On Atlanta’s first play from scrimmage Sunday in Super Bowl LI, running back Devonta Freeman took a toss sweep play to the left and found a crease for a 37-yard gain.
Four plays later, the Falcons were forced to punt, but the glimpse of success on the ground proved to set the tone for 21 first-half points. At halftime, Freeman had totaled 71 of Atlanta’s 86 rushing yards and the ground game was a driving force to the Falcons’ 18-point lead.
Atlanta had the second dimension of its offense on full display — running the ball on nine of 17 total plays — and New England was having trouble containing that part of the Atlanta attack. The story was different in the second half, however, as the Falcons’ backfield was held to 18 yards, and little impact was felt from that group other than a 6-yard touchdown reception by Tevin Coleman.
“We knew that they were going to mainly play two-shell defenses and dare us to run,” said Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who is set to take over as the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach. “It was something we had to do to give ourselves a chance to win, and I think we came out strong doing it. But we simmered a little bit in the second half, and they went more blitzes and man fronts. We just didn’t get enough plays — which is two things. They took control of the ball really well, and we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities.”
Another reason for the decreased run production in the second half is quite simple, the Falcons didn’t rely on it enough. After Coleman found the end zone to grow the lead to 25 points, it could be assumed that Atlanta would use every opportunity to take time off of the clock and not allow further opportunities for Tom Brady.
That was far from the case as with a whopping 22:24 left in regulation, Atlanta only ran the ball five times out of a total of 13 plays. The playcalling questions became most apparent when Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones had a jaw-dropping catch along the sideline, which went for 27 yards and put Atlanta in prime field goal position on the Patriots’ 22-yard line with a chance to go up by two scores.
Rather than attempt to whittle down the remaining 4:47 of regulation, three consecutive pass plays were called later in the drive, resulting in a sack, a holding penalty and an incompletion to eliminate the chances of dependable place-kicker Matt Bryant extending his team’s lead.
“We thought we’d have a good look based on the personnel that was in the game for them,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We trust our guys, so we thought that was the opportunity to let it rip. When it doesn’t go that way then it’s easy to question it. It was a fantastic catch, and so my initial thought, we’re getting closer here, but having a chance to go score, we knew how good the other side was, too, so we wanted to go attack at every opportunity. So, when it didn’t work out, it’s easy to second guess on that.”
Shanahan added that setting up a 50-yard attempt for Bryant wasn’t an immediate thought and that he wanted to try and put his kicker in the best position to make the field goal at the very least. The playcalling style didn’t stray far from the team’s attack all season, and with an MVP in quarterback Matt Ryan and an All-Pro receiver in Jones, Atlanta had faith in that group when there’s an opportunity to win a high-stakes game.
Nonetheless, it does reasonably leave room for debate as either a field goal or a touchdown would have extended the lead to two scores for Brady and his corps with less than five minutes remaining. Ryan, who has played his final game under Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, believes poor execution outweighs the decisions made in the game’s closing stages.
“No, I don’t think (playcalling was too aggressive),” Ryan said. “I thought Kyle did a good job for us (Sunday), and we had some opportunities to make plays. We just missed on a couple of things and just made a few mistakes, and ultimately when you’re playing a really good football team like New England, those mistakes ended up costing us.”