We all have our theories about who is going to win Super Bowl LI between the Patriots and Falcons. I’ve been fairly open in believing that the Patriots are going to march up and down the field on the Falcons’ young defense and win by 10-plus points. But if I could accurately predict the future, I’d head to Las Vegas and work on my early retirement fund.
Former Bears and Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, now an analyst with Fox Sports, also has theories on Sunday’s game. I was one of seven writers invited to an informal film session with Wannstedt on Thursday at the Super Bowl, where he broke down a few key concepts from each team’s offense and defense and talked about how he believes the game will unfold.
Wannstedt, who also coached Darrelle Revis, Dion Lewis, and Jabaal Sheard when he was the coach at the University of Pittsburgh, believes Atlanta comes away with the win.
“I just think that their defense, that everyone’s underestimating, is going to make some plays,” Wannstedt said.
I didn’t agree with every bit of analysis, but it was interesting to watch coaches’ film and listen to someone who stood on an NFL sideline for 19 seasons and won a Super Bowl ring as a defensive coordinator. Here is how Wannstedt sees the game unfolding:
■ Wannstedt accidentally used a timely metaphor for the Patriots’ offensive game plan:
“I think [Bill] Belichick is going to take the air out of the football,” he offered, and instantly broke into a smile when he realized what he had said. “I mean, that he’s going to shorten the game. How do you shorten the game? First thought that comes to mind is you run the football.”
Wannstedt believes that Belichick’s goal will be to keep the ball away from Matt Ryan and minimize mistakes on offense. He believes that LeGarrette Blount will be heavily involved in the game plan, and that Tom Brady may not snap the ball until very deep into the play clock.
“I think the running backs in this game are going to be the difference. I don’t think it’s the quarterbacks,” Wannstedt said. “I think Bill thinks he’s got the veteran team, they’ve been here before. Atlanta will make 3-4 mistakes during the course of the game that gives New England the advantage. I think he’s thinking, ‘Let’s keep this tight, and they’ll make mistakes.’ ”
We’ll kindly disagree with Wannstedt that the quarterbacks won’t be the difference. Brady is always the difference, and we expect Brady to throw early and often in this one.
■ Wannstedt noted that the Falcons play an aggressive, one-gap style of defense up front. That means that the defensive linemen align themselves in front of the gaps between each offensive lineman, with the goal of using their speed to get upfield and into the backfield.
He believes the Patriots will counter with a lot of stretch runs to the outside with zone blocking, not straight-ahead runs with power blocking, because Blount isn’t a shifty running back. (Of course, Lewis is, and we believe he and James White will be major parts of the game plan.)
“Atlanta is going to try to get in the backfield and cause havoc, and let their linebackers run,” Wannstedt said. “It makes it very difficult for a running back to make a cut. You stop the back from getting a headstart.”
■ Wannstedt doesn’t believe the Patriots will run much play-action because the Falcons’ defensive linemen can get into the backfield and wreck the play before it unfolds.
Instead, since the Falcons play so much man-to-man coverage, Wannstedt believes the Patriots will try to spread them out, use stack and bunch formations to create separation for the receivers, and call quick passing plays for Brady.
“I guarantee you, first play of the game, you’re going to see a three-man stack,” Wannstedt said. “Bunches, stacks, moving guys to try to get matchups, because you’re anticipating man coverage, and that’s going be the drastic difference between this game and Pittsburgh, who God knows what they did on defense. That was insane.”
■ Wannstedt said he spoke to Revis recently about his experience playing for Belichick, and believes that the Patriots won’t use Malcolm Butler on Julio Jones much.
“Darrelle told me that the big thing with Bill, he said, ‘Very seldom did Bill put me on the best receiver,’ ” Wannstedt said. “He said, ‘What’s going to happen is they’re going to put Butler on [Mohamed] Sanu. I always had the second-best receiver.’ ”
Wannstedt expects a double team on Jones from another cornerback — probably Logan Ryan — and a safety or a linebacker.
“So, I think Sanu is going to be critical in this game,” Wannstedt said. “Because he’s probably going to be one on one a lot of times with Butler or whoever, and he’s going to have to come up big.”
