Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Jan 2017

QR Bonus: Keys To Beating Atlanta

by Vincent Verhei

With the conference championship games behind us, it's time again to look back at the 2016 season and analyze what happened when the best teams in the league played at their worst. Yes, the Falcons and Patriots both won a lot of games to get here -- 29 in total between them -- but they also lost seven times. We know all about their triumphs, but what lessons can we learn from their struggles, and what are the weaknesses that could be exposed and exploited in Houston? Tom Brady's suspension makes the selection of New England's worst games a complicated process (though not for the reasons you might think), so we'll start with Atlanta, and cover the Patriots next week.

The Falcons had four games this year with a negative DVOA. In chronological order:

  • Week 1: It seems like a whole different era, but the Falcons actually opened their season with a 31-24 home loss to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers took an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter. The Falcons would eventually get the ball back down by just seven points with nearly two minutes to go, but that drive ended on four straight Matt Ryan incompletions. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had a miserable day, combining for just 42 yards and one first down on 19 carries, getting hit for no gain or a loss six times. Ryan himself was sacked three times. Meanwhile, Atlanta's secondary couldn't cover anyone. Jameis Winston threw touchdowns to four different receivers; Mike Evans finished with 99 yards and a score; and tight ends Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Cameron Brate, and Brandon Myers combined for five catches in five targets, gaining 64 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

  • Week 7: The Falcons suffer another home defeat, blowing leads of 27-10 and 30-20 en route to a 33-30 loss to San Diego in overtime. Across the board, this was a pretty average performance for Atlanta, with no overwhelming areas of strong or weak performance. Ryan was sacked three times again, and hit nine times in total. Julio Jones had nine catches for 174 yards, though it took him 15 targets to get there. The defense tackled Chargers running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage seven times, and held them to 80 yards on 25 carries. They also sacked Philip Rivers four times, but allowed him to average 8.4 yards per pass attempt. Most of that damage was done by Tyrell Williams, who caught 7-of-10 passes for 140 yards. Matt Bryant missed a 58-yard field goal as time expired. Atlanta then got the ball first in overtime, but that drive ended on a failed fourth-and-1 run at their own 45. San Diego kicked the winning field goal six snaps later.
  • Week 10: The Falcons fall to Philadelphia 24-15, the only time all season the Falcons scored less than 23 points. With no Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman was the bell cow back of the day, and five of his 12 carries gained 1 yard or less. (Terron Ward also got one carry, a 1-yard loss.) Atlanta's only touchdown came on a 76-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel. Ryan averaged just 5.3 yards on his other 35 dropbacks. Including the 76-yarder, Atlanta's median gain on passing plays was just 3.5 yards. Ryan was also sacked twice, with one DPI and one interception. Again, Jones had big raw totals (10 catches for 135 yards), but again it took him a lot of plays to get there (16 targets). Meanwhile, the Falcons defense got steamrolled, allowing the trio of Ryan Mathews, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles to ramble for 198 yards and 11 first downs on 34 carries, while getting hit for no gain or a loss just one time.
  • Week 13: In one of the weirdest and most shocking games of the year, the Falcons lose to Kansas City at home, 29-28. The Falcons scored what was momentarily a go-ahead touchdown with about four and a half minutes to go in the game, but when they went for a two-point conversion and a three-point lead, Eric Berry intercepted the pass and returned it all the way for a defensive two-point conversion that put the Chiefs on top for good. This after Berry had scored on more conventional pick-six in the second quarter, and Albert Wilson scored on a fake punt in the third. That's 16 points in the final margin that were surrendered by Atlanta's offense and special teams, not the defense. Mind you, the defense still had a lousy day. They held Kansas City running backs to 29 yards on 15 carries, but in addition to Wilson's run on a fake punt, Tyreek Hill and De'Anthony Thomas had runs of 23, 13, and 6 yards. More to the point, Alex Smith went 21-of-25 and averaged 10.8 yards per pass, his best game in that category since 2013. The most dangerous weapon in Smith's arsenal was tight end Travis Kelce, who caught each of the eight passes thrown his way for 140 total yards, including three catches that gained 20 or more yards.

All of which leaves us with a very murky picture. There's no one area here where Atlanta's game drops off. In their four bad games, they were worse in every major category compared to their ratings for the full season. Their DVOA numbers fell in pass offense (53.0% overall, 27.7% in their bad games), rush offense (1.7%, -9.4%), pass defense (11.6%, 35.7%) and rush defense (2.5%, 10.7%).

