What past Super Bowls reveal about how Bill Belichick will attack Falcons' high-flying offense

Mike Petraglia
January 25, 2017 - 10:50 pm

How will Dont'a Hightower and Patriots punish the Falcons in Super Bowl LI? (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

These explosive Atlanta Falcons are not the Greatest Show on Turf. They don't have a K-Gun. But don't be surprised when the Patriots take the field in Houston on Feb. 5 with a game plan that will essentially treat them the same way Bill Belichick handled the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

The Patriots are masters of the game plan and Belichick is the chief architect.

By now, most football aficionados knows that his defensive game plan, as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, to stop the Jim Kelly "K-Gun" offense in Super Bowl XXV is in Canton in the Hall of Fame.

In that game, Belichick used two defensive linemen for most of the game while using four linebackers in the nickel and three linebackers in the dime. The idea? Jam and pound Buffalo receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton at the line of scrimmage and over the middle. But what about Thurman Thomas? Certainly, the Bills would see that and just hand off.

"We're going to let him run for 100 yards," Giants linebacker Carl Banks famously recalled Bill Belichick telling the greatest defense of its era.

Belichick dared Buffalo to give the ball to their cow bell running back. They didn't, not at first anyway. Buffalo finally did in the fourth quarter and would've won the game if it weren't for the original wide right from Scott Norwood.

Eleven years later, in his second year with the Patriots, Belichick was again assigned with the task of disrupting another epic offense.

Surely, Issac Bruce, Tory Holt, Ricky Proehl and Az Hakim would run up and down the Superdome turf, with Kurt Warner throwing the ball at will. And if the Patriots took away the receivers, obviously head coach Mike Martz would turn to the best all-purpose back in the league - Marshall Faulk.

In that game, Belichick had his defensive backs punish the Rams receivers at the line with the likes of Ty Law, Otis Smith, Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy getting after Bruce, Holt, Proehl and Hakim. Surely, Martz was aware of what Belichick did to Marv Levy just 11 years earlier and he would find a way to get the ball in the hands of Faulk.

Well, he did, sort of. Faulk ran the ball 17 times for 76 yards while catching four passes on four targets for 54 yards. That's 130 yards on just 21 touches. But the Rams ran 66 offensive plays. Why didn't Faulk get the ball more with such crazy production on so few chances?

Belichick came up with the perfect role for Willie McGinest. He assigned his hybrid linebacker to jam and cover the best back in the game, and for the most part, he was highly successful. He battered and bruised Faulk, even when the running back wasn't targeted on a play. 

Now, 15 years later, Belichick faces the most dynamic offense in the game once again. The Falcons have arguably the game's most dangerous receiver in Julio Jones. They have one of the very best No. 2 receivers in Mohamed Sanu. But what makes this Falcons team different and dangerous from the Bills and Rams is their tandem running back combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

"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," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "They do a great job up front blocking. [Center] 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. It's a one-two punch.

"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.

"Then there are certain situations with the backs and their quickness, they do a good job of setting up the defenders where the defenders may throw off to a particular side and these guys can dip in and dip back out. They have that speed and burst to kind of dip back out into space, and when they're in space is when they're the most dangerous. They create mismatches in tackling and just their center of gravity and the way they can really get low to the ground, it's pretty unique.

Freeman and Coleman are not just the 1-2 punch of running backs, they rank third and fifth, respectively in pass receptions. Based on what we've seen in Super Bowls XXV and XXXVI, it would seem logical to assume that Belichick is going to assign one of his hardest hitting linebackers to track a running back and punish them out of the backfield.

Hello, Dont'a Hightower. When Jabaal Sheard got out of the doghouse, it was thanks in large part to ability to drop into coverage against the Rams on Dec. 4. Belichick beamed about Sheard's impressive pass coverage that day. That might be something to consider come Feb. 5. Don't forget about Patrick Chung, who has covered the best opposing tight end all season. Belichick could throw a wrinkle that has his all-purpose DB on Coleman or Freeman in zone. Point is, anything is possible.

Matt Ryan, who has been in the MVP discussion with Tom Brady all season, finished just 40 yards shy of 5,000 yards passing. The Falcons have scored 40 or more six times, including a 44-21 win over Green Bay in the NFC championship. They've scored in the 30s seven other times, including a 36-20 win over the Seattle defense in the divisional round.

"Obviously with the quarterback position, Matt Ryan, and then Julio Jones and all the skill players that they have, they have tremendous dynamic weapons, 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," defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "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."

It'll be up to Patricia to anticipate the personnel calls of Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan before Shanahan heads off (probably) to Santa Clara to take over the 49ers.

"Coach Shanahan puts him in different spots," Patricia said of Jones. "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. 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. 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. He'll go vertical, he'll run the intermediate routes, he's very good at the top of the route, he does an unbelievable job of stemming and using his skill set to get separation at the top of the route in both man-to-man, and he does a great job of seeing zone coverage and sitting down. He and Matt Ryan have great chemistry where the route might be changed [because of] something that was called but because of the coverage, they've adjusted it and he's been able to work himself into open space and then Ryan will get him the ball. He's a great player."

Belichick certainly has respect for the way the Falcons were built by general manager Tom Dimitroff, his former director of college scouting from 2003-07.

"I go back a long way with Tom when his dad was a scout for me with the Browns and Tom was working in the organization when he was coming out of high school and into college in that kind of era," Belichick recalled. "But he's a football guy, so it's in the family. He works hard. He knows the game. He did a real good job for us with skill players, defensive backs, receivers, linebackers, running backs, things like that. I'd say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed, the team speed that the Falcons have."

Speed is something Belichick has proven, time and time again, he can handle on the biggest stage. His next masterpiece game plan will be on display for the world to see in Houston.