When the Patriots Have the Ball

Posted: 02/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

Throughout Tom Brady’s career, there’s generally only been one way to slow him down in the playoffs: by getting a lot of pressure on him, especially up the middle. That’s how the Patriots lost two Super Bowls to the Giants, it’s how they bowed out to the Broncos last year after Brady was hit a bazillion times, and it’s how the Texans kept things close against New England for a long time even though Brock Osweiler was their quarterback. So the key question for the Falcons’ defense is: can they make Brady feel uncomfortable? Can they hit him a few times early on?

Atlanta’s defense has certainly gotten better, at least against the pass. They were 24th in DVOA against the pass through 13 weeks. Including the playoffs, they’re ninth since then. Shockingly, the improvement has come since the Falcons lost their best cornerback, Desmond Trufant, in the middle of the season. Trufant wasn’t having his best year, but still. The reason they were able to slow Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers down in the playoffs is a seemingly transformed pass rush. Vic Beasley, the NFL’s regular season sack leader, has zero sacks and only a couple pressures through two playoff games. It hasn’t mattered. The Falcons had a pressure rate of 24.9% in the regular season, 27th in the NFL. In the playoffs, that rate is 44.9%, easily first. They’ve started to blitz a lot more, jumping up from 16.9% of the time (30th) to 36% (second). If you think this change is for real, and that the Falcons will pressure Brady almost every other time he drops back, you must pick the Falcons to win the game. I just don’t think the change is for real. Or rather, the ways in which the Falcons got pressure on Wilson and Rodgers simply won’t work often against Brady.

I said earlier that Brady struggles most when he faces consistent pressure from up the middle. Atlanta’s pass rush is predicated on guys — like Beasley — using their speed to get around linemen and pressure the QB from the outside. That worked well against Wilson and Rodgers, both of whom love to hold the ball for a long time in order to make a big play. It likely won’t get home quickly enough to bother Brady, who gets the ball out of his hands faster than anyone. Brady’s pocket presence is incredible, which is why one so often sees a pass rusher flying by him as he calmly steps up and throws a strike. New England’s offense also happens to be really, really good against blitzes. Brady can usually see them coming and throw to his hot route, and the Pats run a lot of short routes that are hard to defend when the defense is blitzing. Brady averages 9.6 yards per attempt against blitzes. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the Falcons should ever blitz. In fact, I believe they must. But unlike the Giants in those two Super Bowls and the Texans this year, they’re not going to be successful if Brady knows what’s coming. This is easier said than done, but they have to find a way to confuse Brady even a few times. In Dan Quinn, they have a defensive-minded head coach who’s been here before (he was the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks). Two years ago, he was doing a great job of making Brady feel uneasy in the first half. Then, Jeremy Lane and Cliff Avril got injured, and everything fell apart. We all know how that game ended. Quinn doesn’t have nearly the same defensive talent he had in Seattle, but hopefully he’s learned something about confusing Brady. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long, long day for Atlanta’s young, aggressive defense.

If Brady has time to throw, he’ll tear Atlanta’s defense apart, regardless of whether they’re playing their preferred Cover 3 Zone (which certainly won’t work) or (more likely) some Cover 1 Man (which almost certainly won’t work). The guy is amazing at finding the holes in a defense, and that’s true whether the defense is elite or, like Atlanta’s, average-at-best. Of all the individual matchups, I’m most worried about Brian Poole in the slot against Julian Edelman or whomever New England puts in the slot. To put it frankly, Poole just isn’t very good. While he mostly covers short routes, he’s still managed to give up 9.3 yards per pass since Week 14. That’s a really bad sign against an offense whose goal is to isolate the opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them time after time. Without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots don’t have a dominant weapon, but it hasn’t seemed to matter. Edelman’s a constant threat, and others have had huge games. Chris Hogan stepped up in the AFC Championship Game, and it seems likely that someone else will do the same today, whether it’s tight end Martellus Bennett or another receiver. New England’s weapons aren’t anything special without Gronk, but Brady sure makes them look special. Atlanta just doesn’t have the talent in the secondary to slow New England’s methodical and devastatingly effective offense. Robert Alford and Jalen Collins are fine corners, but Brady has made much better CBs look silly.

The Patriots’ running backs should also have their way, both in the run game and the pass game. The Falcons have been horrendous against passes to running backs, ranking 26th in DVOA. Neither the Seahawks nor the Packers were able to capitalize on that, but New England, with Dion Lewis and James White, will. Remember two years ago, when Shane Vereen served as Brady’s biggest weapon in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks? Vereen caught 11 passes. Something similar may be in store today for Lewis and/or White.

The Falcons have been surprisingly good against the run in the playoffs. But that’s largely because they haven’t faced many runs, as they jumped out to big leads against Seattle and Green Bay. Unless they can take a similar lead against the Patriots (which is unlikely), they’ll have trouble stopping New England’s runs up the middle. LeGarrette Blount hasn’t done much in the playoffs, but he should be a big part of the Patriots’ game plan today. Dion Lewis will also likely have his fair share of success on the ground. This is why the Falcons can’t get in a big early hole. The Patriots will just be able to salt away the game.

Tom Brady is playing arguably the best football of his life. He looked completely unstoppable against the Steelers two weeks ago, and Pittsburgh’s defense is better than Atlanta’s. The only hope for the Falcons’ defense is to force a turnover or two and/or sack Brady a couple of times. That’s why rookie linebacker Deion Jones is so important. Jones has been GREAT of late, and he’s Atlanta’s best playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him blitz a couple of times up the middle, and if they do manage to turn the Patriots over, Jones could well be the reason why.

 

As you can probably gather from what I’ve written so far, I expect the Patriots to score a lot of points. The Falcons need a lot to go right — fortuitous bounces, maybe a few drops, blown assignments from the offensive line — in order to keep the Patriots from moving the ball every drive. They are unlikely to beat Brady the way the Giants and Broncos did. Luckily, they might not have to, because their offense is unlike any the Brady-Belichick Patriots have faced in the playoffs. But they must take advantage of every opportunity given to them and force at least a couple of field goals, because otherwise the game might get out of hand early, and it will be difficult for even this Atlanta offense to make up a big deficit against a Belichick defense.

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