Super Bowl LI- Elite Preview

“This is the top 1%, the elite, the best of the best” -Viper, Top Gun

The angle for this game, the seasoned champion versus the exciting upstart, isn’t new.  However, a matchup between two coaching staffs known for their schematic wizardry will be fascinating to watch. 

The Falcons Super Bowl history is brief, and disappointing.  In 1998 Dan Reeves led the Falcons(7-9 the year before), to a 14-2 record and a miracle victory over the 15-1 “Greatest Scoring Offense Ever” Minnesota Vikings.  They did it with Chris Chandler at quarterback, Jamal Anderson at running back, and an awful dance called “The Dirty Bird”.  They met the defending champion Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, with John Elway and 2,000 yard rusher Terrell Davis. Atlanta stacked the box in order to force the aging Elway to beat them.  This failed. Elway threw for over 300 yards, and frequently burned Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson, who had just been arrested for soliciting a prostitute the night before.  I learned of Robinson’s arrest in an AOL Chat Room, the first time I ever received breaking news over social media.

The Patriots, you know their history. They were the often ugly ducklings of the AFC East, putting together a competitive team, like clockwork, once a decade.  In 1976 they lost to the future champion Oakland Raiders after a controversial roughing the passer call on Oakland’s final drive. In January of 1986, they lost to one of the great teams in history, the Chicago Bears, in the Super Bowl.  In 1996, they lost to Brett Favre and the Packers thanks to a momentum killing kickoff return from Desmond Howard.  Then Brady and Belichick showed up, and the rest is history.

The most publicized matchup is the Atlanta offense against the Patriots defense.  Belichick is famous for taking away the strength of an offense. He excels at assessing exactly what makes a great offense tick, and forcing the offense away from that.  In Super XXV, against the powerful Buffalo Bills, he knew that despite the great Thurman Thomas’ rushing numbers, the key to Buffalo’s offense was quarterback Jim Kelly’s ability to understand coverages and maintain timing in the passing game.  He gave Buffalo favorable run looks, and Thomas put up great numbers, however, when the game ended, Buffalo had just 19 points.

I expect Belichick to aim to take away Atlanta’s multifaceted passing attack and offer the running game to Atlanta.  So much of Atlanta’s offense is based on play action and the simplified coverage that comes with run oriented defensive fronts.  I expect New England will leave just seven in the box and drop as many defenders as he can into pass coverage.  I expect he will also note that Atlanta’s offense is at its most efficient when the ball is spread around.  The Falcons struggle the better Julio Jones numbers are. They use defenses overreacting to Jones’ threat to get the ball to the rest of their talented receiving corps.

It will be interesting to see how Kyle Shanahan attacks New England.  Some coaches are great at scripting their first 15 offensive plays, like Hue Jackson and Andy Reid.  They throw every formation they can at the defense, but when the 15 plays are up, they really only have a few, simple, core plays.  Shanahan treats his first 15 plays the same, but builds the rest of his game plan off of those first 15.  Each play has multiple plays layered off of them.  Each offensive look has a dozen variables.

Regardless of game plans, it will be interesting to see the Atlanta offensive line against New England’s front seven.  The Patriots lack an exceptional defensive front, but they are fundamentally sound and do a great job maintaining gap integrity.  Atlanta’s offensive line, led by their great center Alex Mack, are scrappy technicians.  The Falcons aren’t physically dominating or particularly physical up front, however I don’t think the Patriots have the players up front to exploit that weakness.

The Falcons defense is solid, but not exceptional.  They run Dan Quinn’s cover 3 well, and are far more athletic and faster than the sloppy units the Falcons had under Mike Smith.  They have also enhanced their physicality over the second half of the season.  Although they don’t quite hit like the soul crushing, murderously legendary unit that Quinn had in Seattle, they hit hard and tackle well.

New England doesn’t run a lot of different plays on offense, but they run each play out of a variety of formations and personnel groups, and they run each play very well.  Their offensive line, occasionally an Achilles heel the last few years, has improved significantly this year. The Patriots alternate between spread formations and a standard I formation.  They typically run either a power or a stretch play out of the I formation, but they will show a couple play action passes early on to cause the defense to back off. 

Against the Seahawks, who run a similar scheme defensively to the Falcons, the Patriots frequently ran spread formations and motioned their slot receiver across the formation in order to force an alignment adjustment from the Seahawks.  They would run seam routes on the trips side, and an isolated option route on the left side, repeatedly. I would expect to see similar schemes from the Patriots against the Falcons.

Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. He processes information quicker, and moves in the pocket as well as anyone who has ever played the position.  Atlanta will not be able to fool him with coverages.  Despite his talents, he can get impatient, especially when under pressure.  Sound coverage and a good pass rush can foil even the best quarterback.

It’s tough to predict a winner among evenly matched teams.  I think Atlanta overall is the better team.  That said, it is foolish to bet against Brady and Belichick, as they have conquered better teams than Atlanta.