Super Bowl 51 is this Sunday, and the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will be facing off in Houston in a battle of spectacular offenses. One of the Patriots’ keys to victory will be the performance of its defense. If the Patriots can stop Matt Ryan, then Tom Brady and company should be able to put up enough points to win.
That being said, stopping Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense will not be an easy task. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the fewest amount of yards Ryan threw in a game this season was 237 in a 42-14 win against the Los Angeles Rams. He leads the league in passer rating (117.1), yards per attempt (9.3), and yards per completion (13.3). Julio Jones is second in the league in receiving yards (1409) and first in receiving yards per game (100.6). And of course, they also have Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Austin Hooper, among others. It will be impossible to stop every one of their playmakers. However, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will undoubtedly utilize a defensive gameplan that counters the Falcons’ strengths. Let’s take a look at the potential matchups.
Logan Ryan vs. Mohamed Sanu
This, to me, is one of the most clear-cut options the Patriots have going into the game. Other Patriots fans believe that Butler should be put on Sanu, but I believe Ryan’s skillset is better suited to covering Sanu. Sanu is a good complement to Jones in that while he may not be the fastest or make a lot of big plays, he can play both in the slot and outside and is a great route runner with good hands. This is exactly the type of receiver that Ryan does well against. Ryan may not be the most physically gifted corner, but he does a great job of trailing the receiver, anticipating their routes, reading the quarterback’s eyes, and sometimes even undercutting the route to make a deflection or interception. Ryan should be able to keep up with Sanu and use his instincts to break up passes coming his way.
Eric Rowe (with safety help) vs. Julio Jones
The Patriots’ are known for taking away other teams’ top talent, but I don’t believe that this will be their approach this coming Sunday. The Falcons simply have too many weapons for the Patriots to cover, so they can’t afford to focus all their attention on Jones. Rowe, the Patriots’ biggest cornerback, should be able to get physical with Jones on the line and then play in front of him while a safety brackets him over the top. That being said, I don’t believe that the Patriots will play Rowe on Julio for the entire game, for reasons I will get to now.
Malcolm Butler vs Taylor Gabriel
I know what some of you might be thinking. “Butler, the Patriots’ best cornerback, on the Falcons’ third receiver?!” However, Butler is really the best matchup for Gabriel since he is also New England’s fastest corner. Sanu is Ryan’s best matchup, and Butler is simply too small to cover Julio Jones. The Patriots put Butler on Brandon Marshall in Week 12 against the Jets and Marshall simply made catches over Butler. While Jones isn’t as big as Marshall, the Patriots can’t really afford to give Jones any more advantages. In addition, Butler is really the only Patriots cornerback that is fast enough to cover Gabriel. Rowe and Ryan have slow hips and I don’t believe that they would be able to keep up.
That being said, since Gabriel is only the Falcons’ slot receiver, he won’t be on the field 100% of the time. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots played a lot of nickel zone to keep all three cornerbacks on the field. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Justin Coleman was active for this game. Coleman’s specialty is keeping up with speedy receivers like we saw in Week One against the Cardinals when he shut down John Brown. If the Falcons’ empty out with 4 or 5 wide receivers, the Patriots might elect to have Butler cover Aldrick Robinson or Justin Hardy and have Coleman in the slot on Gabriel.
Patrick Chung vs. Austin Hooper
This is probably the most obvious matchup. Chung has covered tight ends all year for the Patriots, so I wouldn’t expect this to change. However, Devin McCourty or others may be tasked with covering Hooper every so often for reasons I will mention now.
Patriots linebackers vs. Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman
This, in my opinion, is going to be the Patriots’ toughest challenge. Both Freeman and Coleman are great receivers, and the Patriots don’t really have a good cover linebacker. Elandon Roberts has slow hips and is primarily and downhill run-stuffer. Dont’a Hightower and Shea McClellin are both 260 pounds and are thus better suited to rush the passer or defend the run. Kyle Van Noy is the Patriots best option, but he has made a few communication mistakes that have led to big plays. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCourty or Chung cover Freeman or Coleman occasionally. Expect edge defenders Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich to drop into the flat to try to take away the check-down.
Patriots’ Defensive Line vs Falcons’ Offensive Line
The Falcons have a good offensive line, and the Patriots have struggled to get pressure while rushing only three or four guys. However, Falcons’ center Alex Mack is recovering from an ankle injury, so the Patriots may be able to exploit that to get some interior pressure. Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, and Trey Flowers will need to be able to consistently get interior pressure if the Patriots’ want to stop Matt Ryan.
Also, expect safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon to be playing over the top. McCourty will likely be asked to many different things, while Harmon will likely play center field.
We may end up seeing some of these matchups on Sunday, or we may not. Either way, the Patriots’ defense, especially their defensive line, will need to have their best game of the year in order to stop the Falcons’ potent aerial attack.