It’s tough to deny that the Patriots had a major hand in their record 25-point Super Bowl comeback. After all, when Tom Brady is your quarterback and Bill Belichick is your head coach, nothing seems like an accident or happenstance. Yet, many have claimed in the days since the Super Bowl that the Falcons are more to blame for blowing the game than the Patriots are for winning it. After watching the Falcons offense on film, we can’t help but come to the same conclusion.
Running it Early:
Before the collapse, Atlanta put New England’s defense on its heels right from the start. The Falcons set the tone on the first snap with a toss sweep for a 37-yard gain by Devonta Freeman. Atlanta was consistently able to get its running backs outside with some great blocking on the edge. Sometimes it was by their tackles and tight ends, other times it was by their receivers.
The Falcons ran the Patriots sideline to sideline throughout the first half with a mix of tosses, sweeps, and outside zones, creating tons of space for their quick and shifty backfield combo. It was apparent that New England had not seen a running game possessing as much speed as Atlanta’s.
The Julio Effect:
On their third drive of the game, the Falcons finally put the ball in the end zone. They did it on the strength of a balanced attack – two throws to Julio Jones and three Devonta Freeman runs (15, 9, and 5 yards). Their second scoring drive was all about the Julio impact. On first down, the Falcons aligned Julio Jones in the slot. He ran through the middle of the field and took two defenders with him, which cleared out space for Taylor Gabriel on a dig route.
The result was a 24-yard gain. Easy completions for big chunks of yards don’t normally happen against New England’s defense.
After a play-action bootleg led to a Julio completion, the Falcons once again took advantage of Jones’ ability to impact the defense without touching the ball. To that point in the game, he had been drawing double-coverage on just about every play. The Patriots used a combination of cornerback Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe with a safety over top of Jones. On this particular play, Ryan knew New England would continue to double Jones, especially since it was 3rd down in the red zone. Below you can see Jones aligned inside as the #3 receiver. Rowe and safety Devin McCourty were responsible for him.
This meant that Matt Ryan had two 1-on-1 matchups outside of Jones: wide receiver Taylor Gabriel vs. cornerback Malcolm Butler, and tight end Austin Hooper vs. safety Patrick Chung. Ryan chose the Hooper on Chung matchup, and delivered a perfect throw.
On their final scoring drive, Atlanta ran, play-actioned, and Julio’d their way down the field once again. There was even one play on this drive where three defenders went with Jones, setting up 1-on-1’s everywhere else.
A few plays later, Atlanta used their talent and scheme to once again overwhelm the Patriots’ defense. On 1st-and-goal from the 6, the Falcons used a trips bunch formation to beat man coverage. Their goal on the play was to pin linebacker Rob Ninkovich inside so he couldn’t get to his man, running back Tevin Coleman, who was aligned in the backfield. You can see below that Ninkovich struggled to fight through Atlanta’s receivers at the snap, which kept him from getting to Coleman in time. Coleman easily out ran Ninkovich to the outside, resulting in one of the easiest touchdown passes Matt Ryan will ever throw.
The Falcons were up 28-3, and the game was pretty much over.
So What Happened?
A few small adjustments by the Patriots did slow the Falcons down. New England did a better job of setting the edge in the running game in the 2nd half, preventing Falcons running backs from getting outside. 2nd-level defenders trusted that they didn’t have to get to the sideline to stop explosive plays on the outside, and they did a better job of maintaining gap integrity and limiting cutback lanes. The Falcons had less room to run as a result.
Additionally, the Patriots started dialing up the pressure. The first half saw them defend mostly with coverage. Sometimes they’d show blitz at the snap and then bail. Sometimes they’d bring a second level rusher but drop a defensive lineman out. Most of the time, they didn’t rush more than 4. That changed after New England fell behind 28-3. They brought a few more blitzes, and this did enough to help get the Falcons somewhat out of rhythm.
Still, the Falcons weren’t overwhelmed by New England’s defense. They failed to score on their final four drives mostly due to self-inflicted negative plays.
After New England’s onside kick, Atlanta had a 2nd-and-1 from the Patriots’ 32-yard line. They were well within kicker Matt Bryant’s range. However, left tackle Jake Matthews took a terrible holding penalty on an outside zone run. This was a perfect example of poor situational football. Worst case scenario, if Matthews got beat by his man on this type of run and didn’t hold, the Falcons might have lost a few yards, but they’d still be in field goal range. A holding in that situation, which knocks your team out of field goal range, is inexcusable. Offensive linemen are not immune to the need to be situationally aware. This drive eventually ended with a sack and a punt.
The holding penalty wasn’t the worst of the Falcons’ collapse, however. Leading 28-12 with eight and a half minutes to go, the Falcons had a 3rd-and-1 at their own 35. 3rd-and-1 situations offer the offense flexibility. They can run the ball, use play-action, or throw a quick pass. In this situation, even if the Falcons weren’t able to pick up the first down, a running play would have at least eaten up another 30 seconds or so. An incompletion might have stopped the clock, but it wouldn’t have given the Patriots the ball on the Falcons’ 25-yard line. The only thing Atlanta absolutely could not do was turn the ball over. We all know how this turned out.
