Falcons win Super Bowl unless Patriots can stop Matt Ryan-Julio Jones combo
The Pats will have to stop NFL’s best offense to bring a fifth Super Bowl title back to New England
I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.
Only one game left. But before we get to Super Bowl LI, here is what you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons’ offense and how the New England Patriots could slow it down.
Playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. Which is why I love what Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has been doing this season in Atlanta. He does everything he can do to make it easier for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. As I explained earlier in the season, Shanahan is a smart and creative play designer. But everybody should know that by now. Here is something other analysts won’t give you: Shanahan is a decisive playcaller. Sounds like a small thing, right? I guess it is, but let me tell you why that small thing could be the key to the Falcons’ historic offensive production. Unlike many offensive coordinators, who seem surprised that they have to call another play, Shanahan is aware of the potential outcomes of the current play and has plays ready for every feasible down and distance. And he sends the play in immediately.
Aside from the benefit of not having your team look frantic and waste timeouts, it allows time for the offense to do formation shifts and run players in motion before the snap of the ball. On Sunday, it seemed like the Falcons motioned on every offensive play. Motion is truth serum for the defense.
Often on Sunday, the Falcons, who had the No. 1 offense in the NFL this season with 58 touchdowns, would start with a tight end or fullback lined up outside of a receiver who was split wide. If a safety or linebacker lines up across from the TE/FB, then the defense is playing a man-to-man scheme. If a cornerback widens to cover the TE/FB, then the defense is in a zone scheme. Obviously, the defense has a few different coverages and blitzes from both man-to-man and zone looks. Which is when the motion helps.
Against the man-to-man looks, motioning the TE/FB into the backfield or to the opposite side of the field is effective because it guarantees an isolated one-on-one matchup with a lot of space to work. And the Falcons can add the TE/FB to the protection in case of blitz. If they get a zone look, they can motion the receiver across the formation, creating a triple-receiver formation to one side. In many cases, motion to trips will force the defense to show if there is a blitz coming and where it is coming from, because only the players not blitzing are free to adjust. And if the defense is not blitzing, trips is great for overloading zone coverages.
So now, after only a few seconds, Ryan knows the defense and knows where he’s going to throw the ball before snapping it. There is no need to go through his progressions while defenders are barreling toward him. All that is left to do is look the safety off, count on the talented receivers to run the well-designed play and deliver a decisive and accurate pass.
I don’t mean to suggest that Ryan isn’t capable of reading a defense and going through his progressions during the play. A couple of times during the game against the Green Bay Packers, their pre-snap disguise fooled Ryan, but he recognized what was happening during the play and found the right receiver. The key is not to ask any quarterback to do that too often. Even all-time greats, such as the Patriots’ Tom Brady, often aren’t reading the defense during the play. They know where the ball should go before the snap.
The Patriots could make things more difficult for Ryan because they have smart and versatile defenders and the Super Bowl is played on a neutral field. Patriots safety Devin McCourty was once a cornerback, and cornerback Logan Ryan plays their nickelback. So the Patriots players would not necessarily have to show their coverages or play out of position. Playing in a neutral stadium ensures the crowd will be quiet enough for the Patriots to verbally communicate before the snap. Since they know what Ryan may have learned from pre-snap movement, the Patriots could change their defense after the Falcons shift.
But they should be careful about blitzing, because that is when Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones does damage. When Ryan is being pressured, he almost exclusively looks for Jones. And rightfully so. Once the defense commits extra defenders to the pass rush, it doesn’t have enough to stop Jones. When blitzed, Ryan looks to get the ball into Jones’ hands quickly while watching as the poor unfortunate soul who is guarding him tries to bring down the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Alabama native. Oh, yeah, and he runs a 4.39-second 40-yard dash.
When blitzed by the Packers, Ryan was 10-for-15 for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Jones accounted for six of the receptions, 139 of the yards and both of the touchdowns. This has been the Falcons’ blitz plan all season. Jones has 544 yards against the blitz this season, ranked second in the league.
My last suggestion for the Patriots is to prepare for Mohamed Sanu at quarterback. We all know that red zone performance can be a deciding factor in games between evenly matched teams. The Falcons’ early touchdowns on Sunday came from Ryan improvising, not great red zone strategy. The Falcons will most certainly use every trick they have to create advantages in the red zone. And the Patriots have a history of struggling against the wildcat offense. So it makes sense for the Falcons to test the Patriots’ wildcat defense.
Crank that Migos!
The Falcons will be Super Bowl champions!