Check the Film: How the Patriots finally "solved" Atlanta's unexpected defensive plan
After facing heavy pressure in the first half, half-time adjustments allowed Brady to make a comeback
It seems like years ago by now, but five days ago it looked like the Atlanta Falcons were well on their way to a shocking Super Bowl victory. With 8:36 remaining in the third quarter, league MVP Matt Ryan found speedy running back Tevin Coleman as open as you'll ever see for a touchdown that brought the score to 28-3. The rout was on.
Explosive plays from their star studded offense weren't surprising; after all, their 2016 regular season ranked amongst the best offensive seasons in league history. What was shocking was the performance of their young, inexperienced defense, one which many (myself included) thought Tom Brady would rip to shreds from start to finish. Instead, they appeared to be taking a page out of the Giants playbook, battering Brady and forcing him into uncharacteristic miscues. The entire Patriots offense, which was statistically comparable to Atlanta's record breaking unit with Brady under center this year, looked out of synch.
Then...well, you know what happened. Brady absolutely took over, marching down the field for four consecutive scoring drives, capping off the final two with two point conversions. Brady's mastery combined with some timely defensive stops (and yes, some inexplicable playcalling by Atlanta) to allow the Patriots to come back from a 25 point deficit, by far the largest deficit in Super Bowl history. The only suspense from the first overtime in Super Bowl history came from the coin toss. The Pats won the toss, allowing Brady to calmly march them down the field for a game winning touchdown that felt inevitable at that point. It was unquestionably the most impressive moment of the most impressive career in NFL history.
However, it would be folly to say that nothing changed in the game other than Brady simply playing better. Rather, Brady's offensive line finally began to adjust to a Falcons pressure scheme that befuddled them for most of three quarters, finally allowing their legendary quarterback time to get comfortable and in a rhthym. Likewise, Brady and playcaller Josh McDaniels made the necessary adjustments to counter a Falcons coverage scheme designed to crowd the middle of the field. It's been said time and time again that you don't stand a chance against Brady once he figures out your coverage. It took the Patriots almost three quarters to figure out the Falcons unexpected game plan, but once they did, the results speak for themselves.
The first play of the game conveniently illustrated the Falcons general coverage game plan
The Falcons first defensive snap gave us a good look at their coverage scheme for the game. Rather than playing the Seattle-style Cover 3 zone that Head Coach Dan Quinn prefers, they went with matchup man coverage with a single high safety. As they did for nearly every passing snap, they only sent four rushers at Brady, leaving them with seven in coverage. This gave them the flexibility to leave a "rover" in the middle of the field, giving them an extra defender to take away the short in-breaking routes and crossers that make up a large chunk of the Pats offense. They rotated that "rover" duty: it often fell to either linebacker De'Vondre Campbell or Deion Jones, but hard hitting strong safety Keanu Neal also played the role at times.
As the "rover", Campbell is there to clean Edelman's clock if he holds on to the ball
On this play, Campbell serves as the rover, with the screen shot above demonstrating his effect on the play. Brady sees cornerback Robert Alford on Julian Edelman in man coverage and goes right to the on-paper mismatch. Edelman gains a step on Alford and is open for a second, but Campbell is there to close the opening in a hurry. Brady's high throw is affected by pressure (defensive tackle Ra'shede Hageman drives Joe Thuney all the way to the quarterback's feet), but a more accurate throw might have led to Campbell landing a kill-shot on Edelman. Campbell actually pulls up a little bit after the inaccurate throw glances of Edelman's fingertips, but still lands a decent shot on the Patriots top receiver. The message is sent from the first play of the game: nothing will be easy over the middle.
Pressure on that play was generated simply by Hageman winning a one-on-one matchup. There was plenty of that from the Falcons, particularly from Dwight Freeney, who ate Nate Solder alive for most of the evening. However, the majority of the Falcons pressure came from designed stunts, often with an interior player coming free unexpectedly around the edge.
Here's an example of a basic stunt that Falcons ran variations of all game long
This first quarter snap is a good demonstration of the pass rushing schemes the Falcons relied on heavily throughout the contest. The four defensive lineman are lined up as they traditionally would, with Courtney Upshaw (91) and Dwight Freeney (93) on the edges and former Patriot Joe Vellano (92) alongside Jonathan Babineaux (95) inside. At the start of the play, Babineux engages his logical counterpart, left guard Joe Thuney, while Freeney does the same against left tackle Nate Solder. Without an assignment to block, center David Andrews comes to help Thuney and gives Babineux a good shove.
