Tearing Up the Playbook: Super Bowl LI Edition: the New England Patriots versus the Atlanta Falcons as an Exposé of the NFL Today

by Sam Stockton | 2/3/17 2:10am

As I alluded to two weeks ago, the biggest struggle in writing about the NFL in this column is that I have to write the column before the games on Sunday are played. Given the circumstances for this Sunday’s game, I wrote this week’s Super Bowl Edition of Tearing Up the Playbook on Thursday, with about three days and two hours until kickoff. On my end, this means I have to write something that will apply to this game no matter what happens. With that in mind, consider the following:

It is no secret that the NFL has changed a lot since its birth, or even since Super Bowl I back in 1967. The NFL in which Tom Brady plays is vastly different than the one in which Bart Starr, the first Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, played. Even football fans my age can point to trends that have risen and fallen in their time watching the league. Be it the wildcat, the read option, or the relationship between elite defenses and the 3-4, many trends have entered and exited the league in the past decade or so.

In fact, success in the league is strongly tied to a team’s ability to adapt to new challenges. Successful NFL coaches stay successful in the NFL for one reason: they are willing to change. The fact of life in the NFL is that if you run a scheme successfully long enough, someone else will come up with a way to stop it. A couple of years ago, young quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson took the league by storm and punished defenses with their extreme mobility. The read-option seemed like the wave of the future; some people went as far as to wonder if the day of the traditional drop back quarterback (think Brady, either Manning brother or Drew Brees) had passed. Then, defensive coordinators began to instruct their defensive ends to crash on the quarterback, while inside linebackers scraped off blocks to take away the threat of the running back. Just like that, the read-option wasn’t so scary anymore.

Super Bowl LI was not the most intriguing possible matchup. The Dallas Cowboys versus the New England Patriots would likely have had more national interest; the New York Giants versus the Patriots for a third time would have more storylines around it and perhaps more legacy implications for Brady and Bill Belichick. While Super Bowl LI may not be everything that you’re looking for off the field, it is a perfect representation of what great offensive and defensive football looks like in 2017.

To keep it simple, I’ll focus on the matchup between the Falcons’ offense and the Patriots’ defense. Let’s start with Atlanta. The numbers are staggering, and when you watch them play, they look even better than what the statistics show. I don’t want to focus on individuals, but rather schemes, and Atlanta has a great one.

The Falcons offense has been so successful this season because of its ability to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses through the air and on the ground out of the same formations. Defenses just don’t know what the Falcons are going to do, so they cannot put their best situational defenders on the field. Teams don’t know whether to use their best run or pass defenders at any given time, because the Falcons can run or pass effectively with the same players on the field. Through the air, the Falcons are masterful at manipulating defenders, flooding an opponent’s zone so that a team simply cannot cover them all. On the ground, the two-headed monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman has been next to unstoppable.

Now consider the Patriots defense. There is not a coach in the league as adept at adaptation as Belichick. He can and has gone back and forth from playing a 3-4 to a 4-3 up front. He will use a “one-gap” and “two-gap” scheme simultaneously. He will use a wide receiver in the secondary.

The reason the Patriots are so good defensively is quite similar to the reason the Falcons are so good offensively. New England can use the same personnel in different ways to accomplish different things. Safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, two of Belichick’s favorite pupils, exemplify this versatility. Both are capable of playing man-to-man coverage against a receiver, tight end or running back with relative ease. Both are excellent tacklers in space. Chung can step into the box and defend the run like a linebacker. McCourty can play “center field” as a pure, free safety or cover one-on-one like a corner. This versatility means that, like the Falcons, the Patriots can play equally effectively against the run and the pass with the same players on the field. Add into the mix nickel cornerback Logan Ryan, an excellent tackler and cover man himself, dominant linebacker Donta Hightower and a deep defensive line, and the Patriots D becomes very hard to stop.

The name of the game in the NFL today is versatility. One player being used in multiple ways allows an offense to do more without tipping its hand, and a defense to stop the run and the pass without substituting. The Patriots and Falcons are archetypical examples of the NFL’s versatility craze, and it should not be seen as a coincidence that they are now meeting in the Super Bowl.

Musing of the Week:

This week, the NFL decided to deny press credentials and “radio row” access to the blog “Barstool Sports.” I personally am a fan of the site, or at least of a good amount of its content, but that’s not really the point. The NFL already has a reputation as the “No Fun League” thanks to an intolerance of things like touchdown celebrations and non-conformist cleats. Even putting aside this reputation, love Barstool or hate it, it doesn’t make much sense for the NFL to anger a site that is undeniably popular amongst sports fans, particularly young men. At some point, I can only imagine that this kind of thing will catch up with the league. This story only becomes more interesting when you consider that Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee announced his retirement this week in order to join, you guessed it, Barstool.

I don’t mean to assert that denying Barstool credentials will be the death of the NFL; that would be ridiculous. My point is this: right now, if I were heading the NFL, I would not do anything I thought might be turning away young fans — yet the NFL keeps doing it. At some point, events like these will only snowball and hurt the NFL’s overall success.