We anticipate the Patriots playing more Cover-2 zone than man coverage to take away the deep plays and because they don’t have a good one-on-one matchup for Jones. A zone could also prevent long runs after the catch for the Falcons’ running backs, which are heavily involved in the passing game on checkdowns and screens. We shall see.
■ Wannstedt believes that the Falcons will aggressively blitz Brady but doesn’t expect the same from the Patriots. The Falcons don’t have great pass rushers outside of Vic Beasley, and Dwight Freeney is dealing with a calf injury, so if the Falcons want to get any pressure on Brady, it will probably have to come from a linebacker or defensive back.
But the Falcons have so many weapons, the Patriots won’t want to give Ryan many free one-on-one matchups or easy reads on a blitz. They will make him earn every yard, and also defend against play-action bootlegs and other deception plays that take advantage of Ryan’s sneaky athleticism.
“I don’t think Matt Ryan’s going to be under a whole lot of pressure,” Wannstedt said. “He’s a better athlete than we probably give him credit for. They do run the nakeds and boots with him. New England’s going to let you make a yard or two, but they’re not going to give you the big play.”
Goodell wasn’t at a loss for words
Roger Goodell’s news conference on Wednesday was dominated by Deflategate questions. But the NFL commissioner also fielded questions about several other topics, including the Chargers abandoning San Diego, the NFL’s potential foray into Las Vegas, medical marijuana, and more.
■ On the Chargers moving to Los Angeles after a stadium referendum failed in San Diego, Goodell reiterated that the fans share as much of the blame as owner Dean Spanos for moving the team.
“This isn’t something that came up a year ago or three years ago or five years ago,” Goodell said. “This is probably 15 years of an inability to get a stadium done, and we will all take a share of responsibility of that.”
“I’ve made this clear before — we were disappointed to have to leave San Diego,” Goodell added. “The NFL owners did something that was unprecedented, which [is] they gave another $100 million on top of the $200 million, so a total of $300 million, to help build the stadium in San Diego. That had never been done before, never been offered before. So, I think we worked very hard as a membership and as a league, and as Dean Spanos and his family in San Diego, to try to get that done, to try to be creative and try to learn solutions to getting the stadium built.”
It was a nice gesture from the NFL, but if the league truly cared about the fans, the 31 other owners could easily have contributed more money to keep the team in San Diego.
■ As far as Las Vegas is concerned, Goodell said the NFL is still a long way from approving a Raiders move, if it ever comes together. A vote could come at the annual owners meetings in March or later.
“We hadn’t made a determination about Las Vegas as an NFL market,” Goodell said. “The Raiders submitted an application. It’s one that we’re considering carefully, but there is a great deal of work to be done and there are several elements of that. Financing of the stadium is just one. Obviously, the stadium project itself, the depth of the market, all of those are things that we’ve studied over the last several months, but that will increase in intensity over the next month or so as we move forward in that process.”
Goodell also said moving to Vegas won’t compromise the league’s values as it relates to gambling, though he made sure to mention that the NFL is against team-sports gambling, not fantasy sports (although fantasy sports is gambling).
“As it relates to whether gambling can coexist with the NFL — in fact, it does,” he said. “It’s sponsored by governments. It exists throughout our world. What we have always said is we need to mae sure that there’s a fine line between team-sports gambling and the NFL.”
Of course, with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and investment bank Goldman Sachs backing out of the Raiders project, a move to Vegas is in serious doubt.
■ As far as speeding up the pace of the game to help improve TV ratings, Goodell mentioned using Surface tablets on the sideline to speed up instant replay, instituting a play clock between conversion attempts and the kickoff, and reducing commercial breaks from five to four per quarter.
“We think less is more in this area, and we can do it with the right balance that will improve the quality of the experience in the stadium or also on television,” Goodell said of commercials. “I expect to see a lot of those changes this offseason.”
■ Goodell also said that “ ‘Thursday Night Football’ is something that we are very committed to.” But the NFL might drop its requirement that all 32 teams must play on Thursday nights, which would eliminate some of the terrible matchups we’ve seen.