Individual receiving numbers, though, start to give us some useful information. Julio Jones, for example, had a very similar receiving DVOA overall (31.8%) as he did in Atlanta's bad games (28.5%). Meanwhile, Taylor Gabriel saw a significant decline (from 36.6% to 7.7%), as did Mohamed Sanu (from 6.7% to -3.2%). Further, while Jones had exactly 25 percent of Atlanta's targets overall this year, that rate climbed to 36 percent in Atlanta's bad games. There's no player with a corresponding drop in targets -- everyone else was basically just targeted the same or slightly less -- but Atlanta played its worst football this year when they over-relied on Julio Jones and ignored their other weapons. Bill Belichick has always excelled at neutralizing his opponents' best players, and on the surface "make Julio Jones beat you" doesn't sound like a way to make a living. But a one-dimensional Falcons attack is less dangerous than one that can get the ball to a variety of targets at will.

There's one other surprise in Atlanta's individual receiving DVOAs: both Falcons running backs were actually more effective in Atlanta's worst games. Devonta Freeman's receiving DVOA climbed from 24.5% overall to 38.0% when Atlanta struggled, while Tevin Coleman's jumped from a league-best 48.5% overall to 50.7%. This again suggests that the key to beating Atlanta is eliminating Taylor and Sanu from the game plan. You actually want to funnel deep passes to Jones, while allowing Freeman and Coleman to get their short catches and do your best to limit the damage from those plays. Admittedly, a lot of this sounds counter-intuitive, but when you're talking about a great offense like Atlanta's, the best you can realistically hope for is to keep their scoring down to about a league-average level, and hope your own offense can do better than that.

And New England's offense certainly can do better than that, especially against this defense. The Falcons were horrible against the run in their good and bad games alike, but their pass defense went from "below average" over the whole season to "total incompetence" in their four bad games. The quartet of Jameis Winston, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, and Alex Smith (none of whom ranked higher than tenth in DVOA combined to complete 70.1 percent of their passes at an average of 8.42 yards per throw, with six touchdowns, two interceptions, and seven sacks. For the weeks in question, Atlanta was among the bottom eight teams in coverage against No. 1 wide receivers, "other" wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. They were actually 13th-best in coverage against No. 2 wide receivers, though the 2s they faced in those weeks -- Vincent Jackson, Tyrell Williams, Nelson Agholor, and Albert Wilson -- weren't exactly a murderer's row. Regardless, even if the Falcons do shut down Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman and the other Patriots receivers are more than capable of winning football games on their own.

So that's what a worst-case scenario Super Bowl looks like for Atlanta: big plays in the passing game will put some points on the board, but an inability to extend drives will give New England's offense too many opportunities to score themselves, and the Falcons will be powerless to stop the Patriots' long marches. In this kind of deep south nightmare world, the Falcons score in the neighborhood of 20 points, and still get doubled up.

Next week, we'll look at New England's worst games, and the effect that Tom Brady's absence apparently had on the Patriots defense (no, that's not a typo).

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 24 Jan 2017

53 comments, Last at 02 Feb 2017, 9:21pm by Damon

Comments

1
by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 3:19pm

The article is interesting, but I don't know that the fact that Jones had a higher dvoa (and Sanu/Gabriel lower) in games where the Falcons were bad necessarily leads to the conclusion that you concentrate on covering those two over Jones.

Beyond the fact that the data doesn't necessarily support the conclusion, individual player statistics are hugely noisy in your models.

While Sanu was largely ignored in games 10,13 (2,3 targets), he was 5/8 for 80 yards in game 1, his second biggest game of the year. Sanu only averaged 5 targets a game, so 4 targets in week 1 isn't actually all that low.

For Gabriel, he had 2 targets in game 1, didn't play in game 7, was targeted 5 times (and only caught 1, for 76 yards) in week 10, and in week 13 matched his high for targets with 6.(5/6,only 9 ypc though). Gabriel only averaged 3.8 targets per game overall, so you could say they threw to him more often in these games.

For Jones, week 1 he was significantly worse than normal in week 1 (4/8 for 66), and then had big games on week 7 and 10 - although low comp%), and then a pretty normal game for him (7/9 for 113).

All in all, it seems like your reading a lot into what is probably noise.

2
by Boston Dan :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 3:40pm

Blount and Lewis combine for 250 yards rushing as the Patriots smash the Falcons into smithereens.

4
by RickD :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 3:48pm

I wouldn't be surprised to see Belichick use the running game a lot. This matchup reminds me of Giants v. Bills in SB XXV. Belichick's game plan (now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) relied on ball control to limit the number of series that the explosive Bills' offense would get. If the Pats actually can get Blount and/or Lewis untracked* they will do that all day long.

