Saturday, February 4, 2017

Super Bowl 51 - Line Rotation, Physical Secondary Winning Recipe For Patriots' Defense

Chris Long says he would have played this year for five bucks.

Of course, that's against the collective bargaining agreement that dictates Long's minimum salary for the 2016 NFL season for a player of his advanced tenure - he is in his ninth season - would have been just shy of a million clams, but his words resonate, especially with New England Patriots' fans.

After being unceremoniously dumped by the Rams in mid-February, Long immediately made it known that he would only sign with a Super Bowl contender to weed out the suckers, then visited Atlanta, Detroit and Washington before seeing Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick about a job a month after his release, ultimately signing with New England the next day.

His dream came true, as the Patriots have indeed made it to the big game - and now, it's his turn to make the sort of big-game impact that the Patriots envisioned for him when signing him to a one-year $2.4 million contract.

What kind of big-game impact? Simply, to set the edge.  If the Patriots can accomplish that on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, it will have been worth every penny paid to Long, not to mention the entire top-ranked defense New England brings into Houston's NRG Stadium for Super Bowl 51.
Ryan is the Patriots' most physical corner

The Atlanta Falcons running backs feed off the edges, averaging well over five yards per carry overall, and owning a particularly stout six yards per carry running to the right behind tackle Ryan Schraeder, often in conjunction with Alex Mack, who is perhaps the best pulling center in the league, anchored in the scheme by road grading right guard Chris Chester.

How important is the ground game to the Falcons?  In four games this season when their opponent has held them to under 100 yards rushing, the Falcons are 0-4.  In games in which they have achieved 100 yards rushing or more, they are 11-1.  Obviously, stopping the run is paramount to the Patriots' defensive success.

But where the Patriots must exploit with their pass rush is over that right guard position, where Chester has struggled all season, allowing nearly a third of Atlanta's sack total on the season.  The Patriots must be relentless in attacking Chester, as he tends to get high with his pad level as the game progresses and he tires and can be walked back into the passer.

Mack is more athletic than stout, and tends to do his best work moving forward and also laterally, pulling into the gap between guard and tackle and taking on the linebacker on the second level - but when dropping into his stance as a pass protector, he can be moved back into the pocket as well.

In fact, the Falcons allowed Ryan to be sacked at least twice in a game in all but one contest in the regular season, and ranks in the bottom-third of the league in sack percentage. The caveat is that there was only one team that they did not give up a sack to, and that was the Packers two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game - though solace can be taken by New England fans that the Packers generate next to no pressure up the gut...

...which is exactly where the Falcons' offensive line is most vulnerable, and also where the Patriots have the depth to take advantage of the chink in their armor - and the Patriots will likely be in their Big Nickel alignment for the majority of the game, which gives them the advantage in two different ways.

First, because the alignment calls for a third safety to take the place of a linebacker - usually from the weak side - it gives New England the ability to run with eight defenders in the box and still maintain coverages as Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are adept at taking on players coming out of the slot and out of the backfield and are loads in run support.

Secondly, it gives them the ability to disguise coverages and rush packages, meaning that the Falcons will have to account for the entire defense.  It is typical to see as many as ten defenders within a couple of yards of the line of scrimmage, and Belichick has shown that he is not shy in sending a corner or a safety on a corner blitz or dropping a defensive end into coverage.

Point being, the opposing offense typically has no idea who will be dropping into coverage and who is rushing the passer - and, more importantly, where the pass rush will engage the protection.

This is where things get tricky for Atlanta.  They will be facing a defense that has not only the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL in Dont'a Hightower, but also a group of very large and very quick defensive ends who easily reduce down to rush from the three-tech (outside shoulder of the guard) or even the one-tech (inside shoulder) to split the gaps and force the Falcons to keep one of their dangerous backs in to pass block.

But to accomplish this against Atlanta, they will have to do it with a mixture of three and four-man rush packages that sprinkles in blitzes in select spots.

With a standard four-man front, wide bodies Alan Branch (6' 6", 350 pounds), Malcom Brown (6' 2", 320) and rookie Vincent Valentine (6' 2", 320) rotation form a formidable two-man rotation that has been terrific against the run - and while the trio have recorded but a handful of sacks this season from the defensive tackle positions, that really isn't what they are out there for against the pass.

What they are out there for is to collapse the pocket into the quarterback's face, forcing the opponent to double team one or both, leaving an entrance for Hightower to race through or for their defensive ends to exploit on an inside stunt...

...especially with second-year emerging star Trey Flowers, who at 6' 2" and 270 pounds is nearly a spitting image of Hightower, but with unmatched strength and leverage at the point of attack.  Flowers leads the Patriots in sacks and pressures. Fellow defensive ends Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Long join Flowers in yet another situational rotation on the edges, that pays huge benefits late in games.

The rotation has many benefits, with being fresh for crunch time the main profit, all the while maintaining integrity on the edges, which is important given the running styles of both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the Falcons' one-two punch in both the ground game and through the air.

Freeman is a complete back who is equally dangerous in the pattern as he is on the ground, while Coleman is a live wire with speed to burn.  Freeman is a patient runner who waits for his blocking to form a gap, while Coleman has a tendency to run up the backs of his blockers - but both are better on the edges and will likely look to gain the corner on the Patriots rather than deal with Branch and Brown.