Andrews unknowingly helps Babineaux to get around the edge faster
Unfortunately for the Patriots, that shove simply works right into the Falcons design. Freeney begins by engaging Solder, but powers his way inside directly into Thuney, with Babineaux looping around to essentially replace him as the edge defender. Instead of knocking him off his apparent inside path, Andrews actually gives him a head start on his way around the edge. Andrews then proceeds to help Thuney ward off the hard charging Freeney, unaware that Solder is continuing to block Freeney as well. As a result, three players are devoted to Freeney and no one notices Babineaux rushing around the edge. Brady manages to get rid of the ball before taking a hard hit, but is forced into an incompletion to a tightly covered James White. This play was sandwiched between two sacks, making it three consecutive pressures to thwart what began as a promising drive.
I have to wonder if the Falcons saw plays like the one Andrews made there as a tendency on film to exploit, as they ran variations of looping stunts on nearly every passing down. The very next play saw Brady get sacked by interior lineman Grady Jarrett. While the play would be considered a coverage sack due to the length of time Brady remained in the pocket, Jarrett came free on a similar stunt. Here's a look at the scheme: Jarrett begins lined up in an outside shade of left guard Joe Thuney, but at the snap loops all the way around the right edge of the defense. Meanwhile, linebacker Brooks Reed (#50) engages right guard Shaq Mason before spinning inside, drawing help once again from the center Andrews. At the same time, edge rusher Vic Beasley engages right tackle Marcus Cannon before pushing inside to attack Mason, just as Freeney did to Solder/Thuney on the previous play.
The very next play, Atlanta challenged the other side of the Pats line with a similar twist
Just like the previous play, the scheme creates the desired reaction. Cannon, Mason and Andrews find themselves all occupied with Reed and Beasley, creating a glut of bodies on the interior and no one truly guarding the right edge. After all, who would expect Jarrett to come all the way from the left side of the line to that edge? As you can see, Jarrett appears to have a free lane at Brady. Cannon sees Jarrett late and attempts a cut block, which buys Brady enough time to step up in the pocket. However, that leaves Cannon still on the ground and Jarrett still hustling, which enables the defensive tackle to come through with a big hit on Brady from behind.
At this point, the Pats have three blockers on Beasley and Reed, with none on Jarrett (#97)
As you can see, stunts like this are difficult to predict and force the offensive line to constantly be on alert for rushers from anywhere. The positives are obvious, as the scheme increases the odds of creating a free rusher despite only rushing four players. The downside is that such stunts take a little longer to develop, which normally would be a death sentence against the lightning quick release of Brady. However, the presence of that extra "rover" over the middle seemed to throw Brady off. There were a number of misfires to Edelman and Danny Amendola over the middle, often with multiple layers of coverage there from the rover, the corner matched up on the receiver and the deep safety coming down from his centerfield spot.
Alford nearly got a pick here as a disguised "roamer" in coverage
This incompletion to Danny Amendola is a good example, as Brady tried to thread the needle to him despite tight coverage and a lurking second defender (Robert Alford) who makes a break on the ball and nearly picks it off. Alford began the play on Edelman but passed him up once he began a shallow crossing route, with safety Keanu Neal picking Edelman up on the other side of the field. That allowed Alford to become a disguised "rover". Brady never saw him on this play but got away with it. He wouldn't later on the same drive, when Alford did the same thing, this time jumping a forced ball to Amendola and running it back for the first pick six of Brady's postseason career.
With Brady waiting an extra second or two longer than normal for the crowded middle of the field to open up, the Falcons pass rush often had an extra second or two for those long, looping stunts to develop. While they also got plenty of quick pressure courtesy of Freeney (I can't overstate how much he dominated Nate Solder throughout this game), there were plenty of times when Brady had decent initial protection but waited for the play to develop, only for a rusher to come through late on a stunt. It was a perfect example of coverage and pressure schemes working together to form a puzzle that Brady and the Patriots clearly struggled to decipher.