*I've never understand why the word used here is "untracked". A train that is untracked isn't able to move at all! Is this usage a distortion of "on track"?

5
by dryheat :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 3:57pm

I think it's a bastardization of "on track".

7
by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 4:17pm

The oldest references are all in horse racing - but nobody seems to know where it came from. There's some feeling that it has something to do with how horses move to the inside of the track when in the lead, and have to stay in their own track when not in a lead.

Lots of references to "get out of a rut" as similar.

9
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 4:46pm

I presume Belichick's gameplan was for the defense, not the offense. It was to focus on hitting the Bills receivers hard and allowing Thurman Thomas to run the ball. Apparently the Giants defenders were aghast at the idea as they prided themselves on not allowing 100-yd rushers. Obviously the clock would continue to run when they ran the ball.

To an extent they used the same gameplan against the Rams in 2002.

12
by Joe Pancake :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 6:45pm

I remember reading an article breaking down the "ball control" myth of Super Bowl XXV (sorry, I can't find link). The Bills had about the same number of offensive series that game as their average. The reason they didn't score as much is because the Giants were better at stopping them than most teams were. It was good defense, not a ball control offense.

In general, the math doesn't really work for a ball control strategy to be effective, at least not in the way we generally think of it. If you are the worse team you might want to try to limit the number of possessions because then there is a greater chance of getting a large deviation from the expected score differential (which you want since the expected differential means you lose). However, if you are the better team you should want as many possessions as possible because you want to trend toward the expected score differential. This is true whether or not you are better because you have the advantage on offense or on defense.

So if the Patriots feel they're better than the Falcons, then they shouldn't be worried about the Falcons having many offensive possessions, because that just means they will also have many offensive possessions and will average more points on these possessions than the Falcons will on theirs (because they're better, or so they think in this hypothetical).

13
by Duff Soviet Union :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 7:57pm

I remember football reference writing about that Super Bowl and how ridiculous the myth of the greatest defensive game plan ever TM was.

Basically their defense got gashed with the exception of third down, where Buffalo didn't convert one all game.

Meanwhile the Giants converted a ton of third downs, which helped keep their defense off the field.

If you stop the opposition offense from converting a single third down while moving the ball well yourself, you're going to win a ton of games. Not sure how to game plan for that though. And after all that, it still required a missed field goal for the Giants to win.

16
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 8:42pm

That was probably me complaining in the comments about that gameplan being in the HOF. It shouldn't be. Couldn't pressure Kelly, couldn't get a takeaway, Thurman Thomas was about to be named game MVP, and they were about to allow a second go-ahead drive in the 4Q if Norwood delivered. And all with just 20 minutes of possession.

18
by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 9:22pm

The players still talk about Bill's plan reverently, saying how it allowed them to control the game and coax Buffalo into running plays that weren't their strong suit. The fact that Thomas might have been MVP had Buffalo won (rather than Kelly or a WR) meant that the gameplan worked, so it really isn't a check in your favor, nor is the lack of big pass rushing stats since NY used their LBs in coverage more than normal. It also should be pointed out that outstanding offenses finding their bearings later in games against tired defenses isn't exactly an abnormal circumstance, even in historic upsets. It happened in SB 25, it happened in SB 36 and it happened in SB 42 as well.

Maybe Bill's approach was entirely irrelevant because NY would have won anyway had they run their usual stuff... or any other game plan, for that matter. I have no way of saying otherwise. That said, the arguments you are using to support your position don't have much merit behind them.

A more compelling case would simply be that Buffalo's 22 points (presuming the make) wasn't that far off what you would expect a good defense to hold them to on a neutral field. Averaging over 45ppg the prior to weeks distorted expectations and made people forget that Buffalo only scored 27ppg for the season and was held to 17 by the same Giant team (albeit in NY) just a month and a half prior.

23
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 10:18pm

How is letting an All-Pro RB gain 190 yards on 20 touches an advisable gameplan? You can point out Kelly and Reed on the offense, but Kelly didn't even throw for 3000 yards in 14 games that season. Thomas was the All-Pro in Buffalo that year and he was great in that game, ripping off big plays in key moments (22-yard run on last drive).

The fact that the gameplan wouldn't be in Canton had a field goal been made tells me all I need to know about how good that gameplan was.

24
by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 10:37pm

"The fact that the gameplan wouldn't be in Canton had a field goal been made tells me all I need to know about how good that gameplan was."

This is perhaps the worst argument you made. Was NY's dominance of NE's OL in 2007 - and, presumably the creditworthiness of the game plan along with it - only validated once Burress caught the game winning TD? How about if Samuel didn't drop the pick, would that have made the performance any worse?

