How the Atlanta Falcons Can Slay Goliath in Super Bowl LI

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 26, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 11:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons runs on the field during player introductions prior to facing the Washington Redskins at Georgia Dome on August 11, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Super Bowl LI. Few expected the Atlanta Falcons to be here, and Las Vegas doesn't expect the Falcons to win. Not with the mighty New England Patriots on the docket.

But the reality is the Falcons are hotter (they've won six straight games by an average margin of 20 points) and healthier (they had zero players listed on their injury report ahead of the NFC Championship Game) than even New England (nine straight wins, but by an average margin of "only" 17 points; no Rob Gronkowski, and seven players listed on last week's final injury report). 

Atlanta isn't swimming in playoff pedigree like the Patriots are, but the Falcons can win this game. Here's what it'll require. 

1. Matt Ryan will need another near-perfect performance

Matt Ryan is on a special kind of fire. The 31-year-old first-team All-Pro just became the first player in modern NFL history to post a 120-plus passer rating in six consecutive games. During that stretch, he has completed 72.8 percent of his passes for a 9.5 yards-per-attempt average, 18 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 133.3. 

And it's not as though he wasn't rolling before that. Ryan's regular-season yards-per-attempt average (9.3) was the highest qualified mark in the NFL this century, and his 117.1 passer rating was the fifth-highest in league history. 

Highest qualified yards-per-attempt averages this century
QuarterbackTeamYearYPA
1. Matt RyanFalcons20169.3
2. Aaron RodgersPackers20119.2
3. Peyton ManningColts20049.2
4. Nick FolesEagles20139.1
5. Ben RoethlisbergerSteelers20058.9
Pro Football Reference

According to Pro Football Focus, 38 quarterbacks were pressured on more than 50 dropbacks this season. The only one not to throw an interception under pressure? Ryan.

And again according to PFF, 31 quarterbacks attempted at least 25 deep passes this season. The only one not to throw an interception on a deep ball? You guessed it: Blake Bortles. Just kidding, it was Ryan. 

It's not as though he fed on poor defenses, either.

Ryan posted a 98.4 rating in a road victory over the Denver Broncos, whose defense ranked first in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. In two strong performances against the Seattle Seahawks' No. 5-ranked D, he completed 67 percent of his passes while posting a 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

He completed seven deep passes in those three games, three of which went for touchdowns.

In two regular-season games against a Carolina Panthers defense that had the league's 10th-best DVOA, he completed 55 of 70 passes (79 percent) for 780 yards (11.1 yards per attempt), six touchdowns, one interception and a 135.7 rating. 

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts after a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Tom Pennington
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ryan did, however, struggle against a Philadelphia Eagles defense that ranked fourth in terms of DVOA. In a Week 10 road loss versus Philly, he completed just 18 of 33 passes and posted a season-low rating of 78.7. And he was less than spectacular two weeks later in a loss to the defensively stout Kansas City Chiefs.

It's worth noting that in those games, the Falcons—who were refreshingly balanced with the league's fifth-rated running game in 2016—got less production than usual on the ground. 

With his sidekick Tevin Coleman out due to a hamstring injury, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman had 12 carries for 49 yards against the Eagles, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry on seven attempts over the final 42 minutes of the game. 

Freeman and Coleman weren't bad in the loss to the Chiefs, but they averaged a pedestrian 3.8 yards per attempt. 

And it's also worth noting that the Patriots ranked fourth in the league this season in terms of DVOA defending the run, surrendering just 3.9 yards per carry, a league-low six rushing touchdowns and a league-low three 20-yard rushes. 

Neither Freeman nor Coleman shined in playoff victories over Seattle and Green Bay, and Ryan was still unstoppable. 

There's a good chance New England's big, deep and talented front seven limits those backs, forcing Ryan to again carry much of the load in what many expect to be one of the highest-scoring Super Bowls ever played. 

2. Someone other than Julio Jones will have to shine in the receiving game

It's no secret the Patriots like to take away an opposing offense's best weapon, and head coach Bill Belichick has always been successful at doing that. 

