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Super Bowl 53: Offensive keys to victory for the Patriots against the Rams

If Tom Brady avoids pressure, he has the formula to pick apart the Rams defense

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

In only two days, the New England Patriots will face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53 and today we’ll take a look at the Patriots offensive keys for them to win and earn their sixth Lombardi Trophy.

What can we learn from the last matchup?

In short, there’s very little that the Patriots can learn from their last matchup, a 26-10 dominating win over the Rams in week 13. The Patriots made Jared Goff’s life miserable, to the tune of an ugly 14/31/161 line with a couple picks. But most importantly, this was pre-Sean McVay and pre-Wade Phillips: the victory over the Rams was the last game that they played under Jeff Fisher.

The Patriots can scheme some ideas on how to take care of Aaron Donald based on their 2016 game (more on that later) but other than that, these Rams are a completely different team. Ignoring the punter and kicker, only eleven players remain from their 2016 squad.

Attacking Wade Phillips’ defense

Taking over for Gregg Williams after 2016, Wade Phillips brought a strong veteran presence to the defense on a team with an inexperienced and offensively specialized head coach. The Patriots are no stranger to Phillips; Bill Belichick was quoted this week saying that Phillips hasn’t changed his defense in 30 years, a testament to how successful he’s been in an NFL that constantly evolves. For the purpose of this writeup, I’m going to isolate ideas that the Patriots have used against Phillips in the Josh McDaniels era, which would cover 2012-2016 and stints with the Texans and Broncos.

Wade Phillips’ unit at its core is a 3-4 defense that often times looks like a 5-2 defense with both OLBs right on the line of scrimmage. It’s a mix of man and zone coverage, with the Rams playing just over 41% of the time in man, a little above the league average. While Tom Brady and the Patriots are always comfortable against a zone defense, they seem to dominate Wade Phillips defenses with running backs and tight ends against man coverage.

Taking it all the way back to 2012, the duo of Aaron Hernandez and Shane Vereen (with the occasional Danny Woodhead mixed in) dominated the Texans to the tune of 267 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns in two games, almost all against man coverage. The two lined up everywhere: the backfield, the slot, outside... and it didn’t matter. The Texans’ linebackers couldn’t cover anything and neither can the current Rams linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron.

In 2013, a healthy Rob Gronkowski returned and he tore up the Texans defense to the tune of six catches for 127 and a touchdown, with Vereen chipping in 75 all-purpose yards and a score. Phillips continued to stress his linebackers in man coverage.

The Patriots’ 2015 regular season matchup with Phillips and the ferocious Broncos defense managed to limit the overall damage a little more than before, but the tight ends still feasted. Gronk and Scott Chandler combined for 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns, Gronkowski’s score came against man coverage and Chandler’s against a botched hybrid zone with Von Miller was covering him. Brandon Bolden for some reason was the third down back that year and he also burned a linebacker deep for a 63-yard touchdown in man coverage.

The only game Phillips has had success defending tight ends and running backs in the Josh McDaniels era was the 2016 regular season game, a 16-3 borefest where Brady struggled with pressure all day. That’s the formula to beat Brady, but Phillips only really got to him in that game. In total, the Patriots are 4-1 against Wade Phillips since 2012, averaging 31.4 points per game.

As I thought was possible last week against the Chiefs, Gronk does still have a little left in the tank as a receiver. In what could be his last NFL game, I would expect the Patriots to utilize him as if it was five years ago and not him being at the last legs of his career. With the aformentioned Cory Littleton and Mark Barron being pretty awful in coverage, Gronk, James White and Rex Burkhead should have a field day in the receiving game.

Combatting the Donald/Suh interior

The Patriots have had experience against both Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, but never on the same field. The duo is as dynamic as you can get at defensive tackle, and Michael Brockers is no slouch either. The Patriots have used different methods to try to take the duo away from the game.

Starting first with Aaron Donald, his combination of power, speed and quickness off the ball make him an absolute nightmare to block. In their 2016 matchup, the Patriots limited Donald to his worst game of the season and arguably his entire career. Donald had a single hit as his only pressure and had zero tackles for a loss. To neutralize him, the Patriots fought power with even more power by running right at him.

These three running plays all came from the Patriots’ first drive. They religiously doubled Donald and ran it right at him, and when they didn’t, they got him on the ground through other methods like cut blocks. I would compare this method to what the Patriots have done to star receivers and tight ends in the past: beat him up early and often at the line of scrimmage and send the message that he’s going to be hit and on the ground all day.

