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Film room: Breaking down the unheralded defensive stars of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win

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While Stephon Gilmore and company received most of the praise, some under-the-radar performances were equally important on Super Bowl Sunday.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The New England Patriots defense put forward a performance for the ages in Super Bowl 53. Led by its superstars — from Trey Flowers to Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy to Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty — the unit held the Los Angeles Rams’ explosive offense to nothing more than a field goal on the game’s biggest stage. However, the dominating outing was made possible by more than “just” the big names.

The Lawrence Guys and the John Simons, the Danny Sheltons and Jason McCourtys: they all contributed to the Patriots shutting down the Rams to help secure New England’s sixth Lombardi Trophy. Let’s take a closer look at some of their biggest plays to find out what kind of impact they had on the Super Bowl.

CB Jonathan Jones

The first player we take a look at is cornerback Jonathan Jones. After slipping down the depth chart during the regular season due to the emergence of both J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty, Jones bounced back over the final two postseason games. He played a key role in defending the Kansas City Chiefs’ All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship Game before playing 64 of 65 snaps against the Rams.

Adding a noticeable speed element to the defense, Jones (#31) saw plenty of snaps as an additional safety as is illustrated by the following play:

Aligning as the deep centerfield safety to the weak side of the formation, Jones patiently moves to his right at the play action before turning back to cover tight end Tyler Higbee (#89) on a crossing route behind Dont’a Hightower (#54). While Higbee was not targeted on the throw, Jones still had an impact by reacting quickly and tackling receiver Josh Reynolds (#83) to keep the play’s gain to 10 yards.

All game long, New England trusted Jones as a safety and to react properly with the play in front of him. He did not disappoint, which became even more valuable after strong safety Patrick Chung was lost to injury early on the following play in the third quarter:

On this stretch run to the offensive left — the one Chung unfortunately broke his arm in — Jones again aligned as a deep-field safety over the formation’s weak side. But despite being a second-level defender, he was quick to the ball due to his straight-line speed and ability to read the play and react accordingly. His vision and positioning were equally impressive and important, and might make him an intriguing option at safety moving forward

Overall, Jones delivered an encouraging performance and it will be interesting to see how the team approaches his restricted free agency moving forward. His versatility, experience and speed certainly are assets as he showed all Super Bowl long. And his contributions are not limited to the defensive side of the ball, either: Jones also was on the field for 17 snaps in the kicking game, further showing why he has become a valuable player for the Patriots even though his defensive playing time has been somewhat inconsistent in 2019.

DE Deatrich Wise Jr.

After missing the Patriots’ first two playoff games due to an ankle injury, Deatrich Wise Jr. returned in the Super Bowl to play 30 of 65 defensive snaps as the number two defensive edge behind Trey Flowers. And as he did all year long, Wise Jr. showed that he can be an impact player agains the run and — as the following play illustrates — the pass:

Aligning as a five-technique defensive edge between right tackle Rob Havenstein (#79) and tight end Tyler Higbee (#89), Wise Jr. (#91) did not over-pursue the run or pass at the time of the snap and instead patiently read his keys. Once it became clear that quarterback Jared Goff (#16) would not hand the football off but keep it off the play-fake, the second-year man aggressively shed Higbee by using a combination of solid hand placement and upper-body strength.

Havenstein was too late to come over, which allowed Wise Jr. to get to the quarterback quickly and force an off-platform throw. On the day, the 24-year old finished with two quarterback pressures in the passing game as a solid option opposite superstar defender Flowers. And as noted above, his contributions did not end in the passing game: Wise Jr. also was solid when it came to stopping the run.

The following two plays show his impact on the ground game and how mature of a player he already is:

Once again aligning on the defensive left edge as a five-technique, Wise Jr. was able to counter tight end Tyler Higbee’s aggressive down block by getting the upper position and disengaging quickly upon approach of the ball carrier. While a 3-yard run stop itself might not be as flashy as a sack or quarterback hit, it is still a big play — and one that shows the defender’s growth and smarts as a versatile member of New England’s defense.

The same can be said about the following play:

The play was disrupted by New England’s entire defensive front, but it was Wise Jr. to finish running back Todd Gurley (#30) after a gain of only two yards. The 2017 fourth-round draft pick was able to get off Rob Havenstein’s block by successfully challenging the outside shoulder due to his length and strong upper half — bringing himself in a position to tackle the runner after minimal gain and to set up a 3rd and 6 situation.

