In two of the last three Super Bowls, Dan Quinn brought defenses to the game that bedeviled Tom Brady with equal parts pressure and coverage through the first three quarters. And then, in the fourth quarters and overtime of those two games, Brady shredded those units as though they were from middle-tier high schools.
The New England Patriots' 34-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, in which they scored 31 unanswered points to pick up the franchise's fifth Super Bowl win, was the purest distillation of Brady's greatness, and proof that…well, at least Quinn picked the best white whale he possibly could.
The numbers are ridiculous. In the fourth quarter and in overtime of Super Bowls XLIX and LI, against Quinn's defenses in Seattle and Atlanta, Brady completed 34 of 42 passes for 370 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. And in each case, defensive switches made in the game set Brady off.
In Super Bowl XLIX, when Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator, a move to more man coverage ignited Brady's fourth-quarter heroics. Man coverage predicated his touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski with 31 seconds left in the first half, and Seattle's inability to adjust in single coverage to New England's angle and option routes led to fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.
This time around, with a younger and faster defense, Quinn started out with a heavy man-on-man philosophy. For three quarters, it worked.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was unblockable at times, racking up three sacks, five total pressures and five stops. Veteran end Dwight Freeney had one sack and five pressures. On the day, Atlanta had five sacks, two hits and 17 quarterback hurries. Pressure helped coverage, and coverage helped pressure.
Linebacker Deion Jones had an MVP performance of his own…for a while. Cornerback Robert Alford adjusted well after early coverage issues against Edelman and ran a pick-six back 82 yards for a touchdown late in the first half.
What changed? Time. And energy. New England ran an insane 93 offensive plays, including 42 in the first half, which wore Atlanta's defense down to a nub. Gassed and gasping, Brady's opponents started to falter, one by one, and as he does, he took advantage of those opportunities to tear them down.
At the half, the Patriots trailed 21-3, but there was no panic in New England's locker room. They had been here before, trailing the Seahawks 24-14 late in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIX. This time around, they bet Quinn would stick with his defensive game plan—pressure with four upfront (which the Falcons achieved to a brilliant degree through those first three quarters) and man coverage with the back seven.
"Their game plan didn't change that much," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told Bleacher Report after the game. "I think we executed better—I mean, I don't know how many plays we ran, but at halftime, we'd already gone over 40. We had 20 minutes time of possession, and we talked about it—these Super Bowls have a way of having a first half and a second half, and whatever you did in the first half sometimes doesn't mean a whole lot in the second half. Because you have such a long halftime, you make adjustments. Depending on how it goes, you may or may not get really tired and gassed in the second half. I don't know if that happened to them or not, but I know we were trying to do some of the same things we did in the first half; we were just doing them better."
McDaniels said the Falcons played a bit more man coverage in the first half. After the game, tight end Martellus Bennett told NFL Network the Falcons started playing zone in the second half when they got tired, but McDaniels said the key was sticking to an offense that best countered aggressive coverage. When asked for schematic comparisons between Quinn's two Super Bowl defenses and if they perhaps helped him call the game in this case, he offered the following.
"Yeah, this defense today played a lot more man coverage than Seattle did," McDaniels said. "A lot more. That was obviously their game plan—they play a lot of man-to-man, and they've done that all year, but I would say that today, that was the most I had seen in a single game in terms of deciding to make it a man-to-man game. They deserve a lot of credit—that's a lot of what got us out of our rhythm. We expected a decent amount of it, but it was more than what we anticipated.
"You saw that play out, and then we shifted, and started making it a game full of it."
Better execution was part of it. Atlanta's defense tiring out was part of it—Quinn admitted that much after the game when he told reporters his guys "ran out of gas some." The Falcons' head-scratching offensive play-calling in the second half certainly helped the Patriots' chances. But simple adjustments to an unexpected amount of man coverage really turned it around.
The Patriots did a couple things to adjust. They integrated halfback James White far more into the passing game, and they ran routes designed to get quickly timed openings against single coverage. Against a defense that doesn't yet have pass-rushing or coverage depth, it was more than enough.
Let's see how it worked on the field.
To start, running back James White was far more involved in the passing game in the second half—he caught 14 of 16 targets for 110 yards and a touchdown, and just five catches on six targets came in the first half. More and more, the Patriots saw the personnel advantage of using White as a receiver in free space—just as Brady had often gone to Shane Vereen in Super Bowl XLIX. Vereen led all Patriots receivers in that game with 11 catches on 12 targets, and White led all receivers in catches in this game. Against man and zone, using a running back in the passing game was a huge element in the comeback.
White caught his touchdown pass out of the backfield, but here, with 12:47 left in the fourth quarter, he's flared out wide right, with Alford (23) covering him. Tight end Martellus Bennett (88) is in the slot, and safety Keanu Neal (22) covers Bennett. It'll be Neal's job to come over and help tackle. But based on Atlanta's passive coverage, Brady sees an easy completion on first down. White runs a quick comeback route and turns it upfield to evade Alford. The nine-yard gain creates a 2nd-and-1, bringing New England one step closer to eliminating what was then a 28-9 Atlanta lead. The Patriots didn't get greedy when they were down—they stuck with the plan and added different elements to it.
Julian Edelman's crazy catch with 2:28 left in regulation is the play everyone will discuss for years, but that was a smart coverage concept—the Falcons were in man coverage against New England's 3-by-1 set, and Alford carried Edelman through his inside route with good position and route adjustment. Alford got his hands on Brady's pass but let it go, setting the stage for Edelman's heroics.
Not as good a look for Alford was Brady's 18-yard pass to Malcolm Mitchell with 13:13 left in the fourth quarter. Here, the Falcons were playing straight man to Mitchell's side, and with that coverage against New England's five-receiver set, there was a high probability of at least one coverage breaking down. Alford adjusted to Mitchell (19), who was aligned wide right, and Brian Poole (34) was in the slot to that side on Amendola (80). It's a simple combo route, with Amendola running a quick in route and Mitchell taking Alford up the chute with a slant. Mitchell, who had one catch on two targets in the first half, did the rest on this play en route to a six-catch day. Watch how the timing of the play gave Mitchell a free release through the middle of the field between Alford and linebacker Deion Jones (45).
The longest play of the game-winning drive in overtime was this 15-yarder to Edelman, and it's an instructive example of how the Patriots use timing routes against man coverage. Edelman is in the right slot in an empty set, and he heads up the middle of the field with Alford and Jones carrying him. Jones breaks off coverage about halfway through to read the field underneath, and it's up to Alford to take Edelman one-on-one, which was generally not a favorable matchup.
Watch how Edelman takes the route to his left, underneath Mitchell, who ran a route in the same space just above with cornerback C.J. Goodwin (29) all over him. That rub element gave Edelman the release he needed for the catch, but think about the timing and synchronization involved in such a play. If Edelman and Mitchell don't run their routes exactly in sync, this could be a mess. That's why receivers who don't run to the correct depth at the correct time don't last long with the Patriots.
The final and perhaps most important element of New England's comeback? Atlanta's pressure packages fell apart at the worst possible time. According to Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner, the Falcons were unable to get pressure on Brady in any of New England's final 15 snaps. You can see that in the overtime drive. When Brady isn't pressured, you know what he'll do to your defense.
Much will be said about those 31 unanswered points allowed, but as much as Atlanta's offensive coaching staff can only wonder about what might have been, the defensive staff isn't as on the hook. The Falcons have a good young defense that will likely get much better over the next few seasons, but they ran into a series of buzz saws: Time, energy and Tom Brady.
That combination isn't easy—or perhaps possible—to beat.
Advanced stats courtesy Pro Football Focus.