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Film room: What past meetings tell us about the Patriots’ approach against Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh

New England has played against both before.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have played some outstanding interior defensive linemen this season, from the Jacksonville JaguarsCalais Campbell to the New York JetsSheldon Richardson to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Chris Jones. But while all of them are terrific players in their own right, capable of blowing up plays on a regular basis, the challenge that awaits in Super Bowl 53 is on another level when it comes difficulty.

After all, the Los Angeles Rams have not one but two of the NFL’s outstanding interior penetrators in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Coming off a regular season during which he registered 20.5 sacks and 41 quarterback hits, Donald will likely be named the league’s defensive player of the year later this week. Meanwhile, Suh has taken advantage of the attention allocated to his partner in crime to come on strong in the postseason.

From the Patriots’ perspective, neutralizing the formidable duo as best as possible is the starting point for offensive success against the Rams. How they will try to do it is everyone’s guess, but past matchups against Donald and Suh might help us get an idea about what New England might try to do to limit the impact they can have on the team’s offensive rhythm and productivity in both the passing and the running game.

Aaron Donald

New England played against Donald once before, in a 2016 regular season meeting that the Patriots won 26-10. For the most part, the team was able to keep the talented lineman in check as he finished with just three tackles and one quarterback hit — comparatively pedestrian numbers against a player of his talent, even back then. And the Patriots were not afraid to target him either as their first two offensive plays of the game illustrate:

The first play is run out of a 21-personnel set with Dion Lewis, the eventual ball carrier, and James White both in the backfield. Up front, the Patriots use a combo-block by left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Joe Thuney on Donald with White kicking out to help clear the edge. Solder disengaged after the initial contact, but Thuney was still able to move the defensive tackle back enough for a 4-yard gain.

The second play, a 9-yard run by LeGarrette Blount, also saw the two blockers matched up with Donald — and once again Solder and Thuney held their ground. Once more, the two engaged the 3-technique defensive tackle with Solder peeling off after the initial push down the field to move on to the second level. Thuney, meanwhile, held onto Donald and did not allow him to get free and potentially stop Blount as he hit the A-gap.

What also helped clear a path for the running back was a pull-block by guard Shaq Mason that removed safety T.J. McDonald from the play; one that also allowed Solder to initially stay on Donald before moving to a second block. What the two plays show is how the Patriots were willing to run the ball on Los Angeles’ front that day and also the attention they gave Donald by using double-teams and peel-off blocks to limit him.

However, they did not double him on every play and trusted their linemen — with the exception of Solder, who has been replaced by Trent Brown, the same ones that will be on the field on Sunday —to take on Donald one-on-one as well. Shaq Mason did it on this draw run and he was able to perfectly mirror the aggressive upfield rush, which in turn allowed James White to get by him for a gain of 9:

What was evident on that December meeting in 2016 is that the Patriots wanted to get the football out of Tom Brady’s hands quickly, either by running the football or by using the short and intermediate passing in order to counter the pass rush. The following play, a 13-yarder to Julian Edelman, illustrates New England’s offensive approach as it took only 2.4 seconds from the football to get from center David Andrews out of Brady’s right hand:

Los Angeles again used Donald on the offensive right side on this play, going one-on-one against Mason. And while he was able to move the right guard back a bit, the quick pass combined with Edelman’s crisp route running helped made his efforts ineffective — as did Mason’s good technique to stay in a position to slow the defender down just enough to let the play successfully develop.

The Rams like to move Donald around quite a bit, and they also did so back two years ago when Jeff Fisher was still the team’s head coach. The Patriots, however, were well prepared and showed some solid chemistry and communication on double-team blocks and also defensive line motion through stunts. The following play — a 17-yard pass from Brady to Danny Amendola — is a good example for this:

Here, Donald aligned in a 4i-technique over Solder’s inside shoulder. The tackle, however, did not engage him and instead kicked out which left Thuney one-on-one. The then-rookie did a tremendous job forcing the defender to the inside, where Shaq Mason and David Andrews were double-teaming ex-Patriot Dominique Easley. When the two defenders tried to cross attack, the interior linemen did a great job passing their initial assignments off to stop both rushers from getting into the backfield.

In general, the Patriots were able to perform both on double-teams and single blocks against a highly talented opponent — but one that was at times too aggressive for his own good and the integrity of his attack, particularly against play-action passes or draw plays:

Donald, aligning in a 3-technique spot, tried to attack the A-gap on the inside shoulder of Shaq Mason by using a swim move. However, the guard was able to use the defender’s momentum against him to move him further to the middle of the field and in a pile with David Andrews and defensive tackle Michael Brockers. The draw allowed James White to read-and-react to the movement up front and he did a good job hitting the lane created by Donald getting pushed to the inside.