How is letting an All-Pro RB gain 190 yards on 20 touches an advisable gameplan?

Apparently when it works, which pretty much every Giant defender to this day says it did.

Bill gambled that Buffalo wouldn't be nearly as explosive if they were steered away from passing the ball, and that reduction would give NY's middling offense a chance to keep up. This was proven correct regardless of Norwood's final kick.

If you want to maintain your position, there are much better arguments for doing so. In fact, I provided one in the post you responded to.

25
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 10:48pm

What? Kelly threw the ball more in the SB than he did in the previous two playoff games. Buffalo got to be the No. 1 offense that year by running more than it threw the ball. Albeit on a deflection, Kelly had a longer completion in the SB than he had in the previous two playoff games. That was a run-heavy offense with a HOF RB, and he delivered. Thomas did not have a run longer than 15 yards against MIA/LARD. Against the Giants, he had a 31-yard TD run, a 22-yard run on the final drive and an 18-yard run in the first half. That not explosive enough for you?

Your SB 42 comparison also doesn't hold up at all. If NE won 14-10, we'd at least know the Giants defense was still great and the offense blew a golden opportunity. In this game, Buffalo should have averaged a point per minute, not to mention they still had 371 yards of offense.

28
by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:10pm

Your SB 42 comparison also doesn't hold up at all.

You made it hold up when you introduced win/loss as the deciding factor.

This post offers more cogent data than any post prior, but the fact still remains that the plan worked. You can throw out stats until you are blue in the face, but they still held the Bills to 20 offensive points on a similar number of possessions as usual.

If you want to make a legitimate argument, you have to demonstrate that the strategy either had a minimal impact on the game or that NY would have actually done better had they stuck to their usual script. Thus far, you haven't approached doing either.

Frankly, I don't understand why you don't simply adopt some of what I said earlier.

A more compelling case would simply be that Buffalo's 22 points (presuming the make) wasn't that far off what you would expect a good defense to hold them to on a neutral field. Averaging over 45ppg the prior to weeks distorted expectations and made people forget that Buffalo only scored 27ppg for the season and was held to 17 by the same Giant team (albeit in NY) just a month and a half prior.

This makes your argument for you in far more concise terms.

29
by Duff Soviet Union :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:36pm

"This post offers more cogent data than any post prior, but the fact still remains that the plan worked"

It didn't really. They put up 20 points and 371 yards (a lot in 1990) in 20 minutes they had the football. The only reason it "worked" was because Buffalo didn't convert a single third down all day, and I don't know how anyone can say that was part of the "plan".

40
by Anon Ymous :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 12:40pm

You are trying to have your cake and eat it, too. "You see this offensive success? Totally legitimate. But the defensive successes were luck." If Buffalo dropped a ton of balls or you could show Kelly kept missing open receivers (presuming that wasn't somehow prompted by the unexpected approach), then it would make sense to diminish NY's impact on those downs. But without said evidence, the argument isn't persuasive.

This will be my last post in this thread, so please allow me to summarize.

It makes no sense to criticize a defense designed to drop coverage and concede the run for generating few sacks and allowing rushing yardage. That taking that approach appears counter-intuitive isn't particularly weighty when A) that's part of the allure and B) it at least appears to have worked. TOP isn't a strong argument either because Buffalo was notorious for not caring too much about that (they barely had an edge in the 51-3 win the week before and only held the ball for 27 minutes in their 44-34 win in the divisionals) and the high number of short drives was a contributing factor.

All that said, I don't dispute the idea that the gameplan is overrated historically. It's not that I find the conclusion ridiculous, it's that most of the arguments being offered aren't particularly strong.

41
by Eddo :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 1:06pm

What this thread has convinced me is that the Giants' offensive gameplan and execution is what should be admired.

The Bills scored 17 offensive points, plus a missed FG, in their 10 non-kneeldown possesions. That's not great, but also a little above average (FO only has drive stats back to 1997, when the league average points-per-drive was 1.67; I'm assuming that it was a little lower in 1990, but I very well could be wrong).

The Giants scored even more points per possession, but given that they were indeed a worse offense and playing with a backup QB, they were less likely to sustain that over more possessions. So playing ball-control and shortening the game worked in their favor; it wound up resulting in Buffalo settling on a 47-yard FG in an all-or-nothing scenario.

43
by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 1:24pm

The fact that you agree and are still arguing anyway seems a bit ridiculous, too. So what are you saying? You either say the gameplan worked or it didn't, you can't take both sides.

44
by Anon Ymous :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 1:41pm

It seems ridiculous to point out faulty logic on a website whose primary objective is to try to understand football better?