In the AFC Championship Game, the Pittsburgh Steelers targeted top wide receiver Antonio Brown beyond the line of scrimmage just once in the first quarter, and that pass was nearly intercepted by top Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler. Brown caught just three passes for 26 yards in the first half. He finished with 77 receiving yards, but most of that came when the game was already out of hand. 

One week prior against Houston, the Pats held top Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to just two catches for 14 yards in the first half. Hopkins didn't start producing until New England had a double-digit lead. 

Same deal in last year's playoffs, when top Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin was held to just two catches for 23 yards against New England in the divisional round and top Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas had just two catches for 12 yards on seven targets against the Pats in the AFC title game. 

No. 1 receivers vs. New England in the playoffs, 2014-2016
ReceiverTeamYearCatchesYardsTD
Antonio BrownSteelers20167770
DeAndre HopkinsTexans20166650
Demaryius ThomasBroncos20152120
Jeremy MaclinChiefs20152230
Doug BaldwinSeahawks2014131
T.Y. HiltonColts20141360
Steve SmithRavens20143441
Pro Football Reference

Ryan sometimes falls into a habit of leaning too heavily on Julio Jones, who was the intended receiver on all three of his fourth-quarter interceptions this season. It'll be tempting to frequently rely on him to make game-changing plays next Sunday, especially considering he's coming off a 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the NFC Championship Game, but Ryan can't afford to develop tunnel vision for Jones. 

That could mean spending more time throwing passes to Freeman and Coleman, who caught a combined 85 passes for 883 yards during the regular season. Football Outsiders ranked the Patriots 20th in terms of DVOA when covering running backs. Seahawks back C.J. Prosise caught all seven of the passes thrown his way for 87 yards in a November victory at Gillette Stadium, and Le'Veon Bell of the Steelers had 68 yards on 10 catches against the Pats in October.

Eight backs had 400-plus receiving yards this season. Two played for the Falcons.
Eight backs had 400-plus receiving yards this season. Two played for the Falcons.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots shut down starting Seattle receivers Doug Baldwin (one catch for three yards) and Jermaine Kearse (three for 45). But the Seahawks still nearly won that game because quarterback Russell Wilson found other options, connecting with Chris Matthews and Ricardo Lockette a combined seven times for 168 yards. 

Belichick's defense will likely take Jones away in this game, leaving Ryan to try to do the same thing. Having Freeman and Coleman helps, but he'll also have to get the ball downfield to peripheral receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. 

If that happens and those guys come through, the Falcons probably win. 

3. Pressure on defense is mandatory

Just ask former New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who had two sacks and seven pressures when the Giants upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, and two more sacks and nine pressures when they upset them again in Super Bowl XLVI. 

Bingo.

In that first Super Bowl, Tuck and his pass-rushing cohorts blitzed only 23 percent of the time but pressured Brady on 43 percent of his dropbacks. They sacked him five times, with three coming in an eight-minute span in the first half, and they hit him on 12 occasions. 

In that second Super Bowl, the G-Men blitzed Brady only 12 percent of the time but pressured him on 47 percent of his dropbacks. They had just the two Tuck sacks that evening, but both came on huge third-down plays in the second half, and they still hit him a solid seven times.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 5: Justin Tuck #91 of the New York Giants sacks Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 5, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Giants defeated the Patriots 21-17. (Photo
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

That's the same way the Broncos neutralized Brady and the New England offense in last year's AFC Championship Game (four sacks, 13 hits, pressure on 49 percent of Brady's dropbacks despite blitzing just 16 percent of the time) and again when Brady had his lowest-rated passing performance of the year against Denver in December (pressure on 47 percent of Brady's dropbacks despite blitzing just 29 percent of the time). 

And just look at these playoffs so far. In the divisional round against Houston, Brady completed only 47 percent of his passes and posted a 68.6 passer rating while throwing two interceptions. It's no coincidence that he struggled while being pressured on 44 percent of his dropbacks and hit eight times by the Texans. And it's also no coincidence that he excelled Sunday against the Steelers, considering he was pressured on only 14 percent of his dropbacks. 

