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The Making and Unmaking of the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI


This Super Bowl was a Tale of Two Halves. Fitting, then, that what seemed like the best of times in Atlanta so quickly became the worst of times.

 

After the confetti had settled on the madness of Super Bowl LI, as the Falcons slunk back to the NRG Field Locker Rooms like a kicked puppy, it was still a little hard to believe that Atlanta could have lost that lead. For two and a half quarters, the Dirty Birds were firing on all cylinders; by the 6-minute mark of the third quarter, Atlanta held a 28-3 lead and people at Super Bowl parties everywhere were checking their watches and contemplating going to bed early. In the past two decades of NFL football, 433 teams have faced a twenty-five point deficit in the third quarter or later; before Sunday, just one of them (the Indianapolis Colts in their famous wildcard comeback against Kansas City in 2014) had been able to dig out of such a hole. Atlanta looked unstoppable; and the Patriots looked as though they had been hit by a freight train.

 

But alas, it only took a few loose bolts to derail the Atlanta freight train—a missed block here, a penalty there, and the Falcons’ championship dream became a nightmare. The Patriots took possession at 8:31 of the third quarter trailing 28-3—from that point on, New England ran 49 plays to Atlanta’s 16, outgained the Falcons 351-44, and scored the game’s final 31 points. After looking well on their way to a resounding statement win, the underdog Falcons just ran out of ways to slow down Tom Brady, and Brady made them pay. Now, let’s sift through the wreckage and figure out how Atlanta built, and lost, their Super Bowl lead.

 

THE FIRST HALF: DAN QUINN’S RE-ENACTMENT

Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn knows a thing or two about taking on Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Super Bowl—after all, he was at the helm of the Seattle Seahawks defense that ground Peyton Manning into a pulp back in Super Bowl XLVIII. And in the first half of his first championship outing as a head coach, Quinn looked committed to delivering a faithful reenactment of that particular game.

 

Much like Quinn’s Seahawks did against Peyton Manning, Quinn’s Falcons sought to keep Tom Brady in check by generating pressure without blitzing. Atlanta sent five or more rushers on just 7.4% of Brady’s dropbacks—the remainder of the time, they were content to drop seven (and sometimes eight) men into coverage, cluttering up the underneath zones where Brady can usually find reliable move-the-chains fodder on shallow crossers and slant/flat combinations. The Falcons placed a lot of responsibility on their front four to put the heat on Brady and their defensive linemen responded in kind, pressuring Tom Terrific on 44.7% of his dropbacks through the first three quarters. Instead of blitzing, the Falcons tried to spice up their pass rush by shifting around their looks up front to disguise where the rush was coming from. Sometimes they moved a linebacker (often the rookie Deion Jones, who was all over the field in the first half) up to the line to faint at an A-Gap blitz before dropping into a “robber” zone in the middle of the field instead; other times they lined up an interior lineman over the offensive tackle and an edge rusher on the tackle’s outside shoulder, forcing the tackle to try to handle them both until another blocker could slide over to help. The Falcons also used rush packages that tried to overload one side of the line or the other, most notably on Robert Alford’s pick-six in the second quarter. On that play, the Falcons lined up three pass rushers on the left side of the line and one wide to the right, and the pocket collapsed quickly in Brady’s face. Brady tried to force a pass to Danny Amendola on a dig route and either didn’t see Alford sitting on the route or thought he could squeeze the ball past him. He couldn’t, and moments later Alford was strolling into the endzone to give Atlanta a three-possession lead. At that moment, it looked as though Dan Quinn was well on his way to crafting another defensive masterpiece in the Super Bowl.

 

Of course, Atlanta couldn’t have built that three-score lead without the work of their league-best offense, which was efficient, if not exactly explosive, throughout the first half. With center Alex Mack playing on a broken leg, the Falcons didn’t have much success running the ball up the middle; however, their running back platoon of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman found plenty of daylight outside the tackles with a series of stretch and toss plays. Atlanta’s first offensive snap saw a “toss crack” (the slot receiver delivers a “crackdown” block to push the edge rusher inside while the fullback leads outside—in this case with the fullback, Patrick DiMarco, split out wide instead of lined up in the backfield) to Devonta Freeman that went for 37 yards, and the Falcons repeatedly went back outside for solid gains throughout the first half. And while Atlanta’s first two drives ended with Matt Ryan taking a sack on third down (which now looks like dramatic foreshadowing, considering Atlanta’s more memorable third down woes in the fourth quarter), Ryan’s eight other dropbacks in the first half produced seven completions, 115 yards, and a pretty-as-a-picture touchdown lob to Austin Hooper in the second quarter.

