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Patriots-Falcons: Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia want to limit big plays with strong tackling

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The Falcons have an “explosive” offense that demands a strong tackling performance by the Patriots.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots defense is generally familiar with the Atlanta Falcons offense. Most of the pieces that were in place in Super Bowl LI are still there today, apart from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan is now leading the San Francisco 49ers and former University of Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took his place.

Coincidentally, former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll replaced Sarkisian at Alabama.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spoke with the media about the strengths of the Falcons offense and what the New England defense will be focusing on stopping for Sunday.

Quarterback

“Everything goes through [Matt] Ryan, that's the quarterback, who's an extremely smart player, gets the ball out fast, like I said deciphers the defense [and] the coverage very quickly,” Patricia said. “He can check at the line of scrimmage, change plays, get his offense into the best play possible versus the coverage you might have or the front you might have in the run game and really try to take advantage of all the different looks that he sees.”

“They have their boot plays that come off their outside runs,” Belichick said. “I don’t think he’s a guy [Ryan] that’s going to rush for 150 yards I don’t think. But he can certainly pick up key first downs in his ability to run and he’s a guy that can extend plays and has great accuracy and vision down the field to make big plays. Running in and out of the pocket to extend plays, I don’t think that’s really a good idea, but he’s certainly capable of running for first downs on third down.”

Ryan, the reigning NFL MVP, does a good job of diagnosing the opposing defense prior to the snap and he uses his mobility to extend plays and hit his receivers down the field. More on his receivers in a bit, but all are capable of winning their match-ups in the scramble drill.

Running Game

“I would say that these guys on tape and their team as a whole with the offensive line, this run game is real explosive,” Patricia said. “Both of these guys [Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman] are running extremely strong, big play after big play as is indicative of their average per carry.

“Freeman is an extremely quick guy. He does a great job of getting into space and taking advantage of defenders' leverage. He's explosive. He can really get the ball downhill fast. He's got great feet, vision, balance, jump cut and one of the things where he's improved his game is he's got a great spin on contact and he breaks a lot of tackles with that spin. [Atlanta’s] just really done a great job in the run game with him.

“Then Coleman is another guy who's a very strong runner. He's got excellent speed. He really does a great job of making the defense commit and then either try to cut it back behind the over pursuit or just be able to get to the edge and get outside and bounce it out there and beat everybody around the corner.

“So two guys that to me on tape that are running much better than they have in the past; guys that have really improved the run game and their ability to control the game with the run.”

“Freeman’s hard to tackle because of his power and his balance and, I would say, his vision,” Belichick added. “Coleman’s hard to tackle because he’s hard to get to. He’s fast and he’s elusive and he’s got good quickness. “

Freeman leads the Falcons with 434 yards from scrimmage, while Coleman ranks second with 370. The offense goes through the running backs and the Patriots run defense will have to be stout; Atlanta’s 4.8 yards per carry ranks 4th in the NFL.

The Patriots will need a second-consecutive strong outing from their defensive front, with Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Alan Branch holding their ground in the middle, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise preventing the Falcons from stretching the field wide, and with Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy wrapping up tackles at the line of scrimmage and not letting either back through the second level.

Passing Game

“The thing that makes these [running backs] so dangerous is now, obviously, their ability to get out into the passing game,” Patricia said. “They do a great job. Coach Sarkisian does a great job of getting them into space, whether it's from the backfield or motioning them out or putting them into empty formations now where they can get the ball in like a catch-and-run scenario or a screen or something where they get the ball fairly quick and they can just use their talent to be able to make people miss and run with the ball after they get it in their hands.

“There's obviously a couple real dangerous plays on film where these guys go vertical in the passing game also and really try to take advantage of the matchups that they have their too. Two extremely talented backs, both in the run and the passing game. They're doing a great job of just getting them the ball.”

Freeman and Coleman have combined for 238 yards and a touchdown on 25 receptions and 33 targets, which makes the Falcons running back position the second-most targeted “player” on the team, behind only Falcons superstar receiver Julio Jones (37 targets).

The Patriots will have to cover the running backs out of the backfield and, if Super Bowl LI was any indication (64 yards and a touchdown on 5 receptions by Falcons backs), New England might be best served by designating a defensive back like Patrick Chung or (gulp) Jordan Richards to shadowing players out of the backfield.

