Bill Belichick watched every game the Atlanta Falcons played in 2016 and probably more, and the one constant opened the eyes of the New England Patriots’ head coach.
“Speed,” Belichick said Thursday. “Everybody they give the ball to on offense can score from 80 yards away. And defense, at every position, they’re fast.”
Belichick said communication and sound fundamentals are the essentials for the Patriots to slow down Atlanta’s potent offense, led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan at quarterback, home-run threat Devonta Freeman at running back and wide receiver Julio Jones.
“They force the defense to react and adjust to what they do more than any team we play,” Belichick said. “They’re going to have some looks we haven’t seen before.”
Belichick, 25-10 all-time in the playoffs with four Super Bowl wins as New England head coach, said he sees “no weakness” in Ryan’s game. The counterpunch to Jones will likely be cornerback Malcolm Butler, who gives up height and arm length to Jones, but came up huge in the Patriots’ previous Super Bowl.
“He’s improved a lot since then,” Belichick said. “Long way from West Alabama. That’s absolutely true for Malcolm and a lot of our players. Wherever they were, this is a huge jump on a lot of levels. … It’s huge. Not everyone is from Alabama and Michigan.”
Butler was undrafted but stands atop the Patriots’ cornerback depth chart, a climb that began with his Super Bowl-winning pick of Russell Wilson in Super Bowl XLIX.
Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Alabama, came to the Falcons via trade with the Cleveland Browns. Belichick infamously advised Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, formerly Belichick’s college scouting director, against that deal, which cost Atlanta two first-round picks to move up 21 spots. In the book “War Room” Belichick reportedly said the price was too steep for a wide receiver, while also wondering if Jones was polished enough as a route runner and could beat tight coverage.
In 2013, Belichick praised Jones before their last meeting — Week 4 of the 2013 season — a 30-23 Patriots’ win in which Jones had 108 yards on six receptions and Ryan had more than 400 passing yards but two critical interceptions.
“He’s probably about as good as anyone in the league,” Belichick said. “So it’s not just his receiving skills, although they’re very good. I think he’s a complete football player. I know he’s a tough kid, and a hard worker, and is great for their program. I’m sure that they’re very happy he’s on their team, because he does a good job in every area.”
Not only is that game largely irrelevant — consider Atlanta’s leading receiver that day was retired tight end Tony Gonzalez, and the Patriots’ top cover man was Aqib Talib — Belichick said the idea of facing just another Dan Quinn defense isn’t applicable. Quinn, defensive coordinator of the Seahawks in the 2015 Super Bowl in Phoenix, was hired as head coach of the Falcons the next day. The Patriots have seen the Seahawks again since then, losing to Seattle in the 2016 regular season. But Belichick said the idea that these are the same defenses doesn’t stack up.
“The players are different, that’s one big thing,” Belichick said. “Schematically it’s different. There’s certainly carryover. It’s not like it’s two different systems. Say how (Richard) Sherman plays it to the way (Robert) Alford plays it is not quite the same even though it’s the same defense — or some of the calls are the same I should say.”