Alan Branch, Alex Mack, Atlanta Falcons, Austin Hooper, Devin McCourty, Devonta Freeman, Dont'a Hightower, Duron Harmon, Jake Mathews, Julio Jones, Malcolm Butler, Matt Ryan, Mohamed Sanu, New England Patriots, NFL, Patrick Chung, Patrick DiMarco, Rob Ninkovich, Robert Alford, Ryan Schraeder, Super Bowl, Taylor Gabriel, Tevin Coleman, Trey Flowers
I like to go back and look at the coaching tape of the Super Bowl as I cling on to the final game we have to tie us over until preseason, but these days I have learnt painfully that you have to focus on something or you can spend so much time on every play as there is a huge amount to look at. I stuck with my original plan to cover the match up of the Atlanta Falcons league leading offence going up against the New England Patriots defence which conceded the fewest points in the league this regular season.
The first quarter was unexpectedly scoreless, with both offences getting off to slow starts. The Falcons are a team that are known to play a lot of traditional two running back personnel groupings and this was certainly the case in this game. Their opening drive got off to a great start when Devonta Freeman ran left for thirty-seven yards. This play also demonstrated the way that the Falcons like to attack a team with personnel and formations as they may have lined up in a standard offset I formation, but full back Patrick DiMarco motioned out to line up as a receiver. However that drive soon petered out with two short gains and a sack on third down when Trey Flowers simply overpowered left tackle Jake Mathews to get to Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ second drive followed a similar pattern with Tevin Coleman starting it off with a nice nine yard run, which was followed by a ten yard pass to DiMarco before the drive bogged down and Matt Ryan was sacked on third down. This was less of a pass rush than a coverage sack as Ryan looked to his right and moved up in the pocket, being brought down by Alan Branch as Ryan moved past him although it was only credited as half a sack. Looking at the coaching tape it does appear that Julio Jones did find a soft spot between corner and safety on the left of the offence but as we don’t know the play call or read progression it is hard to comment on whether Ryan should have seen this or not under the circumstances.
The second quarter was one where the Falcons offence leapt into life, remembering that they had Julio Jones and seeing a switch in personnel groupings moving to 12 and 11 personnel, with full back DiMarco not playing and them replacing him with a tight end or receiver. Their third drive started with a pass forced into Julio Jones who wrestled the ball away from the corner trailing him. He then followed this up with a toe tapping catch at the side line despite having both a corner and the deep safety track him across the formation as he motioned before the snap. Then Freeman took over the drive, running on three straight plays which resulting in the first score of the game. The fourth drive also started with a big pass play when Taylor Gabriel ran a deep in against what looks to be a two deep zone coverage with Malcolm Butler staying out wide whilst Gabriel cuts in underneath the two safeties and gaining the Falcons twenty-four yards. On a play action pass on the next play Julio Jones was able to get single coverage for about the only time in the game and Matt Ryan was able to find him down the side line whilst under pressure. After a running play by Tevin Coleman, Matt Ryan was able to find Austin Hooper in the end zone on the second time of asking when Hooper was matched up against Patrick Chung. On the previous play Chung was able to break up the pass, but this time Hooper was running round him and through the end zone to make the catch with fellow safety Devin McCourty doubled up on Julio Jones.
The Falcons offence would not get the ball back in the first half after Robert Alford took his interception of Tom Brady back eighty-two yards for a touchdown. The Patriots were noticeably doubling up on Julio Jones, but Malcolm Butler seemed to be playing left corner rather than following a receiver round the formation for a particular match up, although the Patriots did look to be playing man coverage mixed in with zone.
The third quarter saw the last points the Falcons were to score in the game, and they got off to a poor start with a three and out with Devonta Freeman getting stuffed in the backfield for a three yard loss and the drive never really recovering. However, their sixth drive was more reminiscent of the second quarter. The Falcons remained in predominantly 11 personnel, making use of a third receiver, opening the drive with a seventeen yard catch by Taylor Garbiel although they did bring back their full back for two plays. On one of these Garbiel ran past Malcom Butler as he fell down and caught the ball before the safety Duron Harmon could get across as he was shaded towards Julio Jones on the other side of the field. The Falcons were able to march down the field and scored a touchdown where they lined up with three receivers on the right of a shotgun formation and Tevin Coleman lined up to the left of Matt Ryan. They then brought Coleman across the formation whilst the receivers ran up and in patterns, which got Rob Ninkovich caught up enough that we was unable to get to the edge and stop Coleman getting into the end zone.
The problem for the Falcons then began here, which is why I am stepping away from the quarter by quarter break down. Not only did the Patriots find a formula on offence that began to move the ball, but their offence started having problems of their own. The next time the Falcons got the ball, their drive came to an end when Ryan Schraeder was over powered by two rushers and Matt Ryan was sacked. The following drive the Falcons had only given up a field goal on defence, but first Tevin Coleman went out of the game with an injury, and on the very next play Devonta Freeman could only bump Dont’a Hightower on his way to sack Matt Ryan who fumbled the ball and the Patriots recovered.
Even after these troubles the Falcons were ahead 28-20, and on the opening play of the drive ran a play action pass to Freeman who took the ball thirty-seven yards to midfield. After a nothing run play somehow whilst on the move Matt Ryan finds Julio Jones who makes another spectacular side line catch. At this point the Falcons are on the Patriots twenty-two yard line with around four minutes on the clock. There has been a lot of talk about second guessing the plays, and staying aggressive, but at some point you have to pay attention to the game flow. You are eight points up with four minutes left and a field goal makes this a two score game. I have a lot of sympathy with those who say run three times and kick the field goal, or run play action. But not only did Devonta Freeman get stuffed on first down for the loss of a yard, but Trey Flowers managed to bull his way past Alex Mack to bring down Matt Ryan for a loss of twelve yards. Whatever your thoughts on the play calls, Ryan has to get rid of the ball in this situation. The then Falcons nearly get themselves back into field goal range with a pass to Mohamed Sanu, but it gets wiped out by a second holding call of the game against Jake Mathews and Matt Ryan can’t get the pass complete to Taylor Gabriel.
The Patriots tie up the game, the Falcons have one last ditch to go ninety yards in fifty seconds, but fall way shot and the rest is overtime and Patriots folk lore. The clever thing is that the Patriots didn’t win with one thing, but on defence a combination of coverage and enough pass rush to end drives won them the game. Out of ten drives the Falcons were only able to score on three of them, and that is telling in that when the ball moved well for the Falcons they scored very quickly, but that was really only for a quarter and a half. Even then, with a little more attention paid to game flow they could have kicked a field goal and won the game. A Super Bowl loss will always generate a lot of what if type questions, but I have the feeling that the Falcons will have more than most.
And now we move onto the offseason and I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, but it won’t be long before the itch to write about football returns. For now it is time to take a break from football and get to different writing and hobbies. Maybe that would be good for all of us.