If the Atlanta Falcons want to walk out of Houston with their first Super Bowl title in franchise history, it’ll have to be their defence that steps up against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
It’s tough to duplicate dominant performances, but this Falcons defensive unit will have to do just that in two weeks. On Feb. 5, in Super Bowl 51, they’ll have to pressure Brady in order to have any chance of taking him off his game. It’s a tough task, but it’s been accomplished before.
In their NFC Championship clash against the Green Bay Packers, the Falcons used multiple schemes to be able to pressure and hit Aaron Rodgers on their way to a dominant 44-21 victory. Their ability to blitz, and get through gaps, took Rodgers off his game – forcing the Packers’ QB to leave the pocket and avoid pressure, instead of dominating the game while sitting comfortably under centre and using his arm.
The Patriots, however, aren’t the Packers. A lacklustre performance in the Super Bowl isn’t expected from New England, and with the Brady leading the way in his 7th appearance, it’s almost certain that the offence will be on point. After dealing with the “Deflategate” scandal and a 4-game suspension, Brady has been on a mission all season. He continues to become better with experience, with him posting a postseason career-high with 384 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
Atlanta’s no.1 scoring offence will have their hands full against the Patriots’ no.1 scoring defence, leaving the Falcons defence matched up against Brady and his methodical style of play. It’s tough to point to a flaw in perhaps the greatest QB to ever play, but if there was one for Brady; it would have to be his mobility. The Falcons will have to make sure that the 39-year-old doesn’t get a lot of free time in the pocket, or it could be bad news for the reigning NFC Champions.
Understanding Brady’s past
Teams that have been successful against the Patriots in big games have made sure to bother Brady in the past, not allowing him to get comfortable in the pocket without some consequences.
Last season, Von Miller and the Denver Broncos used their strength, toughness and speed to make an impact; attacking Brady for the majority of the AFC Championship. The Broncos’ defensive unit made sure that Brady barely had any time in the pocket, knocking him down 20 times – making it the most hits on a quarterback during the entire 2015 campaign. Their defence made life extremely difficult for Brady, forcing 2 interceptions, and gathering 4 sacks. Even though the game ended up going down to the wire, the Patriots wouldn’t be able to find their comfort zone in the game – leading to a 20-18 Broncos victory.
In his pair of Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants, Brady was also constantly pressured by the Giants’ defensive line – with the group racking up a combined 7 sacks. Brady was decent in those games posting a 86.8 passer rating. 3 TDs, 1 INT, and an average of 271 passing yards, but he wasn’t as effective as he was in his 4 Super Bowl wins; with the QB posting a 99.5 passer rating, 10 TDs, 3 INTs, and an average of 268.5 passing yards.
Knowing that they have to pressure Brady is the easy part, but completing that task and doing it at a high level is a completely different story. The Steelers couldn’t get to Brady with just a four-man rush during the AFC Championship, forcing them to blitz and use more than 5 or 6 pass rushers. That strategy would end up backfiring, with the Patriots QB completing all 6 of his pass attempts for 108 yards and a touchdown. Once Brady found a groove, it’d be too late for the Steelers – with the Patriots taking a 36-17 victory.
Falcons’ reputation on D is no joke
Aaron Rodgers had a 120.4 passer rating without pressure today. 44.2 rating with pressure. Was under pressure on 20/49 dropbacks
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) January 22, 2017
Thankfully for Atlanta, this roster just might have the formula to prevent Brady from having a vintage performance. All postseason they’ve used their speed and pass rush to wreak havoc, meaning they’ll have to rely on their defensive front to do some damage once again. Atlanta’s front line has played at a high level this season, with the likes of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, rookie linebacker Deion Jones, and the NFL’s sack leader (15.5 sacks) in Vic Beasley leading the way.
In the NFC Championship, the Falcons’ defensive unit made some key plays from start to finish, feeding off and capitalizing on the Packers’ mistakes throughout the contest. After Atlanta took a 7-0 lead, it seemed like Green Bay was about to score on their 1st drive of the game, until a big time pressure from Jones forced Rodgers to throw the ball away on a 3rd down – forcing a field goal attempt that Mason Crosby would eventually miss. A couple of possessions later, the Falcons would prevent another long Packers drive – with Jalen Collins forcing the ball out of Aaron Ripkowski’s hands and recovering a fumble to keep them off the board.
