HOUSTON --Two of the key characteristics the Falcons brought into the Super Bowl LI matchup with the Patriots were youth and speed.
They were both on full display in the first half as New England struggled to deal with Atlanta's speed on both sides of the ball and found itself shockingly down 21-3 after 30 minutes of play at NRG Stadium.
Defensively the Falcons young speedsters swarmed to the football. Linebacker Deion Jones (five tackles) flew around while also making a key forced fumble on LeGarrette Blount, jumpstarting a second-quarter drive to touchdown. Even the touchdown itself showed the speed advantage, running back Devonta Freeman diving into the end zone wide left with ease and no Patriots defenders nearby.
First-year cornerback C.J. Goodwin made his mark for the young Falcons defense with a number of key plays. The youngster broke up a deep ball for Malcolm Mitchel down the right side to open a Patriots drive in the second quarter. A play later the aggressive defensive back came up to make a one-on-one tackle on James White to stop the Patriots third-down try. That stop led to a punt, short field for the Falcons and a Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Austin Hooper for the 14-0 lead.
Robert Alford not only recovered the Blount fumble, but also scored on his own, ending a penalty-aided Patriots drive with an 82-yard pick-six to give Atlanta the 21-0 shocking lead at halftime.
The Falcons offense showed its speed and athleticism primarily with two guys – Julio Jones and Freeman. Jones finished the first half with three catches for an impressive 60 yards. Freeman did damage to the tune of six carries for 71 yards – an early long of 37 yards on his first run of the night off his 8-yard line – and the one touchdown.
In many ways the first half of Super Bowl LI looked like a college postseason bowl game. The type of game where one team faces another from a more speedy, athletic conference and is caught off guard by the mismatch early on.
The Patriots probably heard about and prepared for the Falcons speed on both sides of the ball. But until you see it in person, on the big field under the bright lights of Super Bowl night, you might not be quite ready for it.
There is still plenty of time for second-half adjustments and playmaking.
But through 30 minutes the young, speedy, athletic Falcons lived up to their scouting report and reputation.
The Patriots didn't have an answer for it in the first half. They must find one in the final 30 minutes to continue the drive to a fifth Lombardi Trophy.