Super Bowl 51: A look at the secondaries

L-R: Harmon, McCourty, Ryan

L-R: Harmon, McCourty, Ryan

The media coverage leading up to Super Bowl LI (a.k.a. Super Bowl 51 for the Roman-numerically-challenged) between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons has mirrored the media coverage leading up to last month’s college football national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

Legacy has been a popular angle.

Going into the NCAA title game, the biggest question surrounding Alabama head coach Nick Saban was not if he could lead the Crimson Tide to the program’s 17th national title. It was more like, when Saban did it, would he then be considered the greatest college coach of all-time? Would he be considered better than ‘Bama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant?

Similarly, going into the NFL’s championship game, the questions surrounding the Patriots mostly revolve around what a fifth Super Bowl victory would mean for head coach Bill Belichick, for quarterback Tom Brady, and for the Pats franchise itself — all three of which are up for GOAT consideration.

Meanwhile, Clemson was cast simply as Alabama’s opponent. Albeit one with a very talented quarterback in Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, who could maybe lead the Tigers to the program’s first national title since 1981.

The Falcons appear to have been cast as little more than New England’s opponent. Albeit one with a very talented quarterback in MVP candidate Matt Ryan, who could maybe lead Atlanta to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.

Well, we know how the college football championship game turned out: Clemson upset Alabama in a thrilling one-point game. Could the same be in store for Super Bowl Sunday?

While the Patriots and Falcons don’t lack for quality running backs, the passing games have been at the center of most pre-game X’s-and-O’s analysis. Brady and Ryan are the marquee stars, with Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones playing a prominent co-starring role. New England’s injured tight end Rob Gronkowski has gotten more attention over the past two weeks than either team’s running backs, and he’s not even playing Sunday.

As a result, both teams’ defensive backfields will be under pressure to perform and at least give their respective offenses some margin for error.

Here is a rundown of the secondary units for the NFC champion Falcons and the AFC champion Patriots:

***** *****

Starters: CB Robert Alford, FS Ricardo Allen, CB Jalen Collins, SS Keanu Neal
Key reserves: CB Brian Poole, SS Dashon Goldson

Atlanta’s secondary is young, fast and likes to hit. They call themselves “The Misfits.”

The elder statesman of the starting unit is Alford, who is in his fourth NFL season. Collins and Allen are second-year pros, while Neal and Poole are rookies.

Even defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel is relatively young for the job at 37 years old. He played safety in the NFL for eight years and is in his second season on Atlanta’s coaching staff.

Goldson is a 10-year veteran with two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro selection in his past. The 32-year-old was cut by the Falcons earlier in the season, then re-signed in December.

The Falcons’ defense isn’t very impressive statistically. They finished 27th in the league in points allowed (25.4 per game) and 28th in passing yards allowed during the regular season.

But the secondary in particular has gotten better with time. Atlanta has given up 20.5 points per game in the playoffs to the Seahawks and Packers, teeing off on Seattle QB Russell Wilson in the divisional round, then shutting down Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers in the NFC title game long enough for the Falcons’ offense to put up 31 unanswered points.

L-R: Alford, Collins, Poole

L-R: Alford, Collins, Poole

Alford had a career year in 2016, recording career-highs in tackles (61) and pass breakups (19). He had two interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown. Allen also had a career-best season with 91 tackles and two interceptions in the regular season, plus two more INTs in the playoffs.

Collins didn’t become a starter for the Falcons until midway through this season, when he had to fill in for Desmond Trufant after the Pro Bowl cornerback went down with a torn pectoral muscle. Collins racked up 10 pass breakups and two interceptions in only eight regular-season games, and he had a momentum-killing forced fumble and recovery in the NFC title game win over Green Bay.

Neal, the 17th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, had a stellar rookie season with 109 tackles, nine pass breakups, five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He is a punishing tackler who already looks like the second coming of his mentor, Seahawks All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor.

Poole is another hard hitter, a college teammate of Neal’s at Florida who made his mark in these playoffs with a pair of highlight-reel hits on Wilson and Rodgers.

***** *****

Starters: CB Malcolm Butler, SS Patrick Chung, FS Devin McCourty, CB Logan Ryan
Key reserves: FS Duron Harmon, CB Cyrus Jones, CB Eric Rowe

New England had the NFL’s top-ranked defense this season, giving up just 15.6 points per game. The Pats allowed 237.9 passing yards per game, good enough for 12th in the league.

The most popular player in the secondary is Butler, the former undrafted rookie who was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX and now co-stars in national TV commercials with Steelers WR Antonio Brown.

But the best player in New England’s secondary might be McCourty, a three-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler who earned both honors this season. Back in July, McCourty was voted by his peers as the 105th-best player in the NFL.

McCourty recorded 83 tackles, seven pass breakups, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception in 2016. He added another interception in the playoffs. Butler had 64 tackles, 17 pass breakups, 4 interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. The two of them will be key in the Patriots’ game plan against Julio Jones; Butler likely as the primary corner covering the All-Pro wideout, with McCourty providing help over the top to take away arguably the league’s most dangerous deep-ball receiver.

Chung is a notoriously hard hitter who posted 91 tackles and one interception this season, while Ryan is a tough tackler for a cornerback; he had 92 tackles and two interceptions this season, plus one pick in the playoffs.

Rowe is a classic Belichick acquisition, brought to New England in a low-profile trade that now looks like a steal. The former 2nd-round draft pick of the Eagles was given away for a conditional draft pick. Rowe then made Belichick look like a genius again when he had an interception and two pass breakups in the AFC title game win over the Steelers.

Harmon had one interception in the Pats’ divisional-round playoff win over the Texans. His claim to fame in this Super Bowl is that he is one of four players from Rutgers University who will play in the game — and three of them are in the Patriots’ defensive backfield: Harmon, Ryan and McCourty. Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu is the fourth Rutgers alum.

Jones, a rookie, doesn’t play much on defense. But he’s a potential game-breaking kick returner who averaged 22 yards per kickoff return this season following a record-setting career at Alabama.

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