Jan 16, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (R) talks to outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) during the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
As the football world prepares for Super Bowl 51, we look toward analysis and predictions of the game. Up to the plate, are the defensive units of Atlanta and New England.
So, after 20 lovely weeks of football, we are finally under a week away from the main event; Super Bowl 51. As teams throughout the season regressed and progressed, we are now left with the two heavyweights of their respective conferences. The Atlanta Falcons are heading to Houston for their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Their last showing was in Super Bowl XXXIII, which ended in a disappointing 34-19 loss to the Denver Broncos back in 1999. The New England Patriots, however, have made the playoffs, along with Super Bowl appearances, a regular sighting since head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady took the helm in 2001.
We know of the superior offenses that each team possesses, but what about the defensive side of the ball? Who can create some havoc for the opposing offense, and have an impact that can turn the tides of Super Bowl 51?
Atlanta hasn’t held a dominant defense in a bit. To be more accurate, they haven’t been in the top-15 of the league defensively since 2011; where they placed 12th. Since then, Atlanta placed 24th, 28th, 32nd, 16th, and this year, 25th. Consistency isn’t in Atlanta’s résumé unless you want to argue that they are consistently bad on the defensive side of the ball. This postseason, the Falcons have allowed 20 and 21 points against the Seahawks and Packers. Their defense has stepped up its game at the right time of year, playing aggressively against two great offenses that the league has to offer.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have a unique defense, to say the least. They were first in the league in terms of points given up. This is a category they strive in, as New England has been top-ten in the league since 2012 in points allowed. From 2010-2014, the Pats were a bottom-ten team in the NFL looking at yards allowed per-game. They’ve turned that around greatly these past two seasons, ranking ninth (’15) and eighth (’16) since. This postseason, New England has allowed 16 and 17 points in their first two games. Given the Houston Texans didn’t hold a great offense, it’s very impressive to see the dominance that the Patriots held against a prolific Pittsburgh Steelers offense.
With all of this being said, let’s head into who I believe will create the biggest impact defensively in Super Bowl LI.
Next: 6. Logan Ryan, Cornerback, New England Patriots
Jan 14, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan (26) returns an interception against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
6. Logan Ryan, Cornerback, New England Patriots
Now it’d be easy to put Malcolm Butler as an impact player in this game. Will he be? Absolutely. Being the number one corner that has to go against arguably the best receiver in the game (Julio Jones), is a very impactful situation. But, Logan Ryan has to be able to help tame the beast that is the Falcons’ receiving corps. His second-half of the season has been outstanding, as Ryan ended up leading the team in total and combined tackles. The fourth-year cornerback has seemed his most comfortable this year, as he completes the trio of Rutgers grads to man the Patriots secondary.
Ryan tallied his first career postseason interception in the Wild Card round, picking off Brock Osweiler and returning it 23 yards. His task this week is to stop the firepower that Atlanta is ready to use. As Julio Jones will be occupied by Butler, Ryan will see Mohamed Sanu and the speedy Taylor Gabriel. Both of these guys have big-play potential anytime they are targeted, so for Ryan, this game can either go really well or end in a dumpster fire.
Next: 5. Deion Jones, Middle Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
Dec 11, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones (45) returns an interception 33 yards for a touchdown in the second half against the Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
5. Deion Jones, Middle Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
*Spoiler alert. This kid is an absolute beast*
Jones has been the player that Atlanta desperately needed. The second-round draftee has played every bit like a first-round talent. You can virtually put Jones anywhere defensively, and he will strive. At 6’1″, 222 pounds, Jones serves as a hybrid linebacker. He’s quick and versatile, allowing him to play in-coverage against receivers, not just tight ends, and fullbacks. This shows in his team-leading three interceptions, which he returned for a total of 165 yards and two touchdowns. One touchdown came off of a 90-yard pick-six against Drew Brees in Week 3. Jones led the team in tackles as well, finishing 25th in the league in the category.
He has already made a great impact in the NFL Playoffs, pressuring quarterbacks and making game-clinching plays. Against the Packers, Jones was all around Aaron Rodgers, using his speed to get into the backfield; something we don’t usually see players do against the mobile Rodgers. Against the Seahawks, Jones recorded an interception on Russell Wilson, leading to a series of knees from Matt Ryan to end the game.
Defensive Rookie of the Year, anyone?
