Although blowing a 28-3 lead in a 34-28 overtime loss to New England in Super Bowl LI might never be forgotten, the Falcons might clear a mental hurdle by ending a two-game losing streak and beating the Patriots on the road Sunday night.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel might have an even tougher challenge this time around, with the Patriots having tight end Rob Gronkowski in the lineup after back surgery caused him to miss the Super Bowl. Brady also has a speedy deep threat now in former New Orleans Saint Brandin Cooks.
Two coaches who already faced the Patriots this season broke down what to expect from New England's offense. The coaches asked to remain anonymous.
"They can go no-huddle. That’s a concern just from a communication standpoint on defense with trying to get aligned and making calls. And I actually think they run the ball really well. They rely on Brady, but they can run.
"I think the underneath pass game, for years, has been very consistent in terms of identifying mismatches and trying to isolate your personnel one-on-one. They run a lot of option routes. What I mean by that is basically if you try to play them in man or zone, they’re going to option off your leverage. And they really like to work the inside receivers, the slot receivers, the No. 2s and No. 3s. They like to work those guys underneath, whether it’s [Danny] Amendola or Gronk. The running backs are like receivers.
"Cooks gives them a vertical threat, and an underneath matchup issue as well. He’s so quick underneath but has that speed element to take the top off. That’s something that they’re trying to do a little more; stretch the field vertically.
"How do you defend Gronk? It depends on your personnel. If you have a big safety or a big [line]backer with length, then you have a shot to get a body on him and defend him one-on-one. But I think you’ve got to find a way to double him. If you don’t have the personnel to match up, you’ve got to try to double him, especially when you get into the red zone. Brady will just throw a jump ball, and Gronk will just box you out and catch it. In the red zone, they put Gronk on the backside of a 3-by-1 [receiver formation] and isolate the defender.
"You’ve got to know where No. 28 [running back James White] is. [Chris] Hogan doesn’t get credit. He’s a really good route-runner. He’s tough. He’s consistent. You can rely on him. He’s got good hands. He makes plays. He doesn’t get you beat. He’s like one of the possession-type guys who understands football and gets open. He understands leverage. He’s not a quick underneath guy. He’s not as big as the old-school [Ed] McCaffrey, but he’s like that.
"On the offensive line, I think Nate Solder has been struggling a little bit, the left tackle.
"Brady, he’s seen it all in terms of pressures, fronts, coverages. It’s hard to get a bead on him. It’s hard to trick and fool those guys. In my studies of him, there’s been nothing that you can legitimately say has been a tip or key to what’s coming, other than some formations. But one week, they could be in complete empty and then the next week, they could be in two-back, 22 personnel.’’
"What they’re good at is they’re so precise at simple things. There’s no room for an error when you’re the defender. When they have option routes, they’re on the money. They don’t do stupid things.
"They run screens and they’re really successful with them. It’s the best I’ve seen their linemen with screens. They don’t waste time with guys who are rushing. They just go right to the linebacker, find them really quick. You don’t see their linemen out in space looking for guys to block. They know the guys to block.
"The only way to beat them: Of course you have to score, but you have to have a great front seven that can get after Tom. If you don’t get after Tom, he’s so precise that he’ll just beat you. It don’t give a s--- if you hold them to 1 yard rushing, Tom will beat you. If you get two more or sacks against them and you disrupt him and have a bunch of hurries, that’s the only way you can beat that kid."