On a Sunday that seemed to rain every single kind of bad game from the sky, the rematch of a Super Bowl classic turned out to be anticlimactic. The Falcons were unable to extract any revenge from the Patriots in a 23-7 loss Sunday night, going down 17-0 at halftime before a late touchdown kept them from becoming the fourth team to be shut out in Week 7. Atlanta fans who remarked after Super Bowl LI that they would have rather been stomped than have blown a huge lead got to see what the former might have been like amid an eerie fog in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
As much as it might be tempting to blame the soup-like haze that shrouded the field for the second half, both teams were subject to the spooky, fifth-generation-of-video-games-like conditions. Atlanta didn’t lose because of the fog. Instead, the Falcons can chalk up their disappointing performance to sloppy play and poor execution. If you want to understand why they never came close to emulating their performance from the first two-plus quarters of the Super Bowl and why Sunday’s game looked entirely different, there are a few key factors:
The Falcons had no interior pass rush
When I previewed the Super Bowl last season, I wrote at length about how the game would come down to whether the Falcons would be able to get pressure on Tom Brady, specifically from the interior. The game ended up turning on pass pressure, as the Falcons chased Brady around for three quarters, but he excelled once they gassed out under a nearly unprecedented workload of plays in the fourth quarter.
The player I made the mistake of not mentioning in that preview was Grady Jarrett, who racked up three sacks and four knockdowns of Brady in a star-making performance. On Sunday, both he and the interior of the Falcons’ pass rush went missing. Atlanta was able to get early pressure outside the tackles, with De’Vondre Campbell coming unblocked off the edge for one sack and Vic Beasley Jr. beating Marcus Cannon for another, but the Falcons never had any sort of steady pass pressure from Jarrett or anybody else up the A-gaps. (Beasley also got away with an illegal hand to Cannon’s face on his sack.)
As a result, Brady simply wasn’t bothered. Time after time, when the edge rushers took a circuitous route to try to beat the Patriots’ tackles with speed, Brady calmly stepped up into his clean pocket and was able to survey the field before finding an open receiver. Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel could have tried to send the linebacker he initially had covering against crossing routes at Brady on delayed blitzes or moved his personnel around to try to get one of his better pass-rushers matched up against Joe Thuney, David Andrews or Shaq Mason, but there were other problems with the Atlanta defense that prevented him from doing so. One notable issue:
The Patriots were able to run the ball
The Falcons headed into the 2016 playoffs with a run defense that ranked 28th in DVOA. They overmatched the dismal Seahawks rushing attack and took a huge early lead against the Packers to take the running game out of the equation in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. Against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, however, it seemed likely that New England would be able to get the downhill attack of LeGarrette Blount going against an undersized, speedy Falcons front seven. It never happened. Blount was held to just 16 yards on eight carries by halftime and ran the ball just three times after the break before giving way in the lineup to James White, who helped fuel the Patriots’ comeback.
Things haven’t gotten better for the Falcons, who entered Week 7 with the league’s 29th-ranked run defense by DVOA. This time, though, the Patriots had no trouble gashing Manuel’s run D. Removing Brady kneel-downs from the equation, the Pats ran the ball 33 times for 165 yards, with 18 of those runs either going for 5-plus yards and/or a first down. White played a minimal role in the running game, with Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and Dion Lewis each picking up steady chunks of yardage while rotating in and out of the game.
Getting out to an early lead obviously made things easier for the Patriots, but one huge reason they were able to run was the presence of Rob Gronkowski, who missed the Super Bowl with a back injury. The Patriots had a lot of success on Sunday running out of heavier lineups with two tight ends and fullback James Develin, a personnel package they really weren’t able to use without Gronk last season. Develin and now-departed tight end Matt Lengel, who served as the second tight end in Gronkowski’s absence, suited up on just 10 of New England’s 99 offensive snaps last February.
Gronkowski’s ability both as a blocker and receiver chewed up the Falcons’ linebackers. It was Gronkowski who served as the lead blocker on New England’s first touchdown, a “pass” to Brandin Cooks that was really an 11-yard jet sweep. The threat of Gronkowski as a receiver prevented Atlanta’s linebackers and safeties from keying on the run. Gronk wasn’t the only versatile piece used to create mismatches, as the Patriots were able to use the returning Burkhead as both a power back and a split-out receiver.
Atlanta didn’t take advantage of a red zone gift from Brady
Everybody has heard about Brady’s annoyingly-impeccable diet by now, so it should be no surprise that the future Hall of Famer doesn’t hand out many cookies. When he does throw one out there, you’d better take it. The Falcons turned a Brady mistake into a touchdown in the Super Bowl when Manuel fooled Brady with a coverage look and set up Robert Alford for a pick-six.
