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Patriots X-Factors against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI

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A list of players who can change the game in the Patriots favor should they are able to make a significant impact on the game.

The Patriots will need to play their best game of the year in order to win their 5th Super Bowl since 2001, with strong play from both the offense and defense. The offense needs to be able to control the clock in order to limit the Falcons possessions while the defense needs to force the Falcons into long third down situations and get off the field. Each yard and play will be critical for the Patriots to establish any advantage over the Falcons with a Lombardi Trophy on the line. Hopefully they are able to deliver in the game.

RB LeGarrette Blount

The Patriots are going to have to be able to run the ball effectively in order to keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense off of the field. That also means being able to spread the Falcons out with a 21 or 22 personnel grouping in case Atlanta’s personnel is built to play the run. The Falcons linebackers are more about speed than attacking the line of scrimmage, so spreading them out might not be ideal with only eligible receivers unless Atlanta is playing zone defense. When the Patriots go into tight formations, the key will be getting to the 2nd level and giving Blount room to run over the Falcons’ light front. Patriots will need Blount to average 4.0 YPC and hopefully put up 100 yards and at least one score in the game.

RB James White

White is the opposite of Blount, where his impact will be more felt in the receiving game as opposed to the running game. White is a mismatch against any linebacker due to his route-running abilities, although the Falcons speed at the position may somewhat mitigate that match-up advantage. Not only is White useful as a receiver, they will need him to be able to block against any potential blitz. Another area where White will be useful will be similar to Shane Vereen’s role in Super Bowl XLIX as the primary check-down receiver in order to keep the Patriots out of 3rd and long distance situations. If White is able to exploit match-ups against linebackers when flexed out as a receiver in the formation and is able to be a reliable check-down option out of the backfield, the Patriots should be able to sustain drives.

WR Chris Hogan

Julian Edelman will receive the most attention from the Falcons defense considering he torched Dan Quinn’s defense in Super Bowl XLIX and is the Patriots top receiving threat. Chris Hogan will see a lot of one-on-one coverage. Hogan is coming off of the game of his career against the Steelers where he picked apart the Steelers zone defense and found himself open by an average of 4 yards. The Patriots #2 receiver averaged 4.22 yards of separation per target against the Steelers, although I would expect the Falcons defense to be closer even though they run a lot of zone in their scheme as well. The Patriots can move Hogan around and use formations to create favorable match-ups as well by either stacking receivers or line up Hogan in the slot in a 3x1 (Trips) formation.

CB Logan Ryan

The key to stopping Julio Jones is not necessarily stopping just Julio, but also the Falcons other receivers. The one match-up that could decide the game will be Logan Ryan matched up against Mohammed Sanu when the Falcons put in a 3rd receiver. The Patriots will likely have Butler against Sanu when the Falcons only have 2 WR on the field, although size-wise the difference is about an inch at most between both corners. Of the receivers that are most likely to get single coverage, Sanu is the most potent of them because of his ability to win in the Red Zone and the possibility of him throwing a pass. Ryan’s strengths are physicality, intelligence, and a relentless motor, which negate most of Sanu’s strengths. Ryan has plenty of experience covering Sanu, going back to their Rutgers days and Sanu’s similarities to Texans WR Deandre Hopkins. If Ryan is able to deal with Sanu, that forces Matt Ryan to have to rely on short passes to the RB or TE to move the ball.

DT Alan Branch

The Patriots have to be able to shut down the Falcons running game in order for any defensive game plan against Matt Ryan to take place. The Falcons are very good at running the ball, but there may be an exploitable weakness up front. Center Alex Mack is dealing with an ankle sprain suffered in the NFCCG and the weak link of the Falcons OL is right guard Chris Chester. The Patriots DTs will be primarily called upon to stop the run, with Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vince Valentine all needing strong games. Branch has been the Patriots most consistent defensive tackle in terms of stopping the run and needs to continue his run of success.

ST Matthew Slater

Every advantage the Patriots can get will be critical in this game, including field position. Per Football Outsiders, the Patriots are #2 in net field position while the Falcons are 7th. That’s a result of being able to generate the 2nd best starting field position on offense while giving the defense the longest fields to work with in the NFL. The Patriots special teams will need to continue to pin their opponents deep when covering kicks and make the Falcons have to drive 80 yards. Slater will need to continue to play at his Pro Bowl level form while Jonathan Jones also cover kicks in order to do so. In last year’s Super Bowl, the Broncos ability to decisively win on Special Teams was a big enough difference for them to beat the Panthers while letting their defense go to work and an offense that didn’t get in their way.