Only two teams have beaten the New England Patriots this year. Five teams have defeated the Atlanta Falcons. But there have been teams over the years that have found a way to limit both squads, so NFL.com reached out to a handful of NFL Pro Bowlers to get their insight on how to beat both teams in the Super Bowl.
The Falcons have an easier blueprint to disrupt and Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy explained how.
"You gotta stop the run and make them one-dimensional," McCoy said. "Matty Ice [Matt Ryan] is Matty Ice, but if you make it to where he's one-dimensional, where Matt Ryan has to beat you by himself, that's your only shot. But if you give them a run-pass option, you're going to have a long day. You can really open up your playbook on defense when all they can do is pass.”
“Winning the one-on-ones," McCoy added. "We stopped the run. That's all we did. Once we did that, everything changed."
The Falcons are 0-3 this year when they’ve rushed for 65 or fewer yards, with losses to the Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, and Philadelphia Eagles. These teams ranked 24th, 2nd, and 13th against the run by DVOA, respectively. The Patriots rank 4th so they should be capable of slowing the Falcons rushing attack, especially when you factor in Falcons C Alex Mack’s leg injury.
The Falcons running backs are also dangerous as receivers out of the backfield, which changes how teams should play defense. San Diego Chargers CB Casey Hayward advised playing man coverage to ensure the running backs don’t get free releases out of the backfield. The Chargers defeated the Falcons 33-30 in overtime back in week 7.
Denver Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. also suggested man coverage, while dedicating safety help to cover WR Julio Jones.
"When we played Atlanta, we played a lot of man, Cover 1, Cover 2," Harris said. "Still, you have to lean that safety over to Julio because you never know what he's going to do. But it's not smart to double [Mohamed] Sanu at all. No. But a lot of teams don't have the defensive back depth that we do. So it's hard to game plan for Atlanta. But I wouldn't double-team Sanu."
The Falcons beat the Broncos in week 5, but their 23 points was Atlanta’s second lowest output of the season and represented the Falcons only victory while scoring 30 or fewer points all year.
So the Patriots need to stop the run, of which they are capable, while playing man coverage and doubling Julio Jones. All of these are possible. What did the Pro Bowlers say about beating the Patriots?
"Play them without Tom Brady," Bills EDGE Lorenzo Alexander joked.
More seriously, Alexander said to bat passes from QB Tom Brady at the line of scrimmage because incompletions are as close to sacks as teams will get versus the Patriots. Additionally, Alexander says Brady can “get frustrated” if he’s hit a lot, which affects his focus and decision making.
"You can't play soft on the edges, that's what Pittsburgh did," Harris said. "Their receivers were able to run wild. But you have to be able to put your hands on them. You have to man up, be physical and get pressure on Brady. It sounds easy, but (laughs)."
Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton agreed with the decision to play tight coverage because that’s the only way cornerbacks can disrupt the Patriots quick passing attack. If Brady sees any space for his receivers, he’ll deliver a pass, move the chains, and continue to the next set of downs.
“I don't think people appreciate sometimes is the job they do executing,” Sutton said. “They just do a great job of executing. I'm sure that is through diligent work ethic and practice.”
So when it comes to breaking up the Patriots offense, defenses need to play tight man coverage and hope that their pass rush can hit home and get inside Brady’s head. The Houston Texans defense accomplished this by sending interior pressure against rookie LG Joe Thuney and C David Andrews, but they didn’t have a complementing offense to take advantage of the mistakes and field position.
The Patriots seem better equipped than the Falcons to follow the Pro Bowler blueprints- but as we’ve seen before, nothing is guaranteed after the opening kickoff.