The New England Patriots defense played an outstanding Super Bowl from start to finish. Whether it is shutting down the Los Angeles Rams’ running game, putting tremendous pressure on their quarterback and pass catchers, forcing eight straight L.A. punts, or simply keeping one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history to a mere three points — the unit did it all while delivering a performance for the ages.
One of the biggest plays of the day for Brian Flores’ group came in the fourth quarter: after the Patriots went up 10-3 on the game’s first (and only) touchdown, the Rams were able to drive the football down the field and found themselves at the New England 27-yard line in just five plays. Following an incompletion on first down, however, cornerback Stephon Gilmore delivered a fatal blow by intercepting Jared Goff at the 4.
Gilmore’s pick was the Patriots’ lone defensive turnover of the day and also one that was in the making all game long. After all, Goff a) threw some dangerous passes before this one wounded up in the arms of the All-Pro cornerback, and b) did look towards his intended target — ex-Patriot Brandin Cooks — quite a lot on the day: Cooks was targeted a game-high 13 times on Super Bowl Sunday.
Let’s take a look at the film to find out how this all led to Gilmore’s interception with 4:17 left on the game clock.
3-7-LA 9 (14:15) (Shotgun) J.Goff pass incomplete short middle to R.Woods (J.Simon).
The first play to look at establishes a recurring theme when it comes to New England’s defense in Super Bowl 53: deception.
The Rams, after failing to convert a pair of third down attempts to open the game, found themselves in a 3rd and 7 from their own 9-yard line in the early second quarter. Los Angeles had its usual 11-personnel group on the field with Jared Goff in the shotgun and running back C.J. Anderson aligned offset to his right.
The Patriots defense countered with a press-man look on the boundaries but did not tip its hand about which coverage it actually was in until the football was snapped. As a result, Goff and the L.A. offense encountered plenty of pre-snap movement:
New England’s safeties — Devin McCourty (#32), Duron Harmon (#21), and Patrick Chung (#23) — and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53) all switched positions multiple times before moving into a single-high look with Harmon as the deep man and McCourty playing a robber role underneath. This, in turn, forced Goff to make a split-second decision with the football in his hands and the Patriots were comfortable that this would work to their advantage.
It did: time and again, the third-year quarterback proved himself incapable of deciphering New England’s defensive motions. Who would blitz? Who would drop into coverage? Which defender would cover which skill position player? The Patriots challenged Goff’s abilities to read and react and most of the time came out on top doing that as his final stat-line shows: the former first-overall draft pick completed just 19 of his 38 pass attempts for 229 yards and Gilmore’s pick.
On this particular play, Goff was unaware of McCourty dropping into the underneath zone which almost led to an interception. Had defensive edge John Simon (#55) not tipped the football, the safety might have come up with it at around the 20-yard line. Simon, of course, is not to blame for getting his hands up to deflect the pass attempt as he is told to get after the football as soon as it leaves the quarterback’s hands:
What also hurt Goff on this incompletion was the offensive line allowing him to be pressured. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (#54) was able to beat right tackle Rob Havenstein (#79) to the inside to get close to the passer and force him to get rid of the football quickly. Ultimately, the decision that was made by Goff was a bad one — but one that forced “only” a punt and did not give the Patriots the football in prime field position.
1-10-LA 25 (15:00) J.Goff pass incomplete short middle to J.Reynolds (D.Hightower).
Dont’a Hightower also plays an integral role in the second play to look at leading up to Stephon Gilmore’s interception. On the very first play from scrimmage in the second half, the veteran aligned as the Mike linebacker in the team’s 4-1 front. His role, however, was not to play downhill against a potential run but to drop into coverage in the team’s cover 4 defense — something Jared Goff did apparently not register:
Coming out of the faked hand-off, Goff saw two things: linebacker Tyler Higbee (#89) was covered by Hightower down the seam, and wide receiver Josh Reynolds (#13) was running an in-breaking route below two deep zone defenders. The former first-overall draft pick did obviously not anticipate Hightower to change direction as fluidly to potentially break up — or worse: intercept — the passing attempt towards Reynolds.
This was another bad decision by the quarterback that almost led to a turnover. Hightower played the down exceptionally well by sticking to Higbee first before moving towards the boundary to undercut Goff’s pass. And even though the 28-year old failed to come up with the interception, the play itself served as another reminder that Goff was not the soundest of quarterbacks that day when it comes to dissecting the defense and making the right choices.
2-10-NE 27 (4:24) (Shotgun) J.Goff pass deep right intended for B.Cooks INTERCEPTED by S.Gilmore at NE 4. S.Gilmore to NE 4 for no gain (B.Cooks).
Fast forward to the fourth quarter and the Stephon Gilmore interception — a play that again saw the Patriots challenge Jared Goff’s ability to make correct decisions and take calculated risks. Facing a 2nd and 10, L.A. had its usual 11-personnel group on the field: Brandin Cooks (#12) was isolated to the right with a trips set on the opposite side of the formation, and the quarterback in the shotgun with a running back off-set to his right.
The Patriots defense, meanwhile, aligned in a cover 0 look (no safeties deep) with the defenders playing off-coverage:
However, as the unit has shown all game long, its initial alignments could not be trusted: the safeties or linebackers might very well drop into coverage leaving the standard four-man rush. New England did no such thing, though, and instead opted to go full-out pressure against Goff — at least initially with Kyle Van Noy (#53) dropping into the underneath zone to take away the underneath zone.
This, in turn, created a numbers advantage for the Patriots up front that left blitzing safety Duron Harmon (#21) unaccounted for: while New England rushed “only” five against the Rams’ six blockers, Van Noy pulling out resulted in left guard Rodger Saffold (#76) being left without a player to block. On the other side of the formation, however, Harmon was free to roam through the B-gap to get into the backfield:
Harmon’s blitz combined with Van Noy dropping into coverage underneath forced Goff into a difficult spot and what looked like a desperation heave towards Brandin Cooks off his back foot. With the safety coming close, the quarterback tried making a play but due to the messed up timing and technique it resulted in the worst possible outcome from Los Angeles’ perspective: an easy interception.
Stephon Gilmore (#24) came up with the pick after the pass fell well short of its intended target. The cornerback — arguably the best in the NFL this season — played the down very well: he did not get too aggressive against the wide receiver and instead let Cooks close the gap between the two while always keeping his back to the boundary with the potential to cut inside and play the football if need be. This is exactly what happened:
By playing patiently, Gilmore brought himself in a position to pick off the under-thrown football from snap to catch. But while he was the primary beneficiary of Goff’s ill-advised pass, the defensive back is not the only one responsible for coming up with the turnover that helped seal the game in New England’s favor. Duron Harmon, Kyle Van Noy and the rest of the defense also helped make it possible.
The same goes for the Patriots’ coaching staff recognizing Goff’s deficiencies when it comes to making decisions under physical and mental pressure on Super Bowl Sunday. All added up helped the team limit Los Angeles’ potent passing game for 60 minutes — and it culminated in Gilmore’s interception with under five minutes left in the game. A New England field goal on the ensuing drive would ultimately bring the game out of reach for the NFC champions and the Patriots their sixth title.