 

It was after that touchdown pass to Hooper that Atlanta made arguably its first mistake of the game. Matt Bryant’s initial extra point attempt was ruined by a botched snap, but Atlanta got another chance because Patriots linebacker Shea McClellin was penalized for lining up over the center (that was a bad call, but it hardly seems worth complaining about now). That penalty gave Atlanta a choice: they could take the five yards and try the extra point again from the 10-yard line, or they could go for two—in which case the penalty would move the ball to the one yard line. The Falcons took the extra point without really seeming to stop and consider their options.

 

I know, I know: it was the middle of the second quarter, there was still a ton of game left, the conventional wisdom says to take the sure points. But this is a game against the New England Patriots. Even given what had happened up to that point, you can’t pass up opportunities to pad your lead against a team that dangerous—as the last twenty minutes of the game proved beyond a doubt. Additionally, as I already discussed, the Falcons run game had been consistently productive up to that point—the Falcons had run the ball nine times, and none of those runs went for zero or negative yardage. Only one of those runs was in a goal-line situation, but on that play Devonta Freeman had gone five yards to the end zone without being touched. Given how good their offense had looked on its past two drives, it doesn’t seem like a huge risk to ask them to go out and get one yard in that situation. It’s easy to say this in hindsight, of course, but Atlanta sure could have used one more point in regulation…

 

THE SECOND HALF: YOU CAN’T PUT BRADY IN A CORNER

So what changed in the second half? Initially, not much. After the two teams traded three and outs to start the third quarter, Atlanta put together another long touchdown drive (their third in four possessions) to run the lead up to 28-3. When New England took over at their own 25 with 8:31 remaining, it seemed like they had nothing left to play for except pride.

 

Enter Tom Brady. For the first 36-plus minutes, Brady had looked frustrated and out of sync. He had been uncharacteristically off-target several times, missing a couple of open receivers and underthrowing a wheel route to Julian Edelman in the first quarter that might have gone for a touchdown. The Falcons had mixed zone and man coverage effectively and thrown out every pre-snap look they could come up with in an attempt to flummox him, and for the most part it had worked—and then, seemingly, Atlanta just ran out of surprises.

 

Just like Super Bowl XLIX, when Brady engineered a fourth-quarter comeback by targeting overmatched Seahawks corner Tharold Simon, the Patriots built their rally by systematically poking and prodding the weak links in Atlanta’s secondary. Brady found himself feasting on undersized nickelback Brian Poole—matched up mostly against Danny Amendola—including on Amendola’s game-tying two-point conversion with a minute to play. Predictably, the Patriots also worked to create coverage mismatches for running back James White, who hogged the lion’s share of snaps away from LeGarrette Blount and ended up setting the Super Bowl record for receptions (14) and scoring three touchdowns. With the Falcons playing more and more man coverage as the game went along, White routinely took advantage of one-on-one matchups against linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones for easy completions underneath. Brady had two completions to Amendola and two to White (including a touchdown pass) on New England’s life-sustaining touchdown drive late in the third quarter, and he found White three more times on the subsequent drive, which ended in a field goal to make the game 28-12. However, even then the Pats’ hopes seemed slim at best. On the first play of Atlanta’s subsequent drive, Tevin Coleman took a stretch play for 8 yards to set up a 2nd-and-2 at the 35. That was when Atlanta’s win probability for the day peaked: before that 2nd-and-2, Atlanta had a 98.66% chance of winning the game (according to numberFire). Unless Atlanta turned the ball over, something they had not done once in the first three quarters, it was hard to see how the Patriots could find enough time to make a comeback.

 

So of course, Atlanta went right out and turned the ball over.

 

On 2nd-and-2, the Falcons gave the ball to Tevin Coleman. Coleman picked up a yard to make it 3rd-and-1, but suffered an ankle injury that kept him out for the remainder of the contest. Devonta Freeman came onto the field in place of Coleman—and immediately made a game-changing mistake. With Ryan throwing out of the shotgun on third down, Freeman seemed unsure of whether he was supposed to pick up New England’s extra rusher or slide into the flat behind him. Freeman seemed to compromise, throwing a block on the blitzing Dont’a Hightower with all the force of a stiff breeze. Hightower shrugged that off with ease and zoomed into the backfield, stripping Ryan of the football and dramatically altering the course of the game.