His over-aggressiveness also hurt him on the following play, a screen pass to White that gained 4 yards. Donald keys in on Brady but by doing that puts himself out of position to pursue the dump-off pass:

Of course, the Patriots also simply tried to avoid Donald on multiple occasions as well to not give him a chance to impact a play. Here, they used a zone blocking scheme moving to the offense’s right with Thuney first chipping the defender before Solder basically just stood in his way to keep him away from the ball carrier:

That all being said, Donald is too good of a player to be kept in check or schemed out of a play on an every-down basis. He will still get his chances and into the backfield just because of his quickness at the snap, and wide array of counter moves to blocking attempts. The following play, which saw him get into the backfield in only around two seconds shows this:

Rushing from a 4i-alignment, Donald stressed Thuney’s outside shoulder as Solder took on the edge rusher. The 6’5 guard blocked down too low on the 6’1 defender, who used his hands perfectly to fight off any potential contact. However, as noted above, the Patriots again used a quick-pass concept — Malcolm Mitchell running an out 12 yards deep — to get the football out of Brady’s hands quickly. This allowed the play to still turn into a positive one even though the quarterback was hit.

All in all, Donald is simply too good to be kept in check for 60 minutes. However, as the Patriots did two years ago they have the means to at least slow him down. Whether it is via the screen game or the route distribution per se, New England will try to negate his impact by focusing on the quick passing game and making him respect the run: the Patriots can try to counter his quickness with double teams, and his aggressiveness with draw play runs, or simply catch him off guard by using wham and trap blocks.

Ndamukong Suh

New England has more experience going against Suh, who the team faced eight times so far. His numbers in those matchups are solid but nothing to necessarily write home about: Suh sacked Brady 2.5 times and hit him on nine additional occasions, and registered 34 combined tackles with nine of which going for a loss of yardage.

L.A. employs the former first-overall draft pick a bit less in a traditional interior role — as opposed to Donald, for example — and also tries out some of the general ideas his previous teams used: the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins both had him align at the edge and the interior as well, something Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips also is not afraid to do. On this play from the Patriots’ game in Miami last year, Suh rushes from the offensive right-side edge:

Coming from a wide-9 alignment, Suh was chipped by Dwayne Allen before the tight end released into his route. New England used a similar plan against talented edge rushers in the past with either tight ends or running backs helping out against them before going into their passing patterns. On this particular play, Suh moved inside after the chip stunting behind the left-side defenders.

New England still was able to pick him up well by, with center David Andrews and running back James White both reacting quickly to him trying to attack the gap. As is the case against Donald, being able to react to any movement up front either through stunts or twists will be key and test the line’s chemistry as a unit — something that worked very well so far this postseason.

Los Angeles likes to use under-fronts with the 3-technique defensive lineman aligning on the formation’s weak side, something the Dolphins also did at times during last year’s game against New England. Here, the Patriots counter by pulling center David Andrews as the lead blocker:

With Andrews not helping against 1-technique Suh, Shaq Mason and right tackle Cameron Fleming were asked to double-team against him. However, Fleming’s chip as he moved to the second level proved to be inconsequential which in turn allowed Suh to disengage off Mason’s one-on-one block and take down running back Rex Burkhead after only a minimal gain.

In general, Suh is a handful in the ground game: he has the technique and strength to challenge blocker on the interior, but also the patience and vision on the edge to set it against outside runs. Those abilities were on display on the following play, that saw him aligned one-on-one against Mason:

While Mason again does a solid job of mirroring his alignment, the defender does not overcommit to one gap and instead patiently waits for the running back to make a choice and then follow up on it. Suh was able to disengage at the right time to get to the ball carrier, running through the A-gap, and bring him down quickly.

As noted above, Suh like Donald also has plenty of burst off the ball — and the Patriots in the past liked to use this to their advantage. The following play, almost a mirror image of the screen pass we looked at above, serves as a reminder of that:

Suh is quick to get into the backfield, as David Andrews only partially chips him before moving down the field to serve as a blocker on the screen pass to Burkhead. Yet, the chip slows the pass rusher down just enough to give Brady time to complete his short drop-back and get the football off to his intended receiver. Suh, meanwhile, is left in a chasing position on what turned out to be a 23-yard play.

Essentially, Suh is similar to Donald: he is an outstanding athlete that can win one-on-one battles with ease, especially if attention is moved away from him and onto Donald. Against him, the biggest thing for the Patriots will again be to keep him off balance either by using chips, double-teams or triple-team blocks, or to have a healthy balance of run and pass — especially when it comes to getting the football out of Brady’s hands quickly.

Ultimately, it would therefore not be a surprise to see the Patriots’ running backs, like PatrioticChief mentioned in his latest Chief Thoughts, have a big day once again and will be a focal point especially early on during the game.