On Monday, Bill Belichick scolded anyone who expected the Patriots to pick up this season where they left off in February and won the Super Bowl.
“Each year, you start all over again,” Belichick said.
The same holds true for the Falcons. The big Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots is Sunday night in Foxborough, and while many of the same faces remain from eight months ago, the Falcons have a few noteworthy changes, and are not playing like the team we saw in Houston.
Steve Sarkisian replaces Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator. Marquand Manuel replaces Richard Smith as defensive coordinator. Receiver Mohamed Sanu has a hamstring injury and likely is not playing. Dwight Freeney, who terrorized Nate Solder in the Super Bowl, is gone.
And the Falcons are having some issues right now. Matt Ryan has thrown nearly as many interceptions in the last three games (six) as he did all of last season (seven). The defense is getting gashed in the run game, and has created just one turnover in the past three games.
The 3-2 Falcons have lost two games in a row, with a bye sandwiched in between. They had an ugly loss at home to Buffalo, then suffered a humiliating home loss to Miami on Sunday, losing 20-17 after holding a 17-0 lead at halftime.
Against the Dolphins, the Falcons self-destructed. The Falcons committed pass interference on third and 9, had an interception wiped out by a dumb roughing-the-passer penalty, went backward after getting into field goal range, flubbed a long snap on a punt to give the Dolphins great field position, and finally, threw an interception in the final minute of the game despite being in position to kick the game-tying field goal.
Fearless prediction: The Falcons’ inability to protect a lead might get talked about once or twice this week.
But let’s not forget the Falcons still are a dangerous team that basically had their way with the Patriots for three quarters of Super Bowl LI.
To get a better grasp of what to expect Sunday night, we flipped on the All-22 video of the Dolphins-Falcons game, and cross-referenced it with our notes from the Super Bowl:
Coordinator: Steve Sarkisian, first year
Key skill players: QB Matt Ryan, RB Devonta Freeman, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Julio Jones, WR Taylor Gabriel, TE Austin Hooper.
Personnel notes: Sanu might be replaced by Justin Hardy. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder returned to the lineup last week after missing two games with a concussion.
What to expect: The Falcons still possess the same elements that gave the Patriots fits in the Super Bowl.
They have a tremendous amount of speed among Freeman, Coleman, Jones, Gabriel, Hardy and Marvin Hall. They hit the Dolphins for some big plays in a hurry — a 44-yard run by Freeman on a simple toss left . . .
. . . a 20-yard run by Coleman on an outside stretch play, and a beautiful 40-yard touchdown for Hall on a play-action fake.
Jones doesn’t have a touchdown, but he’s still one of the top three most dangerous receivers in the game. This game is why the Patriots paid so much money for cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The Falcons’ offense looks similar under Sarkisian. They use both the zone-blocking and power-blocking techniques, and have variety with their formations and personnel. They can spread you out with four and five wide, but they also love using the two-tight end sets.
Hooper, who has 242 yards and a touchdown, caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl and was a tough matchup for Patriots safety Patrick Chung. The Falcons will roll Ryan out of the pocket and take advantage of his athleticism with play-action bootlegs. The Patriots’ defensive ends have to be very disciplined.
The Falcons also use a decent amount of pre-snap motion and – gulp – bunch formations, which have confounded the Patriots’ defense all season. The Patriots’ defensive communication definitely will be tested.
The Falcons move quickly with tempo, too. They hit the Dolphins with the 44-yard run by Freeman, then a 9-yard run by Freeman, then a 6-yard touchdown run by Coleman. The Patriots know that feeling all too well.
But Ryan seems off compared with last season. His yards per attempt have dropped from 9.3 to 8.0. After throwing 38 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 2016, he’s on pace for 19 and 19.
Against Miami, he wasn’t seeing the field well. On one play, he hit Hooper for a 10-yard gain, but he didn’t see Freeman wide open in the flat right in front of a blitzing defender.
On a third and 10, Ryan was able to draw defensive pass interference on a throw to Jones, but had a much easier throw and conversion to a wide open receiver on the other side of the field.
The Falcons kept getting behind the chains in the second half, sabotaging their drives with penalties, sacks and poor execution. And in the final minute of the game, Ryan tried to squeeze a pass into a tight window, and Miami’s Reshad Jones came down with a tipped interception. It wasn’t a terrible throw, but it was an unnecessary risk when the Falcons were already in position to tie the score.