The Texans were all over him, and he stunk. The Steelers barely laid a hand on him, and he completed 76 percent of his passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns in a turnover-free blowout victory. 

Under hardly any pressure, Tom Brady lit up the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Under hardly any pressure, Tom Brady lit up the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

But again, that doesn't mean you can lazily throw everything but the kitchen sink at him. Brady's a smart, aware and experienced quarterback with supreme footwork, and he has a lot of underneath safety valves in that offense.

Against the blitz this season, he had 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 131.4 passer rating. But under pressure, he completed only 47.2 percent of his passes and posted an 84.9 rating. 

The good news for the Falcons defense is it's been getting a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks without sacrificing extra defenders on blitzes. Just look at that Seattle playoff game, where Atlanta pressured Wilson on 16 of his 39 dropbacks despite blitzing just eight times. 

That wasn't an anomaly. The Falcons pressured both Rodgers and Wilson on exactly 41 percent of their dropbacks in their first two playoff games.

The Falcons did, however, blitz Aaron Rodgers and the Packers more often than usual last week. They sent extra men at Rodgers 33 percent of the time, which might have had to do with the fact Green Bay has one of the best offensive lines in football.

This New England line is a little more vulnerable—PFF ranked it 12th in terms of pass-blocking efficiency, while the Green Bay O-line ranked first—but head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith would probably prefer to blitz a lot less often in the Super Bowl. 

The Green Bay game marked the first time the Falcons blitzed more than eight times in a game since Week 12. As top pass-rushers Vic Beasley and Brooks Reed stepped it up late in the year, they blitzed less often. That resulted in slightly less pressure and a tiny drop-off in terms of sack rate, but it left the rest of a young defense less exposed.  

As a result, Atlanta's D has surrendered just 19.3 points per game during the team's current six-game winning streak despite the fact four of those games were against Cam Newton and the Panthers, Drew Brees and the Saints, Wilson and the Seahawks and Rodgers and the Packers.

The transformation is undeniable.

Falcons' defensive transformation, 2016 regular season
Time frameBlitz %Pressure %Sack %PPGTakeaways/game
Weeks 1-1221.432.85.027.51.1
Weeks 13-1716.527.24.920.82.0
Pro Football Reference / Pro Football Focus

The Falcons still might not possess the talent or experience on defense that Denver, Houston or those past Giants teams utilized in order to overwhelm Brady and the New England offense. However, Beasley rather quietly led the league in sacks, and he's been getting plenty of support from Reed and the ageless Dwight Freeney, who pressured Rodgers six times last week.

What's scary is Beasley has just seven pressures while failing to register a sack in two playoff games. But the guy had 14.5 sacks in the final 12 weeks of the regular season, so he might be due to bust out in the Super Bowl. 

If that happens, it could be the difference. 

Nobody's perfect

The Falcons don't have to be perfect to win, which is good because a defense relying on multiple players in their early 20s is going to make some mistakes. They can afford those so long as they don't occur frequently or at bad times and they make up for them with consistent pressure on Brady. 

On offense, they can afford less than stellar numbers from Jones so long as Ryan is on his game and willing to take what the defense gives him with Freeman, Coleman, Sanu and Gabriel. 

The Falcons may need Mohamed Sanu to step it up.
The Falcons may need Mohamed Sanu to step it up.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In the last four years, Ryan has thrown an NFL-high 11 interceptions in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, and he completed only 54.4 percent of his passes while throwing two picks in the fourth quarter of one-score games this season. 

That can't happen in Houston. 

The Falcons turned the ball over an NFC-low 11 times during the regular season, becoming only the fourth team in NFL history to commit fewer than 12 turnovers in a single season. But one of the other three teams to accomplish that is the 2016 Patriots, who also had just 11 turnovers. 

New England won't likely make back-breaking mistakes, so the Falcons can't either. That said, it's important that an inexperienced Atlanta team enters this game knowing that small miscues and beats can be tolerated if they can execute with a balanced offense and a pressure-oriented defense.

If that happens, David might just slay Goliath. 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Pro Football Focus.

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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