As everyone knows by now, the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in Super Bowl 51 by erasing early deficits of 21-0 and 28-3, thus adding one more Super Bowl victory to their legacy. The rich get richer. After watching the game live, then again on replay via NFL’s Game Pass, it’s still hard to believe that the Patriots were able to pull off their incredible comeback. Up by two scores early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons should have walked off the field that night as champions. What the heck happened? With the benefit of hindsight, here are two crucial fourth-quarter plays that paved the way for the Falcons’ defeat.
Elandon Roberts kept Devonta Freeman from breaking the game open with a touchdown-saving tackle.
As Matt Ryan receives the snap, Patriots’ linebacker Elandon Roberts falls back into coverage to help double-team Julio Jones, who is running down the middle of the field. While trying to run with and cover Jones, Jones gives Roberts a little push and Roberts falls.
Ryan dumps the ball off to a wide open Freeman, and Freeman gobbles up yards before anyone threatens him. Finally, someone steps up to tackle Freeman. Freeman makes him miss with a nifty little hip fake and has one man left to beat, a defender who is actually pretty well blocked.
Freeman appears headed for glory (the red circle points out the downfield block), but out of nowhere, Elandon Roberts, the same Elandon Roberts who was on the ground far away from the play, has the desire to not only pursue Freeman, but he has the speed to gain ground and tackle Freeman. Fine display of hustle, Mr. Roberts. Well done. This is how everyone should play defense. (Who wouldn’t have loved to sit in the film room while the Patriots’ defensive coaches reviewed this play to hear their comments?)
Trey Flowers sacked Matt Ryan to push the Falcons out of comfortable field goal range.
Arguments will continue on for several years as to whether or not the Falcons should have run the ball three straight times after Julio Jones’ superhuman catch put them in field goal range, but people should not discount the equally superhuman effort by Patriots’ defensive lineman Trey Flowers surging through two offensive lineman to sack Matt Ryan. Flowers and fellow defensive lineman Alan Branch execute a little twist stunt: Flowers cuts inside to attack the A gap (between the center and guard), while Branch loops around Flowers to his left.
The Falcons appear to have this handled as the center and guard block Flowers, and Branch doesn’t generate a lot of push in the beginning, so he doesn’t require anyone’s attention at the moment.
As soon as Branch got a little closer, though, the guard released Flowers to Alex Mack so that he can block Branch, who will never get close enough to threaten Ryan.
The blue circle shows Branch’s position – let’s just say he wasn’t stressing the offensive line, but Atlanta’s guard chose to release Flowers at this point.
Huge mistake! Clearly, Flowers was the sack threat – he lead the Patriots team in sacks. Branch’s sack tally for this season: 1.5. This doesn’t even take into account that Alex Mack played the Super Bowl with a broken leg. Wouldn’t the default in pass protection be to help they guy with the broken leg at all times; especially, when he’s blocking the best pass rusher for the other team? Mack’s leverage was broken as soon as the guard released his block to focus on the non-threatening Branch; as a result, Flowers had the inside rushing lane to the passer. There’s no way Mack could hold off Flowers.
Matt Ryan was sacked.
Matt Ryan put up gaudy numbers this year and played well enough to earn MVP honors, but on this play, he didn’t exactly help out his offensive line or his team, because he had options to get rid of the ball before taking the sack. The image below is another view of the play, but with the receivers and their approximate routes. (Well, all of the receivers except for the one at the top of the image.) The Patriots player circled in blue is Jabaal Sheard, who does a pretty good job covering Freeman, but really, how was this not Ryan’s first read? Sheard is a defensive lineman trying to cover Devonta Freeman.
Instead, Ryan eyed Julio Jones, who as usual, was double-covered.
Ryan to Freeman now, right? Nope, he’s still locked on Julio.
Maybe throwing the ball to Freeman was a bit risky. Pass protection is breaking down, so how about throwing to Mohamed Sanu? (Nope)
How about stepping up to the left to avoid the rush or just get rid of the ball? (Nope)
Unfortunately for Falcons fans, Ryan stepped right into Flowers and took a sack. The one thing he should have never let happen (other than throwing an interception). While it’s so easy to blame Ryan for this, and he deserves some of the blame; however, do not forget that these images are snapshots taken during a play that probably only took around three seconds to unfold. In other words, no one should discount Trey Flowers’ strength, quickness, and leverage which allowed him to get to Ryan so fast.
While we fans who hate the Patriots like to make jokes about Bill Belichick wielding Sith Lord powers by tricking coaches into calling dumb plays, the fact is the Patriots win because they execute the required number of plays to win the game, and this hurts…so..so..bad.
Congratulations, New England – I still “hate” your team.