For the 7th time in the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots find themselves in the Super Bowl. It’s the second straight year that the South division represents the NFC, this time in the form of the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons were not a trendy pick entering the playoffs, but after dismantling the Seahawks in the divisional round, they were the favorite against a red-hot Green Bay team, and ultimately made it no contest, winning 44-21.
Although the Falcons proved they’re the most deserving team to represent the NFC, they are more of an unknown commodity than teams like the Packers, Seahawks, or Cowboys. They aren’t a top market, fly under the radar even when they’re good, and don’t have many (any?) standout personalities like a Rob Gronkowski. They only played in two prime-time games this year, week 3 at the Saints and week 9 at the Buccaneers (they won both games and put up 40+ in each).
All that being said, a quick breakdown of their roster seems to be in order. Last week their offense was broken down here, and this week it’s time to check out the defense (all stats, unless otherwise stated, courtesy of Pro Football Reference).
Starters: Dwight Freeney, Ra’Shede Hageman, Grady Jarrett
Key Reserves: Jonathan Babineaux, Courtney Upshaw, Brooks Reed, Tyson Jackson, Joe Vellano
Sacks Leader: Jarrett and Freeney, 3.0
Breakdown: While the Falcons defensive line isn’t its strongest area (in this breakdown Vic Beasley is a LB), it still has some big-time players. Grady Jarrett was one of the steals of the 2014 draft, falling to the fifth round. Dwight Freeney is old as hell, but he can’t be counted out in what could amount to his final game.
Courtney Upshaw has been playing well in the postseason, and Ra’Shede Hageman has the talent to be an impact player if he shows up on a given Sunday. The Falcons like to rotate their lineman a lot, using different player combinations, and many players line up in multiple spots.
This group lost its sacks leader, Adrian Clayborn, to season ending injury, something that should help the Patriots when it comes to handling the pass rush as well as their ability to run the ball. With Beasley qualifying as a linebacker, this is probably the weakest group on the Falcons defense.
Starters: Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Vic Beasley
Key Reserves: None
Sacks Leader: Beasley, 15.5
Tackles Leader: Jones, 106
Interceptions Leader: Jones, 3
Breakdown: Vic Beasley is the biggest pass rushing threat the Falcons have. The former 8th overall pick out of Clemson struggled in his rookie year while dealing with a shoulder injury, but came back this year to be the NFL’s leader in sacks, 2 full sacks ahead of the second place finisher. If the Patriots can keep Beasley quiet, that will go a long way to winning this game.
Deion Jones is a rookie who has flashed tremendously this year, and is in the running for—though likely won’t win—Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is an elite athlete from the LB spot, with legit 4.4 speed. He led the team in interceptions this year with 3, returning 2 of them for touchdowns. He will be a key in stopping the intermediate passing game, something the Patriots focus heavily on.
Campbell is the weak spot of the group, but flashes good speed similar to Jones, and if he and Jones can team up to eliminate yards after the catch, the Patriots might have to shift their plan of attack. Behind these starters, the Falcons don’t utilize many linebackers, as no one else played more than 4 snaps in the NFC Championship Game.
Starters: Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, Brian Poole, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen
Key Reserves: None
Tackles Leader: Neal, 105
Interceptions Leader: Allen, Alford, and Collins, 2
Breakdown: The Falcons start out of a nickel defense, meaning they start 5 defensive backs instead of the 4 that are usually on the field. None of their 5 starters have been in the league longer than 4 years (Robert Alford just got extended off of his rookie deal in a contract that starts next season), and 2 (Neal and Poole) are rookies.
Although the group is young, don’t confuse that for a lack of talent. Keanu Neal was the Falcons first round pick in the most recent draft, and has already established himself as one of the best strong (box) safeties in football, in the mold of Kam Chancellor from Seattle. Brian Poole went undrafted this year, but has performed extremely well as a slot corner, making plays versus both the run and pass.
While the Patriots caught a break by not having to face Desmond Trufant, arguably a top 5 cornerback in football who is out for the year with injury, this Falcons secondary is young and fast. Again, although the Patriots enjoy using the intermediate passing game, they will be better served in this game focusing on short or deep throws, as the Falcons pass defense can be exploited pretty much everywhere except the intermediate range.
Starter: Matt Bosher
Stats: 44 punts, 46.8 yards per punt, long of 68
Breakdown: Given how good the Falcons offense was this year, it makes sense that Matt Bosher punted less than any other punter who appeared in at least 15 games this season. When he did get the chance to punt, however, he was effective, placing 7th in the NFL in yards per punt. Hopefully he is someone the Patriots will be seeing a lot of come Sunday.
The Falcons defense is very young, very talented, and extremely fast. For the Patriots to maximize their effectiveness, they’re going to have to find success in the run game, and hit on some deep shots down the field. Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett are going to be key players in this game, while Julian Edelman might see a bit less action than he usually does, due to the strength of the Falcons pass defense.