The first instinct when a team blows a 25-point lead to lose a game is to assume that the losing defense was responsible, or that the winning offense just developed such momentum that they couldn’t be stopped. Super Bowl LI did not quite play out in exactly this fashion.
A Great Start for the Falcons:
One thing was clear from the first snap of the game; this was not going to be a walk in the park for New England’s offense. The Falcons Defense was not going to give up big and easy plays on blown coverages like the Steelers had two weeks prior. Dan Quinn has developed a fast and aggressive unit in Atlanta. While his group might be young, they were very well prepared for what the Patriots do best on offense.
The Falcons, much like the Seahawks, don’t intend to fool offenses with scheme. They are predominantly a single-high team. This more or less means that they play variations of cover-3 when in zone coverage and variations of man-free when in man coverage. In man, the variations come from what Atlanta does with the extra defender (4 pass rushers, 1 safety, and 5 cover men for 5 eligible receivers leaves 1 extra man). Sometimes, that extra defender is used to blitz. Sometimes, he’s used to spy the quarterback, as was the case for Atlanta’s matchups against Russell Wilson and then Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. For the most part against New England, that extra man was used to hunt up crossing routes and other in-breaking routes, a staple of the Patriots’ passing game.
Below is an example of one way Atlanta did this. It was 3rd-and-7. You can see that the Falcons had cornerback Robert Alford on Julian Edelman, a matchup that persisted all night.
Here, Edelman motioned to a stack and released outside at the snap. The goal was to get Alford stuck on the outside, with the other receiver purposefully in the way to make it difficult for him to cover any in-breaking route by Edelman. However, the Falcons were ready for this. Linebacker Deion Jones keyed in on Edelman.
He took away the inside as well as Brady’s best receiver on 3rd down. Brady ended up completing a short pass elsewhere, out of rhythm, giving the defense time rally to the ball carrier and make a stop. The Patriots punted the ball away.
Here is a great example of how Atlanta took away New England’s deep crossers. At the snap, it looks like man coverage across the board, with Alford again covering Edelman.
Safety Keanu Neal comes down into the middle of the field just after the snap, ready to read Brady’s eyes and take away his intended receiver.
The Patriots were running dual crossers. This is a route concept that is great for defeating man coverage because it creates traffic for defenders to fight through and gives receivers the opportunity to run across field away from their cover men. Here, it appears Alford is getting beat to the inside by Edelman.
But Alford wasn’t beat. Instead, he was peeling off Edelman’s route. In effect, he was taking Neal’s place. Neal was taking Alford’s. Neal had a better angle on Edelman’s route and took him away.
Alford was left to cover the crossing route coming towards him.
Brady put the ball at Amendola’s feet, conceding the play with Atlanta’s pass rush bearing down on him.
Down 14-0, the Patriots had another critical 3rd down before the end of the first half. The Patriots love to use trips bunch formations, with mesh routes that confuse defenders and often lead to wide-open throws on what’s supposed to be the most difficult down. Here, they were trying to do the same thing, as Julian Edelman motioned inwards from the left sideline to a trips bunch formation.
The design of the route concept gave Brady two initial options, both set up by tight end Martellus Bennett using his big body to rub/pick/create traffic for Amendola and Edelman’s cover men. Brady’s first option was to hit Edelman quickly over the middle after his man, Robert Alford, was caught too far outside just after the snap. If Brady didn’t like that option, he had Amendola on an angle route, which was meant to get his defender moving outside initially so he could be caught up in the traffic jam created by Bennett. Below, you can see their releases just after the snap.
It appeared the Brady had time to hit Edelman quickly with Alford caught outside. However, he likely decided not to make the throw because he saw safety Keanu Neal drop down as the lurk defender and take away the route.
Maybe Brady had anticipated this coverage after seeing the Falcons successfully pass off crossing routes all throughout the first half. He decided not to hit Edelman, and instead waited for Amendola, who had done a good job of getting his man, cornerback Brian Poole, to move outside initially. It looked like Amendola would be open.
But Robert Alford was now the free extra defender. He read the unsuspecting Tom Brady’s eyes, and jumped inside of Amendola for the pick-6.
This was another example of how the Falcons used the extra defender to take away what New England did best. They were brilliant in passing off receivers throughout the first half. It was 21-0, and Dan Quinn clearly had his team prepared for how the Patriots would attack. New England, shockingly, seemed to have no answers.
The (Furious???) Comeback:
I’d like to tell you that the Patriots made adjustments at the half, came out with a brand new scheme, and buried the Falcons under an avalanche of unstoppable momentum. Yet, that wasn’t really the case. The Patriots were stopped on their first drive of the 2nd half after starting with great field position. Their first touchdown drive, which came after they were down 28-3, involved a desperate pass thrown by Julian Edelman, a 4th-down conversion, and ultimately ate up more than 6 minutes of clock. The Patriots missed the extra point and then failed to recover their onside kick. Down 19 points, their next drive ate up 5 minutes of clock and only yielded 3 points. Through the first 51+ minutes of the game, the Patriots had driven into Atlanta’s territory 6 times, resulting in 2 turnovers, 1 punt, 2 field goals, and 1 touchdown. The defense had 4 sacks, 3 of which were by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who had an absolute whale of a game. To this point, the Falcons had generated enough pressure on Brady to make him uncomfortable and keep him out of sync. A lot of that pressure was created by good coverage. With eight and a half minutes remaining, the Falcons defense had won this side of the matchup handily.
