HOUSTON -- Dave Wannstedt has a pretty good idea how Bill Belichick will try to stop the Falcons’ high-poweredoffense in Super Bowl LI on Sunday.
“I think Belichick is going to take the air out of the football,” the former Cowboys defensive coordinator and head coach of the Bears and Dolphins said Thursday during an impromptu video session with a handful of reporters.
Wannstedt laughed when he realized what he’d just said.
No, he wasn’t suggesting that the Patriots’ coach will reignite the Deflategate controversy stemming from the AFC Championship Game two years ago, with the NFL accusing Tom Brady of being “generally aware’’ of a scheme to use footballs that had been purposely deflated by two Patriots equipment staffers.
Yes, the wording certainly was the kind of double-entendre that made you stop and wonder. But there was a much more plausible explanation for what Wannstedt, who helped the Cowboys win the Super Bowl under Jimmy Johnson after the 1992 season, actually meant.
“I mean in football terms, he’s going to take the air out of the football, and by that I mean he’s going to try to shorten the game and keep Atlanta off the field as much as possible,” said Wannstedt, now a football analyst for Fox Sports.
It’s a tactic Belichick employed when he was the Giants’ defensive coordinator and they prepared to play the Buffalo Bills’ high-octane offense in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa after the 1990 season.
Remember Jim Kelly’s famous K-gun offense, the one that ripped through the regular season and got to the Super Bowl by demolishing the Raiders, 51-3, in the AFC Championship Game? The Bills were favored against the Giants, who were using backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler in place of the injured Phil Simms.
Rather than try to match offenses with the Bills, Belichick and head coach Bill Parcells theorized that the best way to deal with Kelly’s offense was to try and keep it off the field as much as possible. So the Giants played keep-away by using a heavy dose of running back Ottis Anderson and incorporating a more conservative passing offense with Hostetler. The result was a 20-19 upset by the Giants, as Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field-goal attempt at the end went wide right.
Anderson won Super Bowl MVP honors and the Giants set a Super Bowl record by controlling the ball for 40 minutes and 33 seconds.
Belichick likely won’t try to mimic that game plan, not when he has the best quarterback of all time in Tom Brady. But Wannstedt believes the running game and the Patriots’ clock management will be more of a factor than many people think.
“Belichick wants to give Atlanta’s offense the minimum amount of opportunities possible,” he said. “That’s why I think the running backs in this game are going to be the difference. I think it’s Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman for the Falcons, and [LeGarrette] Blount and maybe Dion Lewis for the Patriots.
“If the Patriots can run the ball with Blount and have a lead, that’s a huge advantage for them. That’s why they want to get out in front early and play with a lead.”
But here’s the problem: Wannstedt pointed to a play on a video monitor in the lobby club room of a condominium across the street from Minute Maid Park to show how Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s defense operates.
“Look at the linemen,” Wannstedt said. “The Falcons will attack the gaps and get up the field. They’re going to try to get in the backfield and cause havoc and let their linebackers run.”
If the Falcons are successful at that attacking style from the defensive line — just as the Giants were in beating the Patriots under Tom Coughlin after the 2007 and 2011 seasons — that not only will put pressure on Brady but might limit Blount’s effectiveness.
“It’s that mentality of being aggressive that makes it difficult for a running back to make a cut,” Wannstedt said. “That’s why I don’t think Brady will use much play-action [faking to the running back and dropping back to pass]. It takes too much time with this type of defense the Falcons run.”
Brady has been able to solve just about every defense imaginable, and the Patriots are three-point favorites to beat the Falcons. But Wannstedt suggests Brady won’t have nearly as easy a time of solving the Falcons’ defense as he did in a 36-17 win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
“God knows what the Steelers were doing on defense,” Wannstedt said. “Guys were going in the wrong spots. It’s just embarrassing to watch that tape. Brady was making good decisions hitting the open guy, but there were a lot of busted coverages, too.”
Unlike the Steelers, who play mostly zone defense and gave Brady plenty of opportunity to have his receivers find openings in those alignments, the Falcons play more man-to-man coverage. It’s an inexperienced secondary, but Wannstedt believes the aggressiveness will make up for it.
The Falcons remind Wannstedt of the defense he coached with the Cowboys when they crushed the Bills, 52-17, for their first title since the Tom Landry era.
“We were the youngest team in the league in our first Super Bowl and we had no Pro Bowlers on defense,” he said. “Atlanta has a young defense, but they’re fast and aggressive. I think their defense is going to make some plays that everyone is underestimating.”
Bottom line: Wannstedt is picking the upset here. Despite Belichick’s best efforts to take the air out of the football, he likes the Falcons on Sunday.