The New England Patriots had a relatively easy schedule when it came to the quarterbacks they faced in the 2016 season. Ben Roethlisberger was arguably the best one to challenge the Patriots, as most of the others included the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore and Brock Osweiler.
That will change this weekend when the Patriots take on Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI. The favorite to win NFL MVP will pose a significant threat to New England’s No. 1 scoring defense, which isn’t nearly as good as the numbers indicate.
So how do the Patriots go about stopping Matt Ryan? It won’t be easy, but here are five strategies they can use.
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Contain Atlanta's running backs
Whether it’s in the running game or the passing attack, the Patriots have to contain Atlanta’s running backs. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman give the Falcons a dynamic two-headed monster in the backfield, both of whom love to catch passes as receivers. Matt Ryan enjoys throwing them passes just as much, too.
This season, they combined for 85 receptions, 883 yards and five touchdowns. That alone shows just how much Ryan relies on his pass-catching backs, and it proves how much attention the Patriots have to pay them.
If the Pats can limit Atlanta's production in the passing game by using a safety like Patrick Chung on them, they’ll have more success defensively. The backs don’t have the same impact as Julio Jones does, but don’t overlook how important they are in Ryan’s game.
Re-route receivers at the line of scrimmage
Ryan and Brady have a lot in common. Aside from being accurate, they’re both timing throwers. They like to take three- and five-step drops, get to the top and hit the open receiver. No holding onto the ball. No dancing around trying to buy time. They both prefer to get the ball out quickly and accurately, which is part of what makes them great.
With that in mind, there’s a direct and obvious counter for Ryan’s desire to hit receivers as soon as he plants his foot in the ground at the top of his drop: bump-and-run.
The Patriots need to play press coverage against guys like Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu, all of whom are fairly quick in and out of their breaks. It will disrupt the timing between Ryan and his receivers, forcing him to hold onto the ball.
Even if they don’t play straight-up man-to-man, pressing Atlanta’s receivers at the line will be huge, particularly in Cover 2. If Jones is running a 9 route – a deep pass down the sideline – Malcolm Butler can force him into the boundary and shorten his area to work.
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Don’t blitz him
Just as I advised the Falcons against Tom Brady, the Patriots can’t blitz Ryan. He had the second-best passer rating (122.0) against the blitz this season, only trailing none other than Tom Brady. The Patriots don’t blitz often, just 20.9 percent, and now isn’t the time for them to change that.
If Ryan has the chance to throw against five or six defenders in coverage, he’s going to pick apart the defense. Furthermore, his receivers are going to break tackles, weave in and out of defenders, and turn short passes into big gains. The Patriots hardly ever allow 30-yard plays, 17 times all season (third-fewest), whereas the Falcons thrive in that department.
Blitzing Ryan will make it easier for the Falcons to move the ball down the field quickly while he’ll likely remain upright and accurate despite throwing in a muddy pocket. He’ll be sure to make New England pay by getting the ball out quickly, hitting his playmakers in stride for big gains.
Roll a safety over the top of Julio Jones
Bill Belichick’s forte is taking away a team’s No. 1 weapon. He’s done it for years, making opponents win with their secondary targets and players. That won’t be easy Sunday against the Falcons, who are littered with playmakers at both wide receiver and running back, headlined by Julio Jones.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots should ignore Jones and treat him as if he’s your typical receiver. He’s not, and if they do that, he’ll make them pay. Jones is a physical specimen with the ability to blow by a cornerback or take him across the field on a dig, breaking a tackle from the safety and cruising for a 60-yard touchdown.
Because of that, he’s difficult to contain. The Patriots’ best chance of stopping him is to roll a safety over the top after the snap, disguising their coverage with a single-high safety. Devin McCourty has terrific range and should be a big part of limiting Jones on deep routes. If they can do this, it’ll force Matt Ryan to go elsewhere with the ball to receivers who aren’t as explosive or dominant.
Push the line of scrimmage back with defensive tackles
The Falcons are strong at several spots on the offensive line. Tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder are both great in pass protection, as is center Alex Mack. Where the Falcons are susceptible to allowing pressure is at guard.
The Patriots have two physically imposing defensive tackles in Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown, who can help push the offensive line backwards and knock Matt Ryan off of his spot.
The worst pressure for a quarterback is pressure up the middle because it forces him to move laterally. If Rob Ninkovich comes screaming off the edge, Ryan can step up and avoid him. If Branch and Brown come barreling through the middle of the line, it’s more difficult for him to step into throws or escape the pressure.
That will be a key to stopping Ryan and forcing him to check down and make throws with defenders all around him. The Patriots have to prevent him from stepping up in the pocket, especially when he’s attempting to throw it deep.