Ryan looked like he just wanted to get rid of the football quickly, and didn’t have much confidence in his offensive line. Left tackle Jake Matthews committed a bad holding call in the fourth quarter to move the Falcons out of field goal range, just like he did in the Super Bowl. Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake had a key sack two plays later in which the offensive line neglected to block him. Right tackle Schraeder struggled with speed rushes all game.
Then again, the Dolphins have a much more explosive and dynamic front than the Patriots. Miami blitzed a decent amount and kept Ryan on his toes. The Patriots don’t have the speed up front to consistently disrupt the quarterback, and have been a mess in the secondary.
On paper, it seems as if the Patriots should just put Gilmore on Jones, and maybe Jonathan Jones on Gabriel (Malcolm Butler did not handle him well in the Super Bowl). But I’m not sure the Patriots have enough speed at cornerback to match up with the Falcons’ speed man to man. The Patriots might be better off playing more zone coverage to minimize the communication issues before the snap, and blitzing Ryan frequently and creatively throughout the game to keep him guessing. If they don’t get in Ryan’s face, this could be a long night for the defense.
Coordinator: Marquand Manuel, first year
Key players: DT Dontari Poe, DT Grady Jarrett, LB Deion Jones, LB De’Vondre Campbell, CB Robert Alford, CB Desmond Trufant, S Keanu Neal.
Personnel notes: CB Jalen Collins is serving a 10-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, replaced by CB Brian Poole. LB Vic Beasley played 26 snaps last week after missing two games with a hamstring injury, with rookie first-round pick Takkarist McKinley playing more in Beasley’s absence. DL Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee) is likely to miss his fourth straight game.
What to expect: We know what to expect from this defense. They use Ricardo Allen as the single-high safety (the Earl Thomas role), and either play man to man or Cover 3 zone coverage.
In the Super Bowl, it was mostly man coverage, as they had the speed and physical advantage over the Patriots’ receivers. It worked, until they ran out of gas.
The Falcons use a wide alignment on the defensive line and attack the quarterback at tough angles. Jarrett had a monster game against the Patriots’ interior offensive line in the Super Bowl (three sacks), and Poe is a handful as well. They also disguise their pass rush well. On one play against the Dolphins, the Falcons didn’t show blitz until right before the snap, and got a clean run at Jay Cutler.
Freeney is gone, but Brooks Reed, Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby, Beasley, and McKinley are all a handful. The Patriots’ offensive line played better against the Jets, but it has struggled for most of the season, and the Falcons will be a tough challenge.
And the Falcons are fast, of course, particularly linebackers Jones and Campbell. They are big-time playmakers, whether they are blitzing the quarterback, chasing down running backs or dropping into zone coverage. Neal is a thumper and should have a great matchup against Rob Gronkowski, who didn’t play in the Super Bowl. The Patriots added Brandin Cooks, but don’t have Julian Edelman this time around, and still will struggle with the Falcons’ speed on defense.
But the Dolphins were able to move the chains and grind out the clock against the Falcons, holding the ball for 29:32 of 45 minutes over the final three quarters. The Dolphins only had 289 total yards and didn’t have a play over 18 yards, but Cutler was efficient, hitting receivers over the middle in zone coverage, and the Dolphins wore down the Falcons with power football.
The Dolphins used two- and three-tight end sets throughout the game, and Jay Ajayi was a freight train, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries (5.0 average).
Ajayi had three separate runs of 18 yards, including on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins driving for the go-ahead field goal. The Dolphins also implemented a creative use of play-action, resulting in a huge coverage breakdown by the Falcons and a walk-in touchdown for Jarvis Landry, who wasn’t supposed to be the intended receiver on the play.
In the Super Bowl, the Falcons rarely blitzed and instead dropped an extra defender in the middle of the field to combat the Patriots’ short-passing offense with Edelman. But the Patriots are now a vertical passing offense with Cooks in and Edelman out, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Falcons bring a lot of heat to force Brady to get the ball out quickly, before the deep passes develop. The Patriots also could struggle to get separation off the line of scrimmage against the Falcons’ speedy and physical defenders.
As for the Patriots, they should copy the Dolphins’ strategy and play smash-mouth football. The offensive line had its best run-blocking game of the season against the Jets, and the running back position might be the Patriots’ best weapon, with Dion Lewis, James White and Mike Gillislee all playing well (Rex Burkhead might come back, too).
The Patriots should try to pound, pound, pound, which should open up the field for play-action, keep the Falcons’ pass rush off Brady’s back, and keep the ball away from the Falcons offense.