Coleman has a little Dion Lewis to his game, a speedster with elusiveness in space and a seriously filthy jump cut that helped him become one of the best backs in the league in gaining yards after the catch - but as explosive as he is, he is not one that is going to break a lot of tackles, so a zone containment by a linebacker like Kyle Van Noy would probably do the trick.

What the coverages on the backs have to avoid is playing a trailing technique across the middle of the second level, because both backs have the ability to separate quickly after the catch, leading to big chunks of yardage...

...which is what Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan will be looking for not only when he throws to his backs, which he does on average about six times per game, but also when he goes downfield to his trio of outstanding receivers.  Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel account for exactly half of Matty Ice's targets this past season, a number that continues to trend in the playoffs.

Jones has it all: size (6' 3", 220 pounds), speed (4.39), will go over the middle and isn't afraid to block downfield - but there are two things that the Patriots' secondary may be able to take advantage of. Jones tends to wilt in the face of physical play off the line, becoming frustrated if the corner is able to manhandle him which, with his size and explosiveness off the line, doesn't happen frequently.

But Jones is also dealing with two sprained ligaments in his right big toe as well as a mid-foot issue believed to be a sprained ligament as well, and while it didn't look to be an issue in the NFC Championship game - indeed, he wasn't even listed on the final injury report on Friday - it remains to be seen how he reacts to being punked at the line.

Which is going to happen.

The Patriots may have the most physical collection of defensive backs in the NFL, and also the most sure-tackling group as well, which allows them some latitude in the number of covers that they can employ on the field at any one time.

How much latitude?  That's up to Belichick, but it's certainly within the realm of possibility that New England flips the traditional script and goes with a back seven - or even eight - throwing in some coverages that have elements of cover 2, some that have elements of cover four, some that have elements of both.

That's the beauty of the brand of Big Nickel that the Patriots profess, as they can employ both at the same time.  The cover two, which is essentially the bend-but-don't-break defense that the Patriots generally play, requires two deep safeties each responsible for half of the field over the top while the corners underneath engage their mirrors with man coverage...

...while the cover four, essentially a prevent-style of defense, calls for two safeties and two corners each taking a quarter of the deep zone to prevent long gainers through the air - but when combined, it splits the field in half.  On the strong side (Where the tight end lines up, usually on the right side of the formation) the team will employ a cover four look, meaning that on that half of the field there will be four defenders covering a quarter of that half of the field.

On the weak side, a single safety plays over the top of a corner, who will release his receiver to the safety while trailing the play. New England is in unique position to play this hybrid "Cover six", because they have two quality free safeties who can handle the deep zones and allowing the strong safety to cover the sideline zone with enough forward momentum to break for the flat in the event of a run or screen play.

That leaves two corners in the underneath zones where, like the aforementioned strong safety, they can break on the run or screen simply by releasing their man responsibilities to the safeties.  In this scenario, the Patriots would rush three and rely on their standard two-linebacker look to remain stout against the run and to knock the snot out of shallow crossers.

The beauty of this hybrid look is that it allows for the corners to play up on the line so that they can get physical with Atlanta's large receivers.

That said, who covers whom?

That depends on who you ask, but don't bother asking Bill Belichick or anyone else in the organization because, rightly so, that is an institutional secret.  But a look at the Patriots' defensive backs can give us some ideas.

Logan Ryan grades out as the Patriots most physical corner, and covers bigger receivers well - as he proved in covering Sanu when the big possession receiver was in Cincinnati, and in shutting down Eric Decker with the Broncos.  Ryan's issue involves speed, which he lacks, so he would do well in dealing with Sanu again.

Malcolm Butler has some speed and has shown exceptional grit in covering bigger receivers as well - his mugging job on Seattle's Jermaine Kearse in the Super Bowl two years ago a prime example, and will no doubt draw Jones at select times during the game, but the intriguing player in this scenario is in-season pick up Eric Rowe.

A free safety his entire football career, Rowe switched to cornerback in his senior season at Utah to help out a thin corner corps, so he's been playing the position for three years, which means that he obviously had some growing pains to deal with, but in a hybrid look, Rowe has the same size-speed ratio - 6' 1", 2210 pounds, 4.45 in the 40 - as under-rated centerfielder Duron Harmon.

That essentially gives New England four quality safeties - Rowe, Harmon, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty - in which to run their hybrid-big nickel look, and it's not beyond the realm of imagination that the Patriots combining zone and man elements that allow for the corners to be physical at the line, knowing that they have their backs covered by an excellent group of safeties.

There are no guarantees, of course, but in theory, it works.

The Falcons have virtually no production out of their tight ends, though the two they play are certainly capable in the passing game and should not be ignored, so there wouldn't be a huge chance of one of them splitting the safeties up the seam - which is a tangible danger of combining coverage schemes.  But in the end, Atlanta has to follow the same rules as every other team in the NFL, which means that they have only five players eligible to make plays with the ball...

...and when combined with all of the talent and experience on the top-rated Patriots' defense - and especially with head ball coach Bill Belichick exuding never-before-seen confidence in his pressers and general attitude, Patriots' fans have every reason to feel a fifth victory parade coming on...

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