Super Bowl 51: Three Critical Matchups in Patriots vs Falcons

The three individual player matchups that could go a long way in deciding who wins Super Bowl 51 between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.

After months of waiting, the Super Bowl is finally upon us. The New England Patriots, making their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history, take on an Atlanta Falcons team that is still searching for the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy. Needless to say, there is a ton of talent on both rosters. Four players made the Pro Bowl for the Patriots, and six made it for the Falcons. Both teams possess an MVP candidate at quarterback, and the Falcons’ Vic Beasley figures to get some votes for Defensive Player of the Year as well.

While both teams have excellent coaching staffs, it will ultimately come down to the players on the field to make the true difference. Schemes and play calling only go so far; it’s the players who execute said plays that make the biggest impact.

The Falcons averaged more than 33 points during the regular season, while the Patriots only allowed an average of 15.6 points per game. That alone might be the biggest matchup in Super Bowl 51, but there are individual player matchups that could be just as important. In particular, three matchups could dictate which direction this game goes.

So, without further ado, here are the three key matchups to give some extra attention to when watching the game on Sunday.

Jan 14, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) runs with the ball against the Houston Texans during the first half in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 14, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) runs with the ball against the Houston Texans during the first half in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

CB Brian Poole vs. WR Julian Edelman

Brian Poole has gone from an undrafted rookie free agent to a key Super Bowl contributor in a matter of months. When Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant was placed on injured reserve in November, Poole was thrusted into a much larger role. As the season has progressed, Poole has quickly become a reliable slot corner for the Falcons. He has had some tough assignments this postseason (including Doug Baldwin and Randall Cobb), yet has mostly passed with flying colors.

Poole will need to have another big game on Sunday if the Falcons’ defense wants to slowdown the Patriots. Julian Edelman in one of the premier slot receivers in all of football, and his quickness and short area burst can spell trouble for defenders. With Rob Gronkowski out, Edelman is Tom Brady’s favorite target, and passes should be coming his way early and often. Edelman has a great rapport with Brady, and the two seem to be on the same page all the time. The Patriots run option routes where the wide receiver will chose which route to run based on the coverage. If a defense is in zone, Edelman will “sit down” in the hole; if the defense is in “man” coverage, Edelman will continue running either a crossing, out, or comeback route.

Poole must be able to defend Edelman tightly, running hip-to-hip. When Edelman catches the ball, Poole must be able to wrap up one of the league’s best receivers at generating yards after the catch. It’ll be a team effort, as the Falcons deploy a zone defense frequently, but Poole has the main task of trying to contain one of the best quarterback—wide receiver combinations the league has.

Tom Brady

Nov 13, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

LB Deion Jones vs. QB Tom Brady

While it’s highly unlikely Tom Brady will take off and run in his direction, Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones has the unenviable task of trying to match wits with the one of the greatest quarterbacks the league has ever seen. Jones, a rookie out of LSU, has really been impressive this season. The one thing that jumps off the page when watching Jones play is his speed. He has the elite sideline-to-sideline speed that middles linebackers need, and when he gets his hands on a player, he wraps up and makes a sound tackle.

Jones has plenty of responsibilities in this game, including trying to tackle the freight train that is LeGarrette Blount and keeping up with wide receivers running routes over the middle of the field. But Jones’ biggest task is trying to get the Falcons defense in a favorable position. As the signal caller of the defense (Jones wears a green dot on his helmet to indicate he is in communication with the sideline), the second-round pick must make sure that his defense is lined up correctly. Then, if Brady audibles, Jones must counter him and change the defense on the fly.

It’s the ultimate chess match between the two. While it appears that Brady has a significant advantage on paper (for one, he’s making his seventh Super Bowl start), Jones has been able to hold his own this season. In the playoffs, Jones has matched up with two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks and has not flinched. Jones has been playing very well, and his ability to get his defense in the right position should not be overlooked.

Mohamed Sanu

Aug 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) at FirstEnergy Stadium, the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Cleveland Browns 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

WR Mohamed Sanu vs. CB Logan Ryan

With all the attention Julio Jones gets, it is very easy to forget that the Falcons have another terrific receiver on the roster. Mohamed Sanu, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, has been exactly what the Falcons offense needed. He has been a consistent option in the passing game all year long, and more importantly, he has the trust of quarterback Matt Ryan. In football, sometimes it’s not the talent of a wide receiver that matters; it’s the confidence a quarterback has in a receiver to throw the ball to him or not, and Ryan has proven that he has the utmost confidence in Sanu.

Meanwhile, while Logan Ryan isn’t a household name, his strong play has been a big reason why the Patriots have the league’s number one scoring defense. Malcolm Butler figures to shadow Julio Jones all over the field (possibly with safety help over the top, too), meaning that the 5-11 Ryan will have single-coverage with the 6-2 Sanu.

Sanu’s average depth of target (how far down the field a receiver catches a pass) is very short. What Sanu does well is catching short passes and quickly turning up the field. Here’s where Ryan’s biggest strength shows up. For a cornerback, Ryan is a very good tackler. He has even said in recent years that the reason he is on the field is because of his strong tacking skills.

The Falcons generated the most yards after the catch this season (New England was No. 2), and Sanu greatly contributed to this. If Ryan can immediately tackle Sanu after he catches a pass, it would significantly improve the chances of New England stopping the seventh-highest scoring team in NFL history.

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