You either say the gameplan worked or it didn't, you can't take both sides.

You can say that you don't know whether the gameplan had a material impact, but that the players directly involved swear by it and many of the arguments against it aren't very persuasive... which is all I've done. Your implication that one must pick a side to recognize bad reasoning is patently false.

48
by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 01/26/2017 - 11:58am

The players swear by it because they won, which was Scott's point. If the FG had been made, the players would be awfully quiet about the whole thing.

42
by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 1:15pm

Inteersuing stuff her.e will rfead later when home or something. wanted to post here for thread "subscribinfg" reasons. otherwise, may have forgotten

26
by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:04pm

To be fair, the difference in quality between the 2007 Giants and Patriots is far larger than the 1990 Bills and Giants. The Giants have taken on some sort of appearance of huge underdogs that needed some radical plan to win.

The Bills were 7 point favorites, but a lot of that was due to the 51-3 win over the Raiders. The Giants were basically as good as the Bills that season (by FO's measure, a reasonable amount better).

27
by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:06pm

Agreed, that's what I said earlier:

Averaging over 45ppg the prior to weeks distorted expectations and made people forget that Buffalo only scored 27ppg for the season and was held to 17 by the same Giant team (albeit in NY) just a month and a half prior.

30
by Duff Soviet Union :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:39pm

The FO ratings don't take into account that the Giants were playing with their backup QB, albeit a very good one. Taking that into account, I'd say the game went about as expected. This really wasn't much of an upset at all.

46
by Raiderjoe :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 7:01pm

haven't seen game since night it was played. remember Ny.Y. Gaints having long possession 3rd quarter. Bils not much time of poession overall but moving ball well when had possession. Gaints won 20-19. easily cvould have lost 20-22.

would not say Gaints had any type of wonderful amazing defensive gameplane. would more say Giants offense good enoiguh to get team into position to hope for missed field gial at end. That did happen, so Giants win game and Bills go hoem without v. Lombardi trophy. O.J. Anderson game MVP. If BIlls won, T. Thomas would have been MVP.

53
by Damon :: Thu, 02/02/2017 - 9:21pm

"Couldn't pressure Kelly, couldn't get a takeaway, Thurman Thomas was about to be named game MVP, and they were about to allow a second go-ahead drive in the 4Q if Norwood delivered. And all with just 20 minutes of possession."

I hated those Bills teams, but this is 100% accurate. Nice work, Scott.

22
by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 10:17pm

Typically when the Patriots move into what I call "ball control defense" and start slowing the game down on both sides, they've already got a lead. Shortening the game makes sense when you're leading.

11
by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 6:42pm

I don't recall where I read it, but the author used "untracked" to refer to ice being broken off the runners of a dogsled, which made it glide easier. Prior to stumbling across that I had always presumed it was a distortion, but if that is a legitimate usage the metaphor makes some sense.

3
by RickD :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 3:43pm

There's essentially zero likelihood that the Patriots focus on Gabriel and Sanu over Jones. The absolute #1 thing you can count on is that Jones will be the primary focus on their defensive scheme. And it has to be.
They got away with having Bulter cover AB 1-on-1 but that won't work with Jones simply because he's too big. Rowe is big enough, but he's nowhere near good enough to pull that off.

8
by aces4me :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 4:31pm

If history is any guide (and with the Pats who knows) they will put Ryan and a safety on Jones and put Butler one on one with Sanu.

51
by galactic_dev :: Fri, 01/27/2017 - 9:54am

You must be right, because that would be much smarter than the Seahawks, who left Sherman alone on Jones, a battle he couldn't win one-on-one.

6
by dryheat :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 4:01pm

I'm very interested on how Belichick decides to defend the Falcons. They didn't rush more than three very often vs. Pittsburgh, and flooded the underneath zones, but Ryan is much more risk-adverse than Roethlisberger. I think some kind of pressure is probably advisable, maybe some exotic stunts up front. We'll see how Trey Flowers and Alex Mack are health-wise. I sort of agree that as good as they are, you dare the running backs to run, and hope that you can hold on third down.

10
by tballgame :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 5:49pm

I recall Belichek defending Marvin Harrison in the 2004 AFC Championship game by putting Rodney Harrison on the line to hit Marvin, while Ty Law sat back at the safety spot and defended Marvin whenever Marvin got past Rodney. Marvin Harrison had one catch for 6 yards in the first half and 3 for 19 with a fumble on 7 targets for the game. The Colts racked up 79 points in their first two playoff games, but only managed 14 points in that game.

