The New England Patriots are entering Super Bowl 53 with a worse year-long record than the Los Angeles Rams, but the matchup between the two conference champions still projects to be a close one. Too talented are both teams in all three phases, too good their respective coaching staffs for the game to be tilted in any one direction. Just like the Patriots’ previous eight appearances on the game’s biggest stage under head coach Bill Belichick, this one might be a tight affair.
And as the Patriots very well know, all it takes is one play to shift the momentum of a Super Bowl — or any contest, really. Consequently, any of the following six things to look for could ultimately turn out to be the difference on Sunday and decide whether or not New England will be able to bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy to the northeast.
1. Can the Patriots keep the Rams’ entire defensive arsenal away from Tom Brady?
As you may have heard by now, the Rams field one of the NFL’s pass rushing duos in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Both players are capable of single-handedly impact games, as they have shown time and again this season: Donald, the league’s sack leader and its likely defensive player of the year, led all defenders in quarterback takedowns during the regular season with 20.5. Suh, meanwhile, registered 4.5 sacks before adding 1.5 during the playoffs.
We have discussed time and again over the last two weeks that finding a way to slow down the prolific duo in the passing game will be a key for the Patriots to get into an offensive rhythm and by extension put pressure on Los Angeles’ own offense. However, the Rams’ abilities to get after the quarterback go beyond the two superstars: the team’s other front seven players are also capable of bringing pressure on a fairly regular basis even though there is still a noticeable drop-off when compared to Donald and Suh.
The most prominent non-Donald/Suh pass rushers L.A. employs are linebackers Cory Littleton and Samson Ebukam as well as in-season addition Dante Fowler. The trio combined for 10.5 sacks and an additional 19 quarterback hits so far this year and with the Patriots probably investing a lot of their attention on stopping could have an impact on the game in one way or another. From the Patriots’ perspective, however, it is important to not let the “other guys” put too much pressure on Brady.
So far this postseason, New England’s blockers have done a tremendous job at doing that. Brady has not been sacked through playoff games one and two, and pressured only 15 times while the Patriots basically shut down star pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa on the Los Angeles Chargers, and Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston on the Kansas City Chiefs one week later.
To put this all in perspective, the Chargers and Chiefs sacked opposing quarterbacks on 6.9% and 8.3% of dropbacks during the regular season, respectively. For comparison, the Rams’ takedown rate of 7.7% is almost exactly in the middle between the two and was good enough for 12th best in the league. During the playoffs so far, however, this number went down to just 4.4%. Keeping the number similarly low would be a win for New England.
2. Can the Patriots establish a presence on the ground?
Probably the best way to help the Patriots keep Tom Brady clean is by keeping the Rams defense off balance and honest against the ground game. Los Angeles was inconsistent in this area during the regular season, ranking just 28th in the league in Fooball Outsiders’ DVOA metric with a +1.5% rate, meaning that teams perform consistently better against the Rams on the ground than they do against clubs in the same scenario.
But of course, statistical metrics don’t win games: performance and preparation do. And the latter might lead to the Rams trying to primarily slow down New England’s rushing attack, led by outstanding rookie Sony Michel. Neither the Chargers nor the Chiefs could do this in the playoffs so far and it cost them dearly in the end. If L.A. wants to win the Super Bowl, it cannot allow the Patriots to run wild over its defense.
The problem is that Michel in particular was unfazed by stacked boxes after New England’s bye week, as this graphic by Pro Football Focus illustrates:
Teams attempted to load the box against the 31st overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft at the highest rate in the league but to no avail: Michel was still a top-five back in the NFL in generating yardage and being able to break through contact. If this continues on Sunday, the Patriots will have a very good chance of dictating the tempo and flow of the game when in possession of the football.
