New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is familiar with facing #1 offenses while in the Super Bowl- and he’s familiar with how to stop them. Belichick led the #1 ranked Patriots offense to the Super Bowl in 2007, and faced the #1 offense in 1990 against the Buffalo Bills, in 2001 against the St. Louis Rams, and in 2016 against the Atlanta Falcons.
The strategy for the Patriots against the Rams is well known; the defense tried to crush Rams RB Marshall Faulk at every given time to try and stall the St. Louis offense. On the same note, the strategy against the Patriots in 2007 is the blueprint that every team has tried to bring against New England ever since: try to hit QB Tom Brady with just four rushers.
But there seems to be an interesting parallel between the 2016 Patriots defense and the 1990 New York Giants defense that Belichick led as defensive coordinator against the Buffalo Bills.
In the 30 for 30 documentary Four Falls of Buffalo, Belichick is asked about his strategy against the Bills K-Gun offense.
“I felt like if we went into the game and just tried to shut down [Bills RB] Thurman Thomas,” Belichick explained, “it would be a 50 pass game and I didn’t really think that’s where we wanted to be.”
In other words, Belichick didn’t want to play a standard game of football by stopping the run. He wanted to take away the pass and force the Bills offense to play a style they weren’t comfortable playing. Fortunately for Belichick, the Bills fell into his trap and kept trying to throw the ball despite having easy rushing lanes up the middle.
“The Bills were so determined to run this no huddle aggressive passing game,” Buffalo News’ Vic Carruci says, “that they weren’t seeing that Bill Belichick and this defense was kind of opening the door to run the football.”
The Patriots didn’t isolate a single player on the Falcons like they did with Faulk in 2001 (although Julio Jones saw a career-low 4 targets), so you will likely hear a lot of comparisons between Belichick’s game plan against the Bills and against the Falcons.
First, the Patriots wanted to win the time of possession game to try and limit the number of possessions by the opposing team. The Patriots almost doubled the time of possession of the Falcons (40:31 to 23:27) while the Giants doubled the Bills (40:33 to 19:27).
Second, both the Patriots and the Giants were exceptional on third down. The Falcons and Bills both converted just 1 of 8 third down attempts; the Falcons came in the second quarter as QB Matt Ryan hit TE Austin Hooper for a 19-yard touchdown; the Bills came on their final drive of the game.
Third, the Giants offense called 73 plays and converted 24 first downs, while the Bills just 56 and 18 first downs. The Patriots matched that high-quantity offense with 93 plays for 37 first downs, while the Falcons called a mere 46 plays for 17 first downs.
Control the clock. Win on third down. That seems to be a common thread for both Belichick squads, but that’s also where the comparisons probably should end...right?
The Falcons ran up such a big lead that it’s easy to say that New England entered desperation mode as the game script changed. The Patriots also didn’t play just two down linemen to entice the Falcons to run the ball.
But when you watch the tape, a few facts are clear: 1) the Patriots continued to try and control the clock, as evidenced by their then-questionable 6:25 touchdown drive and 5:07 field goal drive; 2) the Patriots weren’t going to allow the Falcons to run the ball; and 3) the defense actually did a pretty good job at rushing just three or four players, and dropping the rest to defend the Falcons passing attack.
Controlling the clock was just one way to give the defense a breather that the Falcons never afforded their defense, but it also limited the amount of times Atlanta had an opportunity to score late in the game. The Falcons yards per run dropped from 9.6 (86 yards on 9 carries) to 2.0 (18 yards on 9 carries), which throws the Bills “let them run” game plan out the window.
But where the defense really delivered all night can be displayed by when they didn’t. The defensive breakdowns and the Falcons chunk plays show that the Patriots were thisclose to making plays that ultimately favored Atlanta- and when regression struck, the Patriots took advantage in the second half.
Let’s look at the big Falcons plays on their scoring drives.
Q2 1-10-ATL 29 (14:08) (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass short middle to J.Jones to ATL 48 for 19 yards (L.Ryan).
This was the drive following RB LeGarrette Blount’s fumble. The Falcons did not face a second down until the offense reached the Patriots 5-yard line, and promptly scored on the next play.