In general, Wise Jr. will be an interesting player to watch moving forward: with Trey Flowers set to hit unrestricted free agency next month, he could suddenly be forced into a bigger role along the Patriots’ defensive line.

DT Lawrence Guy

The Patriots’ interior defensive line had its ups and downs during the regular season, but did play outstanding football in the postseason: the group kept both the Los Angeles Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs in check on the ground was solid agains the pass, and repeated the performances against the Rams in the Super Bowl. A big reason for that was the play of defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who had an outstanding title game.

Like the aforementioned Wise Jr, Guy (#93) stood out as both a stopper and a pass rusher:

On this play — a 5-yard run to close the first quarter — Guy aligned as a three-technique over Rams right guard Austin Blythe (#66). At the snap, the two players engaged but the Patriots defender was able to hold his ground before moving Blythe off his balance to get inside position towards the A-gap. This, in turn, allowed Guy to tackle running back C.J. Anderson (#35) after a gain of five yards.

The 28-year old also was solid against the passing game. On the day, he finished with two quarterback hits — one of it coming on the following play:

Once again, Guy displayed the ability to hold his ground at the point of attack. Starting as a three-technique tackle, the veteran moved inside at the snap to go one-on-one against L.A. center John Sullivan (#65) — a player New England tried to attack all game. Here, he was unable to get a hold of Guy after the Patriot successfully disengaged from his grip and get around the right shoulder towards the quarterback.

The Patriots approach the down in a so-called over front with the strong-side defensive tackle Guy aligning in the three-technique spot. At the snap, he is again able to get around Blythe by simply being able to get underneath the unsuccessful blocking attempt and towards a quarterback. Before hitting Jared Goff (#16), the passer threw the football incomplete to avoid a sack.

While Guy saw most of his action as a run-stuffer in the middle this season, his ability to pass rush from an interior position is what makes him a core player in New England’s defense — and as valuable player as any in the front seven.

DT Malcom Brown

While Lawrence Guy will be back next season, Malcom Brown’s return is up in the air: the 32nd overall selection of the 2015 draft did not see his fifth-year contract option get picked up by the Patriots and will enter unrestricted free agency in March. It certainly projects to be an interesting experience for the 25-year old, considering that his 2018 season did not see him continue the growth he displayed during his first three years in the NFL.

In the Super Bowl, however, he was again a positive presence at the heart of New England’s defense.

On this play, one-technique Brown (#90) was able to hold his own against the initial double team at the point of attack — something that was not always the case this season. Him not getting pushed back too far off the football forced running back Todd Gurley (#30) to take a step towards the middle of the field and into the waiting arms of Lawrence Guy (#93) for minimal gain. While the play does not appear on Brown’s stat sheet, it is good example for what he brings to the table when he is on top of his game.

He was again on the following snap, another double team that he successfully competed against:

Going up versus center John Sullivan (#65) and right guard Austin Blythe (#66), Brown does get moved back after the snap but not out of position. This, in turn, allowed him to get off the blocking attempt as soon as Blythe moved over to help against stunting Mike linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52). As a result, Brown helped Roberts with the takedown of running back C.J. Anderson (#35).

Just like Lawrence Guy, Brown is not known for his impact as a pass rusher — but every now and then his abilities still shone through against the Rams. It will therefore be interesting to find out what kind of value the Patriots or other teams place on him as he approaches the open market.

DE John Simon

One of the most under-the-radar players on the Patriots’ roster was defensive edge John Simon. Added almost four weeks after his cutdown-day release by the Indianapolis Colts, Simon went on to become a core member of New England’s defensive edge rotation. As such, he played 14 of 65 snaps in the Super Bowl and finished the game with one tipped pass:

This play is a perfect example of how the Patriots tried to challenge Rams quarterback Jared Goff (#16) with pre-snap motion and non-standard pressure packages. As for Simon (#55), he originally aligned as a seven-technique over the tight end but did not attack him and instead moved towards the middle of the field at the snap. While he failed to find an opening to get into the backfield, Simon read Goff perfectly to get his hands up and deflect the pass to force a fourth down.

