The Falcons and Patriots appear ready to put up big numbers in NRG Stadium on Sunday, but it will be the little things that determine the winner of Super Bowl 51.
Points appear to be ready to rain aplenty in the dome on Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons (+3 at time of writing) have the top offense in the NFL this season. The New England Patriots still have Tom Brady. Las Vegas and the public seem to agree on the inevitability of a shootout as Vegas started the over/under of total points at 58 points and it continues to climb to 59 at the time of writing. It may hit 60 by kickoff. To put that into perspective, only 1 game all season had as high of a total – the NFC Championship game between Atlanta and Green Bay at 59.5. Vegas totals only broke 55 points twice this season – the aforementioned NFCCG and Atlanta at New Orleans in week 17. The average of NFL closing lines this season was 45.8.
(Footnote: Atlanta has recorded 5 unders and 17 overs (including their last 8) vs. closing lines this season. The Patriots recorded 11 unders, 10 overs (including their last 3), and 1 push.)
Looking deeper into the offenses, Football Outsiders agrees that these are two are the best in the league. Based on their DVOA formula, Atlanta was the most efficient offense in the NFL this season. The Patriots, after a small but noticeable gap, ranked second. The gap in the ratings (4.2%) is important to point out because it shows just how incredible this Atlanta offense was this season. The Falcons, behind current-Offensive-Coordinator-slash-future-San-Francisco-49ers-Head-Coach Kyle Shanahan put up 540 points this season – tied for 7th all time in a season with “The Greatest Show on Turf” 2000 St. Louis Rams. The next closest team this season were the New Orleans Saints with 469 points. The difference of 71 points between Atlanta and New Orleans is staggering. Take 71 points away from the 2nd place Saints and they would drop to 11th in points total.
The Patriots offense is nothing to scoff at. It’s 3rd in points, 4th in yards, 2nd in DVOA, and tied for 1st (with Atlanta) in fewest turnovers lost with 11. It’s not that the New England offense is bad, it’s just that Atlanta’s offense is really that good. To add more context, the always terrific Aaron Schatz gives some more interesting insight:
Fun with perception: Atlanta’s offense played the No. 2 hardest schedule of defenses this year. NE’s D played the easiest sched of offenses.
— Aaron Schatz 🏈📎 (@FO_ASchatz) January 27, 2017
Fun with perception, part II: Pats offense actually played a slightly harder than average schedule. The easy schedule was all for the D.
— Aaron Schatz 🏈📎 (@FO_ASchatz) January 27, 2017
Not only did Atlanta’s defense torch the league, but it did it against the 2nd hardest schedule vs. defenses. Compare that to New England who has a “slightly harder than average” schedule and it’s easy to see that while Brady and the Patriots have a potent offense, there’s a fairly significant gap between them and Shanahan’s squad.
The disadvantage that the Patriots over on offense is more than reconciled on the defensive side of the ball.
Bill Belichick and his defense ranked 16th in defensive DVOA this season while the Falcons finished 27th. That’s a massive gap (9.6%) that Atlanta will need to find a way to overcome.
It’s important to note that the Patriots defense isn’t a juggernaut like the Falcons offense. They’re 1st in points allowed with 250, which is a terrific number but doesn’t come near getting in the history books like the Atlanta offense. The Patriots were 8th in yards this season and middle of the pack in takeaways.
The important context here is that the New England defense scored well in volume stats mainly because they weren’t on the field much. Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia’s defense faced 998 plays, the 9th fewest in the NFL. Compare that to Dan Quinn’s Falcons defense that faced 1059 snaps this season. A difference of 61 snaps effectively means that the Atlanta defense played an entire full game more this regular season than the Patriots’ defense. And that’s not including the playoffs where the Falcons’ defense played another dozen or so plays more than the Patriots had to.
The rub about having a high-powered offense is that opposing offense have to crank the dial to eleven to try to keep up. That means the defense is going to face not only more snaps but more snaps where the other team is trying to score in a hurry. Yards pile up, opposing offenses tack on some garbage time points, and before you know it, an otherwise efficient defense is sitting at the bottom of the league in volume stats.
While New England’s defense only allowed 250 points, on a yards per play basis, they ranked 9th at 5.2 y/p. Atlanta by the same efficiency metric ranks 20th at 5.6 y/p. If someone way smarter than I am were to adjust for garbage time and prevent defenses, my guess is that Atlanta would rank significantly better in this metric while New England got slightly better. It’s not the end-all-be-all statistic but it does give us some insight that volume stats could never provide.
