The New England Patriots defense has to solve the puzzle of defending the Atlanta Falcons offense. There will be a running back, a tight end, two definite receivers, and then a rotation with a fullback, second tight end, and a third receiver.
How will the Patriots try to defend the Falcons skill players?
There will be Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at running back, Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper at tight end, and Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel at receiver. Since Jones has been dealing with a foot injury, the Falcons have relied on using more two-tight end sets. There will be a lot of depth for the Patriots to navigate, but New England has the personnel to match.
The Patriots will use some mix of the linebackers, SS Patrick Chung, and FS Devin McCourty to cover the running backs (only one on the field) and tight ends (usually Toilolo). That’s not the difficult match-up to predict. The real question is how will the Patriots defend Jones, Sanu, and Gabriel?
First, we have to understand how the Falcons utilize their receivers. When healthy- and when it comes to the Super Bowl, the Patriots can expect the Falcons to put forth their best roster- the Falcons play Jones and Sanu as much as possible. Gabriel comes on in three-receiver sets.
Patriots CB Eric Rowe gave a big clue on how the Patriots will match-up with the Falcons.
"It's rare to see a big guy like that in the slot." Eric Rowe on Sanu. "Luckily for us, Logan Ryan is not really small." @csnne— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) January 26, 2017
Rowe revealed that Patriots CB Logan Ryan will be asked to cover Mohamed Sanu in the slot, which shouldn’t be a surprise- Ryan has kicked into the slot in the nickel defense ever since the San Francisco 49ers game.
Sanu isn’t always in the slot, but his versatility across the formation and his ability to align in any position means that Ryan’s sideline and slot ability will be on display. So when Sanu is on the field across from Julio Jones, look for Ryan to shadow Sanu and for Patriots CB Malcolm Butler to match against Jones with safety help.
When Gabriel comes on the field and into the slot, the Patriots will need to shuffle the deck. Don’t be surprised if Ryan stays in the slot to cover Gabriel, while Rowe comes on the field to cover Sanu and Butler stays on Jones.
Rowe was acquired to help cover big receivers and he did a solid job against Bengals WR A.J. Green earlier in the year. He could also be asked to cover Jones, but that might depend on Butler’s success.
One big reason why I think Rowe will cover Sanu instead of Jones in three-receiver sets is the type of players that give Rowe problems.
Roethlisberger passes of 15+ yards in air:— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) January 25, 2017
Logan Ryan: 1/1, 19 yds
Malcolm Butler: 0/1, PBU
Eric Rowe: 2/8, INT, PBU, 60 yds, TD
The Pittsburgh Steelers sent their receivers deep every time they were covered by Rowe in the AFC Championship Game. Rowe did a great job, but it’s clear that the Steelers saw something on tape that they wanted to take advantage of. The Falcons will have probably seen the same flaw.
The Steelers sent Sammie Coates (6’1, 4.43s 40 yard dash), Cobi Hamilton (6’2, 4.56s), and Darrius Heyward-Bey (6’2, 4.30s) deep and they were able to get a step on Rowe at times. If not for some poorly placed passes, the Steelers would have been more productive on these attempts.
So if the Patriots have to decide between matching Rowe up against Julio Jones (6’3, 4.42s) or Mohamed Sanu (6’1, 4.67s), it’s clear that Sanu offers less speed.
Additionally, Falcons QB Matt Ryan has thrown 112 passes 15 or more yards down the field this year. A whopping 51 have gone to Julio Jones, versus just 16 for Sanu. If the Patriots are the slightest bit afraid of a receiver getting behind Rowe, then Sanu presents the more favorable match-up.
Stopping this Falcons offense is easier said than done; only a couple teams have managed the feat this year. But the Patriots will likely designate a double-team to Jones and they will need their other cornerbacks to step up in single coverage against the other Falcons receivers. Ryan and Rowe have been rock solid down the second half of the season, but they haven’t faced a quarterback like Ryan. This will be a great test.