Earlier this week, I did a tape breakdown of the young, aggressive Atlanta Falcons defense that will be the first to start three rookies in the Super Bowl since the 1981 San Francisco 49ers.
In Atlanta's 44-21 win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, that defense put a hurt on Aaron Rodgers, who had been playing at a stratospheric level through the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs. Rodgers threw three touchdown passes in the second half when the game had already been decided, but in the first half, he accomplished little, as head coach Dan Quinn's unit pressured Rodgers relentlessly, gave the Packers looks they hadn't seen and shut down Rodgers' receivers.
It was a bravura performance and a validation of the team's last two defensive drafts, which may well be the best in the NFL over that time.
And while it's warranted for the Falcons to celebrate their good fortune, things are about to be turned up several notches in their direction. Because as good as Rodgers is, he's more of an execution quarterback at this point of his career. Head coach Mike McCarthy doesn't throw interesting personnel groupings at his opponents, leaving Rodgers and his guys to make it happen after the snap. The Falcons proved the fallacy of that philosophy.
Unfortunately for them, they won't get that same philosophy in Super Bowl LI. Instead, they'll be facing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and from a receiver distribution and location perspective, there isn't another team that throws more different looks at a defense.
The Patriots proved this in their own 36-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. More often than not, the Steelers looked out of place and unprepared in response to New England's passing game, and that had a bit to do with McDaniels' own schematic awareness.
As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss pointed out, the Patriots showed several four-receiver sets against the Steelers, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler wasn't ready for them because New England had used that formation a grand total of 12 times all season coming into that game. The Patriots used the four-receiver set 13 times in the first half alone, forcing the Steelers out of their base defense. In addition, the Pats ran more no-huddle than usual, forcing the Steelers to stay in their subgroups without time to substitute.
"The four-receiver grouping, I don't know how many total snaps it was off the top of my head, [but] we knew we wanted to do a few things out of some different groupings that we felt like could help us move the ball, make first downs and score points," McDaniels said Tuesday. "I think they went out there and did some things, [and we] were able to convert on a few third downs and help us move the ball."
Mostly true, but if you believe that McDaniels didn't know to the nth degree exactly how many times he'd called a four-receiver set before that game, I have a bridge to sell you. The Patriots always know when and why to switch it up.
Moreover, the Steelers were completely undone by Brady's ability to move deep defenders with his eyes and McDaniels' ability to force coverages with motion and reaction. The first two Patriots touchdowns of the game, both to Chris Hogan, were perfect examples of this, and this is what Quinn and his defenders should spend a ton of time studying over the next week-and-a-half.
The first touchdown, with 2:55 left in the first quarter, was the one that left everyone watching the game wondering the same thing: How in the heck did Hogan get so wide-open in the end zone? It was partially by design, but it was mostly Brady's pocket movement and eye discipline.
On this play, Hogan is the outside man in a trips-right formation, and the two inside receivers, Julian Edelman (11) and Danny Amendola (80), get caught up in Pittsburgh's underneath coverage. That's exactly what Brady wanted, though. His job on this play was to force coverage to the other side of the field, and he did that by looking safety Robert Golden (21) off to Golden's right.
Golden was the only one in place to take Hogan out of the play, but manipulated by Brady as he was, he had no chance to recover. You can see in the second screencap just how much Brady's eyes and movement fooled Pittsburgh's defense—it has three guys going the wrong way.
"Yeah, I moved a little bit to the left because they were pressuring up the middle and the pocket kind of collapsed, so I kind of slid to the left and I had good vision," Brady said after the game. "They kind of bit down on Julian pretty hard and then [Hogan] just was standing there in the back of the end zone and I saw him, and then I just wanted to kind of confirm that no one was too close to him, and I just tried to put it on him."
The second touchdown came with 7:54 left in the first half, and this was the flea-flicker that completely befuddled Pittsburgh's defense. Brady hands the ball to running back Dion Lewis (33), who then pitches it back to Brady. The Steelers were clearly reading run here, and they bit hard on the fake. Hogan ran a deep over route with only safety Mike Mitchell (23) on his deep half, and Hogan just ran right past him.
The fake was so good, you can see in the second screencap that Brady had an open deep target to either side of the field.
"Oh, the flea-flicker," Brady said after the game. "How could I forget that? It was just a great call. They were a little winded I thought. Got the pitch back from [Lewis] and I saw [Hogan] burning up the field and just laid it out there for him. It was a great play."
Some have opined that Brady won't have as easy a time against Atlanta's defense for a number of reasons. The Falcons are faster and more athletic than the Steelers, they play more aggressive press coverage at the line in both man and zone defenses, and they like to knock receivers off their point from the first step.
These things are all true. However, you may remember Super Bowl XLIX, when the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator at the time, and his modus operandi was similar—the Seahawks are notoriously aggressive, especially at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots countered this with quick angle routes. They're the best option-route team in the NFL, because their receivers so perfectly understand how to take a defender's leverage and use it against him.
Brady's third touchdown of the Steelers game was an example of this. With 1:40 left in the third quarter, Edelman ran a route from the right-side slot to the goalpost and caught an easy touchdown pass with the rest of the coverage to that side lifted up. Cornerback William Gay (22) was looking for an offensive pass interference call, and he had a valid point with the way that Edelman boxed him out, but also watch the way Edelman turned away from his defender after he hit the first cut point.
Edelman and Amendola each caught touchdown passes in the second half of Super Bowl XLIX by abusing Seattle's aggressive cornerbacks with quick angles against leverage.
And it's something the Falcons need to worry about, because as good as their defense is at covering space in a big hurry, their young defensive backs are still learning how to avoid getting faked out by the first steps of more experienced receivers. We saw this on the first two Packers touchdown passes, and even though they meant little in the scope of the game, they play perfectly into the Patriots' hands.
Here's the first one, with 9:23 left in the third quarter. It's a simple concept, but it works. Rodgers threw the two-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams (17), who's covered by cornerback Jalen Collins (32) to the wide left. On Adams' first step, he jab-steps to the sideline and sees Collins follow it. All he has to do then is quickly move inside, and Collins can't keep up.
Rodgers' second touchdown of the day was the same kind of throw to Jordy Nelson in the red zone. Those touchdowns didn't matter then, but against the Patriots? Everything matters. And head coach Bill Belichick already had a bead on the similarities between Quinn's old defense and his new one.
"They have some of their own characteristics and of course the players are different, so that makes it different," Belichick said Tuesday. "But schematically, there is quite a bit of carryover. I think just kind of at first glance it might be a little more pressure from Atlanta than Seattle ran, but you know, Seattle did some of it, too.
"I think overall the schemes are very similar, so the players that you can relate to those schemes are—both teams have them—[Kam] Chancellor and [Keanu] Neal. Go right down the line. They're similar. They play a similar position in a similar defense, so that's the player. I'm not saying their skills are the same, but that's what they do. There's probably a similarity to the skill sets. But yeah, it's pretty similar. Ricardo Allen plays in the deep part of the field like [Earl] Thomas did, so that type of thing."
None of this is to say that Atlanta's defense doesn't have a chance—it's in a good position to test Brady in ways he doesn't like, especially with pressure up the middle. But this is a quarterback who has feasted on young defenders for years, and given McDaniels' implicit understanding of schematic advantage, Atlanta's defenders will have to grow up in a big hurry.
All quotes courtesy of the New England Patriots media department.