Here's some evidence of how well the Falcons scheme worked in the first half. The Patriots threw the ball 32 times in the opening 30 minutes. Brady was under direct pressure for 11 of those, with another nine where the rush came close enough to effect him in some way, often by forcing him to either take well covered checkdowns or to chuck up a throwaway somewhat in the direction of a well-covered receiver. In a four possession sequence (running from the Patriots second possession to the one that ended with Brady's disastrous pick six), Brady dropped back 21 times and faced heavy pressure on nine of them, with the rush getting close on another seven plays. All in all, a remarkable 62.5% of Brady's first half dropbacks were influenced in some way by Falcons pass rushers.
That relentless pressure seemed to be getting to Brady, just as it did in those infamous losses to the Giants. The Patriots actually showed some protection improvement on their final possession of the first half, allowing just one pressure and two other close-ish calls as Brady led them on a field goal drive. However, a six play stretch in the midst of that possession saw Brady make three uncharacteristically inaccurate throws, all of them resulting in incompletions. The first was the most glaring, as a (for once) well protected Brady missed Edelman open down the field with just the free safety left between him and the end zone. Given Edelman's ability to make players miss in space, this might have been a touchdown with a better throw.
Brady missed an opportunity for a huge play with a misfire here
The next miss wasn't as costly, but looks even worse on film. While a throw that he normally connects on, the previous Edelman play was at least a more difficult down-the-field throw. Three plays later, he had Chris Hogan open on a hitch route against a big cushion. This is a freebie, one that Brady usually makes in his sleep, but he appears to rush the throw (despite a clean pocket) and sails it wide out-of-bounds. Yeesh.
You'll rarely, if ever, see Brady badly miss a throw this easy
One play later, Brady appeared to finally hit Edelman on one of the in-breaking routes the two have done so much damage on over the years. However, the ball wound up on the turf thanks to cornerback Robert Alford, who managed to catch up and knock the ball out of Edelman's hands. If Brady had led Edelman, as he almost always does on such throws, Alford wouldn't have had a chance to make a play on the ball. In fact, it's possible that the hard charging Edelman finishes the play with a touchdown. However, the throw was behind Edelman, forcing the receiver to hang in the air and reach back across his body to (nearly) secure the catch, giving Alford the chance to catch up and knock it away.
So, how did the Patriots turn things around against such an effective Falcons scheme? For starters, the offensive line did a much better job of anticipating and reacting to the stunts and twists the Falcons defensive line continued to throw at them. Brady dropped back 44 times in the second half and faced heavy pressure on just eight of them, with another nine where the pressure got close enough to influence him in some way on the play. That absurd 62.5% of dropbacks affected by pressure dropped all the way down to 38% after halftime.
A big part of that was fatigue on the Falcons part. The 32 first half pass rushing snaps the Falcons undertook would be a full game's worth plenty of regular season weeks. Thanks to a steady rotation at all defensive line spots, the Falcons managed to keep fresh for a while. The Falcons had nine defensive linemen with at least 22 defensive snaps, and only three of them (Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Dwight Freeney) played over 50% of the defensive snaps. That showed as the pass rush continued at the start of the second half. On the Patriots first three defensive possessions, the Falcons faced 21 Brady dropbacks and recorded heavy pressure on five of them, coming close on another five. They were still affecting Brady with the rush on nearly half of his dropbacks.
However, the wheels came off in the fourth quarter, as a Falcons unit that had already rushed the passer 53 times visibly ran out of gas against Brady's relentless attack. In the Patriots final three possessions (which resulted in 22 points for the good guys), they rushed Brady another 23 times and recorded just two heavy pressures, while coming close enough to influence the play on another four. Up until that point, they'd affected 56.6% of Brady's dropbacks with pressure. Over the final three possession, that percentage dropped all the way to 26%.
It's impossible to ignore the fatigue factor, but the Patriots O-line do deserve credit for adjusting and reacting to Atlanta's confusing pressure schemes much better as the game went on. One such example comes on one of the critical plays that allowed the comeback to get going. The situation was as dire as it gets: fourth-and-three, down 28-3 and following a Brady-to-Edelman-to-Lewis trick play that reeked of desperation.
