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Super Bowl LI Patriots vs Falcons film review: Atlanta’s run defense struggles against stretch plays

If the Patriots want to slow down the Falcons’ offense, running the ball might be the way to go.

“Every offense is just as good as the rhythm it is able to get into.” With the New England Patriots having to face off against the NFL’s most prolific offense in Super Bowl LI, rhythm could become the name of the game. After all, not allowing the Atlanta Falcons to get into one should be a goal for the AFC champions – both on defense and on offense.

While the defensive approach has a more direct influence on the success of the Falcons’ offense, the role New England’s offense plays cannot be overlooked – and it goes beyond the obvious not giving the opponent short fields to operate with. The key is controlling the pace of the game and the most efficient way of doing that is being able to sustain drives and run the football well.

Luckily for the Patriots, a) they have shown an ability to do that this season and b) Atlanta has had issues at times this year when it comes to stopping the run consistently. But how big of a deal – if any at all – are those issues really?

A lot of them get negated by Atlanta’s prolific offense. Matt Ryan and company have been able to build multi-score leads in most of their victories and have thus forced teams to become one-dimensional and abandoning the run in favor of the pass. There have been exceptions, though, and they have shown teams being able to find success on the ground against the Falcons.

No team has had more success against the Falcons this season than the Philadelphia Eagles. Not only have they been able to run the football efficiently, but they also kept Atlanta’s high-octane offense in check. The unit was able to score only 15 points, its lowest output of the season, while the Eagles held the football for more than 38 minutes of game time.

They were able to do that by staying on the ground early and feeding off it throughout the game. The following play is one of many – overall, the Eagles ran 38 times for 208 yards and a couple of scores – but it illustrates how Philadelphia was able to establish a rhythm and control the tempo of the game:

1) 2-5-ATL 18 (5:20) R.Mathews left end to ATL 12 for 6 yards (R.Hageman).

Having entered the red zone on their first possession of the game by using a balanced run-pass-ratio, the Eagles employed a 12-personnel group on this 2nd and 5 play. The two receivers were both flanked out wide and the tight ends aligned in a three-point stance on the outside shoulder of each tackle. Quarterback Carson Wentz (#11) was under center with running back Ryan Matthews (#24) seven yards deep:

(c) NFL Game Pass

Atlanta countered by using its standard four down-linemen, with two linebackers off and edge defender De’Vondre Campbell (#59) on the line of scrimmage. Philadelphia attacked this formation with a zone run to the left side:

Atlanta’s off-linebackers, who the Patriots praised for their speed earlier this week, reacted immediately to the offensive line’s movement. Ultimately, though, they did not impact the play as the players in front of them were unable to get off their blocks. Campbell and defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman (#77) were moved back by their opposing linemen, while defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (#97) was held up just long enough:

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Thus, the Eagles to created a nice running lane for Matthews, who was able to get to the second level behind a pull block by center Jason Kelce (#62). The runner gained six yards before Hageman was finally able to disengage and take him down from behind.

This play is exemplary for how the Eagles found success on the ground. Atlanta had issues against zone and stretch runs as well as pull blocks all game long and Philadelphia went back to that well on a regular basis. This, in turn, limited the time the Falcons’ offense spent on the field while simultaneously freeing up the play-action game.

The contest agains Philadelphia was the low point of Atlanta’s season. And while the Falcons won seven of their eight next games, their run defense continued to be a work in progress, especially against the concepts that plagued them in week 10 against the Eagles. All teams that were not forced to abandon the run early – those who were not blown out from the get-go – had their most success running the football when using stretch, zone, and pull runs.

This does not mean that the Falcons’ run defense did not improve over the course of the season. Particularly in terms of getting off blocks and quicker approaching the ball carrier, the unit has made strides. However, it is still plagued by inconsistency – as the following play from the divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks shows:

2) 2-8-SEA 13 (14:20) T.Rawls right tackle to SEA 22 for 9 yards (G.Jarrett).

Seattle used 11 personnel, aligned in a 3x1 formation with quarterback Russell Wilson (#3) under center and running back Thomas Rawls (#34) the lone back behind him. The lone tight end, Jimmy Graham (#88), aligned in a three-point stance on the outside shoulder of the right tackle:

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The Falcons countered with a nickel package, using a front of four-down linemen. Courtney Upshaw (#91) and Grady Jarrett (#97) aligned as the interior players, while the edges were guarded by Vic Beasley (#44) and Adrian Clayborn (#99). Furthermore, the team used two off-the-line linebackers in rookies De'Vondre Campbell (#59) and Deion Jones (#45).

At the snap, the entire front mirrored the movement of the offensive line. Seattle’s blockers moved to their left and were able to quickly isolate both Upshaw and Jarrett. The defensive tackles were moved off the spot and ultimately unable to disengage from their blocks. The same happened to Beasley, who failed to set the edge due to a block by Graham:

(c) NFL Game Pass

With strong-side linebacker Campbell reacting too quickly to the stretch, he overran the play. The rookie ultimately was blocked out of the run play by tackle Gerry Gilliam (#79), who moved up the field after disengaging from his double-team block on Upshaw.

This left only one player on the defense’s left to stop Rawls from gaining considerable yardage: cornerback Jalen Collins (#32). While he initially played the down well, a side-step by Rawls ensured that the runner would not be taken down by the cornerback. As a result of Collins being unable to tackle Rawls and the entire front-six being pulled out of the way, Seattle was able to gain an easy nine yards:

Again, this play is just a snapshot, but it also is an example for how the Seahawks were able to successfully run the ball against Atlanta. However, they failed to capitalize on their success on the ground. Self-inflicted mistakes and a shift towards more pass-heavy play calling especially on early downs allowed the Falcons’ defense to take advantage of Seattle’s shaky pass blocking – and it turn the offense to spend more time on the field.

The pattern of issues for the Falcons defense still remained, though: The unit, just like nine weeks earlier, struggled to defend stretch runs. Whether it is the young linebackers not being patient and instinctive enough just yet, or the relatively light defensive line struggling to get off blocks, Atlanta still has issues against zone and pull blocks.

So, what does this mean for the Patriots?

New England’s offensive line has good lateral moving skills and it is therefore no surprise that the team has used zone runs regularly this season. No matter if it is simple stretch plays or pull blocks, the Patriots have had success in that area. And given that Atlanta is susceptible to giving up yardage against those concepts, New England could very well opt to use them against the Falcons as well.

Other teams have shown how to successfully move the football on the ground against Atlanta. If the Patriots want to set the rhythm and tempo of the game and keep the Falcons’ potent offense on the sidelines, using similar play designs might be the way to go. And, in turn, this might open up other sections of the playbook like misdirection plays or play-fake passes.