 

Every football game is a war of attrition. Atlanta’s defense had been better than almost anyone had expected up to this point, but they had already seen the field for 70 plays—24 more than New England’s defense would face in the entire game. The fuel gauge was indicating Atlanta Falcons red, and the worn-out state of Atlanta’s D forced them to dole out significant snaps to backups like Deji Olatoye and C.J. Goodwin who had seen minimal action during the season. In addition, the consistent pressure they had brought against Brady in the first three quarters evaporated completely—their 44.7% pressure rate through the first three quarters dropped to just 20.0% in the fourth, and Atlanta failed to get heat on Brady even once in overtime. Brady hadn’t been able to solve Atlanta’s defense early, but by the fourth quarter he had effectively worn them out.

 

After Ryan’s fumble, the Falcons gained just 10 yards over the rest of the game. The Patriots, by contrast, put up 204. Atlanta’s gassed defense couldn’t get off the field, and they couldn’t seem to catch a break. On New England’s game-tying touchdown drive, Julian Edelman made a description-defying reception on a pass up the seam that Brady probably should not have thrown (but he has massive trust in Edelman). Robert Alford played the route perfectly and got both hands on the ball but couldn’t bring it in. And just one play before James White ended the game in overtime, the Patriots tempted fate by trying a fade route to Martellus Bennett, who was matched up man to man against Vic Beasley Jr. Beasley got a hand up and easily knocked the ball away; a defensive back probably would have picked it off. We’ve seen some crazy things happen when throwing the ball at the goal line in the Super Bowl.

 

Of course, the story of Atlanta’s dreadful second half wouldn’t be complete without talking about their offense, and all the opportunities they had to close the game. After New England’s first touchdown made it 28-9, an unsuccessful onside kick gave Atlanta the ball just forty-one yards from paydirt. Atlanta picked up nine yards on first down to get in field goal range, only for a holding penalty by left tackle Jake Matthews to push them back. Two plays later, Ryan was sacked on third down for the third time, wiping away any shot a long field goal. That sequence was bad enough, but it repeated itself in more gut-wrenching fashion in the fourth quarter. After Hightower’s strip sack and New England’s subsequent touchdown and two, the Falcons were clinging to a 28-20 lead. They desperately needed a big play on offense, and they quickly picked up two in a row—a checkdown to Freeman that went for 39 yards, and an absolutely brilliant sideline catch by Julio Jones that set them up at the New England 22 (by the way, Jones’ fourth-quarter toe-dragger wins the Jermaine Kearse Award for the Most Incredible Super Bowl Catch That No One Will Remember). Even if the Falcons had knelt the ball three times, they would be looking at about a 40-yard field goal—well inside veteran Matt Bryant’s range—that would basically put the game on ice. What ensued obviously did not go according to plan. A handoff to Freeman on first down lost a yard. On the next play, Ryan regrettably took a 12-yard sack from Trey Flowers instead of throwing the ball away. Bryant was now looking at a 53-yard kick—a tougher proposition, certainly, but still doable. Atlanta even appeared to get some of that yardage back on a short completion to Mohamed Sanu—except once again, Jake Matthews was tagged for a holding penalty against Chris Long. Atlanta had been a hairsbreadth from sealing the deal, and after that ugly sequence, they never came close to the endzone again.

 

Some people have criticized the Falcons for not simply turtling and running the ball three times in that situation. That wouldn’t have been a bad decision—and I can’t imagine it would have gone worse than what actually happened—but it’s also hard to fault Atlanta for staying aggressive. If there’s anything we learned from Sunday’s insanity, it’s that you should never let off the throttle when you’re playing against a Hall of Fame quarterback.

 

And really, that’s the story of Super Bowl LI. Although Atlanta’s offense had a couple of bad sequences when they had chances to put away the win, this game really came down to the unstoppable brilliance of Brady and the Patriots. Dan Quinn’s gameplan and Atlanta’s defensive line pulled out all the stops to try to slow Brady down, and for a while it seemed to be working…but they just couldn’t keep New England down forever. For all the millions of variables that affect the outcome of every game, sometimes it just comes down to having the best player on the field. On Sunday, that was unquestionably Brady—and at the end of the night, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable odds, he had a fifth Super Bowl ring to show for it.

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