From Atlanta’s perspective, they really didn’t do much differently on defense in the second half. They did play a bit fewer snaps of man coverage than they did in the first half. However, when they did play zone coverage, it wasn’t a soft/prevent style that gave up 10-15 yards with ease. They even mixed in some zone blitzes. As we mentioned above, it took the Patriots more than 11 minutes between their first 2 second-half scoring drives to generate 9 points. Nothing came easily for the Patriots. Not until it was 28-12, and the Falcons took a 5-step drop from the shotgun on 3rd-and-1 with eight and a half minutes remaining.
Another Brady Super Bowl Classic:
We’ve already written about the next series of events. The Patriots scored a touchdown and 2-point conversion after taking over at Atlanta’s 25 to make it 28-20. Julio Jones then made an amazing catch that should have all but ended the Patriots hopes (for the 3rd time in the 2nd half). After some colossal game mismanagement by the Falcons, the Patriots were down 8, with 91 yards to go and 3:30 remaining.
It’s fair to say that Tom Brady had gotten off to a rough start in this game. However, by the time he took the field down 28-20, Brady had gotten into somewhat of a groove. He had a little more time in the pocket in the 2nd half and was more accurate as a result. His receivers stopped dropping passes. The execution was much better all around for the Patriots, and they avoided generating as many negative plays. They also were able to sustain drives by taking what the defense gave them in the running game.
Additionally, Brady started taking advantage of New England’s depth on offense. With Edelman all but locked down, the Patriots started working their other advantageous matchups. They took advantage of running back James White, covered by linebackers and safeties. They isolated wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell on the outside vs. cornerback Jalen Collins (and once vs. C.J. Goodwin). They converted a big 4th down to Danny Amendola in the slot as well as a key 3rd-and-1 to tight end Martellus Bennett, matched on a safety.
On their game-tying drive, the Patriots didn’t look like they were going anywhere. Two incompletions put them in a 3rd-and-10 situation. The next play was one of the best and most important of Tom Brady’s illustrious career that will never be talked about, except for on this website. Pre-snap, the Falcons were showing a blitz up the middle with linebacker Deion Jones.
But after the snap, Jones dropped out. The blitz was coming from the slot instead of up the middle. The Falcons rushed 5 with 3-under-3-deep coverage behind it.
Brady recognized the blitz and locked in on Chris Hogan, who was running a deep out from the slot. Here, it appeared safety Keanu Neal made a bit of a mistake. He had help inside from Deion Jones in the middle, who was clearly ready for any in-breaking route. Yet, instead of staying outside and playing to his help, he moved inside with Hogan’s stem, giving Hogan leverage on his out route.
With the pass rush closing in, and in the shadow of his own goalpost, Tom Brady did not have time to wait for his receiver. He had to make an anticipation throw with bodies around him. You can see below that Brady had already started his throwing motion, and Hogan was not yet out of his route.
Of course, Brady put the ball on the money.
Here’s the view of the pressure from the end zone angle. Brady had 3 red jerseys flashing in his face with no white jerseys in front of them.
If Brady doesn’t hang in and make this throw, the best-case scenario for the Patriots would be 4th-and-10 from their own 9-yard line. Potentially, the Patriots could have had 4th-and-15 or more from inside their own 5. From the Falcons’ perspective, if safety Keanu Neal didn’t jump inside on Hogan’s route, Brady wouldn’t have had time to scan the field and throw the ball elsewhere. Perhaps he even would have gotten sacked in the end zone for a safety.
Instead, with so much on the line, Brady put together each of the most critical attributes needed to play the quarterback position; accuracy, anticipation, coverage-recognition, and the ability to throw out of a hole with bodies closing in.
All that being said, Brady nearly threw the game away a few plays later. He made a bad decision and forced the ball to a well-covered Edelman on a pass that should have been intercepted once, if not twice. Instead, Edelman made a circus catch. A few plays later, the game was tied.
Overtime seemed like a formality. The Falcons defense was completely worn down (93 plays will do that). Brady made 3 great throws into tight windows, and James White finished off an unbelievable performance (20 touches, 139 yards, 3 touchdowns) with a tough, game-winning touchdown run.
All of the heroics aside, the Patriots never should have had a chance to win the game after falling behind 28-3. While both the Patriots Offense and Falcons Defense played significant roles in this historic comeback, the Falcons’ offense and decision-making still must shoulder most of the blame.