Super Bowl LI is upon us. As the New England Patriots prepare for the game, let’s take a look at the key matchup between The Patriots’ linebackers and the Falcons’ running backs.

Stopping the Run

The Falcons, to some extent, depend on the run to set up the rest of their offense, creating a key match up. The linebackers have a straightforward job against the running game. Set the edge, plug the holes, and tackle. The Patriots have the edge here because of how well they’ve done that the entire season.The Patriots have allowed an average of slightly more than three yards per rush. Atlanta averages almost five yards per carry this season. Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, and Vincent Valentine will be keys to the success in stopping the Falcons’ running game. I’m sure that Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia would welcome the opportunity to stop the Falcons run game. If they’re running, they’re not passing.

Covering the Running Backs

Covering the Falcons running backs could prove a tougher match up for the linebackers. Both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have demonstrated their skills as formidable pass catchers. They rank third and fifth in receptions respectively. So, one should assume they will be a big part of Atlanta’s passing game. The Patriots LBs will have a big task handling these shifty backs.

If you remember Super Bowl XXIX and Marshawn Lynch running free down the sideline with Jamie Collins trailing badly, you’re not alone. I’m sure both Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn remember and are considering it while game planning. Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Rob Ninkovich will have to bump and press the versatile backs coming out of the backfield. A throwback to 2001 against Marshall Faulk and the “Greatest Show on Turf” game plan.

They’ll likely have help from the safety position as well, with Chung and Harmon being the X factors stopping any mid- to deep-range passes. With Hightower nursing a shoulder injury, Ninkovich playing primarily as an on-the-line edge type player, and Roberts’ inexperience, I’d expect Van Noy to play a lot of zone in the middle of the field and McClellan to spy out of the backfield. Tough matchup or not, I fully expect these New England backers to rise to the occasion.

Pass Protection

This could end up as a key factor. If the Patriots create pressure from all angles, the way they have the latter-half of the season, the Atlanta running backs could become important in pass protection. We may see the CB blitz or a safety blitz at some point. This will effectively take the running backs away from Matt Ryan as dump-off options. I don’t see this happening too often, but it may happen enough to impact the passing game. If they have to pick up pass rushers for Ryan, they can’t catch a pass.

Who’s It Gonna Be?

The guy to watch for big plays in this match-up might be McClellan. He’s come on lately as a key cog in the wheel of the defensive rotation. He’s all over the field since he moved into a seemingly more natural middle-of-the-field player. Earlier in the season he was used primarily on the end of the line. He showed up in the AFC title game and I think he may play a big part in the Super Bowl.

Overall, it looks like a pretty even match up. This could be a key factor to winning or losing if the Patriots can effectively limit Julio Jones and company from running wild in the secondary. We shouldn’t see many wide-open wheel routes get completed as we have in the past. I think those plays will be fresh in the coaches memories and the linebackers will be prepared. Again, if that’s the key to the Falcons success, so be it. It doesn’t seem that they’ll be able to score enough points by throwing to Freeman and Coleman.