworldly against three and four man rushes, so it would make sense for the Patriots to bring some blitzes in this game, even though they’re a team that doesn’t usually blitz a lot. Expect to see a few big blitzes, but the Patriots won’t likely get too crazy, because their number one goal is, again, to limit the big plays, and Ryan has the ability to find open receivers downfield if he’s given even a little time.

One other reason the run game is so important: the Falcons will need at least the threat of Freeman or Coleman running the ball in the redzone, because otherwise they’re going to have a tough time punching the ball in. Atlanta is just average in the redzone, while New England has been great at forcing teams to kick field goals. Field goals won’t cut it in this game, and I expect Dan Quinn to be aggressive with his play-calling near the goal line, including on fourth downs. Coleman and Freeman have a rushing touchdown apiece this postseason, and they’ve also each scored on a reception in the redzone. If Jones is Plan A in the redzone and Mohamed Sanu is Plan B, whichever running back is in is a very strong Plan C.

While Freeman and Coleman are very talented players, Atlanta will undoubtedly rely on Ryan and the high-octane passing game. I’ve already talked about Jones, but I think it’s worth repeating that I find it hard to believe that the Patriots will shut him down. Regardless, Ryan has other receivers to throw to, and it’s imperative that he doesn’t start relying too heavily upon Julio in a close game. As I wrote before, the Falcons have run into trouble when they’ve force-fed the ball to Jones. The reason the offense is so much better this year than any Ryan-led offense has ever been is largely the play-calling by Shanahan but also the team’s other receivers. Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are fantastic second and third options in the passing game. Sanu is a possession receiver who is capable of making tough catches, is a go-to target on third down, and has a touchdown in each playoff game (I was surprised to see that he only had four touchdowns in the regular season). One catch against the Seahawks stands out. The Falcons were at their own 14. They were ahead 12-10 with time running out in the first half. It seemed likely that Seattle would get the ball back with a chance to take the lead. Then Sanu made a really difficult 22 yard catch on second and 10, and the Falcons ended up scoring a touchdown at the end of the half. The catch really showcases how strong his hands are. Here it is. The Patriots will likely defend Sanu with one of their bigger corners, namely Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe.

Gabriel will likely be the one the Patriots key on stopping, because he’s the guy (other than Julio, of course) who can take the top off of a defense. He averaged 16.5 yards per catch in the regular season and is at 15.8 through two playoff games. He has six games with a 30+ yard reception, and he only played 13 regular season games. He may see a lot of Malcolm Butler, since Butler will be able to keep up with him. Of all of the Falcons’ offensive threats, he’s the one I think is least likely to burn the Patriots. But that’s only because New England is well aware of what he can do. When he’s on the field, he can open things up for crossing routes and the 10-20 yard passes that made Ryan the MVP.

I haven’t yet mentioned the tight ends, who rank first and third in DVOA among tight ends (Gronk is second). Of course, Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper aren’t the first and third best tight ends in the NFL (they rank 11th and 17th in DYAR, which is usage-dependent), but those DVOA numbers show how efficient they have been. In the regular season, Toilolo had 13 catches on 19 targets for 264 yards and two touchdowns. He’s become more involved of late, totaling nine targets in his last three games (including the two playoff games). Hooper caught 19 of 27 targets for 271 yards and three scores. I’m not predicting a big game for either of these two, but they’re worth mentioning, both because they’ve made some big plays this season (not many tight ends average as many yards per catch as they do) and because they are part of the reason that Atlanta’s offense is so tough to beat. Two weeks ago, fullback Patrick DiMarco rumbled for a 31 yard catch. This offense really can beat you with anyone.

The biggest reason they’re so dominant, of course, is the quarterback. Matt Ryan has had an exceptional season. There’s a reason that he ranks first in pretty much every all-encompassing stat there is (quarterback rating, QBR, DVOA, DYAR, etc). In the regular season, he threw for 4,944 yards, averaging 9.26 yards per attempt. He had 38 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. In the playoffs, he’s been even better, with 730 yards (9.73 yards per attempt), seven touchdowns, and zero picks. He even had his first rushing touchdown since 2012. His decision-making has been sublime, he’s super accurate, and he’s been a great downfield passer. In other words, he’s been nearly perfect this season.

New England’s game plan is going to be to keep the ball in front of them, as they’ve done all season. They rarely allow big plays and have held opposing receivers to an average of just 4.1 yards after catch, the lowest in the NFL. They’re going to let Ryan complete some underneath throws, because they understand that they won’t be able to shut down this offense… they just hope to contain it. They’ll try to tighten up in the redzone, forcing some Matt Bryant field goals. They’ll try to take out the run game, forcing Atlanta out of the driver’s seat. And on obvious passing situations, they’ll send a few blitzes in order to make Ryan feel uncomfortable. Will any of this work? Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” The Falcons will still score plenty of points, but they won’t find it as easy to consistently score touchdowns as they have the last couple of games. And given that their defense is unlikely to slow down Tom Brady all that much, the offense will be under tremendous pressure to control the game. Only seven NFL teams have ever scored more than Atlanta did this season, and none of them went on to win the Super Bowl. If the Falcons are to become the first, they’ll need to be nearly perfect offensively. The odds are against it (which is why they’re three point underdogs), but I think they can do it.

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