The issue with Kyle Shanahan’s play call in this situation was not so much THAT he decided to throw the ball. Instead, it was the type of pass play he called. There are all sorts of other better options if Shanahan really wanted to throw the ball so badly in this situation. For one, he could have called a quick pass out of shotgun. The Patriots are a man coverage team (just about every team is on 3rd-and-1, especially down by 16 points in the 4th quarter). Designed rubs or picks out of a stack or trips bunch formation could have created safe, quick and easy throwing options for Ryan. Play-action could have been an option as well, as it would have moved defenders and slowed down New England’s pass rush. But the Falcons didn’t go play-action. In fact, amazingly, it was clear by their pre-snap alignment that they weren’t going to run the ball. Running back Devonta Freeman was set up too far in front of Ryan to be considered a credible running threat (unless Atlanta planned on having him run backwards and then forwards to gain 1 yard).
He was clearly in position to be ready to block or release to the outside. This allowed Patriots pass rushers to pin their ears back and attack without hesitation, knowing that the Falcons were throwing the ball.
The Falcons also didn’t call a quick pass. With the defense desperate and likely blitzing, they called a shotgun 5-step drop with mostly intermediate and deep routes. The only route that was run close to the first down marker was a slow developing out-route (designed to match up to Ryan’s 5-step drop and to give the receiver time to shake his man press coverage).
Two other routes were designed for throws 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. The fourth route was a deep corner. This was the route Ryan was throwing when he was hit. It may have been open if he had more time. Still, it would have been a completion 35-40 yards from the line of scrimmage. On 3rd and 1. Up by 16. With 8:30 left in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. Not exactly a high-percentage throw. It’s almost irrelevant whether or not Freeman was responsible for the blitzing Dont’a Hightower. Shanahan shouldn’t have put his offense in that position. I find it hard to believe that this was the best play he had in his repertoire for this situation.
The Final Mistakes:
Atlanta’s final drive was about as incompetent as it gets when it comes to game management and situational football. Julio Jones’ amazing catch on the sideline should have effectively ended the game. The Falcons were in position for a 39-yard chip-shot field goal with 4:33 remaining. With three runs, the Falcons would either run time off the clock, force the Patriots to use all of their timeouts, or gain a first down and get even closer to ending the game. Either option would have still led to a chip-shot field goal. At that point, there was no difference to the Falcons in scoring a touchdown or a field goal. Any score would have put them up by two possessions with little time remaining.
Once again, the Falcons did the unexplainable. After losing a yard on 1st down (still not a big deal), they went back to the shotgun. With a tight end to his left, and Devonta Freeman once again aligned too far away from Ryan to even show the threat of run, Atlanta started its march backwards.
Like their ill-fated 3rd-and-1, the alignment made it clear that the Falcons would be throwing the ball. The results were almost too predictable. Another shotgun 5-step drop. Another sack. This time by Trey Flowers, who Atlanta had trouble with all game. Matt Ryan did a terrible job of not recognizing the situation. With any pressure, he should have been ready to get rid of the ball. He absolutely could not take a sack! But he did.
A holding penalty and an incompletion ended this pitiful series of plays. A 1st-and-10 at the 22-yard line turned into a 4th-and-33 at the 45. The Falcons did not get their chip-shot field goal. They did not run time off the clock. They did not make the Patriots use up their timeouts. Inexcusable.
It should also be mentioned here that Dan Quinn has a responsibility to not let this type of mistake happen. Even though he doesn’t call the offensive plays, and even though Kyle Shanahan might have complete autonomy to run the offense, the head coach has to be aware of the situation of the game. He has to be in Shanahan’s ear after Julio’s catch (and especially after the 3rd-and-1 fumble on the previous drive) to tell him, “We’re running it 3 times here!” It’s the head coach’s job to manage the situations of the game and to make calm, logical, strategic decisions when emotions are high. Unless we hear that Quinn did tell Shanahan to run it and his orders were simply defied, the only conclusion we can reach is that Quinn did not take control and manage the situation.
After the Patriots tied the game, the Falcons had only 57 seconds remaining to try and drive the field for a potential game-wining field goal. What little chance they did have was all but negated by Eric Weems’ decision to return the kickoff out of the end zone. Instead of starting at the 25 with 57 seconds left, the Falcons took over at the 11 with 52 seconds. After 4 plays, the offense punted the ball away, never to touch it again in the 2016 season.
It’s hard to be critical of an offense that averaged almost 6 yards per carry, and whose quarterback finished with a 144.1 passer rating in the Super Bowl. But this truly shows the importance of situational football. The Falcons offense failed in just about every way in this department. While poor execution hurt Atlanta, terrible awareness and decision-making by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and head coach Dan Quinn ultimately led to the worst loss in Super Bowl history.