The Falcons weren’t as lucky this time around. It looked like Brady had bailed them out when the 40-year-old scrambled and launched an ill-advised pass into the waiting arms of Alford in the end zone, only for Adrian Clayborn to level Brady after the pass and draw a deserved roughing the passer nod. The interception came off the board, and two plays later, Cooks sprinted into the end zone to give the Patriots the opening score.
Matt Ryan didn’t have his best game
While Matty Ice was unfairly slapped with part of the blame for blowing that 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, the 2016 league MVP had little to do with the collapse outside of a lone strip-sack. He finished the game 17-of-23 for 284 yards with two touchdowns and no picks, good for a 144.1 passer rating and an 81.0 Total QBR.
I can’t say the same about Ryan’s performance on Sunday, even before the fog hit town. He finished 23-of-33 for 233 yards and a late touchdown, which was snatched out of Malcolm Butler‘s hands by Julio Jones. While Ryan’s numbers were good for a 99.7 rating and he scrambled for a key first down on fourth-and-7 during the first half, Total QBR pegs his day at the relatively mediocre mark of 45.4.
While the Falcons arguably missed out on a couple of would-be coverage penalties on various Patriots defensive backs against Jones, Ryan left too many throws on the field. Atlanta had little trouble moving the ball down the field for most of the game, but Ryan missed throws when it approached or entered the red zone. Before the meaningless final drive, Ryan was 1-of-6 for 9 yards inside the New England 20.
The game could have gone differently had Ryan been on point. He overthrew Mohamed Sanu on a switch route for a touchdown in the first quarter. In the third quarter, he was too hot on an out route that should have been a touchdown pass to Jones. On the next drive, a scrambling Ryan had Jones open but underthrew his pass, allowing Butler to catch up in coverage and knock the pass away. The Falcons could have had three touchdowns and came away with zero points from those three possessions.
Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was criticized for his fourth-down playcall after the Butler pass breakup, but the Taylor Gabriel jet sweep is only out there because Ryan missed on his third-down pass attempt. I’m not sure the jet sweep was the worst call, either. Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy clearly spotted Gabriel coming across the formation for the sweep, but the Falcons simply didn’t execute. They had two blockers on the edge to block two defenders, but Ryan Schraeder and Levine Toilolo both failed to reach Trey Flowers and Van Noy, with Flowers pushing Gabriel wide and Van Noy cleaning up the play. Maybe you fault the Falcons for not having the threat of Devonta Freeman in the backfield to occupy the linebackers’ eyes, but if the blockers do their job, Gabriel walks in for a touchdown.
Kicking cost the Falcons
While Stephen Gostkowski did an incredible job with kickoffs in the Super Bowl, his missed extra point nearly cost the Patriots dearly, as it forced them to convert a pair of two-point conversions to merely make it to overtime.
This time around, Gostkowski went 3-for-3 on field goals and hit on a pair of extra points. It was Falcons kicker Matt Bryant who had the rough day on Sunday. Bryant can’t be faulted for the 37-yard field goal Cassius Marsh blocked in the first half, but the veteran stalwart should take the blame for the 36-yard field goal he pushed off the goalpost on the first drive of the second half.
The Falcons might be concerned about Bryant, who was struggling with a back injury heading into last week’s game with the Dolphins. It’s one thing for Bryant to miss a 59-yarder, as he did against Miami, but pinging a chip shot off the upright isn’t something Bryant does frequently. Bryant is one of the best kickers in the league when healthy, and he did make a 50-yarder against Miami, but the Falcons don’t use Bryant for kickoffs, meaning that he’s only on the roster to make field goals. If Bryant’s back continues to give him problems and he misses another makeable kick next week, the Falcons might not be able to afford keeping him on the active roster.
Bryant should be fine, but in watching this game more closely and thinking about these teams, there are a few takeaways from Falcons-Patriots for the second half of the season. Let’s start with one that goes against the final score:
I’m not sure the Patriots’ defense is ‘fixed’
Optimistic Pats fans might look at the scores of the past three weeks and note that the Patriots have stopped allowing teams to light up the scoreboard. Indeed, the numbers are down: After allowing teams to average 32 points per game over the first four weeks of the season, the Pats have allowed just 12.7 points per contest over the past three games, including a near-shutout of the Falcons until garbage time Sunday night.
The Patriots have certainly improved in terms of mostly eliminating the embarrassing blown coverages and mental mistakes that were leading to huge plays. The numbers, though, grossly overstate their improvement. Jameis Winston had an ugly game for the Bucs in Week 5, and Ryan on Sunday missed a number of open receivers for would-be touchdowns. The windows are tighter than they were a few weeks ago, but the throws are there against the Pats. And if you want to mark a line in the sand after Week 4, you have to ignore Josh McCown throwing for 354 yards against the Pats in a tight game in Week 6.
