Tom Brady will be going against the Falcons defense, coached up by both the head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith. The Falcons opted to hire the former Seahawks defensive coordinator because while their offense was mostly set with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, their defense has slipped to the bottom of the league in the final years of the Mike Smith era. In the last two years, the Falcons have spent multiple picks in rebuilding their defense. They’ve drafted ED Vic Beasley, CB Jalen Collins, DT Grady Jarrett, SS Keanu Neal, MLB Deion Jones, and WLB De’Vondre Campbell over the last two years and all of them are big pieces to the defense Brady and the Patriots offense will face a week from Sunday.
The Falcons defense does have some similarities to the Seahawks defense Brady faced in Super Bowl XLIX, as the Falcons have copied the Seahawks approach to building the front 7. There are a lot of fast guys on that front between Beasley, Jarrett, Jones, and Campbell. Neal and Jones were the only two rookies to accumulate 100 tackles on the season. Beasley was the NFL’s leading sacker with 15.5 take-downs of the QB. With the trajectory and the amount of success the Falcons have had with their recent picks on defense, it should be become a top defense within the next couple of years. However, Super Bowl LI is not going to be decided on how good the Falcons defense will be in the 2017 regular season, but rather how good they will be on February 5th.
The Falcons despite that talent rank 27th in points per drive allowed (2.29), 29th in TD% (26.9%), and the worst Red Zone conversion rate (72.7%) allowed in the NFL. I don’t think those numbers are completely indicative of their talent level or even where they are today since those numbers include a lot of games early in the season when the Falcons defense couldn’t stop a nose bleed. The Falcons defense last week did a terrific job of pressuring Aaron Rodgers and throwing a good Packers offense out of whack. Considering how good the Packers OL is in pass protection, although both OTs were battling through injuries and lost their RG during the game, that’s pretty eye-opening for the Patriots.
One way for the Patriots to negate that speed is to pound them between the tackles with the running game. If there is one weakness on that Atlanta defense, it’s their run defense. The Falcons are ranked 29th in DVOA against the run and 26th in run defense by Pro Football Focus. That’s likely a result of the Falcons valuing speed over size in their front, with their heaviest starting defensive lineman weighing 318 pounds (Ra’Shede Hageman). That could open the door for both LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis to attack the Falcons inside the tackles where the Falcons team speed is negated. The Patriots need to be able to establish the run early, which will set up play action and open up chunk plays as the Falcons defense gets sucked up in the run action.
The Patriots will have two weeks to prepare for that defense, including exploiting whatever flaws are in it that have allowed offenses to put up points against them. The Falcons have played better as the season has progressed due to a young defense starting to gel. One common trait for their front is the amount of speed they have and that can be difficult to deal with. The Falcons have an explosive pass rush that has been very effective against good offensive lines in the playoffs, so the Patriots need to negate that with a quick passing game and beat the Falcons with yards after the catch. It will be interesting to see how much the Patriots look over the Super Bowl XLIX game plan in terms of building their own game plan for Dan Quinn and Richard Smith’s defense.