Simon also helped impact the following play by effectively jamming the tight end before rushing up the field:

The 28-year old — like Lawrence Guy on a previous play we looked at — was able to maintain his pad level through his rushing attempt into right tackle Rob Havenstein (#79). This allowed Simon to move the blocker back into the quarterback, forcing an immediate release of the football and incomplete pass towards the very tight end he jammed upon his initial release. All in all, this play illustrates that the impact a player has is not always reflected in the stat sheet.

DT Danny Shelton

Danny Shelton’s first and possibly only season with the Patriots — the team did not pick up his fifth-year contract option after bringing him in via a trade with the Cleveland Browns — was nothing to write home about. In the Super Bowl, however, the former 12th overall draft pick was a solid presence at defensive tackle that registered two tackles in his 16 snaps. The first of the two came for a loss of three yards:

Aligning as a one-technique in the team’s over-front, Shelton (#71) was able to penetrate downfield quickly after the snap by using a swim move to get around center John Sullivan (#65). By the time the football was handed off to running back Todd Gurley (#30), the defender was already in the backfield and using sound technique to take down the runner while also not being too aggressive to force a potential miss on a cut.

Shelton also performed well when double-teamed as the following play shows:

Again aligning at the one-technique spot, Shelton is originally double teamed by center John Sullivan and right guard Austin Blythe (#66). While the initial blocking is sound and moves the big-bodied defender out of the gap, he is able to stay active and quickly react to Blythe moving up the field to take on Elandon Roberts (#52). As soon as this happens, Shelton takes advantage of the opening to help Roberts stop Todd Gurley after a gain of only two yards.

Like Malcom Brown, Shelton is headed towards unrestricted free agency and might not be back next year. But his potential final game in a Patriots uniform shows that he can have some value as an early-down run stuffer. The question is how New England evaluates this value.

CB Jason McCourty

Jason McCourty made one of the biggest plays of the Super Bowl when he knocked a would-be touchdown pass that would have given L.A. the lead in the third quarter out of wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ hands. But the first-year Patriot’s performance extended beyond this signature play: McCourty played a great game for the entire 60 minutes against the Rams and their talented group of wide receivers.

One of his best plays came on a 3rd and 10 in the second quarter, on the drive after the Patriot went up 3-0:

McCourty (#30) was aligned in off-man to man coverage against Rams wide receiver Josh Reynolds (#83). At the snap, the veteran took the inside position against the go route and stuck with the wideout in a trail-technique. When Reynolds turned back for the football, McCourty reacted accordingly and also moved his body around to successfully disrupt the catch and force an incompletion.

The key here was the cornerback being able to turn his head around quickly: had he just played the man instead of the ball, McCourty would likely have been flagged for pass interference or given up the 30-yard reception. Instead, the pass was broken up to force a fourth straight Los Angeles punt.

As big as McCourty was in helping slow down the Rams’ aerial attack, his contributions in the running game should not be underestimated either:

McCourty reacted quickly to the play to move downhill after the handoff to C.J. Anderson (#35). While doing so, however, he did not approach the ball carrier too quickly and instead simply took away the outside option before going for the tackle. While the play itself is not the most spectacular example for defensive football in Super Bowl 53, it shows just how well-rounded of a defender McCourty turned out to be for the Patriots — one that, like others mentioned in this article, is scheduled to enter the open market in March.

DT Adam Butler

One player that will remain in New England is defensive tackle Adam Butler. Primarily a pass rusher in his first year with the team, Butler developed into more of a run defender over the course of the 2018 season. That being said, his main contributions still come as a member of the team’s sub-pass rushing packages — just like on the following play:

At the snap, Butler (#70) actively worked up the field against center John Sullivan (#65) who he kept engaged even after left guard Rodger Saffold (#76) moved over. This, in turn, prevented Sullivan from moving back into the middle again to help impede the path of stunting linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53). As a result, Van Noy was able to get through the line to deliver a hit on quarterback Jared Goff (#16).

If not for Butler’s active push against Sullivan, the play would not have been able to go down in the way it ultimately did: with the Patriots’ forcing an incomplete pass and also registering a quarterback hit. And even though Butler’s name was rarely if at all mentioned during the broadcast, he thus played an important role — just like the other players pointed out above.