Globe readers know we always do a comprehensive film breakdown of both sides of the ball a day after each Patriots game.
But Super Bowl LI was special, and we’re taking a special approach to this one.
The Patriots’ epic 34-28 comeback in overtime against the Falcons will go down as one of the greatest games ever played. The game featured 148 total snaps, (tied for second most in a Patriots game this season), and it took three days just to get through the film and handle other journalistic responsibilities.
It would be impossible to fit all our analysis into one column, especially with the Patriots running a season-high 99 plays on offense alone (including penalties and 2-point conversions).
As Tom Brady eloquently said after the game, “There was a lot of [expletive] that happened tonight.”
So we’re splitting it up this time. First, we are breaking down the Patriots’ offense vs. the Falcons’ defense. Then, we’ll break down the Patriots’ defense vs. the Falcons’ offense, plus special teams.
Here are our observations after watching (and rewatching, and rewatching) the tape:
■ The biggest adjustment in the second half for the Patriots, other than the Falcons simply running out of steam, was Brady’s ability to get the ball to the outside. The Falcons knew Brady loves to work the middle of the field with slants and crossing routes, and a big part of their game plan was dropping a linebacker (often De’Vondre Campbell) into the middle of the field.
With so much traffic in the middle, Julian Edelman had a difficult time catching the football (only five catches on 13 targets), and it took away the Patriots’ ability to run after the catch, which is a large part of their offense.
But this left the perimeter open, and Brady went to work with pinpoint precision on deep digs and out patterns. He hit Malcolm Mitchell five times for 63 yards in the second half, almost all on back-shoulder and dig throws (including a must-have 12-yarder on third and 11).
Brady hit Danny Amendola seven times for 65 yards in the second half, including a beautiful 14-yard out pattern on a dime in overtime.
And Brady hit Chris Hogan twice for 38 yards in the second half, including an 18-yard comeback along the sideline in overtime.
■ That out pattern to Amendola was lethal. In the fourth quarter, Brady hit Amendola for an easy 8 yards to the left side of the formation, then ran the same play on the next snap and hit Amendola for an easy 6-yard touchdown.
Jalen Collins didn’t do his homework, playing inside leverage on Amendola and giving Brady an easy throw for the score.
■ Although Brady forced the ball too much to Edelman at times, he did a great job of spreading the ball around. Six Patriots had between 57 and 110 yards receiving, and Brady got his third, fourth, and fifth receiving options involved. James White’s 14 catches and 110 yards were season highs. Amendola’s eight catches and 78 yards were season highs. Mitchell’s six catches were his second-most, and his 70 yards his third-most. Martellus Bennett’s five catches for 62 yards were the most in his last 10 games.
■ Let’s talk about the Falcons running out of gas, because it obviously played a huge role. Entering the game, the Falcons’ defense averaged 65.4 snaps per game (including postseason) and were on the field for 29:49 per game (not counting postseason). In the Super Bowl, the Falcons’ defense was on the field for 93 snaps (99 including penalties) and 40:28. The Patriots had four drives that lasted at least five minutes, and the Falcons had none. So even though the Patriots only scored 3 points in the first half, their 43 plays and 19 minutes of possession helped tire out the Falcons.
■ The Falcons’ top three cornerbacks, both safeties, and linebacker Deion Jones all played at least 90 snaps — and a majority of it in man coverage, chasing the Patriots’ receivers up and down the field. They were so gassed the Falcons switched to zone coverage at the end of the fourth quarter and overtime, and Brady chewed them up with passes underneath to White and sideline throws to Hogan, Mitchell, and Amendola.
■ The Falcons had nine defensive linemen play between 22 and 71 snaps, but the big guys still got tired. The Falcons blitzed on only five of Brady’s 73 drop-backs (including penalties), using a regular four-man rush on 61 passing plays and a three-man rush on seven. In the first half, we have the Falcons creating pressure — either a pressure, QB hit, or sack — on 18 of 32 passing plays (56.25 percent). In the second half, it was just six on 41 drop-backs (15 percent). Brady had more time to throw, and grew more comfortable and confident in the pocket as the game wore on.
■ The second-best adjustment the Patriots made was going away from LeGarrette Blount and bigger blocking sets, and instead spreading out the Falcons. The Patriots wanted to play keep-away and tried to establish the stretch run play with Blount, but Blount only rushed for 16 yards on eight carries in the first half, with six of those runs going for 2 yards or fewer.
