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Falcons have a high-flying offense. But expect Tom Brady to pick apart the defense

Atlanta cornerback Keanu Neal (left) is no Kam Chancellor. david j. phillip/AP/Associated Press

We don’t know much about the Atlanta Falcons here in New England, a team the Patriots haven’t faced since 2013. That goes for Patriots coach Bill Belichick, too.

“We’ve only seen them a little bit this year on TV, and haven’t really had them in many crossover games,” said Belichick.

The teams face each other every four years in the regular schedule rotation (2001, 2005, 2009, and 2013). The Patriots are 7-6 all time against the Falcons, 4-0 in the Belichick era. The last meeting was a 30-23 Patriot win in Atlanta in 2013. But we know those games have no bearing on this Super Bowl.


We do know, of course, that the Falcons have a high-flying offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan, Boston College’s favorite son, will likely win the MVP award after putting together a great season: 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, a 69.9 completion percentage, and an eye-popping 9.3 yards per attempt, more than a full yard better than any other QB in the league.

The Falcons finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (33.8 points per game), have scored at least 33 points in six straight games, and are the first team since the 2004 Chiefs to finish the season with a top-five passing and rushing attack.

But we don’t know much about second-year head coach Dan Quinn, who was the Seahawks defensive coordinator when they faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl two years ago, or about a young defense that has six starters in their first or second year in the NFL.

To get a feel for what to expect from the Falcons, we flipped on the All-22 tape of their NFC Championship victory over the Packers, and also their divisional round win over the Seahawks.


Coordinator: Kyle Shanahan.

Key skill players: QB Matt Ryan, RB Devonta Freeman, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Julio Jones, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Taylor Gabriel.


Personnel notes: The Falcons are relatively healthy, with tight end Jacob Tamme (shoulder) the only key offensive player on injured reserve. But center Alex Mack will sit out practice this week after spraining his left ankle against the Packers, and Jones will be limited as he battles turf toe.

What to expect: Schematically, the Falcons aren’t very similar to the Patriots. They have a clear alpha receiver in Jones (83 catches, 1,409 yards, 6 touchdowns), they run a lot of deep vertical routes to clear space underneath and across the middle, and they take advantage of Ryan’s athleticism by rolling him out on play-action bootlegs.

But conceptually, there are a lot of similarities between the Falcons and Patriots. The first is continuity on the offensive line. All five Patriots linemen have started at least 17 games this season, and the Falcons can do them one better: all five linemen have started all 18 games.

The Falcons did allow 37 sacks, tied for 11th most in the NFL, but were the league’s No. 3 passing attack, No. 5 rushing attack, and had a league-high 17 passes of 40-plus yards. Mack has solidified that offensive line, though his ankle will be a concern, and the Patriots will attack it.

The Falcons also are incredibly versatile under Shanahan (the son of former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan), who is set to become the 49ers head coach after the Super Bowl.


Like the Patriots, the Falcons have multiple running backs who can hurt you. Freeman is the lead back (1,079 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Coleman is brought in for a change of pace (520 yards, 8 touchdowns). Both are weapons in the passing game, as well (462 receiving yards for Freeman, 421 for Coleman).

Ryan is more than happy to dump the ball off to his running backs if his receivers are covered deep, and the way the Falcons clear out space with the vertical routes, the check-downs to the running backs often produce nice gains.

The Falcons can spread a team out with three or four receivers, or they can go heavy with two tight ends. Like the Patriots, some of the Falcons’ biggest passing plays come in heavy sets with play-action passes.

They have the versatility on the offensive line to utilize both power blocking and zone blocking schemes, and they switch freely between them throughout the game.

And like the Patriots, the Falcons spread the ball around. While Jones is the alpha, the Falcons have nine other receivers who have between 200 and 700 receiving yards this year. Against the Packers, Ryan targeted nine receivers.

Jones will require a double team over the top, but the Falcons force defenses to cover everyone. Against the Packers, unheralded fullback Pat DiMarco had a 31-yard catch-and-run.

Sanu also runs out of the Wildcat occasionally.

Ryan is truly on top of his game — smart enough to diagnose a defense before the snap, and talented enough to make all the throws. He makes deep sideline throws, slants over the middle into tight windows, and freely checks in and out of plays based on the defense.


