The Falcons offense is not an easy offense to game plan against since they have the best WR in football coupled with two match-up nightmares out of the backfield. All three players present a significant challenge for the Patriots since none of them are an easy answer to stop unlike Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Julio Jones is the undisputed #1 threat in the Falcons offense, but I’d rather focus on the Falcons’ top two RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. I’m less worried about their ability to run the ball as I am their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, especially with Coleman.
Julio Jones presents his own challenge of stopping. One thing the Patriots aren’t going to do is leave him on an island against any of their corners because Jones presents a mismatch over all three of them. I think we’ll see the Patriots utilize a similar game plan against Jones as they did Brown, but with a different corner. Malcolm Butler took the underneath assignment on the 5’10” Brown, but Jones is 5” taller than both Brown and Butler. In order to counter the obvious size mismatch, the Patriots are going to have to put the 6’1” Eric Rowe on him underneath and shadow him with a safety over the top. The biggest thing I worry about Jones is him catching a slant and breaking one tackle and out-running everyone although the Patriots are going to emphasize tackling during the practices leading up to the game.
Freeman and Coleman not only can run the ball between the tackles, but they can move all over the formation and run routes like a receiver. The responsibility of covering that type of player out in space is too much for any linebacker to handle and that leads to big plays in that form. One possible counter for that is zone defense, but that requires the pass rush to get to Matt Ryan, which is easier said than done. Zone defenses force the QB to hold onto the ball a bit longer than if the Patriots went man, but as we saw in the AFC Championship Game that zone defense without a pass rush means Open Season on the secondary. Matt Ryan is equally as capable of doing the same as Brady did to the Steelers that night.
The Patriots aren’t going to play zone all night either because Patricia is going to need to keep the Falcons offense guessing. When the Patriots do utilize man coverage, the best two options towards covering those backs are safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. That likely means the Patriots will match 12 (1 RB, 2 TE), 21 (FB+RB, TE), and 22 (FB+RB, 2 TE) personnel with their Big Nickel package. In essence, Chung would be playing a 4-3 strong-side linebacker. When the Falcons move their RBs out wide or in the slot, the Patriots should utilize McCourty and/or Chung instead of a linebacker because those two are used to covering receivers and tight ends in the NFL. A big key is the defensive line being as stout against the run as they were against the Steelers so the Patriots don’t need to substitute in an extra Front 7 player and force a LB vs. RB match-up in space.
In terms of primary threats, I consider Freeman and Coleman as 2a and 2b because of the match-up problems both players give the Patriots defense. Behind those three are Mohammed Sanu, Austin Hooper, Taylor Gabriel, and Levine Toilolo. Those four guys are solid players, but I don’t think any of them are capable of taking over a game like Jones, Freeman, and Coleman are capable of. If the Patriots can minimize the impact that Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman could have in the Super Bowl, I think not only do the Patriots win, they win by double digits.