The Atlanta Falcons defense is filled with players in either their first or second year in the league. Of the 11 starters, eight of them are in their first or second year, including four rookies. They are also missing their best player, 26 year old Desmond Trufant, who has been out for most of the season due to injury. On a unit with so many young players, it can be easy to overlook the performance of an interior defensive lineman and that is exactly what has happened to Grady Jarrett. It is Jarrett, however, who could present the Patriots offense with the most problems on Sunday night.
The 6-foot-305-pound defensive lineman is in his second year out of Clemson and will draw matchups against Patriots’ center David Andrews and guard Joe Thuney. He may also line up against Shaq Mason if the Falcons choose to move him around. Although he is a different build than the Texans Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, his power off the snap and while rushing is a similar challenge to block. In the Divisional Round, the Patriots interior blockers struggled against the Clowney/ Mercilus combination. With that knowledge in hand, Falcons’ coach Dan Quinn would be smart to try to single Jarett up against Andrews or Thuney and see if his quickness can help Atlanta consistently get to Tom Brady.
In the Patriots’ playoff losses over the last decade, one of the common themes has been Brady facing pressure up the middle and unable to step up in the pocket. The Giants in two Super Bowls and the Jets in 2010 did a particularly masterful job at this. Jarrett didn’t put up flashy sack numbers (only 3 all season), but his ability to push the pocket up the middle has been a major factor in the Falcons dramatic defensive improvement over the second half of the season.
Jarrett can also be an important factor stopping the run, which is likely something the Patriots will try to do. New England has confidence in its offensive line, and rightly so, and it would not be surprising if the Patriots give the smaller Atlanta defense a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount. If this is the tactic employed by New England, Garrett’s importance will greatly increase. If the Falcons bring in extra linebackers to sell out against the run, they’ll be picked apart by Brady. It is therefore hugely important for Atlanta that Jarrett is stout up front, especially on early downs. In last season’s AFC Championship Game, the Broncos forced the Patriots into second and long consistently and it was one of the reasons the Patriots offense had trouble moving the ball all game. The Falcons will certainly look to replicate this.
Thuney, Andrews and Mason have one of the most important jobs of Super Bowl LI, to prevent Atlanta from getting pressure up the middle and to open holes in the running game. The group had a bounceback performance against Pittsburgh after collectively struggling against Houston. In order to put up enough points to win, the Patriots will need this trio to play like they did against the Steelers. Stopping Jarrett will fall on the shoulders of these three players, as could the hopes of a fifth Lombardi Trophy coming to New England.