The Falcons also do a great job of creating separation for their receivers with bunch and stack formations, especially deep in the red zone. Sanu’s 2-yard touchdown against the Packers perfectly illustrated their ability to create natural separation, as well as Ryan’s athleticism and mobility.

This will be by far the toughest challenge for the Patriots’ defense all season. Expect some press coverage to try to slow the timing of the receivers, and a lot of zone blitzing — disguising the pass rush to confuse the offensive line, but also dropping seven and eight into coverage and forcing Ryan to hold onto the football.

The Falcons have scored on their opening drive in eight straight games, so getting an early stop would be key for the Patriots. And preventing the deep ball to Jones has to be the top priority, so expect a lot of Cover 2.


Coordinator: Richard Smith.

Key players: DT Ra’Shede Hageman, DE Dwight Freeney, LB Vic Beasley, LB Deion Jones, CB Robert Alford, CB Jalen Collins, FS Ricardo Allen, SS Keanu Neal.

Personnel notes: The Falcons have lost LB Sean Weatherspoon (Achilles’), CB Desmond Trufant (pectoral), and DE Adrian Clayborn (biceps) to season-ending injuries. Jones, Collins, and Freeney have taken their places.

What to expect: Quinn was the Seahawks defensive coordinator for only two years (2013-14), but he is basically trying to reproduce the Seattle defense in Atlanta. The Falcons line up with a basic four-man front, play a lot of press coverage at cornerback, have a deep center fielder at free safety, and they don’t change up much from week to week. They align their defensive ends out wide, and freely substitute on the line to keep players fresh into the fourth quarter.


As Belichick noted, you can almost make one-for-one comparisons between Atlanta and Seattle: Neal is Kam Chancellor, Allen is Earl Thomas, Jones is Bobby Wagner, and so on.

The cornerbacks generally stick to one side — Alford on the left, Collins on the right — and either play press man-to-man coverage or fall back into Cover 3.

There are certainly some differences between the Falcons and Seahawks. The Falcons play much more man coverage, they will match up a cornerback on a particular receiver on occasion, the cornerbacks aren’t nearly as big and physical, and the Falcons blitz more. We saw it against the Packers, when the Falcons weren’t afraid to get aggressive on third down and bring Jones up the middle on a big blitz.

But the general concept is the same. We also watched the Seahawks game to make sure this wasn’t a one-game fluke for the Falcons, and they came out with the same defense.

The only problem: The Seahawks are much more talented than the Falcons, at least right now. The Falcons finished the regular season 25th in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed (25.4 per game), and reached the Super Bowl on the strength of their pinball offense.

The Falcons had better use these two weeks wisely, because Tom Brady has generally done very well against this type of “what you see is what you get” defense.

One big drawback for this scheme is that it’s easy for Brady to sniff out the coverage before the snap. If the Falcons trail a receiver going in motion, they’re in man. If they don’t trail him and simply slide the defense, they’re in zone. If a cornerback is not lined up opposite a wide receiver, or if the cornerback’s hips are turned toward the quarterback, they’re probably in zone.

And that’s when Brady goes to work at the line of scrimmage, audibling to a play that will work. Against zone, expect a lot of throws over the middle, as we saw against Pittsburgh. Against man, we’ll see crossers, slants, and pick plays.

In the Super Bowl two years ago, Brady finished with 328 passing yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Seahawks couldn’t stop him in the fourth quarter, as he went 13 of 15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

Brady faced a similar defense when the Patriots played the Jaguars in Week 3 of 2015. Former Jaguars coach Gus Bradley was the Seahawks defensive coordinator before Quinn and tried to replicate that defense in Jacksonville. But he didn’t have the personnel to pull it off, and Brady destroyed the Jaguars, throwing for 358 yards and two touchdowns in a 51-17 win. The Patriots had nine offensive possessions that game, and scored a touchdown or field goal on all nine.

The Falcons won’t be as bad as the Jaguars, but this game could get ugly. The Falcons don’t have much of a pass rush (outside of Beasley’s 15½ sacks), and their back seven is young and inexperienced.

Expect Brady to come out firing, and to use more of the up-tempo offense, as he did against Pittsburgh. Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Dion Lewis/James White all should have big days in the passing game.

Frankly, the Patriots probably can put up 40-plus on the Falcons, and the pressure will be on Ryan and the offense to keep pace with the Patriots.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.