Left guard Joe Thuney did a fantastic job against Donald in the first matchup and both him and David Andrews are much improved since 2016. It’s not going to be an easy task to neutralize the best defensive player in the game, but the Patriots have done it before and I think that they will stick with the same strategy.

With Ndamukong Suh, you can’t use the Aaron Donald strategy. He’s too good against the run to run right at him, even if he’s double teamed.

So if I’m the Patriots, I establish the run by going right at Aaron Donald and single blocking Suh on the back end. Andrews is going to have to win tough one-on-one battles up a weight class with Brockers and Ethan Westbrook , but the Rams can be run on. While they have improved in the playoffs, they finished the regular season as the 28th team against the run, according to DVOA.

Against the pass, there really isn’t much you can do against Donald and company other than do what Brady has done his entire career against elite pass rushers: get the ball out quickly. And with reliable tight ends and running backs that can win against man coverage, he should be able to do it. In the 2016 matchup against the Rams, Brady got the ball out of his hand in an average of just 2.21 seconds. For context, Brady averaged 2.61 seconds throughout the entire 2018 season, with his quickest release week being a full tenth of a second slower (Vikings, 2.31).

Attack the top three Rams cornerbacks in different ways

Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Nickell Robey-Coleman make up a solid cornerback group, but all have exploitable weaknesses.

Talib is both the oldest and the best of the bunch. When he was lost in the middle of the season due to injury, the secondary and in particular Marcus Peters fell apart. Talib is the glue that keeps them all together in their scheme.

But while he is a versatile player with the ability to play man or zone, as well as man up against tight ends, Wade Phillips really hasn’t asked Talib to do anything like that this year. In Phillips’ system, Talib is pretty much strictly a left cornerback and crucially, played less than ten snaps out of the slot this year. The Patriots can use that to their advantage by lining up their guys to attack the weaker parts of the secondary. In his career, Brady has the tendency to throw more often and more accurately to the left, and away from Talib. While I wouldn’t go so far as to completely ignore Talib’s side of the field like they did against Richard Sherman in Super Bowl 49, I wouldn’t expect more than a handful of passes to go Talib’s way either.

Marcus Peters is probably the league’s most boom/bust cornerback. After thriving as the CB1 in Kansas City his first three years in the NFL, he was statistically a bottom-five cornerback in the entire NFL when Talib was out in weeks 4-12. Peters is an aggressive player that is prone to double moves like Jalen Mills’ in last year’s Super Bowl, but his bigger glaring weakness is his complete disregard for tackling and run defense. Some guys in the secondary are bad at tackling for various reasons, including size and strength, but Peters straight up doesn’t give a damn and everyone knows it. Expect a heavy dose of screens towards his side.

The last of the Rams’ top cornerbacks, Nickell Robey-Coleman, almost exclusively plays out of the slot. In fact, he’s basically the only cornerback that plays the slot for the Rams. Combined, the other top cornerbacks for the Rams (Talib, Peters, and Troy Hill) played less than 50 defensive snaps TOTAL from the slot. This is crucial for when the Patriots spread out the defense and go 4-wide in a 2x2 formation or in any formation where they line up in both slots. While Robey-Coleman will be manning one slot, the other guy is going to get a linebacker or a safety. The Patriots will get some funky Chris Hogan vs Lamarcus Joyner or James White vs Mark Barron matchups in space and that’s a huge advantage.

Robey-Coleman is a well above-average slot guy that has had AFC East experience against the Patriots as a member of the Bills from 2013-2016. At just 5’8, he’s pretty much confined to the middle of the field, and that’s where he thrives. However, running vertical routes from the slot or wheel routes to the sideline will expose his lack of height. According to Pro Football Focus, Tom Brady had a 140.1 passer rating when targeting the 6’1 Chris Hogan in the slot. Taking Edelman out of the slot and inserting Hogan there instead in a few packages could pay dividends.

While the Rams’ defensive line is terrifying on paper, I think that their weaknesses at linebacker and against tight ends and running backs will be their downfall. Belichick was right when he praised Wade Phillips for keeping his defense the same and relevant across four decades of football. But Belichick and McDaniels already know the winning formula: avoid throwing to wide receivers on the boundary, dominate mismatches in man coverage, and attack the middle of the field. Aaron Donald is going to have to play like the monster he is for the Rams to even have a chance defensively, but the ball might already be out.

Patriots offensive prediction: 34 points