I don't know that he's done it recently, but the plan to slow down the Bills was hit the receivers hard at the line. The plan to slow down Marshal Faulk was to hit him hard at the line, often with Vrabel or McGinest. The plan to slow down Harrison was to hit him at the line. A consideration to slow down Jones has to be to try to beat him up at the line to interfere with route running and timing and to wear him down over the course of the game.

14
by ChrisLong :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 8:12pm

The problem with that strategy is that Julio Jones is a large, powerful human. Faulk and Marvin Harrison were "finesse" players. Julio is too strong to jam consistently without risking him tearing the cornerbacks arms off and catching the pass with those arms instead of his own.

17
by Zheng :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 9:06pm

Would that be a completed pass, or an interception?

20
by JustAnotherFalc... :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 9:41pm

The last time the Falcons and Patriots played, Bellichek did the exact same thing to Tony Gonzales in the red zone. He'll try to do it to Julio as well. The bright side is that Shanahan already has the counter to this by putting Julio in the slot.

At that point, it becomes a game of "How many picks will the refs call for each team?"

15
by ssovm :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 8:23pm

As a Falcons fan who loves data and also watched the games really closely, I'll offer my 2 cents.

At first thought, it may seem like locking down the other receiving options will shut down the defense as we focus on Julio, but I don't think this would actually work. What happened at the Panthers game where Julio went for 300, they put man on Julio the whole game. Julio basically just kept burning them.

Each play Shanahan draws up is designed to open up lanes for a primary option and a secondary option with a checkdown in case things break down. The receivers run their routes precisely to draw coverages and create open guys for Matt to throw to. In that case, I could see this strategy working. However, I would also expect Shanahan to notice this and easily adjust by calling a play that would immediately burn a defense relying on covering our other receiving options. If that were to happen and Julio goes for 50 yards or so on a play, you better believe their DC will mix up coverage strategies. The problem there, of course, is that not all plays are designed to get the ball to Julio as a first-option, and since all plays start from a core group of formations, it's virtually impossible to know what kind of play Shanahan will call. You'd have to be psychic.

For why we did badly in those games? Probably just execution and there were some bad play calls. Philly took advantage of a few stalled offensive drives by rushing it down our throats. That increased desperation and forced us to force the ball to Julio, who was double-covered. We went back into 2015 mode. This was legitimately the best strategy against us. It's hard to do however as the Seahawks tried the same thing a few weeks ago by starting off with an 8-minute drive. They failed because we were able to score so fast and our defense was playing very well.

If anyone can figure out how to stop Atlanta, it's Belichick, but I wouldn't count on it.

36
by junkstarkey :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 11:51am

Ssovm's comments are spot on. In all of those games except the Philly game, the teams were able to keep pace on offense, and there were a few bad luck moments or small execution errors that swung the game against us. The Philly game is the best template. Philly controlled the line of scrimmage, shutting down the run and getting consistent pressure. Ryan was still pretty effective, but, the receivers had a lot of tough drops, often coming at key 3rd downs. Philly tried to limit the number of possessions and were very effective in 2- ad 3- TE sets running the ball. They dominated time of possessions 2:1. Even then, it took the Atlanta offense stalling for field goals at the 30 on 3 consecutive drives, and a very bad no call on pass interference to end the game with Atlanta losing.

I can say with some confidence that the key to beating the Falcons isn't shutting down Gabriel and Sanu. Of course, it is also not going to help much to focus on shutting down Jones. The offense is so diverse that it isn't going to be shut down, you try to hard to limit one player or play typology and another will fill the gap. The best bet is to bring consistent pressure on Ryan, limiting his time to make reads. He's better outside the pocket this year, but he is no Aaron Rodgers on the run, and he does tend to get jumpy in a tight pocket.

On D, I'm not sure where our run D ranks on FO stats, but I can say with confidence we have been poor against the run. Teams who were committed to the run found they could do that with ease. Luckily we've been playing with a lead for most of the season, so teams seemed to focus more on the pass, which plays into our only strength on defense: the pass rush. Pressure on the line has helped cover for fairly weak secondary play. Losing our cover corner Trufant was a huge blow. Alford is physically gifted but his technique is a major liability. Teams would get in trouble and just throw at whoever he was covering knowing there was a high likelihood of getting a pass interference call. Embarrassing. Keanu Neal is amazing but he hasn't been able to keep up with TEs all season and we have been gashed over and over by them.

I'm also a falcons fan who loves data, so it is instructive to me to see how someone who hasn't followed the Falcons closely all season attempts to read the tea leaves of FO data.

