The Falcons’ Improving Defense Is Good Enough to Beat Tom Brady

Atlanta's defense has been a different unit since their Week 11 bye, and as they showed in their last game, they are capable of stifling one of the game's best passers.

For much of the NFL postseason, offenses have ruled the day. With titanic conference championship matchups between four of the best offenses in football, most were expecting fireworks to rain from Foxboro to Fulton County.

That, of course, is not what happened.

The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots put up points, but the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers combined for just 38 points in the championship round, with some of those points coming when their respective games were already well out of reach.

But that’s not just because these dominant offenses hiccupped and sputtered out at crucial moments; the defenses that will appear in the Super Bowl are pretty good.

The Falcons don't have appealing end-of-the-year numbers, but when we look at what they've done down the stretch, specifically since their Week 11 bye, things look pretty good. They showcased that improvement in the NFC Championship, stymying Aaron Rodgers, who came into the game on some kind of tear, and pitching a shutout in the first half.

Sure, the Falcons' offense is incredible, torching Green Bay for 42 points, but the defense played a pivotal role in the win. And they just might be good enough to beat the Patriots and Tom Brady.

Halting a Red-Hot Rodgers

The Falcons’ NFC Championship Game decimation of the Packers is a perfect blueprint for how this team can win in the Super Bowl.

Consider this: the Packers rolled into Atlanta on an eight-game winning streak that was propelled by a resurgent, dominant offense. If the Packers’ final eight games of 2016 (including the playoffs) were extrapolated to a full season of production, Rodgers would have been on-pace for more than 5,300 passing yards and 48 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions.

He was on fire.

Especially when we consider the Packers’ advanced analytic production -- by numberFire’s own Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- we can see how impressive it is that the Falcons stopped this juggernaut. NEP is an analytic that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Again, looking at just their last eight games, the Packers would have had the second-most prolific offense in the league, per Passing NEP per play, if they had played like this all season long. A 0.36 Passing NEP per play and nearly 50.00 percent Passing Success Rate (the percent of plays gaining positive NEP) are lethal marks in this league. The only team more impactful on offense would have remained the Falcons with a 0.37 Passing NEP per play.

The plan for the Falcons’ defensive game was simple: stop Rodgers from being able to do what he does. The Packers like to get out big in front of teams by relying on aggressive downfield throwing. In fact, only one team attempted more deep passes in the first half of games this year -- the Falcons themselves. By forcing Rodgers to dink-and-dunk, limiting him to taking short attempts rather than allowing big chunk gains, the Falcons hoped to keep the Packers’ offense on a leash.

It worked.

In the first half of the NFC Championship, Rodgers attempted just 17 passes, and while he completed 70.59 percent of them, he averaged just 7.00 yards per attempt, throwing no touchdowns and one interception. His 0.16 Passing NEP per drop back -- while still good -- was a mere shadow of the passer who ripped off 0.36 Passing NEP per drop back down the stretch. He had a strong 52.94 percent Passing Success Rate, but it didn’t matter; the Falcons kept the ball in front of them and forced the Packers to play conservatively.

Atlanta didn’t need a big-time playmaking show to do that either; one pick, one fumble recovered, and two sacks are hardly a defensive masterclass. But by limiting the strength of their opposition, the Falcons essentially ran out the clock on their opponents before the second half even started. numberFire Live's win probability graph shows us that after halftime, the Packers’ win probability was a meager 1.60 percent, and it never rose above 2.00 percent for the rest of the game.

That same formula can work against the Patriots, as well. Even if the Falcons don't blank New England for a half, the defense can get a few stops and let Atlanta's high-flying offense go to work.

Beauty Before Age

The Falcons defense has been on a recent tear, turning in stellar performance after stellar performance in the second half of the season. They are on a streak since Week 12, their first game after the bye. Since then, as cornerback Jalen Collins himself said, "The difference, really, is us coming together.... We know if we stay on each other -- and everybody does their job -- how can we lose?"

The young defense has gelled since their bye week, going from the fifth-worst unit to the 10th-worst by the end of the season. That doesn’t seem like a vast difference, but when you look at the splits, the change is pretty extreme. The table below shows their defensive production before and after their bye week.

Split Pass Yd/Att Rush Yd/Att Pass TD% Rush TD% 1D% Int% Sack%
Before 6.58 4.16 5.37% 3.75% 37.99% 1.34% 4.70%
After 6.13 5.17 4.55% 3.73% 34.42% 2.73% 5.15%

In every single traditional statistic rate, the Falcons have become a new defense since the break. They are allowing fewer yards, scores, and first downs on a per-play basis, not to mention generating stops and turnovers at drastically improved rates.

What about in the advanced analytics department?

Bye Pass NEP/P Pass Success Rate Rush NEP/P Rush Success Rate
Before 0.19 53.24% 0.00 44.58%
After 0.07 44.55% 0.09 44.72%

The only area where the Falcons have slipped at all is in the run game, where they went from a fairly middling unit to a lower-rung one. Part of this may be due to sitting back in coverage more and taking away opposing passing games, which allows running backs to carve up short yardage easier.

This might seem like the glaring weakness that the Patriots will capitalize on, and if New England can get a lead, maybe it will be. With that said, if New England doesn’t keep pace with the Falcons’ high-powered attack early on, they'll likely have to abandon the run, making this a moot point.

As for the Patriots themselves, it’s been proven that they are -- in fact -- mortal. Brady is still an incredible quarterback, but even he succumbs to top-tier passing defenses. With the Falcons playing at their current pace, they would have been the 10th-best secondary by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.

The table below shows Brady’s splits when playing a top-10 pass defense over the last five years, per the Rotoviz Game Splits app.

Pass D Rank Comp% Yards/Attempt TD% Int%
Top-10 61.94% 7.14 4.78% 1.54%
11-32 65.17% 7.71 6.03% 1.03%

It’s not like the Patriots’ passing attack will plummet here, but Brady is susceptible to a good pass defense (or a smothering pass rush). We’ve seen good -- and even just opportunistic -- defenses give goliath New England passing attacks fits in critical games. Remember 2007 and 2011? It could happen again.

All the Falcons’ young and surging defense has to do is keep playing the way they have since their bye week. And if the Patriots miss even one offensive beat, they may not have a chance to get back in step before the Lombardi Trophy is headed to Atlanta for the first time ever.