Speaking of which:
3. Who will control the tempo of the game?
New England has done a tremendous job all year long when it came to playing games on its own terms by controlling the clock. Never was that more evident, however, then during the playoffs: the Patriots dominated time of possession against both Los Angeles and Kansas City by sticking to the run game and keeping drives alive by converting on third downs. As a result, the team held the football for an average of 38:43 the last two games:
New England's time of possession has taken a leap in the team's two postseason games. pic.twitter.com/HbfIrs2MJ9— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) January 30, 2019
The ability to do that was key against the two terrific offenses the Patriots faced in the divisional and championship rounds: it kept the units on the sidelines while simultaneously also keeping New England’s own defense fresh. Also, getting up on the two opponents’ put even more pressure on them to perform especially considering the limited possessions and time they had at their disposal.
And while the Chiefs were able to fight back, they ultimately needed a last-second field goal to even get the game to an overtime period which they ultimately lost — and that is an offense even more powerful than a Rams attack that while still very good and a top-five unit in football, lacks quite the same firepower as the Patrick Mahomes-led group Kansas City fielded.
Ergo, putting pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff and the entire group surrounding him should ideally not only come in the form of the actual pass rush and defensive schemes, but also in terms of the clock. Staying on the plus side in terms of time of possession might help achieve that — just like it did the last two weeks.
4. How effectively will New England take away the Rams’ run game?
Staying on top of the clock would also have another effect: it would likely force Los Angeles to move away from running the football, at least to a certain extent. While the team can still strike equally effective through the air this one-dimensionality would certainly be beneficial to a Patriots defense that has its strengths in the passing game and coverage as opposed to slowing down the run — at least that is what it looked like during the second half of the regular season.
“We just have to eliminate the run game,” Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler told Pats Pulpit earlier this week when asked about the team’s priorities heading into the matchup with an offense as talented and well-rounded as the Rams’. “We eliminate the run game, we got a chance. I trust in our defensive line, trust in our linebackers and DBs. And once we stop the run, you know our third down unit is going to get out there.”
Fellow defensive tackle Danny Shelton also emphasized that the defense needed to key in on the run to make L.A. as one-dimensional as possible. “Every game you need to have the mindset to stop the run,” Shelton said. “As a defensive lineman, you stop the run you earn the right to rush the passer. If we can establish that from the get go, that will give us a lot more opportunities to cause chaos in the backfield.”
“The Rams are a really good team, they got some big boys up front that are athletic, play hard. They are a challenge,” added rotational edge defender Derek Rivers about the challenge of going up against Los Angeles’ potent ground game — one that ranked as the best in the league during the regular season with a DVOA number of +22.1%. For comparison, New England’s defense had a -7.0% mark (19th) against the run between weeks one and seventeen.
However, Rivers sounded confident in the Patriots’ ability to still successfully limit the impact Los Angeles running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson can have on Sunday. “As long as our technique and our fundamentals are strong, we’ll have a good chance of possibly getting it done,” the second-year defender said. Safe to say, however, that it will not be easy considering that L.A. attempted 74 rushes this postseason and gained 350 yards (4.7 per carry) and four scores.
5. Will L.A. try some kicking game shenanigans?
As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick mentioned during his Thursday presser, now is the time to get it all out there in terms of play calls: there is no need to keep anything held back because the season will be over one way or the other after the Super Bowl. Belichick was asked about trickery because his head coaching counterpart, the Rams’ Sean McVay, is known for trying some shenanigans — especially in the kicking game.
What allows him to do that is having former quarterback Johnny Hekker as his team’s punter. Over the course of his career, Hekker attempted 20 career passes, completing 12 of which for a combined 168 yards and a touchdown — as well as 11 first downs. Needless to say that the Patriots need to be on high alert every time Los Angeles comes out to either punt or to attempt field goals or extra points: Hekker serves as the team’s holder as well.
“When they see something that’s vulnerable, I’m sure they’ve got a few things they can check to and go to because Johnny was an all-state quarterback, I think he can handle a few different plays or an audible or something like that — that’s not rocket science,” said Patriots punter Ryan Allen, a long-time friend and former college teammate of Hekker. “And obviously they’ve been doing that already.”