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Pro Bowlers explain how to stop Falcons, Patriots

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Bills pass rusher Lorenzo Alexander knows of one surefire way to beat the Patriots.

"Play them without Tom Brady," he said, laughing, after Pro Bowl practice on Saturday morning.

The Bills defeated New England back on Oct. 2 -- the lone pockmark on the Patriots' four-game run without Brady to start the season. On that afternoon, Alexander was one of three Bills to sack Jacoby Brissett, following Rex Ryan's marching orders. The former Bills head coach always positioned himself as the thorn in Bill Belichick's side and has done some of his best work while facing New England, especially during his early days as head coach of the Jets.

Down at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex this week, there is enough collective brainpower to stop both the AFC champion Patriots and NFC champion Falcons. At least a handful of players have had major roles in blowing up Atlanta's shape-shifting, high-wire offense and a few know what it is like to shut down the stoic, mechanical Patriots -- even when Brady is behind center.

This is just the sixth time in NFL history that we are treated to a matchup between the league's No. 1 scoring offense and the league's No. 1 scoring defense, with the better defensive team winning four out of those five matchups. However, the Falcons, at 33.8 points per game, are the highest scoring team to face the Patriots in the Super Bowl under Belichick. The 2001 Rams scored 31.4 points per game.

In that spirit, picked the brains of several defensive players and coaches to gain insight into the question that is plaguing both coaching staffs this week in Houston: How the hell do we stop these guys?

Stopping the Patriots

Bob Sutton, the sage defensive coordinator of the Chiefs, was asked if there was something he's seen over the last two decades -- Sutton was the Jets' linebackers coach from 2000-2005, their defensive coordinator from 2006-2008, their senior defensive assistant from 2009-2011 and their assistant head coach in 2012 before moving to Kansas City in 2013 -- that has typically worked better against the Patriots, or at least has been more consistently effective.

"No," he said.

He added: "You gotta be highly competitive. You gotta be in tight coverage. They have a lot of good football players and I think they do a great job obviously. But again, the thing I don't think people appreciate sometimes is the job they do executing. They just do a great job of executing. I'm sure that is through diligent work ethic and practice. At least that's what I hope, as a coach, that you can get a team to that stage."

Sutton's insistence on tight coverage struck a chord with some of the defensive backs who have played the Patriots this year. Brady gets the ball out far too fast to rely on a standard pass rush (imagine going anywhere in less than three seconds; now imagine doing so with a person in your way trying to stop you) which means it's up to defensive backs to act as the first line of defense.

"You can't play soft on the edges, that's what Pittsburgh did," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. told me. "Their receivers were able to run wild. But you have to be able to put your hands on them. You have to man up, be physical and get pressure on Brady. It sounds easy, but (laughs)."

Alexander estimated that over 100 snaps against the Patriots, you could consider it a success if you strode clean into the backfield with one flawless move on an offensive tackle and put Brady on the ground once or twice.

But in Brady's nine playoff losses (to 24 wins), pressure has remained a consistent kryptonite. In those nine games, Brady is sacked on average 2.4 times per game, or a full sack higher than his average in all playoff wins. That extra sack ends up providing the defense with the tools they need to oust Brady's worst qualities as a passer -- his lack of mobility, his emotional highs and lows and his propensity to make more mistakes with the football. (To be clear, this is nitpicking. He is the greatest quarterback of all time.)

In his playoff losses, his completion percentage drops from 64.3 percent in wins to 58.1. His TD-INT ratio drops from 49-18 to 12-12 and his passer rating slips from 95.4 to 74.2.

The great equalizer in that situation, Alexander said, is pass breakups for defensive lineman. Swatting down balls at the line of scrimmage are as good as sacks against New England because sacks come so few and far between.

"From a competitive standpoint, if you're judging people, you have to be impressed," Sutton said. "As a coach you appreciate how hard it is to win. Period. To win a game. And for them to sustain like they've been is really a tribute to coach Belichick and his players."

Stopping the Falcons

To my surprise, just about every defensive player who has had success against the Falcons did not mention the game plan starting with Julio Jones or Matt Ryan.

The secret to taking out Kyle Shanahan's offense starts up front.

"You gotta stop the run and make them one-dimensional," Buccaneers star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy told me. "Matty Ice is Matty Ice, but if you make it to where he's one-dimensional, where Matt Ryan has to beat you by himself, that's your only shot. But if you give them a run-pass option, you're going to have a long day.

"You can really open up your playbook on defense when all they can do is pass."

McCoy said that in their season-opening win against the Falcons, they did blitz Ryan fairly consistently but did not put a lot of pressure on the defensive tackles and ends. There were not a ton of stunts and switches, with the hope that they would simply win their matchups.

"Winning the one-on-ones," McCoy said. "We stopped the run. That's all we did. Once we did that, everything changed."

Atlanta's three lowest rushing performances of the season (52 yards against Tampa Bay, 52 yards against Seattle and 48 yards against Philadelphia) accounted for three of their five losses in the regular season. Only twice did they rush for more than 100 yards and lose.

According to NFL Research, Atlanta had just ONE more carry (420 to 421) in 2016 than last season but averaged 20.5 more yards per game, averaged nearly a full yard more per carry and scored seven more touchdowns.

Devonta Freeman has 2,222 rushing yards since 2015, which is the most in the NFL over that time period. The Falcons are undefeated (5-0) when Freeman has more than 120 yards from scrimmage. But what about Julio Jones? Arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL is physical and can be destructive across the route tree. He is complemented by the versatile Mohamed Sanu and the speedy Taylor Gabriel, which makes shutting him down all the more problematic.

"You don't have to double him on every play but you do have to roll your coverage there some," Chargers corner Casey Hayward told me. "I think you have to play some man because their backs are so explosive as receivers, they're good out of the backfield."

Harris Jr., from the Broncos, added that Sanu is the key because he makes devoting extra defenders to Jones more difficult. But, under no circumstances, would he double Sanu. This was something that Jones told NFL Network's Deion Sanders after the team's punishing victory over the Packers. At certain points in the game, Green Bay would roll their coverage toward Sanu and leave Jones in single coverage.

"When we played Atlanta, we played a lot of man, Cover 1, Cover 2," Harris said. "Still, you have to lean that safety over to Julio because you never know what he's going to do. But it's not smart to double Sanu at all. No.

"But a lot of teams don't have the defensive back depth that we do. So it's hard to game plan for Atlanta. But I wouldn't double-team Sanu."

But isn't that the beauty of this Super Bowl matchup? Green Bay's depleted defense was exposed in significant ways. They were scrambling and desperate to try anything. Pittsburgh's defense, despite a puzzling insistence on remaining in soft zone coverage, also exhausted every effort to slow Brady down.

The Texans blitzed New England through the A-gap to puzzle their center. The Seahawks punched and prodded Jones at every turn. Still, it was not good enough.

That's why they are the only two teams left standing.

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