Blount played 13 snaps in the first half and only four in the second half, as White (71 snaps) got by far the heaviest workload. Dion Lewis danced too much in the backfield to be successful, and only played 12 snaps before hurting himself on the final play in regulation. Fullback James Develin only played 10 snaps, blocking tight end Matt Lengel also played 10, and Cam Fleming played only four snaps as an extra offensive tackle.
Meanwhile, Hogan (97 snaps), Edelman (90), White (71), and Amendola (45) played season highs in snaps, and Mitchell (52) played his sixth-most.
■ The Patriots used a four-wide receiver set on 35 snaps, an empty backfield on 26, and a three-receiver set 19 times (note: We considered it a four-receiver set when Bennett was lined up as a slot receiver). In the second half, they used three or more receivers on 48 of 53 snaps, often using White as a receiver on the perimeter. Falcons cornerbacks Deji Olatoye, C.J. Goodwin and Collins couldn’t keep up with the Patriots’ speed at receiver.
■ Although Edelman had an inconsistent day catching the ball — we had him for two drops among his eight incompletions — he was tremendous as a blocker. He did a great job setting the edge for Blount on a 9-yard run on the Patriots’ first touchdown drive, in the third quarter.
Edelman cracked a linebacker to give White just enough space to squeeze across the goal line on the tying touchdown . . .
. . . then again delivered a huge crack-block to set the edge for White on the winning touchdown.
Edelman and Hogan also took out three defenders to allow Amendola to convert the 2-point conversion. And Mitchell held his block well on White’s winning touchdown.
■ White isn’t known for breaking tackles, and in fact went down on a shoestring tackle in the first half that could’ve gone for a big gain. But on the winning score, he took the initial contact at the 2-yard line, kept his feet churning and squeezed his way — barely — across the goal line.
■ The offensive line had a Jekyll and Hyde performance, likely because the Falcons wore down in the second half. The Falcons’ speed on the defensive line was especially tough for the Patriots to handle. Nate Solder might want to burn this tape, as he got abused by Dwight Freeney’s spin move (Brooks Reed got him a couple of times, too). Solder was decent in the run game, but we had him down for a whopping eight pressures, two hits, and two sacks.
Shaq Mason also had a rough game, allowing a run stuff, three pressures, a hit, and two sacks, getting plowed over by Grady Jarrett and Courtney Upshaw for sacks. Mason had so much trouble that his jersey was stained blue from the amount of time he spent on his back.
■ Although the Falcons didn’t blitz until the 21st snap of the game, they twisted and stunted all night long, and the Patriots struggled to pick them up — until the fourth quarter, when magically, everything fell into place. Jarrett was unblockable for much of the night, with his three sacks matching his total from the first 18 games this season (though one was a coverage sack). He also had three pressures and a QB hit. Freeney, meanwhile, had a sack, two hits and four pressures.
■ But credit where it’s due — on White’s tying touchdown run, Mason cleared out Tyson Jackson, Marcus Cannon, and Bennett double-teamed Vic Beasley, and Bennett also clipped Keanu Neal to create a hole for White to scamper through.
■ Obviously, the Falcons’ pressure got to Brady, as he seemed skittish in the pocket and rushed several throws in the first half. He could have had a huge catch-and-run to Edelman on a crossing route to the right side, but simply overthrew him.
And Brady never saw Robert Alford lurking behind a linebacker on a slant pass to Amendola. Alford waited until just the right moment to break on the throw, and had an easy catch and return for an 82-yard interception touchdown.
Freeney also was right in Brady’s face on that throw after plowing through Solder.
■ The Falcons did the Patriots a favor when they only rushed three defenders. Edelman’s 27-yard catch, Bennett’s 25-yarder, Amendola’s 17-yarder on fourth down, and Amendola’s 14-yard catch in OT were all against a three-man rush.
■ Brady was 4 for 4 for 39 yards against the five-man blitz, converting a third and 10 with a 16-yard pass to Hogan, and converting another third down thanks to a holding penalty on the Falcons’ secondary.
■ The Patriots almost had their Pete Carroll moment on the second-to-last play of the game, calling a play-action fade pass to Bennett on the goal line that was tipped away by Beasley.
Had Beasley tipped that pass up in the air and caught it on the rebound, the conversation today would be much, much different.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin