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Super Bowl 53: Patriots can take advantage of the Rams coverage tendencies

The Patriots can force winnable match-ups in the Super Bowl.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The New England Patriots will have their hands full next week when they face the star-powered Los Angeles Rams defense. Los Angeles boasts a ferocious front line with All Pros in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, and they also have both 2016 First Team All Pro cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.

It’s not going to be easy for Tom Brady and company.

If New England is going to be able to pass the ball against the Rams, they’ll have to force the best match-ups for Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Phillip Dorsett- and the Rams have some defensive tendencies that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is sure to capitalize on.

There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s try to break it down.

The snap counts reveal that Rams cornerback Aqib Talib spends 93% of his snaps as left cornerback, covering the receiver that lines up on the right side of the offensive formation. Fellow Rams cornerback Marcus Peters spends 62% of his snaps on the left side and 28% of the right side, with the rest of the snaps in the slot. Nickell Robey-Coleman is the Rams’ slot cornerback and will always align in the slot when on the field.

The Rams have increased their usage of zone defense over the second half of the season, so that’s worth noting, too.

Based on this information, we can determine that the Rams are likely to keep Talib in the same position all game, which allows the Patriots to line up players for the sake of match-ups.

For example, the Patriots could use Chris Hogan in the same way they’ve used him all season- to clear space underneath for Edelman and James White- and just have Hogan run down the field against Talib on every snap. Hogan’s been targeted on a mere 12% of his routes, the lowest of the starting receivers on either team, and he’s used to this role.

Alternatively, the Patriots could try to flood the left side of the field with their star players and have James Develin trot out against Talib. That’d be a good use of resources.

The Patriots have a lot of options because their receivers are not pigeon-holed into a specific role. Julian Edelman spends 65% of his time in the slot and 35% of his time outside. Hogan has a relatively even split with 46% of snaps in the slot and 54% outside. Phillip Dorsett is actually most heavily used on the outside, where he spends 79% of his snaps, compared to 21% in the slot.

This means that the Patriots can motion their receivers all over the offensive formation until they get the favorable match-up they want. Any of those three can line up at any of the positions on offense, which is a distinct advantage to have over a zone defense in order to flood certain zones with too many receivers (ex. have multiple players in the slot) for the defenders to cover.

And if the Rams decide to revert back to man coverage, well, Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel can take advantage of their favorable match-ups. The Rams allowed the second-most yards to tight ends in 2019 and ranked last in the league in yards allowed per rush.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots should be able to continue with their man coverage that’s been so successful.

Rams receivers Brandin Cooks , Robert Woods, and Josh Reynolds are versatile and all have spent between 27%-53% of their time in the slot. Cooks spends 56% of his time on the left side and Reynolds spends 54% of his time on the right; Woods is the primary slot receiver at 53%.

Los Angeles loves moving the receivers around the formation to get favorable match-ups. And the Patriots should be able to respond.

Patriots cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty have been fairly balanced as they follow their receivers around the field. Gilmore has played 44% of his time on the defensive right and 36% on the defensive left; Jackson’s also an even split at 37% and 41%; and McCourty isn’t too different at 27% and 34%.

Now McCourty spends more time in the slot than the other cornerbacks, with 39% of his snaps versus 20% for Gilmore and 23% for Jackson. But the Patriots defensive backs are capable of covering players wherever they line up.

If I’m Brian Flores, I’d consider borrowing from last week’s play book against the Kansas City Chiefs and have Jonathan Jones (not included in this data) cover Brandin Cooks with Devin McCourty over the top. That would allow Gilmore to cover his former Bills teammate Woods all over the formation, while Jackson would defend Reynolds on the outside.

This excludes Jason McCourty from covering receivers, but the Patriots found a way to use McCourty as the sixth defensive back on the field instead of Duron Harmon. Jason McCourty still played 67% of the snaps against the Chiefs and could be used to cover the Rams’ tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. This would subsequently free up Patrick Chung to cover the Rams running backs out of the backfield.

Both the Rams and the Patriots are coached by some of the most innovative minds in football, so any game plan won’t be “simple.” But I’m sure Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are looking at the Rams’ defensive tendencies and formulating ways to take advantage of them.