There’s one more important point to mention about these defenses: both have improved throughout the year at a solid clip. A lot of NFL analysts will mention how much the Falcons’ defense has improved but the Patriots’ defense has improved by an even greater amount. It’s easy to notice Atlanta’s improvement because they went from being pretty awful to not so bad to, “They are good enough that they might be able to keep other offenses from keeping up with Matt Ryan & Co.” New England’s defense went from being sneaky bad to being sneaky good and did it over a longer period of time. And you expect a Belichick-led defense to be good so when they’re good it just doesn’t stick out as much. The link in our friend Aaron Schatz’s tweet below expounds on this growth principle from a DVOA (and VOA) perspective a little more if you’re interested.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-partner=”tweetdeck”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>The Falcons' defensive improvement is real. The Patriots' defensive improvement is real and larger. <a href=”https://t.co/DBujFWwV5I”>https://t.co/DBujFWwV5I</a></p>— Aaron Schatz 🏈📎 (@FO_ASchatz) <a href=”https://twitter.com/FO_ASchatz/status/823642916769959937″>January 23, 2017</a></blockquote>
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Belichick Gets His Own Section
As much as I love numbers, they just can never tell the whole story. They’re an important part of the puzzle but they will never be able to quantify Bill Belichick’s impact on a game.
So many articles have been written about what it is that makes Belichick so special. What does he do that no one else can figure out? Authors dig to find the one thing that Belichick does that elevates him above every other coach in the league and permits him to consistently win in a league that’s built to create parity. The problem with this is that condensing Belichick into one or two main elements is like trying to cram our galaxy into a tennis ball canister. There is just too much going on there to reduce it down to a smaller size.
Last night I watched “Do Your Job” for the first time. “Do Your Job” is a documentary about the Patriots’ preparation for Super Bowl 49 in 2015. It’s also the motto Belichick instills in his teams, his staff, and by osmosis the DNA of the New England organization. It’s a perfect motto because it illustrates its creator with Michelangelo-like color.
The quote leaves important parts unsaid, just as Belichick does in his press conferences. What isn’t articulated in that aphorism is to do your job well. It also expresses the minimalist essence that The Hoodie takes in his approach to life. No frills, no suits, nothing fancy, just results. Do your job. Do it well. No need for excess. Straight to the point.
If you do your job well, and the rest of the team does their job well, then as a collective whole, the team will be successful. For Belichick, it’s not just one thing that he does better than other coaches or organizations. It’s the collective whole of the many things that he does better than others (or that they don’t do at all). He is an avid analytics guy even though he says he isn’t. He uses those analytics to create small advantages for his team and his staff. And much like each player doing his job, those small increments add up to a lot of increased opportunity for success.
Like his “Do Your Job” quote, Belichick is versatile. He runs a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense. He actually uses 3-4 principles in his 4-3, and 4-3 principles in his 3-4 at times. And sometimes he runs both at the same time. His offense has morphed throughout the years based on personnel. He’s gone from the stretch-the-field-with-Randy-Moss-and-napalm-opposing-defenses-in-the-blink-of-an-eye-offense to shorter reads and throws with receivers like Edelman, Ammendola, and Welker, while using the short-pass and screen game as an extension of the run game. All of this while using the same quarterback to run all the different offensive schemes, too (which is impressive on both his and Brady’s part).
It’s difficult to measure Belichick’s impact on football games unless you are looking at the win column or trophies in the case(s) at Gillette Stadium. All of the tiny things he does to set his team up for success aren’t really all that tiny. They’re icebergs that most people surpass because they only see the tip protruding through the surface thinking that’s all there is to it, and who also would otherwise be unable grasp the magnitude of what lies beneath if they were to look deeper.
Enough kissing Belichick’s rings. What about the matchups?
In the numbers discussed earlier, we compared the Patriots offense to the Atlanta offense and the Patriots defense to the Atlanta defense. But that’s not how football works. Offenses don’t play against each other. Defenses won’t ever be on the field at the same time. If we place them at odds with their true opponent, the numbers say the matchups are strength (offense) on semi-weakness (defense) for both teams.
I type-drooled about Belichick because it’s his scheming that will make or break this game. Belichick is well-known for his “target” scheme in which he gameplans to target the opposing offense’s best player(s) to effectively eliminate them from the game and make an offense uncomfortably beat his defense with the offense’s dominant hand tied behind its back. The problem is that Atlanta, like Goro from Mortal Kombat, has more hands than anyone else New England has fought this year. The Falcons have so many potent weapons on offense that if Belichick chooses to shut down Julio Jones, Matt Ryan still has Mohammed Sanu, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Taylor Gabriel, and (to a lesser extent) Levine Toilolo to create opportunities. Throw in that Kyle Shanahan might be as good at scheming offense as Belichick is at scheming defense and this becomes a really fun matchup to watch play out.
Against Green Bay, the Falcons used a lot of personnel packages that would indicate run to most defenses – 2 running backs and 1 tight end or 2 tight ends and 1 running back – but they threw the ball out of those packages as if that’s what they were designed for. Shanahan used these packages against Green Bay because he knew that they gave his QB options at the line of scrimmage. Shanahan would call 2 plays, Ryan would signal both in the huddle and then kill to the run if he didn’t like the look he got. The problem was that Ryan liked all the looks he got, even out of run formations, and torched the Packers’ secondary all day long.
Shanahan is an aggressive play caller and with a very good offensive line and weapons at every position he can afford to be. He’s versatile in his personnel and formations and always has something new that he throws out every game. There’s something that the Falcons haven’t put on film yet that they’ll pull out vs. the Patriots on Sunday. If there’s a prop bet for Atlanta running a play that they haven’t run all season in this game, I’d bet Donald Trump’s house on it.
