As Super Bowl LI approaches in 4 days, by now everyone has highlighted the x-factors and the matchups that could take place at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Patriots are no strangers to the playoffs and the Super Bowl as they have been to seven Super Bowls, including this one and won four out of the six past Super Bowls so far in the Tom Brady- Bill Belichick Era. The New England Patriots have found a way to get it done each and every year, regardless of what they do in the draft. But the Atlanta Falcons’ last playoff appearance was in 2012, statistically different from the Patriots that had a frequent success that leads them to be a consistent force in the NFL. But what is different for the Falcons this year is a collaboration of a bunch of different things that finally came together and worked. Whether it was Kyle Shanahan closely working with Matt Ryan, signing offensive pieces in free agency ( Mohamed Sanu, Alex Mack, Taylor Gabriel), the emergence of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as a deadly backfield tandem, Vic Beasley being the sack leader with 15.5 sacks this past season, and drafting for defense in last years draft (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones); regardless all these things had a part in the Falcons championship run this year. But what stands out of all those factors is the 2016 NFL Draft; taking Keanu Neal in Round 1 and then taking Deion Jones in Round 2 both seemed like good picks but there were some doubts initially by Draft Experts. But after great rookie years from both of them; Deion Jones being a Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidate and Keanu Neal playing like one when he was healthy, shows why drafting is so important to the success of a team. And with Dan Quinn coming from the Seattle Seahawks defensive staff, the Falcons picked two players that can be easily compared to Seattle Seahawk defenders and could help the Falcons win Super Bowl LI by slowing down the elaborate and eccentric offense lead by Belichick, Brady, and the pieces around him.
Feb 1, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal answers questions at a press conference for Super Bowl LI at Westin Houston Memorial City Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sport
As a strong safety coming out of Florida in the 2016 NFL Draft, Keanu Neal was taken with the 17th pick and to some people, the selection was a surprise. Draft experts mocked linebackers, defensive lineman, or even other options at safety at pick 17. Although it was a surprise pick, it was the right pick and in hindsight, it makes sense for a Dan Quinn defense to draft a player similar to Kam Chancellor in his hitting and tackling ability. Many labeled Neal as an in the box/ run-support strong safety who could force fumbles and be a tackling machine in the backfield. And he was certainly that for the Falcons this year as he had a whopping 106 combined tackles and was one of the league leaders in forced fumbles with 5. Neal was hurt in the preseason but came back healthy and was a force in the secondary and improved an overall lacking defense in run support. If Neal and the rest of the defensive line stop the running game with LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis early, Brady will be forced to pass and that will put more pressure on Brady, which is needed to beat a highly talented Patriots team on the biggest stage possible. If Neal can make a similar impact to the offense like what Chancellor did in Super Bowl 48 in 2014 with his hard hits against the Denver Broncos wide receivers like Demaryius Thomas, then he could totally ruin a gameplan with his physical attitude and aggressive play on the field.
As a former 2nd round pick out of Louisiana State in the 2016 NFL Draft, Deion Jones played like a defensive rookie of the year candidate week in and week out and was consistently making plays. Jones had 11 pass deflections, 3 Interceptions, and 108 Combined tackles. Some considered Jones a hybrid linebacker/ safety because of he was relatively light for a linebacker but tested well and ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. As a freaky fast linebacker who can make plays on the ball, Jones eerily compares to Bobby Wagner (LB) of the Seattle Seahawks with his height, weight, and speed. A playmaker at the linebacker position was needed for the defense to improve in 2016 and that they did. Jones can contribute with Neal and play run support but can also help the defense in zone coverage and make plays on the ball with his speed. Jones could turn into Brady’s nightmare the night of Super Bowl Sunday as a versatile weapon on defense that can wreak havoc on offensive game plans.
The defensive-minded Draft in 2016 gave the Falcons and Dan Quinn “a heat-seeking missile” in Keanu Neal and ” an athletic freak” in Deion Jones. These 2 rookies contributed into the jumble of factors that lead the Falcons to a championship appearance that has not occurred since 1999 when the Falcons lost to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. But what drafting these 2 rookies did was to help Dan Quinn assemble his version of the Seattle Seahawks defense that was fast and made offenses pay with Neal and Jones making plays all year. An upcoming and progressing defense in the playoffs could indicate that the best defense in the Super Bowl will win it. Especially when both teams have potent offenses, as the cliche goes, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships…”- Paul Bryant.