The Patriots dispatched the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night in the AFC Championship game and will take on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in two weeks' time. The big question for the Patriots: How will they stop the seemingly unstoppable Falcons' offense?
The Patriots' game plan against Pittsburgh, along with the tendencies of head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, should give you some clues about how they'll try to stop Atlanta. Here are four things we might see as part of their game plan:
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Don't let Atlanta establish the run
When it comes to stopping the Falcons, you might think it counterintuitive to focus on the running game, but knowing Belichick and Patricia that's what they'll do. One of the most fundamental parts of Patriots' defenses over the past decades has been to make their opponent predictable. Stopping the Falcons' passing game is hard enough, it's harder when they can also run the ball. So the Patriots will try to take it out of the equation.
The Falcons have a powerful two-headed running monster in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, and the first goal of the Patriots' front four and linebackers will be limiting their ability to break into the second level. New England was able to do this against the Steelers, mostly thanks to an injury to Le'Veon Bell, but they stopped the very good DeAngelo Williams as well. Look for them to plug the run up early, committing linebackers forward, daring the Falcons to go to their strength, the pass.
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Double Julio Jones
If one of the core values of Patriots defenses is to make the other team predictable, the other is to shut down the opposing team's best player. This was a tenet of Steve Belichick's defenses and it remains one for his son. The Patriots want to dictate who on the other team is going to have to beat them. If the other team's third-best receiver steps up and wins them a game, good on that guy. But they aren't going to let the stars beat them.
On Sunday, the Patriots made Steelers star wideout Antonio Brown's life miserable with double teams, physical play, and everyone on the defense committed to making sure he never got a route off easily. Julio Jones should watch the game film -- he's going to see similar looks in the Super Bowl. The Pats are going to try and cut him off from Matt Ryan and force the QB to go elsewhere.
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Keep the receivers in front of defenders
As part of the "predictability" strategy, the Patriots are also going to do their best to prevent the deep ball. Corners and safeties will focus on covering deep routes, conceding turf underneath and making sure that the Falcons don't get in behind them.
Their defense sometimes reminds me of a modern NBA defense, which concedes long 2-pointers and focuses on stopping shots at the rim and 3-pointers. The Patriots aren't going to give up the deep ball and they aren't going to let you run in between the tackles. If you want to beat them, you have to pick them apart with those 4-8 yard passes.
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Make Matt Ryan beat Tom Brady at being Tom Brady
This is the basic end of the gameplan, the summation. The Patriots are going to try to stop Ryan from going deep, they're going to try and shut out his best receiver, and they're going to try and halt his run game. They will say: Here, Matt, pick us apart with short passes to Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. If you can spread the ball out and efficiently beat us with short passes, then good on you.
If that style of offense sounds familiar, it's because it's what Tom Brady does better than anyone ever. As he's shown through these playoffs and over the last five or so seasons, he is a master at establishing mismatches and finding guys in short-yardage passing situations. The Patriots want to force Ryan to play a similar way. Basically, with everything else being equal, they're betting on their guy. If Ryan and Brady are both playing the same game, they like Brady's odds at winning that matchup.
Make the game predictable, shut down the best options, and force Ryan to beat Brady at his game. That will be the Patriots' strategy in winning yet another Super Bowl.