Over the past 16 seasons, the New England Patriots’ defensive approach has often been simple: Eliminating an opponent’s preferred weapons with the goal of not letting it get into its comfort zone. This, in turn, means that if teams want to beat New England they often need their depth options to step up.
With the Super Bowl a mere five days away, let’s take a look at who those depth options are on the Atlanta Falcons’ roster. Given how productive the team’s offense has been over the course of the season, they have played a big role as well – despite oftentimes playing in the collective shadow of the team’s star skill position players Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
#80 TE Levine Toilolo
While 16 catches for 295 yards and two touchdowns is not that impressive a statline, Toilolo is still an important piece of Atlanta’s offense. After all, the four-year veteran has played the fourth most snaps of any of the Falcons’ offensive skill position players this season (57.5%) and saw a significant spike in action after week 16.
While the Falcons do not shy away from using Toilolo all over the formation – backfield, flanked out –, he mostly lines up as a blocker close to the pocket. However, that does not disqualify him from being a receiving target. Even though he lacks speed and is not the crispest of route-runners, the 25-year old has the size (6’8) and physicality to be a dangerous receiver if thrown the football.
It does not happen often as evidenced by his 25 targets this season. The Patriots nevertheless need to treat Toilolo the receiver with the same respect as Toilolo the blocker. After all, he leads the team in yards per reception (20.3).
#81 TE Austin Hooper
While Toilolo is the Falcons’ number one tight end in terms of playing time, Hooper is when it comes to catching the football. Overall, the rookie caught 22 passes this season for 304 yards and three scores. While his season started relatively slow, Hooper has earned more playing time over the course of the year; in part because of a season-ending injury to starting tight end Jacob Tamme but also because of his growth in the system.
Atlanta uses Hooper similar to how the team uses Toilolo. He predominantly lines up close to the formation, no matter if the play ultimately turns out to be a run or a pass. When not used as a blocker but as a receiver, the 22-year old is often used to stress the seam and underneath areas of the field. While he does not have the frame of Toilolo, the 6’3 Hooper is still athletic enough to make plays and fight for contested pass attempts.
#18 WR Taylor Gabriel
In his first season with the Falcons, the 25-year old has quickly become one of quarterback Matt Ryan’s favorite and most reliable targets. Overall, Gabriel has caught 41 passes for 674 yards and six receiving touchdowns, tied with Mohamed Sanu for second-most on the team behind Julio Jones.
Those are the hard facts but let’s dig a little deeper to find out how the Falcons use the 5’8 wide receiver. Overall, Gabriel played 34.2% of the team’s offensive snaps this year as essentially Atlanta’s number three wideout. As such, he is used in a variety of ways, whether it is as a traditional receiver (mostly from the slot) or on misdirections plays like reverses or jet sweeps.
His biggest assets are his speed and moving ability, which allow the Falcons to use him to put pressure on the intermediate and deep areas of the field. The Patriots will be aware of that and it would therefore not be a surprise to see the team use Logan Ryan or even Malcolm Butler to cover him one-on-one at times. After all, Gabriel is one of the most dangerous and productive weapons in Atlanta’s offensive arsenal.
#42 FB Patrick DiMarco
The Falcons’ fullback is on the field for around one third of offensive snaps is used as a blocker on the vast majority of those snaps. But while he is virtually no threat to run the ball (he has one carry in his five-year career), Atlanta does like to use him as a receiver on occasion.
DiMarco, who has caught eight passes for 83 yards and a touchdown, mostly runs his routes from the backfield and serves as a security blanket for Matt Ryan. He was, however, able to gain 31 yards on one catch in the NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers when the defense lost him on a misdirection play. Chances are that will not happen on Sunday, though.
#19 WR Aldrick Robinson
Robinson, who is number four on the Falcons’ wide receiver depth chart, plays around the same number of snaps as DiMarco but does see more action than the fullback. The 28-year old has caught 20 passes for 323 yards and two scores in his first season in Atlanta; he has carved out a nice niche for himself as an early-down possession receiver.
While Robinson mostly lines up inside the numbers, the Falcons do not use him as a "traditional" slot receiver with a focus on getting open quickly in the short areas of the field. Instead, due to his straight-line speed, the 5’10 Robinson provides a deep element similar to what the Patriots have with Chris Hogan.
#16 WR Justin Hardy
Hardy is in his second year with the Falcons, who drafted him in the fourth round in 2015. While he plays "only" one fourth of offensive snaps, he has seen a steady amount of targets so far this season. Overall, 33 passes were thrown Hardy’s way of which he caught 23 for 415 yards and four touchdowns.
While his season has been up and down in terms of impact and playing time, the 5’11 receiver has shown some quick feet and good hands all year long. Whether he will have a chance to display them in the Super Bowl remains to be seen.
The rest of Atlanta’s offensive arsenal has played only a minimal role this year. Running back Terron Ward, wide receiver Nick Williams, and tight end D.J. Tialavea were all inactive the last two games, with wide receiver Eric Weems and tight end Joshua Perkins playing only a handful of offensive snaps each week. All five are behind the players listed above on the depth chart.
Still, if the Patriots are able to limit Atlanta’s top four skill position players (a big if given how well they have played all year long), we might hear one or two unfamiliar names on Sunday. And as New England found out two years ago in the form of the Seahawks’ Chris Matthews, they might very well play a big role.