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Just Finish: how the Patriots’ defense plan to stop the Falcons

RealSport spoke with several members of the New England defense to find out how they intend to stop Matt Ryan and the Falcon offense


When, in the future, fans look back at the history of the National Football League, the Brady-Belichick era will almost certainly be recognised as the greatest dynasty the game produced. It seems almost redundant to say it at this point, but it’s as close to an undeniable truth something as subjective as sports can produce.

If there remains any naysayers when it comes to the brilliance of the New England Patriots under Belichick, then those final voices of doubt could be silenced forever with a Patriots win on Sunday. Making their third Super Bowl appearance in six seasons – following their sixth straight AFC Championship Game appearance – the Patriots have a chance to earn their fifth Super Bowl since Belichick came to town. That would give Tom Brady his fifth Super Bowl ring, tying Charles Haley as the only people to have earned five rings as players. It would give Bill Belichick his seventh Super Bowl ring, tying Neal Dahlen for the most rings any individual has ever won.

To win those rings for Brady and Belichick, though, the Patriots need to overcome the rising Falcons, who boast both the league’s best offense, and its 2016 sack leader.  It won’t be an easy task, but if there’s any team you’d never happily bet against when it comes to the Super Bowl, it’s the Patriots.

Big game experience

Part of the reason why that’s true, is just how much Super Bowl experience there is on the roster. Not including players on injured reserve, there are 22 active Patriots players who were part of that Super Bowl 49 championship team. Nine of those 22 have experience of multiple Super Bowls.

Dont’a Hightower shared some of the lessons he learned from Super Bowl 49. “The worst and best thing you can do is treat this game as more than it is… there’s a lot of stuff that comes up and comes around that you want to try and avoid and stay away from, but at the end of the day, it’s still football.”

Not treating the game any differently is a lesson Hightower has learnt from his coaches – not just Belichick, but his college coach Nick Saban, under whom Hightower won to NCAA National Championship rings, as well: “one of the reasons they’ve been so successful [is] they know how handle themselves and they know how to handle all of this.”

Patrick Chung, who previously played in Super Bowls 46 and 49, said that the game hasn’t lost any of its sparkle for him. “It’s the Super Bowl – I’m a little more chill, I know the process and stuff, but yeah, I’m definitely happy be here. For anyone to say they’re not happy to be here, I don’t know what you’re smoking!”

Another Patriot with two Super Bowl appearances under his belt, Rob Ninkovich, said his familiarity with the hoopla surrounding the game has led him to take a different attitude. “I’m having more fun. Earlier in my career I was afraid to say anything; now I’m 11 years in, I’ve really been able to open up. Obviously, I can’t say everything I want to, but it’s fun, I’m enjoying it, and it’s great to be here with my teammates and just take it in and absorb the experience.”

So the Patriots may have the advantage in Super Bowl experience on the roster, but that will only take the Patriots so far. As far as precedent goes, history appears to be on the Patriots’ side, as we detailed earlier this week – but the Patriots aren’t taking the Falcons lightly.

Weapons galore

One of the reasons the Falcons’ offense has been as explosive as it has is the sheer number of weapons they have. “You’ve got to make sure you know where everyone is at all times,” Chung told RealSport. “It’s not just Julio [Jones]; it’s [Mohamed] Sanu, it’s [Taylor] Gabriel, it’s the running backs, and you’ve got Matt Ryan throwing them the ball. There’s some dangerous people on the field. You’ve got to do the best you can to slow them all down.”

While Chung may give equal credence to all of the Falcons’ offensive weapons, fellow safety Devin McCourty puts one above the rest. “We all need to know where Julio Jones is,” McCourty told us, “and that’s no discredit to any of their other guys, we need to be prepared and everyone needs to play well – but you need to know where that guy is every play, he’s that dangerous. We’ve talked about it all week, and that’ll be a big task.”

As big a task as it might be, there’s another aspect of the offense that the Patriots need to deal with first: “sometimes you get so enamoured with that great passing offense that they have, that you don’t think about how great they are running the football,” defensive end Chris Long told us. “For us, it’s handle [the run] first and everybody do their job.” Hightower agrees: “It’s very important [to stop the run], anytime you can make an offense one-dimensional it really helps. They’ve got two great running backs and they do a hell of a job, whether they’re running out wide, or putting them out and throwing them the ball. Awareness is going to be key, we have to be aware of where those RBs are at all times, because they rely on those guys to get the ball.”

That wariness of the twin running back attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman seems to be a shared theme throughout the defense. “They’re just a very explosive team with the running backs, not only just rushing but also catching the ball out the backfield. It’s going to take everybody. It’s going to take every guy on that field.”

One aspect of the Falcons’ offensive success that perhaps doesn’t get as much attention as it should is their offensive line, which remarkably saw the same five guys start every game this season. That’s not something that’s escaped the Patriots’ notice.

“They’re very good”, Ninkovich told us, “they’ve played every game together, and when you’ve got guys that are that experienced, their communication is really, really good. They know what the guy next to them is going to do so it’s definitely going to be a challenge.” Long is of a similar opinion: “That continuity on the OL is so rare in the NFL, to have so many starters start every game. I think the communication part they’ve got down, and they play well together. It’s a great scheme and there’s great players all round – there’s no weakness on that OL.”

Just finish

It’s clear that the Patriots defense are well aware of the challenge that the Falcons pose. Still, that Super Bowl experience that so many of the Patriots players have may yet be the deciding factor. When we asked McCourty what was the biggest thing he took away from their Super Bowl victory two years ago, he replied: “just being prepared to go out there and play 60 minutes. Those two teams battled the whole game, and it came down to the last play. I kinda expect the same thing – a true battle for 60 minutes.”

It’s something Hightower carries with him too. “There was a time in [Super Bowl 49], right before they got down on the five-yard box, and every one of us had to finish. We could have easily given up the stop right there to the ball carrier, but we didn’t. We fought to the end, backs to the wall, and we came out victorious. If that’s the case this Sunday, we’re going to win this.”

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Gur Samuel

Hi! I'm Gur and I'm RealSport's Editor-in-Chief. I'm also currently the site's tennis editor, and contribute to our NFL, wrestling and Formula 1 coverage as well. I'm also an NFL analyst for CNN International and contributor to SB Nation, and have contributed to, or been interviewed by, various print, broadcast and online media, including Sky News, the BBC, Al Jazeera, Mail Online, ABC, NBC, CBS, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and Yahoo! Sports.

Just Finish: how the Patriots’ defense plan to stop the Falcons

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