Sports

How the Atlanta Falcons Won Super Bowl LI

Here's how Matt Ryan and company can defeat the New England Patriots and pull off Atlanta's first Super Bowl win.
February 1, 2017, 6:36pm
Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Many publications will preview the Super Bowl. Some will look at stats, some will look at play diagrams, and some will look at more obscure factors. VICE Sports goes to the future and looks at how this year's Super Bowl winners got it done. So here's why the Atlanta Falcons won. (You can read about the alternate future timeline in which the New England Patriots win here.)

Atlanta was able to run on the Patriots like no other team

New England enjoyed sparkling run defense coming into the Super Bowl. They finished fourth in the regular season in run defense DVOA, a statistic that measures effectiveness on a play-by-play basis and adjusts for defenses. We all thought that their domination of the injured Le'Veon Bell and Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game—20 carries for 54 yards—was a sign they were getting even better. It turns out that was just a one-week fluke.

Read More: How the New England Patriots Won the Super Bowl

Because Atlanta's unheralded offensive line, keyed by a strong performance at center by Browns refugee Alex Mack, mauled the Patriots at the point of attack, New England was never really able to get in comfortable down-and-distance situations on defense. This led to two problems. One, New England never found an answer for Atlanta's two-tight-end looks on second- or third-and-short, assuring a very high third-down conversion percentage.

Two, as the Patriots tried to seize control of the run game by getting closer to the line, Atlanta was able to isolate their play-action game on some of New England's weaker secondary defenders. Atlanta ran play-action more than any other team this year in the regular season, and New England's inability to stop the run made it as effective as ever on Sunday. Safety Patrick Chung got lost on a few play-action passes, only to see Austin Hooper run right by him for easy, huge gains.

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The Patriots didn't do poorly against quarterback Matt Ryan, and gave him some different looks on third down to force a few three-and-outs. But without stopping the run, they couldn't really force him to make any tough throws. And that meant lots of Atlanta points.

Nobody was able to contain Vic Beasley

The Patriots have a great offensive line, and Atlanta's pass rush had been more middling than great this year. The Falcons ranked 24th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Nevertheless, a huge game out of star edge rusher Vic Beasley wrecked New England's timing.

Beasley finished the regular season with a league-leading 15.5 sacks, but his sacks came in spurts, with 10.5 taking place in just four regular-season games. Against the Patriots, Beasley was able to pressure Tom Brady early and often, forcing miscues and underthrown balls.

Because of the adjustments the Patriots made to stop Beasley, the less-talented Atlanta front line was able to find one-on-one matchups it could win. Jonathan Babineaux was able to shoot some gaps late in the game. They were able to get pressure up the gut on blitzes and force Brady to ask his mediocre receiving corps to make plays.

With Rob Gronkowski out, the Patriots had a good passing attack, not a great one. Forcing receivers to make contested catches and not giving them easy yardage was a big reason why Atlanta was able to hold New England to field goal attempts in their red zone visits.

Vic Beasley had plenty to smile about. Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons defense played fundamental football

There's no real way to stop Brady forever, of course. He's going to make some amazing plays and get his. It comes with the territory when you're facing a star quarterback. Atlanta's defensive blueprint is much like Seattle's, which plays a lot of zone coverage and relies on team speed to catch up to ball carriers and receivers.

However, only six teams finished with more broken tackles on defense than the Falcons, per Sports Info Solutions' charting. This team is fast, but it is not particularly good at tackling. Even the defensive line has had issues with it this year, and those kinds of errors can keep a good offensive drive alive. The best way to get big plays against Atlanta in the regular season was simply to find slot corner Brian Poole and first-round safety Keanu Neal, then try to match a shifty player up against them to gain some missed-tackle yardage.

The Patriots, on the other hand, forced the fifth-most broken tackles among offenses. LeGarrette Blount alone was good for 48 of them, per Sports Info Solutions. Combine Blount with that defensive front for the Falcons, and you can see why this was a cause for concern coming into the game.

But the Falcons were able to play smart, assignment-sound football. They didn't create many big plays, but they were able to make the Patriots march slowly. In a game with lots of offense, that was enough to make a difference, and that's how the Atlanta Falcons pulled off the franchise's first Super Bowl win.

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