Super Bowl LI: Can the Patriots Limit the Falcons' Offense?

The Falcons have one of the best offenses in NFL history this season. What can the Patriots' defense do to keep this a close game?

With nearly two full weeks in the books since knowing that the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, we've all heard the back-and-forth commentary on what needs to be accomplished to win the big game.

The Falcons' quarterback, Matt Ryan, is our choice for MVP, and he is coming off of his best statistical season of his career. Ryan was previously known for his playoff woes and now finds himself one win away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

Over his past six games, Ryan has thrown 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. He's been cool under pressure, and the Patriots will have their hands full trying to limit the Falcons' offense.

The Early Game

The Falcons will look to put points up immediately, and chances are they will -- as early as their first possession. The Falcons have scored a touchdown on the opening drive of their past eight games, an impressive and timely streak to have entering the biggest game of the year.

Stopping them early and often will be critical to the Patriots’ success.

On the flip side, the Patriots have not scored a single point in the first quarter of their last six Super Bowls. The Patriots will need to end this streak in this one. Being down big early in this game will surely lead to the relentless pass rush of the Falcons having field day against Tom Brady.

Patriots fans know all too well about how that story goes. Just last year, the Denver Broncos were successful in getting to Brady on a consistent basis in the AFC Championship -- amassing 20 total hits, including 4 sacks.

Vic Beasley and the Falcons' pass rush will have to find a way to get pressure on Brady without blitzing too many (or at all), and this will play a huge role on who will come out on top this Sunday.

Let's dive in deeper to examine what the Patriots' defense needs to do in order to come out on top in Super Bowl LI.

Magic Number of 30

The Falcons' offense is nearly impossible to stop, so the Patriots are going to surrender points, but there might be a number that the Patriots have to hold Atlanta under.

That appears to be 30.

This seems like a very high total of points the Falcons are "allowed" to score, considering the Patriots lost both Super Bowls when the New York Giants' offense only scored 21 and 17 points.

Of course, this Atlanta offense is unlike anything seen in recent years, and everyone and their mother is expecting this to be a shootout -- the over/under sits at 58.5 and Atlanta (34.4) and New England (28.4) ranked first and third, respectively, in points per game scored.

What's so special about 30? In games the Falcons scored fewer than 30 points this season, they are 1-5.

In games scoring at least 30 points? Their record jumps to a ridiculous 10-1, including games played this postseason.

The Falcons are not known for their defense -- they're mainly reliant on outscoring their opponents (duh), instead of the defense holding them in, or winning games outright for them. With that being said, if the Falcons are able to put up points on the Patriots' stout defense consistently, they need to rely on Brady and the Patriots not matching them score for score.

But how can they go about limiting this offense?

Bend-But-Don’t-Break Defense

New England was the best scoring defense in the NFL this season at 15.6 points allowed per game despite being a little bit overrated based on the advanced analytics.

The Falcons will find their way down the field -- they have too many weapons to not be able to move their way between the 20s. The difference in this game could very well be whether or not the Patriots can limit the Falcons' drives to three points instead of six.

Near the goal line, this may be the best time to double cover Julio Jones and rely on single coverage on the rest of the offensive pieces.

The cornerbacks and linebackers will need to remain physical with the other eligible receivers, which will ultimately throw off the timing between them and Ryan, or eliminating them from the play entirely.

At the 10-second mark, middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower does a great job of removing Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James from the play. Any help the Patriots' defense can give themselves when backed up in the red zone will be crucial in stalling the Falcons' high-flying offense.

Drawing From Past Opponents

Taking a page from the playbook of teams that have toppled the Falcons could also help the Patriots on Sunday.

What do our advanced metrics tells us about the opponents the Falcons faced in their loses? All five teams ranked inside the top-15 by our Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metric, for starters. New England ranked 11th by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.

The Pats also ranked eighth against the rush by our metrics, and all five teams to best the Falcons this season finished inside the top 20 by this measure. That strength against the rush will help them shift focus to stopping Ryan and the passing offense.

Opponent Adj DPNEP/P (Rank) Adj DRNEP/P (Rank) Result
Tampa Bay 0.06 (7th) 0.04 (T-19th) L
Seattle 0.12 (15th)
-0.10 (2nd)
San Diego
0.08 (10th)
-0.01 (T-10th)
-0.01 (2nd)
0.02 (T-17th)
Kansas City
0.02 (4th)
0.02 (T-17th)
New England 0.09 (11th) -0.03 (T-8th) ?

By eliminating the run game, the Patriots could force Atlanta to become one-dimensional in this matchup.

When initially previewing this matchup, one might think the Patriots should double cover Jones all game long and see if the rest of the pieces can beat them, but that actually might be the opposite of what the Patriots want to do come Sunday. If they overcommit coverage and take him out of the game, this could turn into the Patriots' downfall.

As our own Justin Rau noted, when Julio was held to fewer than 73 yards this season, the Falcons held a record of 6-1, which is absolutely terrifying if you're a Patriots' fan.

Any Common Theme in Falcons' Loses This Year?

How have Atlanta's top options fared in their losses, and does that shed any insight on this matchup?

Opponent Ryan Freeman & Coleman Jones Sanu
Tampa Bay 334 Yds, 2 TDs 42 Rush Yds 66 Rec Yds, 1 TD 80 Rec Yds, 1 TD
Seattle 335 Yds, 3 TDs, 1 Int 50 Rush Yds 139 Rec Yds, 1 TD 47 Rec Yds, 1 TD
San Diego 273 Yds, 1 TD, 1 Int 122 Rush Yds, 1 TD 174 Rec Yds 16 Rec Yds
Philadelphia 267 Yds, 1 TD, 1 Int 49 Rush Yds 135 Rec Yds 14 Rec Yds
Kansas City 297 Yds, 1 TD, 1 Int 105 Rush Yds 113 Rec Yds 26 Rec Yds

As noted in the above chart, Julio can have his fair share of yards, and even a touchdown and this still wouldn't be a deal breaker -- in the five loses, Jones averaged 125 yards receiving. Obviously limiting the number of touchdowns thrown by Ryan will help, but isn't absolutely necessary as show-cased in their first matchup with the Seattle Seahawks this year.

Limiting the run game from Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were common themes in these losses. In these same games, Freeman and Coleman had a fair amount of receiving yards, but this is to be expected when trailing.

Is it an easy win if the Patriots are able to contain the running backs on the ground? Not quite.

In games Atlanta lost this year, Freeman and Coleman's average combined rushing and receiving yards were 154.80; comparing this to the Falcons' wins this year, that average only slightly increased to 158.46. Again, it's not a deal-breaker here if they are limited on the ground, as the Falcons will find a way to incorporate them in their uptempo offense.

What does this tell us about what the Patriots should do?


There's not one correct or easy answer, and that's what makes the Falcons offense so difficult to stop. The Patriots' defense must limit the receivers and backs after the catch by finishing their tackles and playing a poised game.

There's no doubt that head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have their defense ready for the challenge that awaits them.

Of course, the Falcons may need more than their high-scoring offense this Sunday, and if history has anything to say about the game, it's something that can come back to be the cause of their defeat.

The Patriots will look to take full advantage of the Falcons' defense, which gave up a league-high of 25.4 points per game this year -- no Super Bowl champion has ever allowed that many points per game in a season.