The Patriots’ 21st century dynasty typically featured sturdy defenses who keep opponents’ scoring relatively low. But for the first time since 2003, New England ranked No. 1 in points allowed. That season, they won their second Super Bowl.
The Pats are aiming for No. 5 on Sunday in Houston against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
New England’s defensive unit, which held opponents to 15.6 points per game, doesn’t appear to be an elite unit at first glance. They boast just two Pro Bowl selections (linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Devin McCourty). The weren’t in the top 10 in takeaways, and their top pass rusher, Trey Flowers, tallied just seven sacks.
But a closer look reveals a team that tied for third in rushing defense as well as first downs allowed. With the Falcons ranking second in offensive first downs and fifth in rushing yards, the Patriots look qualified enough to slow the league’s top-scoring offense.
Atlanta’s defense is another story.
Only five teams surrendered more points per game (25.4) than the Falcons, and all of those teams finished below .500.
In another stark contrast to the Pats, Atlanta was among the worst teams against the run this season. Although most opponents were playing from behind and forced to abandon the ground attack later in games, the Falcons allowed 4.5 yards per carry. That figure tied for fifth-worst in the league.
The lone bright spot on the defensive side of the football is pass rushing linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. The second-year pro led the league with 15.5 sacks this season. His presense contributed to Atlanta’s respectable passing defense, a necessity against a passer of Tom Brady’s caliber.
But the Atlanta pass rush relies heavily on Beasley, who has not notched a sack during the postseason. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn ranks second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Neutralizing Beasley will be a priority for the Pats on gameday.