By now, everybody following the NFL probably knows plenty about the matchup between the New England Patriots offense and the Los Angeles Rams defense: Tom Brady and his receivers going against a secondary led by Marcus Peters and ex-Patriot Aqib Talib, New England’s offensive line trying to clear paths versus a talented front seven featuring standout linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
The L.A. defense, however, goes beyond its big-name members as Joe McAtee points out. “What has been enjoyable covering this defense is to see the power of name recognition resonate throughout the league,” he told Pats Pulpit. “Aaron Donald! Ndamukong Suh! Aqib Talib! Marcus Peters! Dante Fowler! Names that people know! And then the football starts, and name recognition couldn’t matter less.”
Joe is part of the managing team at our sister site Turf Show Times and as such closely following a Rams squad that ranked 19th in the NFL during the regular season with a scoring average of 23.4 points surrendered per game. “We’ve talked a lot on our side about how this isn’t a bad defense by any means,” he said. “It’s also not one of the league’s best, but coupled with the offensive firepower, it’s been obviously sufficient to get us to this point.”
One part of the reason that the Rams now find themselves two days away from their first Super Bowl performance since returning to Los Angeles in 2016 are the performances of the team’s players not named Donald, Suh or Talib. “There are plenty of contributors I’d point to that don’t carry the recognition those guys do outside the Rams’ bubble,” he said before singling out one player in particular: safety John Johnson.
Johnson played the second-most snaps on the Rams this season and registered 130 tackles as well as a team-high five interception so far this season. “Johnson might be the best defender on the team after Aaron Donald while enjoying about 1% of his fame,” said Joe about the defensive back who is not the only under-the-radar player mentioned out as a core contributor on the Rams’ defense.
“Defensive lineman Michael Brockers is a key run gap stuffer and has been since he was drafted in 2012,” said Joe. “Linebacker Mark Barron is the chief run game backer. Linebacker Cory Littleton, a special teams star who lacks technical supremacy on defense, has been thrust into the job in the wake of Alec Ogletree’s departure. Slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman has been very good in his role before embracing the villain narrative coming out of the NFC Championship.”
Not all has been perfect for Los Angeles, though, and part of it is inconsistent play by some of those lesser-known defenders. The shortcoming were especially apparent in the ground game: the Rams — as good as they were against the pass and when it come to putting pressure on quarterbacks — struggled to stop teams from running on them during the regular season as both advanced metrics and traditional statistics showed.
So is it fair to say that the team has issues against the run, especially considering that the Patriots have been powerful in this aspect of the game? Only partially, said Joe. “It’s an accurate portrayal for the regular season. In the playoffs though, the run defense has been fantastic,” he pointed out. “They shut down Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott before doing the same against the Saints’ duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.”
“A large part of that has simply been defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh,” continued Joe about the reasons for the team’s success in this part of the game. “He’s been much, much, much better in the playoffs than he was throughout the regular season. Is that something to expect again on Sunday or will there be a return to form? I have no clue, but it’s clear the Rams’ defensive front has just been much improved in run defense the last two weeks.”
For the Patriots, being able to establish a presence on the ground will be key. And if the team is able to neutralize Suh as well as his talented partner Aaron Donald it will be on some of the players mentioned above to carry the load. Will they be able to do it? And will the Patriots even be able to force them in potentially unfavorable situations? That remains to be seen, but might very well be a key factor on Sunday.