19
by JustAnotherFalc... :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 9:35pm

I think the way to stop the Falcons offense is to stop the YAC. Ryan will throw short of the sticks and let the receivers finish the job. That was the difference in the Philadelphia game, and I'm afraid to say that New England can probably do the same thing with their sound fundamentals. By comparison, I suspect one of the young Falcon defenders will try to "bring the wood ", not wrap up, and someone like Amondela will be off to the races and make the difference in the game.

21
by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 9:43pm

Edelman, more likely. He's a slippery bastard who is much tougher than he looks.

I think the game hinges more on whether NE's lack of pass rush has been prioritizing containment or lack of ability. I don't think they can stop Atlanta if Ryan is given as much time as Big Ben got.

32
by ansum :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 12:36am

At this point I doubt that BB seriously thinks that his 3 or 4 rushers will generate pressure consistently. It seems like the Pats typically rush the bare minimum required to maintain control of the line of scrimmage for a given play. Kind of like controlling the middle of the board in chess. Branch is a great run defender in a disciplined front that lacks a great pass rusher.

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by Anon Ymous :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 12:39pm

I think Bill sacrifices pressure for containment to keep unscripted chunk plays from happening, and I'm comfortable with that decision most of the time. Even in the AFCCG, it made sense to think Pitt couldn't maintain drives throwing to the secondary options (though it looked hairy there for a while in the second quarter).

That said, if there was a time when that strategy seems inappropriate it would be this one. Ryan isn't nearly as effective out of the pocket and Atlanta is blessed with both outstanding secondary options and the willingness to use them. I strongly suspect moving Ryan off the spot will have elevated importance come SB Sunday and any failure to do so will be difficult to overcome.

31
by Badger71 :: Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:57pm

Perhaps then the key will be for the Patriots to have their weakest cornerback,Rowe, cover Jones, with safety help over the top. This would allow Butler and Ryan to shut down Atlanta's other two receivers

33
by Will Allen :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 8:20am

How well the Patriot linebackers cover the Falcon running backs then becomes a critical question.

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by coremill :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 12:15pm

Yeah, I think this is the key to the game on that side of the ball. NE can't go nickle/dime too much because Atlanta will then be happy to run outside zone all game long for 5+ yards a pop. So NE will have to stick with their LBs in coverage. New England ranked 20th in DVOA on defending passes to RBs, while Freeman was 6th among RBs in receiving DVOA and Coleman was 1st. That seems like a big matchup edge for ATL.

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by Hoodie_Sleeves :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 5:33pm

Nickel (4-2-5) is the Patriots base set, with over 60% of plays typically. Dime is typically in the 20% range. They've been fine stopping the run out of it.

They absolutely will run a lot of nickle and dime in the Superbowl.

McCourty, Butler, Chung all played in excess of 96% of the snaps this year, with Ryan playing 86%.

Harmon played 48% of snaps, Rowe 44%, Coleman 22%, C. Jones 14%, J. Jones 4%, Richards 2%, Ebner 2%.

Hightower was the linebacker with the highest snap percentage at 67%, nobody else broke 40%.

34
by Will Allen :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 8:38am

I've been trying to talk myself into the upset, because I desperately want the last game, after a mostly terrible playoffs, and a regular season killed by injuries for Vikings fans, to be a really good contest.

I keep coming back, however, to Atlanta's defense, particularly how young it is. How likely is it that they will execute well, against an offense which is all about forcing a defense to flawlessly execute? It would be one thing if Atlanta had a young, talented, pass rush rotation, which just consistently whipped o linemen in one on one matchups, but they really don't. The Falcons defense is going to have to scheme its way to pressure, which means out executing Tom Brady's offense while starting 7 rookie or 2nd year players. Ugh.

Atlanta's offense has to have its best game of the year, and Dan Quinn having been on this stage, against this opponent, very recently, needs to translate into a better than normal prformance by the Falcons defense. Well, if it happens it definitely will be hugely entertaining. I wish I could be more confident that it happens.

37
by BJR :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 11:56am

I'm entirely of the same thought. There is some young talent on the Atlanta defense, but I just don't see it being up to this challenge in any way. Vic Beasley has the sack numbers, but by all accounts has been translating his pressures into sacks at an entirely unsustainable level, and beyond that the pass rush is just washed up veterans like Freeney and Brooks Reed. And if they aren't consistently pressuring Brady, they simply don't have the means to cover the Patriots' receivers (who, beyond maybe the Broncos, does?).

Then there's the 29th ranked (by DVOA) run defense. This has been well disguised the past two weeks by leaping out to big early leads. But provided the Patriots don't also fall behind big early, everything points towards them to being able to run the ball with success. Belichick, in his press conferences this week, has already praised the Atlanta defense for its speed, but perhaps we can infer from that that he believes he can overpower and outmaneuver them.

