The New England Patriots haven't encountered a player like Julio Jones — and vice versa — in some time.
No player in history has entered the Super Bowl averaging as many yards per game (100.6) in that season as the Atlanta Falcons' star receiver, with Hall of Famer Michael Irvin (100.2) standing as the only other player to crack the 100-yard barrier. In torching the Green Bay Packers for 180 yards in the NFC Championship Game, he joined legends Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff as the sole players to reach that mark in multiple playoff games.
When the Falcons' top-scoring attack meets the Patriots' stingy defense Sunday in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Jones will represent the ultimate test case for Bill Belichick and his ability to erase his opponent's most dangerous threat. The Patriots coach has a sterling record in that area, shutting down Marshall Faulk and plenty more en route to a record-tying four titles.
How the Patriots defend Jones bears watching. But it's the larger chess game at work for both New England's defense, allowing the fewest points per game of any unit, and the Falcons' top-scoring attack that could be the true story in Houston.
Jones said this week that he didn't believe any player in the NFL could contain him one-on-one, and the Patriots are unlikely to test that theory. Regardless of how New England approaches the task, Jones should see a healthy dose of safety Devin McCourty and bracket coverage, regardless of how cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are utilized.
But Atlanta's offense extends well beyond Jones, as a deep and diverse array of pass catchers could capitalize on an overcommitment to the receiver. When targeting receivers other than Jones this season, Matt Ryan has completed nearly 73% of his passes with a 32-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season.
Getting the ball to Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel in space will be a crucial mission for Ryan to execute and Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to scheme. Eric Rowe, a second-year cornerback who has struggled at times to change directions as well as recover, could be a frequent target.
One subplot to monitor will be how physical the matchups between the receivers and defensive backs become as the game unfolds. The blitz-averse Patriots deployed three or fewer rushers on 26% of their passing downs this season, according to Pro Football Focus, so they likely will need to disrupt Ryan's rhythm in another fashion. Pushing receivers around could be one method.
Rerouting Jones (6-3, 220 pounds) and Sanu (6-2, 220) is easier to envision than execute, however. Shanahan also has an array of natural pick plays and other weapons for beating man coverage.
Here are four other matchups that could determine Super Bowl LI:
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Falcons' secondary
Beyond his record 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and overall skill set, Brady brings a command to his seventh Super Bowl appearance that few can match on this stage. Trying to slow him will be an Atlanta secondary that has three starters with two or fewer seasons in the NFL.
From a defensive back's perspective, slowing Brady seems like an almost unreasonable assignment. The Falcons' traditional Cover 3 scheme would appear to give the patient quarterback another prime opportunity for picking apart a defense, just as Brady did in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Dan Quinn went against his tendencies in deploying a blitz-heavy approach to rattle Aaron Rodgers last week, so repeating that game's heavier dose of man coverage could be in the cards.
New England, however, can still find plenty of favorable setups. Julian Edelman ranks seventh with 84 career postseason receptions, and he could face rookie cornerback Brian Poole, who's still finding his footing in coverage. Martellus Bennett should also figure prominently in the game plan and likely will draw rookie safety Keanu Neal.
Falcons LB Vic Beasley vs. Patriots OT Marcus Cannon
The one replicable formula for stymying Brady has always involved generating pressure without resorting to blitzing. The Falcons might not be able to rely on their front four, but they can't afford to sell out for the rush the way they did against Rodgers.
Beasley led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks this season and is a dangerous speed rusher, but Cannon has been solid in taking over for the starting right tackle role this season. Moreover, Brady's quick release and ability to evade edge rushers could help neutralize Atlanta's best threat.
Beasley might lack the functional strength to attack the interior of the Patriots' line, but the Falcons still have options. Using different fronts and a series of stunts could create pressure, and Atlanta can look to Grady Jarrett and Ra'Shede Hageman to penetrate in the middle. Even if Atlanta doesn't sack Brady repeatedly, forcing him off his spot and disrupting his timing will be paramount.
Patriots RBs LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis and James White vs. Falcons' front seven
Super Bowls frequently have featured an extended feeling-out period. In such a setting, the Patriots could turn to their trio of backs on low-risk plays that could still exploit the defense.
Lewis and White each had touchdown catches against the Houston Texans in the divisional round as the Patriots repeatedly picked on coverage liability Benardrick McKinney. It was just two years ago that Shane Vereen set a Super Bowl record for receptions by a running back with 11 against a Seattle Seahawks defense led by Quinn. And Blount, who led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns, can hammer the defense up the middle if Atlanta goes light in the box.
Atlanta has been spotty in its ability to cover running backs this season, allowing an average of 54.4 receiving yards per game for the position. Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell have shown impressive range, but Lewis and White have been adept at getting opponents turned around in coverage. If the Patriots repeatedly split their backs out wide, it could tire out the defense.
Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman vs. Patriots linebackers
The Patriots haven't allowed a running back to rush for 100 yards in a game all season. But Freeman and Coleman might not need to break that barrier to find success.
While having its ground game perform up to its usual standards would be a boon against New England, Atlanta has shown it can utilize the hard-running Freeman and explosive Coleman in creative manners. The two combined for 85 catches and 883 receiving yards during the regular season.
Those additional considerations in the passing game could be a stumbling block for the Patriots. In a loss to the Seahawks this season, running back C.J. Prosise repeatedly flustered New England by hauling in seven passes for 87 yards. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts haven't thrived in coverage, and there could be big-play opportunities for the taking.
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