The Atlanta Falcons are 1-6. Let that sink in.
Most people here were expecting a high-scoring affair between the Falcons and Packers. Falcons quarterback Matty ‘Ice’ Ryan was superb but it was their defence that won them the game.
I wrote last week that Dallas was effective in the second half against the Packers when blitzing. If the Falcons were to win, they would need to do that the entire game. That’s exactly what they did.
They didn’t always record a sack (just the two for the game) but most importantly they didn’t allow him to move around in the pocket waiting for receivers to uncover from their defender.
They forced the ball to be thrown early and under pressure. At one point the Falcons defence connected on two brutal hits on consecutive drives just as the Packers quarterback released the ball.
They also stymied Aaron Rodgers from connecting with his trio of game-changing receivers, forcing him to look to tight end Jared Cook, who had a Packer-high seven receptions but several costly drops on third down.
Davante Adams just had the three receptions for 16 yards, and Randall Cobb eventually got going (six receptions for 82) but the majority of those were in fourth quarter when the game was already over. Jordy Nelson was terrific early (six receptions for 67 and one TD) fighting through broken ribs sustained just two weeks earlier. But his impact on the game diminished as it went on.
Matt Ryan had one of the games of his career (four TDs, 392 yards and a rushing touchdown too). With the ground attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combining for just 71 yards on 25 carries, Ryan was forced to carry the load and he delivered. Eight different Falcons caught passes as Ryan distributed the ball all over the field.
The undisputed star was Julio Jones, whose nine receptions for 180 yards and two TDs was highlighted by his 73-yard catch and run touchdown that involved a juke past one defender and a stiff arm on another.
AFC Championship Game
Last week in Kansas the Chiefs were unable to take advantage of a couple of blown coverages by the Steelers defence that would have produced TDs. I think everyone knew that if they didn’t rectify that, Tom Brady and the Patriots would not be so forgiving.
Chris Hogan’s two TDs were both a result of the Steelers losing containment in the coverage schemes. Despite this, the Steelers looked to be in the game near half time when tight end Jesse James was ruled to have scored a TD, cutting the deficit to 17-12. However upon review it was ruled that he was in fact down at the one yard line.
It set the stage for the underrated Patriots defensive front to produce a terrific goal-line stand that forced the normally super aggressive Steelers into settling for a field goal.
That made the score 17-9 and the Steelers never got any closer, as Brady picked apart the Steelers secondary with Hogan (9 receptions for 180 yards two TDs) and Edelmen (8 receptions for 118 yards) having field days.
So onto the Super Bowl. How will it play out?
It’s the sixth time the league’s best offense has met the best defence (point per game) in the Super Bowl. The top defence has won four times of the prior five. The Falcons, owner of the top offense, should be worried on two fronts.
Firstly, they couldn’t run the ball against the Packers successfully, and the Patriots are much better against the run – third versus the Packers’ eighth. Will they be able to sustain a balanced attack?
If not then their chances of winning diminish greatly against the Patriots because without the threat of having to worry about a running attack, Patriots linebackers and safeties will drop back into the passing lanes on play action. Further, it will mean more passing attempts by Matt Ryan, more incompletions and more time for Tom Brady to be on the field.
Secondly, can their young defence not be intimated on the day and stop Tom Brady? The Falcons defence contains seven first or second year players. They appear destined to be great, but can they continue their form in a neutral venue under the spotlights that the Super Bowl and the two week build up brings?
They will need to pressure Brady but in a different method to Aaron Rodgers. Brady is the master of finding the open receiver when a defence blitzes. He doesn’t possess the athleticism that Rodgers does, so he can’t move around or out of the pocket waiting for receivers to uncover themselves from the coverage.
Brady has to know where the holes in a defence will be when they blitz. He fires out the pass before the extra rusher can get to him and he has lasted so many years because he is the best at this.
So the two options for a defensive co-ordinator are 1- don’t blitz and hope your four defensive rushers can bring pressure; or 2- blitz in a way he hasn’t seen before, so that he is confused for an extra second or two that allows the blitzing man to get to home.
The previous two Super Bowls that the Patriots lost to the Giants were off the back of the pressure Brady encountered from the Giants four defensive lineman. Denver employed both tactics last year in the AFC Championship game. Can the Falcons (16th in sacks) pressure Brady enough either way?
Meanwhile, the Patriots should be worried by what Ryan, Jones and the two running backs in Freeman and Coleman can do in the passing attack. If the run game is struggling, the Falcons can use the speed of the running backs to get into open space on short passes.
Offensive Co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan runs a West Coast offense. Perhaps he will hark back to the play calling of West Coast offense guru Bill Walsh and decide to set up the run in the second half by passing the ball predominantly in the first?
Patriots coach Belechick will almost certainly employ double coverage on Julio Jones and try to force Ryan to beat them with other players. Will Kyle Shanahan be able to scheme other receivers to be open? He has all year but Belechick and his defence presents the ultimate challenge.
It’s a final challenge I believe they will fall short of.
Patriots 27- Falcons 24.