Of course there is a decent chance that New England can do nothing to stop the Atlanta offence either, and the game just comes down to a couple of random bad plays here or there which kill drives. But in a battle of which defense can do most to ensure the opposing offence must execute flawlessly over the course of 60 minutes, I'll take the Patriots.

35
by Otis Taylor89 :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 10:09am

Looks like ATL played 5 games on grass this year (OAK, CAR,DEN, TB and LAR) and were 5-0. Seems like the offense played pretty well and the defense played really well, although OAK was the only really good offense and TB played the game without any of their normal RBs.
As a Pats fan, I'm not hoping for a good game, however ATL's speed will probably cause problems for them, even on grass. Having said that, I just think ATL will wear down later in the game against a veteran team that is just waiting to capitalize on any mistake would make.

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by MC2 :: Wed, 01/25/2017 - 10:58pm

The Denver game is also misleading, as Paxton Lynch was making his first start and played very poorly.

49
by tballgame :: Thu, 01/26/2017 - 2:40pm

Can you double team a receiver at the line to prevent him from initiating his route, similar to the way you double team a gunner in punt coverage? Obviously you cannot tackle him, but you can knock him down and impede his progress without incurring a hold. Anyone recall a team doing this to a receiver for a significant portion of the game?

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by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 01/26/2017 - 5:00pm

Yes. It's what the Patriots did to Tony Gonzalez last time they played Atlanta.

He'd been unstoppable to that point with 12recs 149yds 2TDs probably because Julio Jones and Roddy White were getting the attention. So on the last play of the game when Atlanta were in the red zone looking for a score to win or tie they double-teamed him at the line.

Top of the screen here ... https://youtu.be/w8EZ0tuvtnw?t=6m31s

(Note also the play before - monster pass to Julio Jones)

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by vrao81 :: Tue, 01/31/2017 - 5:28pm

Couple thoughts about Super Bowl XXV. The Bills lost because they didn't run more than they did, as running was more effective for them than passing. Much is made of the Bills converting just 1 third down, but this is deceptive, on their first touchdown drive, the Bills did not face a single third down. The Giants on the other hand, had fantastic sustained drives in the 2nd half that wore out the Bills defense and left little time for a comeback. Let's look at some numbers.
The Bills gained 371 yards in just 55 offensive plays, or 6.75 yards per play.
However 61 yards came on a first quarter pass to Lofton. Subtract that, and the Bills gained just 5.74 yards per play, or just slightly above their season avg. (5.66) Kelly passed for 212 yards and 7.0 yards per attempt. Subtract Lofton's big catch (he only had one catch the whole game), and Kelly's YPA
is just 5.2.
The Bills rushed for 166 yards on just 25 carries, or 6.64 yard per. Subtract Thomas's biggest run (31 yards), and they still had 5.6 yards per rush. Therefore they should have rushed more than the passed. This is evident when looking at the play by play. In the first quarter, after the teams traded field goals, the Bills scored a touchdown without facing a third down. Soon after the Bills scored a safety when Hostetler was sacked. On the very next drive, the Bills went pass wacky, with Kelly throwing three straight incomplete passes. This took just 18 seconds off the clock. On the Bills last drive of the half, they took just under 2 minutes off the clock running six plays. This allowed enough time for the Giants to score a TD with 30 seconds left in the half.
In the 2nd half, the Giants really did damage. They took the kickoff and marched 75 yards, converting 4 third downs, and took nearly 9 minutes off the clock, scoring a TD that gave them the lead.
The Bills next drive took about 1:30 off the clock and resulted in a punt. The Giants turned it over on downs, and the Bills took just 4 plays to score, taking just 1:19 off the clock. These would be the Bills final points. The next Giants drive took 7 minutes, had 2 third down conversions, and ended in a field goal with 8 minutes left that would be the deciding points. The Bills would get 2 more chances, but had to punt and a missed field goal sealed the win for the Giants.
So to recap:
The Bills seemed to play well offensively, but looking further at the numbers, they were not effective passing the ball and should have kept the ball on the ground, especially late in the 1st half and 2nd half, when they had several drives take under 2 minutes. Keeping the ball away from the Giants should have been a priority, especially with a 12-3 lead.
The Bills defense could not come up with a stop on key Giants drives at the end of the first half and 2nd half, when the Giants scored 2 tds and a field goal. The Giants converted 7/8 third downs on these drives. That being said, I do not think the Giants defense performance was exemplary, merely adequate. The key to this game was Buffalo's inability to burn the clock to keep the Giants offense on the sideline and the inability of the Bills defense to get a third down stop.