New England will counter Atlanta’s volume of weapons and their versatility with their own. Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio have built this defense to be able to matchup soundly with any offense it faces. Belichick and Patricia love to change schemes and personnel to match the opposing offense. If it’s an offense that likes to run the ball, they have the large, heavy linebackers to stand up to the punishment of a consistent powerful run attack and deal out some of their own. If a team wants to spread them out, the Patriots have enough good DBs that can play outside and enough LBs and slot corners to match up in the pass game. And they’re very good at the safety position to be able to support both types of defense. Belichick will manipulate his fronts and his looks to confuse Ryan at the line of scrimmage presnap so he hesitates just long enough for the pass rush to get home or to at least cause disruption of the throw.
And they tackle well.
Let me repeat that because this is important.
The New England Patriots defenses tackles well.
Shanahan is a master at creating open lanes for his receivers through formations and scheme. Yards after the catch are a crux of the Falcons offense and that means that if a team doesn’t tackle well, his offense faces little resistance on the way to the end zone (Exhibit A: NFCCG vs. Green Bay). But with a defense that tackles well, it can really stunt what this offense does really well. And New England has the players to do it with the right guy scheming them to get them in position to make the tackle.
On a micro level I’m not sure that New England has enough pass rush up front to consistently get to Ryan. I do think they have the heft to plug up the run game. In the secondary, Malcolm Butler has been a terrific #1 CB for the Patriots while Logan Ryan has held his own on the opposite side. Devin McCourty is a top echelon safety and Patrick Chung has been a Swiss army knife for Belichick and Patricia. The pass packages will consist of some combination of Eric Rowe, Duron Harmon, and Nate Ebner. The Patriots will likely pick one of these guys to stick with Taylor Gabriel while they use some form of bracketing/double coverage on Julio.
Shanahan knows this is coming and will try to scheme Julio open out of these double coverages. If New England refuses to let Jones go anywhere without taking 2 defenders with him, Shanahan will single him out to isolate a 3×2 matchup on Gabriel and Sanu. He’ll also run his RBs out into WR positions to try to manipulate the defense into bad matchups based on motion and formation.
As I said before, it’s hard to quantify Belichick’s influence on how this offense will execute on Sunday. Belichick has the players on defense to try to do what he wants, but I don’t think there’s any way to cover all of the weapons that Atlanta can march out on any given play. Atlanta will get their points. The question then becomes, can New England keep pace?
Atlanta’s defense is built on speed. Belichick has talked about it in press conferences leading up to this game. The thing about having a speedy defense means that it’s likely undersized because of the tradeoffs necessary to having that type of defense. Atlanta’s defense is a good example of this.
I know the Patriots have Tom Brady, but if they win this game, it’s going to be on the shoulders of LeGarrette Blount. Offensive Line coach Dante Scarnecchia is one of the best in the business. The offensive has improved greatly since his return from retirement. It’s a strength now, not a weakness.
Scarnecchia’s offensive line, plus Blount’s size and skill, mixed with the lack of size of the Falcons defense is a bad matchup for the Falcons. It stings even more because if Blount runs the ball effectively, it keeps the clock rolling and keep Matt Ryan and that offense off the field. Expect the Pats to hammer Blount and use short passing to the boundaries to keep the Falcons’ defense from crowding the box too much. They’ll take shots with max pass protection in calculated situations (look for this between the 50 and 35 yard lines on the plus side of the field). Inside the 20 it will be Blount and option routes by Edelman all night. For Atlanta’s defense to have a shot, they need their own offense to put up points early to force the Patriots into their passing game.
When the Patriots have lost, it’s been because the opposing defense got consistent pressure on Brady with only rushing 4 guys. I don’t think the Falcons are able to do that. They’ll need to send extra guys if they want to get pressure or they’ll have to sit back in coverage.
Gameflow is going to be important here. I don’t think either team really gets much pass rush going in this game, mostly because the offensive lines are both really good right now. That means that Ryan and Brady will have time to torch opposing defenses. The difference is that Brady will have a run game that I don’t believe Atlanta can stop, and that helps both the New England offense and its defense.
If Atlanta gets up early and the flood gates open on point scoring, they’ve got a shot because it will create turnover opportunities. It’s either that or they find a way to force the ball out when Blount gets the rock – which is possible as he’s not the cleanest of ball carriers. Any New England turnovers are deadly because football is a turn-based game and giving up a turn to an offense like Atlanta’s is analogous to nailing your own coffin shut.
Belichick likes to play target defense, right? How do you stop an entire offense when it has so many weapons? You keep it on the bench. Expect Blount (and potentially Dion Lewis) to have a big game and limit the opportunities that Ryan and Shanahan get.
Patriots 27, Falcons 20
(For the degenerates, that means Patriots cover, take the under, Blount as MVP. For the real degenerates, under 315.5 yards passing for Brady, Sanu over 45.5 yards receiving, over Trump being said 1.5 times.)by