FOXBOROUGH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Football cliche — and history — tell us that defense wins championships. It has certainly been a key part of the New England Patriots’ dynastic success in the Super Bowl over the years. Though head coach Bill Belichick’s team is known for the Tom Brady-led offense, the defense was critical to the title runs in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
Certainly, New England’s last title came in large part thanks to cornerback Malcolm Butler’s gave-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX.
Still, much of the two weeks of hype leading up to Super Bowl LI in Houston will focus on the glamour of the Brady-led No. 3 scoring attack taking on Matt Ryan’s No. 1 Falcons scoring offense. But, it’s really how New England’s No. 1 scoring defense matches up with Ryan, Julio Jones and the full complement of Atlanta playmakers that could key the Patriots’ drive for a fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Malcolm Butler (21)
Historically, the No. 1 defense has taken on the No. 1 offense five times in the Super Bowl and won four of the battles.
It’s up to coordinator Matt Patricia’s Patriots defense – one that’s played the disrespect card with a chip on its shoulder all season – to figure out a way to stop an offense that cruises into NRG Stadium.
“Obviously with the quarterback position, Matt Ryan, and then Julio Jones and all the skill players that they have, they have tremendous dynamic weapons,” Patricia said as the Patriots began preparations for their biggest challenge of the season. “But Julio Jones is just, to me – we saw him a couple of years ago and studied him. He’s probably just one of the most dynamic players in the league. I usually don’t wind up comparing him to other people; I wind up comparing other people to him just because of his skill set and his ability. The things that he does for them and what he can do is he does a great job of moving around into different positions.
“Coach (Kyle) Shanahan puts him in different spots. He’ll try to get him working different positions to get a matchup that he likes, or a particular formation that gives the defense problems, and then they’ll really use him in a variety of ways. He can run underneath routes, he has great speed, he has great hands, he has great body control, and he’s very, very strong.”
Jones had nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC title game. During the regular season he piled up 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns despite missing two-plus games to a toe injury.
“A bigger corner, smaller corner, whatever it is, he can push on the (defensive backs), lean and be able to play physical at the line of scrimmage, plus physical downfield with them, and still come up with the ball,” Patricia continued. “He does a great job of tracking the ball in the air, can go up and high-point it and get it. He’s got great hands and like I said, does a great job after the catch. Just his ability to get the ball, get vertical into the defense towards the end zone, stiff-arm a defender, break a tackle, run away from guys, it’s just he’s such a dynamic player in that aspect that he can give you a lot of problems.”
Jones is far from the only weapon for Ryan to turn to. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman aren’t just threats on the ground, but the duo combined for more than 80 receptions.
“With this offense, what they’ve been able to do, with as much attention that goes into the passing game, rightfully so, it’s allowed them to run the ball extremely well,” Patricia said of Freeman and Coleman.
“They do a great job up front blocking. Alex Mack is in the middle there and he kind of controls everything. They do a great job of kind of identifying the fronts and getting the ball run through, I’ll call it the space of the defense, and both of these backs have an explosive ability to see the scene, get downhill quickly, get into the defense quickly. They run with good pad level, good body control, very good short-space quickness, and then some long speed too or speed you’d be able to get outside if you don’t have the edge of the defense in a good force position.”
Both backs averaged well over four yards per carry while also contributing to the passing game. In addition to his 1,079 yards rushing, Freeman added 54 catches and scored 13 total touchdowns while Coleman averaged an astonishing 13.6 yard per catch on his 31 receptions. He added 11 combined touchdowns.
“It’s a one-two punch. They both have some good power. There are some slight differences between the two and some quickness and some short space stuff,” Patricia added. “They read the blocking scheme very well. Atlanta does a great job of just kind of running their runs. They practice the particular running style, the stretch game that they run. They do a good job of creating separation of the defense both horizontally and vertically, so as those backs take those angles and really get the defense to run kind of in a sideways manner, they open up those holes where these guys, they stick that foot in the ground and they just come downhill and they hit that thing at 100 miles per hour.
“That’s very difficult to defend, especially if the front may be a little bit light, depending on what you’ve got to put on the coverage aspect of it to handle the passing game.”
History says Patricia and his No. 1 defense may be in good position heading into the Super Bowl challenge of Ryan and the No. 1 scoring Falcons. But it won’t be easy.