Will Stopping Julio Jones Be Enough for the Patriots in Super Bowl LI?
The New England Patriots are known for taking away their opponent's best weapon and forcing ancillary players to make plays.
This narrative has become common knowledge, and it could potentially have a big impact on Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. But is it actually true? Do the Patriots really limit opposing weapons?
Let's dig into the numbers from the 2016 season to find out.
Patriots in 2016
The table below shows the "top" option for 14 of New England's 18 opponents and their production against the Pats compared to their season average.
The reason only 14 teams are included? Well, not all of New England's opponents had a clear, must-stop player. They played the Miami Dolphins without Jay Ajayi, the Buffalo Bills without LeSean McCoy, the New York Jets with a limited Brandon Marshall, and the San Francisco 49ers, who don't necessarily have "weapons."
|Steve Smith Sr.||4||57||0||5||57.1||0.3125|
In the 14 games against the Patriots, seven of those top weapons accrued fewer yards than their seasonal averages while four went over and three were right on par. Top weapons facing off against the Patriots only scored in four of these 14 games.
The Patriots' defense keyed on stopping opposing rushing games from getting going. They gave up 88.6 rushing yards per game, which was good for third in the league, and they ranked eighth in terms of Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. This focus on stopping opposing rushing games and keeping the oppositions' best receiving weapons in check was a winning formula.
The Patriots were a bend-but-don't-break defense that limited scoring opportunities from game-changing opponents, which made them the best scoring defense in the league this season giving up a stifling 15.6 points per game.
Will It Matter?
Super Bowl LI will feature the best scoring defense in the league facing off against the best scoring offense in the league, the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons scorched every team they played this season by lighting up the scoreboard with 33.8 points per game. They finished with 415.8 yards of offense per game, which was second in the NFL behind the New Orleans Saints.
The Falcons also had the best offense in the NFL by our Adjusted NEP per play metric.
Julio Jones is without a doubt the Falcons' best offensive weapon. Even if the Patriots can limit Julio to 73 yards or fewer, which was the average yards given up by the Patriots to opposing top receivers this year, it will not affect the Falcons' white hot offense.
Here are the outcomes of the Falcons games in which Julio had fewer than 73 yards in 2016:
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||66||Loss|
|New Orleans Saints||16||Win|
|Green Bay Packers||29||Win|
The Falcons went 7-1 when Julio had relatively quiet games, something that makes the Atlanta offense nearly impossible to stop.
This means serious problems for the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
Sharing the Wealth
His 212.86 Passing NEP led all quarterbacks this season (Drew Brees was a distant second at 185.53, and only five players topped 150). Ryan's Passing NEP per drop back (0.37) and Passing Success Rate (54.64%, the percentage of plays that led to expected point gains) also led the NFL among passers with at least 200 drop backs.
The most impressive part is that Ryan has not been locking in on any one receiver this season. He threw 38 touchdowns, and they have gone to 13 different pass-catchers, an NFL record.
If the Patriots can somehow manage to slow down Ryan's passing attack, they will be hard pressed to slow down Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The unstoppable duo combined for 168.9 yards from scrimmage per game, best in the NFL.
The (possibly slightly overrated) Patriots' defense has not seen an offense this versatile all year, an attack that has more weapons than anyone can count, including two versatile running backs with legitimate receiving potential.
Shutting down the opposing teams' best weapon is certainly a winning formula, as the Patriots have used it to go 16-2 going into Super Bowl LI.
However, the Patriots are going to need to stop more than just Julio Jones if they want to become champions of the world for a fifth time.