Next: 4. Trey Flowers, Defensive End, New England Patriots
Dec 12, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers (98) watches the game against the Baltimore Ravens during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
4. Trey Flowers, Defensive End, New England Patriots
Flowers has been the ultimate highlight for the Patriots’ defense, and overall roster this year. After having a lone appearance in 2015 in which he didn’t record a single statistic besides breathing on the field, the second-year defensive end has been a force to be reckoned with in 2016-2017. Flowers played in all 16 regular season showings, becoming a starter after New England’s Week 9 bye. He led the team in sacks with seven and given the pace, he was at after the bye, hypothetically could’ve been second in the league in sacks, and a top tackler.
Flowers was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of college, but injuries and a decent showing in the NFL Combine had him fall in the draft. Regardless, he has flourished into a great defensive end in the league, and arguably one of the best players that New England’s defense holds. Flowers has developed well, as he is typically rushing from the inside rather than outside; lining up at nose tackle. This is a feature he rarely showed back in college at Arkansas. If he can get past the great Atlanta offensive line, this game can tilt in New England’s favor.
Next: 3. Jalen Collins, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons
3. Jalen Collins, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons
After the Falcons lost star cornerback Desmond Trufant mid-season, they looked to sophomore cornerback Jalen Collins to fill his shoes. Quite a big task to ask, don’t you think? Collins spent most of the last year on the bench and started the 2016-2017 season with a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. After getting the starting nod in Week 9, Collins took flight (not like a Falcon. He was reaching high expectations. Whatever). He had six solo tackles that week, then went on to deflect a season-high three pass deflections against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. Collins then went on to intercept Cam Newton for his first career pick in Week 16. He finished the regular season with another pick against Drew Brees in Week 17.
In the postseason, Collins had a tough start. He had another pass deflection in the Divisional round against Seattle, but was picked apart by Paul Richardson…who? That guy that had a couple one-hand grabs for Seattle. You know who. Face mask guy? Yeah, him. Anyway, it wasn’t a great start for Collins, but he did somehow get a ball to bobble enough in the air for linebacker Deion Jones to intercept (debatable), sealing the win. Collins went on to play great in the Championship round, forcing a key fumble on Packer’s fullback Aaron Ripkowski, recovering it, and scoring a touchdown. The corner has proved to be a wildcard in the playoffs. He can create impactful plays like he did against Green Bay, or get beat by someone most haven’t heard of unless you live in Seattle. Going against Tom Brady and doing what happened against Seattle, doesn’t mix well.
Next: 2. Dont'a Hightower, MLB, New England
Dec 18, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
2. Dont’a Hightower, Middle linebacker, New England Patriots
Through five seasons in New England, Hightower has been recognized as their top defender and leader on this side of the football. Unfortunately, he has seen his productivity slip each of the last three years due to injuries. He missed three games this year and was on a limited snap count against the Steelers in the Championship round. Hightower was sporting a red non-contact jersey earlier in the week, and as ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote, the jersey served as an “indication of how his shoulder injury is affecting his level of participation in practice.”
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He played through a torn meniscus earlier this season as well. Hightower was also injured during the Patriots’ Super Bowl run two years ago, as he dealt with a torn labrum. This guy is a warrior and certainly doesn’t shy away from injuries.
Although he had one of the most impactful plays in Super Bowl XLIX (a play before Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson to end the game), it will certainly be intriguing to see how Hightower performs in regards to his injury history. Maybe we will see him make another clutch tackle on Devanta Freeman or Tevin Coleman.
Regardless, the health status and amount of snaps that your defensive leader can play in the biggest game of the year is a huge factor.
Next: 1. Vic Beasley, Outside Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
Jan 1, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley (44) tries to get past the blocking of New Orleans Saints tackle Zach Strief (64) during the first half at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Saints 38-32. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
1. Vic Beasley, Outside Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
How could I not finish this up without including the league’s sack leader, and ultimately the biggest playmaker on the Falcons’ defense? Basically, Vic Beasley is a monster. He’s proven himself to be one of the best up-and-coming stars in the league. He ended the season not only leading the league in sacks but was also named a First team All-Pro, along with being elected to his first Pro Bowl.
This breakout season was just what the doctor ordered for the Falcons, as a dynamic playmaker on defense was vital for their success. Beasley found little success against one of the best right tackles in the NFL; Bryan Bulaga. This was the second time that Bulaga was able to shut Beasley down, although he recorded one sack against Aaron Rodgers in Week 8.
Tom Brady has only been sacked 19 times including the postseason, and credit is due to that offensive line of his. Right tackle Marcus Cannon has been the star of the show. Before the end of 2017, Pro Football Focus analyst Gordon McGuinness had Cannon rated as the best right tackle in the league. For the last 11 weeks of the season, Cannon had a pass-blocking rating of 97.4. Beasley is definitely up for another challenge, perhaps the toughest he’s going against all year. It’ll be up to the sack-leader to charge an otherwise average Atlanta defensive front.