CB Logan Ryan was thisclose to making plays at the start of the season and was ultimately benched for his lack of production. Ryan likely breaks up the pass in coverage of 95% of receivers in the NFL, but Julio Jones is able to make an incredible grab.
Q2 1-10-ATL 48 (13:29) M.Ryan pass deep left to J.Jones ran ob at NE 29 for 23 yards.
Ryan is in trail coverage of Jones with FS Duron Harmon as the deep help. Jones runs a perfect out route towards the sideline to get away from both Ryan and Harmon in what was Jones’ only “easy” catch of the night.
Q2 1-10-ATL 38 (10:37) M.Ryan pass deep right to T.Gabriel to NE 38 for 24 yards (D.McCourty).
Falcons opened with two receivers on the nearside and Mohamed Sanu on the far side. Atlanta motioned Sanu to the near side to have three receivers on the nearside. No Patriots defender followed Sanu, giving a 3x2 advantage to the Falcons.
Malcolm Butler had outside contain, while the Falcons had two receivers in his vicinity. Devin McCourty might have been responsible for taking Taylor Gabriel on the deep route as Butler appeared to watch Sanu in the flat. Unfortunately for the Patriots, McCourty remained deep at safety and Gabriel was wide open. Easy throw.
Q2 1-10-NE 38 (10:11) M.Ryan pass deep left to J.Jones pushed ob at NE 20 for 18 yards (E.Rowe) [S.McClellin].
Lost in the ether of the evening was the fact that Julio Jones is not of this planet. This catch featured incredible body control as he ran to the sideline and still managed to tap his toes in bounds. Patriots CB Eric Rowe couldn’t do anything and this was still great coverage.
So on the Falcons two first half touchdowns, they required a coverage breakdown by the Patriots, a perfect coverage beater by Jones, and then two additional incredible routes and catches by Jones to get down the field.
Jones didn’t make another catch until his more notable grab at the end of the game. The Falcons gained just 133 yards of offense for the rest of the night, 85 of which came on their final touchdown drive.
Q3 1-10-ATL 15 (12:45) (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass short middle to T.Gabriel to ATL 32 for 17 yards (E.Rowe).
Rowe is playing off-man against Gabriel, which is a pretty questionable match-up in the Patriots secondary. Rowe is better suited for taller receivers. The Falcons run a play-action and the Patriots linebackers buy the fake and crash the line of scrimmage. This opens up an easy passing lane for Gabriel, who uses Rowe’s cushion to stem to a post route and a wide-open gain.
Q3 2-5-ATL 37 (11:36) M.Ryan pass deep middle to T.Gabriel to NE 28 for 35 yards (D.Harmon)
I think this is why Malcolm Butler fell over. Clipped Taylor Gabriel's foot. pic.twitter.com/3q82jz8QQU— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) February 6, 2017
I’m pretty sure Malcolm Butler tripped on Taylor Gabriel’s foot, which is why Gabriel was wiiiiiiiide open down the field.
This isn’t to play the “what if” game, and to come up with scenarios where the Patriots defense manged to shut down the Falcons “if only.” The Falcons produced because they are a great offense and they did what great offenses do.
But this exercise in play review is to show how close the Patriots defense was to making plays in the first half, and how perfect the Falcons needed to execute to move the ball through the air. And other than the Falcons third touchdown, the Patriots were much better in the second half.
The Falcons required another herculean grab by Julio Jones to delay the inevitable comeback by Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, but even that resulted in a noteworthy defensive stand for New England.
Q4 2-8-NE 49 (4:47) (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass deep right to J.Jones to NE 22 for 27 yards
The Patriots didn’t copy Belichick’s game plan against the Giants from 1990. They didn’t copy the script they created for the Rams in 2001. They just wanted to control the clock, remove the easy plays down the field, and stop the run.
They failed to do two of the three in the first half and fell behind. They stuck to the script in the second half, executed all three goals brilliantly, and mounted the most impressive comeback the NFL has ever seen.
Maybe Belichick’s defensive game plan won’t go to the Hall of Fame; it was certainly good enough to win another championship.