The Falcons wouldn’t stop there, keeping the Packers in check in their next 3 drives – capping the last one off with an interception from safety Ricardo Allen. The pick would lead to Atlanta’s 3rd offensive TD of the 1st half, propelling them to a commanding 24-0 lead to end the first 30 minutes of action. A 73-yard TD from Julio Jones to open the quarter would build that lead to 31, and even though the Packers would score on their next 3 possessions, it was obvious that the defence had already done their part to make sure the game was well out of reach for Rodgers.
Don’t forget about the Falcons’ offence
Atlanta’s defence will have to be the main factor in the Super Bowl, but the Falcons’ offence shouldn’t be forgotten – considering how great they’ve been this season.
Ryan bounced back from a mediocre 2015 season, and established himself among the game’s elite during the 2016 campaign – guiding his team to the no.2 seed in the NFC and a 13-5 record (including playoffs). The 31-year-old field general’s weapons have been the key to his success this season, with the QB having the best supporting cast he’s ever had. In the backfield, the Falcons boast one of the more dangerous one-two punches in the league – with running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman leading the rushing attack.
On the outside, Ryan has a luxury of throwing to a superstar wideout in Julio Jones who’s elevated his game in the playoffs – posting 15 receptions, 247 receiving yards, 3 TDs in 2 games. To go along with Jones, Ryan also quality options in Mohamed Sanu, and speedster Taylor Gabriel – while being protected by a bulky offensive line, that’s highlighted by Pro Bowl centre, Alex Mack.
With Ryan’s MVP-caliber play leading the way, the Falcons have continued to remain dominant in the playoffs – outscoring both the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers by a combined score of 80-41. Ryan, who’s elevated his playoff record to 3-4, has found his groove as of late – becoming the 1st QB in NFL history with 3+ pass TDs in 4 straight postseason games.
At this point, it’s safe to say that the Falcons have looked like the most explosive offence in the NFL, but it’s also safe to think that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will do his part to take out Jones, in the same way he silenced Steelers no.1 option Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship game. While their defence will have to do their part to be able to slow down a QB who’s experience vastly outmatches Ryan’s, the Falcons’ offence still shouldn’t be overlooked for their ability to put up enough points on the board in Houston.
Trying to stop greatness
Sunday afternoon’s game was dictated by the Falcons’ defence, and it showed early. It was a legitimate performance by a defence that has the potential to play at a Championship level. They did a fantastic job of disrupting Rodgers’ focus, holding the Pro Bowl QB to a 44.2 passer rating, 8-17 completion rate, an interception, and a sack while he was under pressure. As a result, the Packers receivers wouldn’t have a lot of time to get open – forcing 5 dropped passes in the contest.
To avoid the Steelers’ fate, the Falcons will have to use the same formula that they implemented against Rodgers in order to stop Tom Brady. They can’t give him time to make Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan look like a bunch of Pro Bowlers, instead they need to pressure him as soon as the ball is snapped.
In a way, their task of rushing Brady should be somewhat easier compared to their time against Rodgers, with Green Bay’s QB actually having a strong ability to scramble and make plays outside the pocket. Brady doesn’t have that asset in his game, which has cost him before against some of the league’s best. At the same time, Brady’s ability to read blitzes and exploit coverages make him extremely dangerous in any given contest, something that the Falcons are probably well aware of coming into their matchup.
Even though Atlanta has the MVP-front runner in Matt Ryan, they won’t have the experience that Brady and the Patriots ultimately have coming into Super Bowl 51. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound field general will be setting an NFL-record with his 7th Super Bowl appearance; looking to grab his 5th ring to break his tie with Joe Montana for the most titles for a starting QB.
The Falcons will enter Feb. 5, looking like the clear underdogs, but they should still feel like they have an advantage. While their offence continues to soar, they’ll have a confident defence behind them as they try to become the first team in the NFC to win a Super Bowl since the Seattle Seahawks back in 2013.
All stats for this article are from NFL.com and ProFootballFocus.com
You can follow Peter Ash on Twitter @peterash_