■ Goodell didn’t commit to removing marijuana from the league’s list of banned substances. Instead, he referenced the league’s collective bargaining agreement and how the owners and NFL Players Association need to sit down and negotiate a new drug policy.
The message to the NFLPA was clear: If you want any changes to the drug policy, it’ll cost you something in negotiations.
“We sent the union last spring several pages or lists of issues that we wanted to address as the league and as ownership and I expect — and we put on that list drug policy as one of those issues,” Goodell said. “We would love to engage, but I think what we’re seeing is a reason why we should all sit down and get at the table, begin negotiations.”
Lynch’s secret safe with them
The Falcons, Buccaneers, Titans, and Lions each tapped former Patriots scouts to run their front office. Now we can add the 49ers to that list, as they hired Adam Peters as their vice president of player personnel. Peters was most recently the Broncos’ college scouting director, but he was a Patriots scout from 2003-08. While John Lynch will be the general manager, Peters will really run the scouting department.
Lynch, meanwhile, was brutally honest with the 49ers before they hired him. The 49ers have had trouble with media leaks for years, and Lynch demanded that they keep his interest in the GM job quiet to test if they could keep a secret. The 49ers passed that test, as Lynch’s hiring came out of the blue.
Not only did Patriots president Jonathan Kraft finally confirm on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Felger and Massarotti” on Thursday that the team no longer employs Deflategate anti-heroes John Jastremski and Jim McNally, he also was emphatic that the combative Wells Report In Context isn’t going anywhere. “I don’t think it’s ever going to come down,” he said . . . Kyle Nelson, cofounder of social media valuation site MVPindex, said at a sports media summit in Houston last week that, much like Antonio Brown, “Tom Brady has a partnership with Facebook, which many people don’t know.” That would certainly make sense, given Brady’s exclusive use of Facebook over the years, and his recent foray into Instagram, which is now owned by Facebook. Don Yee, Brady’s agent, didn’t respond to a request for comment, and a member of the Facebook team didn’t confirm it, but didn’t deny it, either . . . Jason La Canfora of CBS reported that one of the Bears’ top priorities of this offseason will be trading for Jimmy Garoppolo, a prediction we made last August.
.@JasonLaCanfora says Garoppolo "is far and away (the Bears') top offseason priority." That was our prediction back in August pic.twitter.com/wFRJKtCZ5h— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) February 2, 2017
But don’t discount the 49ers, either. Soon-to-be coach Kyle Shanahan was part of the Browns’ contingent that loved Garoppolo when he was in the 2014 draft. The Browns’ front office was overruled by owner Jimmy Haslam, who wanted Johnny Manziel . . . Interesting column by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook this past week, urging the Steelers to trade Brown. Cook wrote that when Brown was frustrated with his usage, he “frequently ran the wrong patterns, either because of a lack of focus or — worse — intentionally. It happened a week ago in the AFC Championship.” . . . The most improved Patriot this season was right tackle Marcus Cannon, who hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 1 and was named second-team All-Pro. Bill Belichick gave me an interesting quote about Cannon a few weeks ago when I was working on a story on offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. “His training regimen has improved. He’s in great condition, his techniques are better,” Belichick said. “He’s always had talent, always had a lot of good plays, but I would say his consistency has certainly been higher this year. He’s been playing against a lot of good players, and honestly hasn’t gotten a lot of help.” . . . The Patriots have scored in 54 of 56 quarters with Brady at the helm this season, including 31 straight. The only quarters in which they didn’t score: the third quarter against San Francisco and the first quarter of the first Jets game.
Quote of the week
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, on if he would invite Brady to be an assistant coach on his staff after Brady retires:
“Head coach. For Tom Brady, I would give him a deep, long bow, shake hands, and I’ll coach quarterbacks for him.”
Lorenzo Alexander capped his renaissance season with an interception and the defensive MVP award in the Pro Bowl. After entering 2016 with only nine career sacks, the 10-year veteran registered 12.5 sacks and 50 tackles. The linebacker is only the fifth player 33 or older to reach those marks.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.