Football is typically described as a game of inches. Just ask Kevin Dyson, who came up a mere yard short of tying up Super Bowl XXXIV as time expired. Or just ask the Seattle Seahawks of Super Bowl XLIX, who decided to throw the ball from the six-inch line instead of running it in for the go-ahead and potentially Super Bowl-winning touchdown. The Super Bowl is usually decided by one massive play that changes the momentum of the game - usually a huge catch (David Tyree - Super Bowl XLII) or a big-time blunder (Scott Norwood's missed game-winning field goal as time expired).
This year's Super Bowl will likely have one or the other, but Patriots and Falcons fans hope that it won't be the determining factor in deciding the outcome. The outcome will likely be decided on whichever player or unit wins their respective matchup against their opponent. There are several good ones to spend some time talking about, so let's get to the breakdown.
Julio Jones vs. Malcolm Butler
In 2012, Malcolm Butler took to social media and tweeted the following "I wanna check Julio Jones…lol…real talk doe". Well, its 2017, and Butler's dream is now going to become either a nightmare scenario or a prophecy that Butler can stake his claim to and bask in the glory of shutting down one of the game's top receivers.
Jones has been widely regarded as one of the game's premier receivers, and his stat line of nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game just bolstered his resume of a game-changer. Jones had been solid all year and has benefitted from an offense that has been tops in the league since the get-go. Jones full-season stat line reads as follows: 14GS, 1,409 yards, 100.6 ypg and six touchdowns. He can play the outside receiver or line up on the inside. His route tree is about as solid as you can get, and Jones can haul in seemingly any ball thrown his way. His ability to gain yards after the catch is improving as well, as indicated by his 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.
Malcolm Butler was a relatively unknown, undrafted commodity out of West
Alabama before lightning struck and thrust Butler into the national
spotlight. I'm sure you remember, but it was Butler's last-second
interception off of Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX that sealed the win
for the Patriots.
Since that game, Butler has been improving on a consistent basis and is now widely regarded as one of the best cornerbacks in the league. If Butler is in fact tasked with shadowing Jones regardless of where he lines up, he will be at a severe height disadvantage. Jones stands 6-foot-3, 220 lbs while Butler checks in at 5-foot-11, 190 lbs.
While this is definitely a very important matchup, it's not the only big one. The Falcons have won their last six games when Jones records 90 yards or fewer. They are just so well rounded that Jones might be best used as a decoy to draw the top cornerback and safety help over the top, thus freeing up space for his teammates to maneuver.
Patriots' Wide Receivers vs. Falcons' Cornerbacks and Safeties
Much like the Falcons' offense, the Patriots can beat you in a number of different ways offensively. They have two solid running backs that offer contrasting styles, a solid tight end who has been the beneficiary of a change of scenery and the absence of Rob Gronkowski, and several largely-underrated receivers that are about as easy to cover/catch as an oiled-up pig. We all know about Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who have been staples of this Pats' team for several years. But two weeks ago, Chris Hogan announced his arrival to the spotlight by putting up 180 yards receiving and two touchdowns on just nine catches in the AFC Championship Game. The undrafted product out of Monmouth consistently found the open space and burned the Steelers secondary time and time again.
It will be up to defensive coordinator Richard Smith to put a game plan in place to limit Brady and his receiving corps to minimal gains. A bend-but-don't-break mentality will be vital to the Falcons' success. On the field, the responsibility will be left to cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Robert Alford to shut down the opposition. They will be tasked with shutting down Edelman, Amendola and Hogan, who are more then capable of quietly having 80+ yards and a touchdown. We all know about Atlanta's bottom-six type defense that gives up 266.7 passing yards per game, more than 25 points per game and allows opponents to convert third down attempts at a 41.8 percent clip. The long and short of it is that the Falcons defensive unit will need to have the game of their lives in order to slow down Brady and his go-to receivers. If not, the Falcons will head back to Atlanta sans Lombardi Trophy.
The Rushing Attack vs. The Rushing Defense
Both teams have a Topo-7 ranked rushing attack. The Patriots check in seventh overall with 117 yards per game. The Falcons rank fifth at just more than 120 yards per game. Both teams have two running backs they can deploy that offer up different strengths to their game. The Patriots' featured back is LeGarrette Blount, who relies on his size and strength between the numbers. He has broken a few big runs this year, but that shouldn't be the main concern for the Falcons. His teammate, Dion Lewis, is an agile back that can run to both sides of the field, but he is primarily featured as a pass-catching option out of the backfield. If the Falcons are to be crowned world champions, they will need their defensive line and linebackers to continue to clog up the holes and stop the run as best they can.The Falcons rank 17th in run defense, allowing opponents to rush for 104.5 yards per game.
The Falcons' running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are similar in stature, but like Blount and Lewis they offer up different strengths to their game. Freeman is 5-foot-8 of pure speed and agility. His ability to break off a big play can happen in a flash if the defense loses lane coverage or forgets their assignment. Freeman averaged just less than 70 yards per game but managed to find the end zone 11 times in 16 games. His teammate, Coleman, put up eight touchdowns of his own, with three of those being TD receptions. Coleman has at least two catches in each of his last six games and at least three catches in four straight. He, like Lewis, is a dangerous threat out of the backfield. And in a game of this magnitude, every missed assignment that leads to a big play can be the reason your team wins or loses. The Patriots as a team give up only 88.6 yards per game, so it will be tough sledding for the Falcons' to get anything going on the ground. I expect to see Freeman and Coleman used more as passing options than frequent runners of the ball.
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