In one of the game's most desperate moments, the Falcons challenged the Pats with another tricky stunt
Once again, the Falcons attacked the Pats line with a confusing twist. Lining up Freeney (#93), a fearsome edge rusher known for his speed, inside already stresses the offense. They then run Grady Jarrett (#97) inside, drawing the attention of both David Andrews and Joe Thuney, the two players most likely to engage Freeney based on alignment, while looping Freeney around into a gap Jarrett could easily attack.
This time around, both Mason and Solder are prepared and in position to face an unexpected rusher
Note the difference in how the Patriots handle this stunt in comparison to the first half examples shown previously. In the first half, the players without a man to block would typically give help inside, leaving themselves vulnerable to a hidden rusher coming around on a looping stunt. Here you can see Shaq Mason (circled) unconcerned with Jarrett, who has both Andrews and Thuney in his way already. Instead, Mason is watching for a potential surprise edge rusher, just as Nate Solder (#77) is looking inside for a potential looping stunt coming his way. When Freeney loops around, Mason is ready...
Mason handled the fearsome Freeney on this critical play
...and renders him a non-factor on the play, giving Brady enough time to find Amendola on an out-breaking route for a critical first down to keep the drive alive. The Pats would go on to finish that drive with their first touchdown of the game. Had they been forced off the field on downs, the comeback would likely be impossible, even with the GOAT behind center.
Amendola's catch there is a nice segway to the final adjustment the Patriots made to "solve" Atlanta's scheme. After spending much of the first half trying to force passes inside against a defense designed to crowd the middle of the field, Brady adjusted and began to attack the sidelines in the second half. With the majority of defensive help in the middle of the field, the Falcons defensive backs were largely in one-on-one matchups on the sidelines, giving Brady some tasty matchups to exploit. Think about that furious comeback and you'll remember plenty of out-breaking routes. One was this leaping Amendola grab, resulting in 20 yards immediately following that Edelman catch-for-the-ages.
Amendola route breaks outward towards the sideline and open space here
Another was on this absolute rainbow from overtime, again to Amendola. I swear this throw belongs up there with the greatest of Brady's career.
Poor Brian Poole (#34) has no chance here, despite decent man coverage
While that was an immaculate throw, the common theme remains the same. The route is designed to break out, away from the middle of the field where the Falcons have help, rather than in and towards the help.
Brady also attacked the sidelines on a number of hitches and come back routes. Those made up the majority of Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell's production, the Patriots two primary "outside" receivers. Hogan's reputation as a deep threat led to plenty of cushion from his opposing corner (usually Jalen Collins), which he took advantage of by stopping on a dime and coming back to the ball after selling a vertical route with a hard sprint off the line of scrimmage. Mitchell did the same, showcasing his strong hands with several contested catches. This change in offensive approach directly affected those two players, who became a much bigger part of the second half game plan (of course, some of this was due to increased volume, as the Patriots needed to throw almost every down during their comeback). This was particularly evident in the case of Mitchell, who caught just one seven yard pass in the first half but exploded after the break for five catches and 63 yards, all of them coming in the fourth quarter.
This game has been heralded as Brady's masterpiece. Not only did it provide indisputable evidence that he's the greatest to ever take a snap in the NFL, but it highlighted all the leadership qualities that have fueled his magnificent career: incredible poise, mental toughness under adversity and a never-ending drive to fight down to the last snap. However, it also showcased the scheme flexibility that has been a hallmark of the Bill Belichick-led coaching staff. No coaching staff can match the Patriots when it comes to diagnosing the scheme of the opposition and making the necessary adjustments to counter it, regardless of the game plan going in. While the comeback isn't possible without Brady playing lights out football in the biggest moments, it's also not possible without the game plan changing to adjust to Atlanta's scheme. The Patriots admitted after the fact to being surprised by Atlanta's game plan, which ran contrary to many of their tendencies, and seemed frustrated by a defense perfectly designed to take away many of the things they attempted to do in the first half. Rather than butt their heads against a schematic wall, as so many NFL coaches do time after time (cough, Steelers, cough), the Patriots came up with the necessary adjustments on the fly to counter a brilliant scheme. This combined with the luxury of having Tom Brady (and yes, a bit of luck) to make the greatest comeback in NFL history possible.