The Super Bowl can be broken down into very discernible parts. Once the playoffs roll around, isolated entities on either side of the ball often have an enormous impact on the outcome of the game. Last year’s matchup between Carolina and Denver could be broken down to Carolina’s offensive line failing to mediate the Broncos vaunted pass rush. Even this matchup could be distilled to Von Miller vs. Mike Remmers. Miller would embarrass Remmers, the Panthers’ right guard, en route to being named the games Most Valuable Player. He recorded six tackles and 2.5 sacks in the game, including a strip sack of Cam Newton that Denver would recover in the end zone for a touchdown. What matchup will determine this year’s Super Bowl? Well we’re 48 hours from finding out.
Top Positional Matchups for Super Bowl 51
Alex Mack (Falcons, center) vs. Alan Branch (Patriots, defensive tackle)
The Falcons acquired Alex Mack this offseason from Cleveland in order to secure the interior of the Falcons offensive line. The center in Kyle Shanahan’s system is intellectually the number two behind the quarterback. Mack routinely helps Matt Ryan to decipher what he’s seeing, helping to adjust protection. The big mauler in the middle has certainly been a big stabilizing force to the Falcons number one ranked offense. At media day when talking about the New England defense, Mack said, “They’re going to be a very big challenge. They have big, heavy guys up front that are run-stoppers (and) everyone plays really well together.”
The ‘big, heavy guy’ Mack is referring to is likely Alan Branch. Branch has been an absolute behemoth in the middle of the Patriots defensive line. Branch’s stats (1.5 sacks and 49 total tackles on the season) don’t do justice to what he means to this team. At 6’6″ and 350 pounds, Branch’s long arms and ability to fight off blocks have been the key to the Patriots ability to stop the run. Going up against an Atlanta rushing offense that is averaging 120 yards per game, Branch is going to have to stand his own against Mack, who routinely does this to guys.
Deion Jones (Falcons, inside linebackers) vs. New England Running Backs
When Dan Quinn and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff talk about defense, there was a common theme – speed. Deion Jones is their prototypical inside linebacker. Jones, a rookie, was the second round pick of the Falcons in the 2016 draft. At the combine, he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash (fourth among linebackers). Amazingly, he ran a 4.38 at the LSU pro day (Julio Jones ran a 4.39). Jones’ ability to cover sideline to sideline and pursue every player on the field has helped jump Atlanta’s defense to a place where they are Super Bowl worthy.
However, the negative about Jones is that he is undersized at 6’2″, 220 pounds. To put this in perspective, the Patriots’ counterpart to Jones – Dont’a Hightower – is listed at 6’4″, 270. Jones’ speed and coverage abilities (three interceptions and 11 passes defended this season) will help him in coverage against the Patriots running backs.
New England loves using Dion Lewis and James White in the passing game. Both will split out wide and catch passes out of the backfield. Unsurprisingly, Jones will likely call coverage duties on these running backs. The downside to Jones is that his size will make matching up against LeGarrette Blount a challenge. Blount, listed at 6’0″, 225 pounds, could have a field day if Jones is unable to handle the punishment.
Josh McDaniels vs. Atlanta’s Inexperienced Defense
When Atlanta goes to the nickel package, they are fielding six players in either their first or second year in the NFL. Yes, this defense has played well enough to get them to the Super Bowl, but they were only ranked 22nd in DVOA this year. Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels will be doing anything they can to confuse the Falcons young defense. Expect to see new formations, lots of motion, and anything to throw the Atlanta defense off balance.
The ability of the young defense to break down and recognize what is happening in a timely manner and make the proper adjustments will be critical. New England is known for exploiting hidden dimensions in the rule book. They have no shame doing anything in their power to gain an edge. Will we see another version of New England throwing passes to offensive lineman? I wouldn’t rule it out.
Falcons Mixed Fronts vs. Tom Brady (Patriots, quarterback)
It’s unlikely that Dan Quinn will blitz Brady often in this game. He gets the ball off quicker than anyone in the league. Therefore, blitzing plays right into Brady’s hands. In the 2014 Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl (Quinn was the Seattle defensive coordinator), he only blitzed Brady four times. The key to this game will be the Falcons ability to get after Brady with only four men.
Confusing Tom Brady is not easy. He’s 39 years old, and you’d think he’s seen it all, right? Therefore, Dan Quinn is going to have to design creative and unique ways to send four guys at Brady that he’s not expecting. Additionally, the Atlanta players are going to have to execute. Will this mean sending a slot corner and dropping a D-lineman? Maybe. Will it involve sending Deion Jones or other linebackers through the A-gap? Atlanta did this well against Aaron Rodgers.
If Brady has time to dance in the pocket, this game will be long over by the start of the fourth quarter.
Brian Poole (Atlanta, cornerback) vs. Malcolm Mitchell or Danny Amendola (New England, wide receivers)
While Atlanta’s young defense is improving, they have weaknesses. One of the biggest holes is their ability to cover the third receiver on opposing teams. This season, the Falcons are 28th in DVOA in their ability to cover said third receivers. Neither Malcolm Mitchell or Danny Amendola have impacted the Patriots offense this postseason. They’ve combined for three catches and 15 yards this postseason. However, they could be huge in this Super Bowl.
Brian Poole draws most of the coverage against third receivers. Poole is a rookie. Undrafted out of Florida, he is one of the six Falcons in their first or second seasons that play when the Falcons go to five defensive backs. Expect Tom Brady to pick on Poole Sunday, potentially leading to bigger roles for whomever fills the third receiver slot for New England.