What has really helped New England has been a totally unsustainable level of performance in the red zone. Teams have made 11 trips into the red zone against the Patriots over the past three weeks and come away with a total of 31 points, good for a mere 2.8 points per possession. The Pats have allowed four touchdowns and a field goal, but they’ve otherwise blocked a field goal, enjoyed two misses, stopped opposing teams twice on downs, and forced that controversial fumble on Austin Seferian-Jenkins that probably should have been ruled a touchdown last Sunday.
Announcers love to fetishize the Patriots’ bend-but-don’t-break defense, but there isn’t much evidence defenses can execute better in the red zone than they do over the remainder of the field on a year-after-year basis. While the Patriots were sixth in the league in red zone performance last season, that was Bill Belichick’s best mark in a decade. Even if the Pats were to tighten up inside the 20, they’re not going to force fumbles for touchbacks and induce three missed field goals in three weeks.
Speaking of, they’ve suddenly turned into the greatest field goal defense in league history. Opposing kickers are just 1-for-6 on field goals against the Patriots over the past three weeks, with four of those five failed attempts straight-up misses from Bryant and Nick Folk. That’s just not going to keep up. The Patriots are better on defense, but this still isn’t a good unit.
Burkhead is going to carve out a meaningful role
The Patriots place so much value upon versatility and the ability to mask (or modify) their intentions with personnel. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wants to huddle up with a group of weapons who can line up in a jumbo set or split out and go five-wide, depending on the defensive personnel the opposing team sets out. The versatility also allows the Patriots to go no-huddle and change responsibilities without having to swap out players.
Gronkowski is the platonic ideal for this offensive concept, given that he’s the most dominant receiving tight end in league history and is an upper-echelon blocker. Burkhead is nowhere near as valuable or dominant as Gronk, but he also offers the ability to mask post-snap intentions with pre-snap personnel. The Patriots seem quite comfortable with the idea Burkhead can do just about anything the Pats want on a given offensive play, which is an advantage on Gillislee (who hasn’t caught a pass all season) or Lewis (who had a nifty run on Sunday but doesn’t offer the same sort of between-the-tackles power as Burkhead). As long as the former Bengals backup stays healthy, the Patriots are going to keep finding excuses to use him.
The Falcons need to find a pass rush quickly
The Atlanta rush was mostly Beasley or bust last season; while the second-year edge rusher racked up a league-high 15.5 sacks, nobody else on Atlanta had more than 4.5 takedowns. I noted before this season that Beasley’s sack total was extremely likely to regress given his low hit total, so it was going to be important for the Falcons to develop secondary pass-rushers alongside Beasley.
It hasn’t happened yet. Beasley hasn’t actually regressed much, as he has three sacks in four games, having missed two others with a hamstring injury. The rest of the defense isn’t doing its part. The Falcons were 28th in adjusted sack rate heading into the week and came up with only a pair of sacks on 31 Brady dropbacks Sunday. If you take the quarterbacks the Falcons have faced this season and find their sack rates in games not involving Atlanta, given the number of dropbacks those quarterbacks have made against the Falcons, we would expect Manuel’s defense to have nearly 19 sacks by now:
The Falcons are getting pressure on just 24.1 percent of opposing dropbacks this season, which is 24th in the league against some pretty sackable quarterbacks. Football Outsiders suggests that Atlanta had played the easiest slate of offenses in football before facing the Patriots on Sunday. Having lost two of the first three home games at their new stadium, Atlanta also just started a stretch of three straight road games that includes a game against the Jets before an NFC South showdown against the Panthers in Week 9.
In fact, the Falcons are in trouble
There are five 3-3 teams in the league. Atlanta is one of them, and I’m not sure it isn’t the worst of the bunch. Keep in mind how close the Falcons are to 1-5. They survived by the skin of their teeth against the Bears in Week 1, with a pair of drops in the end zone giving Dan Quinn’s team a narrow victory. Two weeks later, Atlanta came within a half-yard of blowing another lead against the Lions, only for Golden Tate‘s frantic stretch to fall just short of the goal line.
The Falcons’ other win is against the Packers, and while that’s an impressive victory against Aaron Rodgers, it also came in a contest in which Green Bay lost Mike Daniels and Jordy Nelson to injury after seven snaps apiece. They’ve been swept by the AFC East with only the Jets to come this week, which is better than being swept by the NFC South for tiebreaker purposes, but far worse as a measure of quality.
Atlanta now has just a 36.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, down from 86.9 percent after their 3-0 start to the season. The division will be in play for a while given how unreliable the Panthers and Saints seem to be, but this looks like a totally different team from the swashbuckling offense we saw a year ago. The Falcons were supposed to be immune to the Super Bowl hangover by virtue of returning the vast majority of their young, talented roster, but they’re going to need to take a leap forward if they want a third shot at the Patriots.