“Julio Jones, he's just an unbelievable, incredible player. This guy is an amazing wide receiver and a huge problem...Julio Jones obviously is a big, big challenge for us,” Patricia added. “[Mohamed] Sanu, when he's been out there and we expect him to be out there, [is a] great player for them. That's a guy that they depend on to really make the offense go and they do a lot of different things with him, whether they put him in the slot or outside or put him in the wildcat quarterback position. They're going to do some different things with him there to kind of put you in bind.

“[Taylor] Gabriel, obviously his speed, his ability to make big plays. You saw [Marvin] Hall here against Miami with his speed and his ability to get vertical also along with the tight ends – [Austin] Hooper, very effective, very efficient player for them, great hands, the whole deal. They've done a great job of marrying up their run game, which is outstanding, with their play action game where they've been able to push the ball downfield along with their drop back game.

“Yeah, well, [Gabriel’s] fast and he’s quick,” Belichick agreed. “He’s a hard guy to get a solid hit on. But, look, they’re all hard to tackle. Sanu’s hard to tackle because he’s big and he’s strong. I mean, he’s a hard guy to wrap up. Jones is like that, too. Gabriel’s quick. He’s elusive. Roberts is hard to tackle because he runs hard and he’s fast. If you don’t get a solid hit on him, he’s through the arm tackles.”

Jones ranks first on the Falcons with 367 receiving yards, followed by tight end Austin Hooper with 242. Taylor Gabriel, for all his elusiveness, ranks third with only 168 receiving yards, followed closely by Mohamed Sanu (163 yards) and the running back Tevin Coleman (157 yards).

Jones, who has led the league in receiving yards per game over the past two years and averaged 109.1 receiving yards per game from 2013-16, is going to get his production and there’s little anyone can do about it. Jones’ worst day of production in 2017 was a 30-yard performance against the Bills, but Jones left in the second quarter with a hip injury and racked up those 30 yards in the first quarter alone. He should see a strong 8-12 targets on Sunday.

Hooper’s statline is a little deceiving since more than 50% of his production (128 yards, 1 touchdown) came in the season opener against the Bears. Since that game, he’s only averaged 28 yards per game.

Gabriel and Sanu have been very inconsistent in 2017, with Gabriel averaging 35 yards per game and Sanu dealing with an injury he suffered against the Bills. Perhaps the return of Sanu will open up the Falcons passing attack again, so the Patriots will need to be on high alert.

Bottom Line

“Guys have different ways of breaking tackles,” Belichick said, with a focus on the Falcons offense. “Defensively, that’s an issue of knowing who you’re tackling and how you want to tackle them. I mean, I don’t think you want to tackle Freeman the same way you would want to tackle Gabriel. You’re still going to make the tackle and there’s fundamentals involved in terms of leverage and wrapping up and so forth, but those guys have a lot different styles. But, they’re both hard.

“Look, there’s fundamentals to leverage, there’s fundamentals to tackling, but different players have different strengths. Some guys are stiff-arm players, some guys drop their shoulders, some guys are jump-cut guys, some guys are spinners, some guys they challenge your leverage and cut back, other guys try to outrun you. So, you’ve got to adjust and adapt to what – look, the guy can do whatever he wants to do, so you have to tackle what it is.

“But, you know their certain tendencies of ways guys like to run or carry the ball or break tackles. And, I think if you know that a guy’s a spinner, then you tackle him a little bit different and [with] a little more awareness than if he’s a guy that you know is going to always drop his shoulder and try to get low and try to grind out a few extra yards on contact. I mean, it’s just a different running style. I mean, look, the guys that can do them all, they’re obviously the hardest ones to tackle. They have multiple pitches they can throw and it’s hard to hit them.”

Every Falcons skill player works on getting the ball in their hands quickly, but then each player moves down the field in a different way. Some, like Gabriel and Coleman, use their speed to get away from defenders. Sanu and Jones use their strength to pull away down the field. Freeman uses his quickness to make a player miss their tackle attempt.

The Patriots defense really struggled with missed tackles in 2016 and that problem trickled into the start of the 2017 season. New England cleaned up some of their problems in recent weeks, but they will need to continue to wrap up the ballcarrier and not allow yards after contact if they want to slow down the Falcons offense.