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

What do the Patriots have to do on defense to win Super Bowl 53?

Los Angeles Rams v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The rise of Sean McVay and Jared Goff from positional coach and disappointing first overall pick to the Super Bowl has been awesome to watch. Featuring Todd Gurley and an offensive system that allows Goff to make reads quickly and decisively, has led to one of the best offenses in football in 2018. While the Patriots’ defense has been relatively successful in the playoffs, largely because of the pass rush, the Rams feature a balanced offense that’s ready to pounce on every mistake.

What can we learn from the last matchup?

Like I highlighted in my offensive preview, the last time the Patriots played the Rams was in 2016, Goff’s rookie year and the last game coached by Jeff Fisher. Goff was terrible his rookie year by no fault of his own. Similar to Josh Rosen this year in Arizona, Goff was not put in the right position to succeed. Todd Gurley, Goff, and right tackle Rob Havenstein are the lone offensive starters that remain on the Super Bowl roster.

Plan for 11 formation and the no-huddle

The Rams offense, led by wunderkind/prodigy/mythical god Sean McVay have streamlined their offense into a well-oiled machine. Unlike what you see out of the Patriots and other teams, the Rams aren’t very flexible or creative with their offensive personnel. They line up in 11 personnel (3 wide receivers, 1 running back, 1 tight end) on an overwhelming percentage of their snaps.

These numbers might even undersell the use of 11 personnel. If you confine the parameters to offensive snaps when the game was within 14 points, the Rams’ utilization of 11 personnel jumped to 93%. And when they ran their no huddle offense, something they utilized 12% of snaps, second most in the NFL, they were in 11 personnel 100% of the time.

Instead of through personnel, the Rams scheme mismatches and opens receivers through pre-snap reads and through motions and play-action. They are ahead of the curve in their propensity for running the ball against lighter boxes with 77% of their runs coming out of an 11 formation. Los Angeles’ passing game took a hit when Cooper Kupp, it starting slot wide receiver, was lost for the season and replaced with Josh Reynolds, but the team has still been able to move the football.

The Patriots have struggled a bit when facing the run with a lighter box and did not face a team that ran no-huddle this year outside of the two-minute drill. The play of Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower will be crucial to the success of the overall defense on Sunday. The duo is coming off its best play of the season in wins over the Chargers and Chiefs.

Disguise defenses against Goff

Did you know that Julian Edelman was a college quarterback? Did you know Chris Hogan played lacrosse at Penn State? Did you know that Sean McVay talks to Jared Goff and tells him pre-snap reads before the play clock dips under 15? All of these narratives have been run into the ground but only the third will be relevant on Sunday. The Patriots are one of the few teams in the NFL that are truly matchup oriented on both sides of the ball. They are amoebas, melding to whatever game plan they feel is the best.

While Jared Goff has taken major positive strides in his play over the last couple years, he still remains an inexperienced quarterback that relies a lot on McVay and the system. The Patriots’ defense is just the kind of defense that could give Goff fits. In a Super Bowl that’s looking more and more like a home game for the Patriots, the young passer could struggle to communicate like he did in New Orleans for most of the first half. Expect a heavy dose of funky defensive packages including disguised pressures, overload blitzes, robber coverage and zone blitzes. The Rams’ offensive line is better than both AFC West teams the Patriots dominated on the way to Atlanta, but the Patriots should still be able to generate pressure with four.

Stop the run

The whole “run the ball and stop the run in the playoffs” old school narrative has been almost decisively disproved in modern football by the analytics nerds, but against this Rams offense the adage still remains true. If the Patriots can make the Rams one dimensional on offense, their scheme collapses.

In Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, the Rams have one of the most dynamic duos out of the backfield. You’ll never see both of them on the field together — the Rams didn’t have a single offensive snap in 2018 with multiple backs on the field — but they compliment each other perfectly. In many ways they are similar to the Dion Lewis/LeGarrette Blount backfield that the Patriots featured for a few years, with Gurley being a true three-down back that’s always a big-play threat and Anderson being that pudgy big back that can wear down tired defenses in the fourth quarter and in short yardage situations.

If the Patriots are able to stop the run, then the Rams’ dangerous play-action passing game loses its virulence. The Rams utilized play action on a league high 34% of their offensive snaps, averaging 9.0 yards per play, two full yards per play more than their offensive plays without play-action. When the Rams lose their ability to use play action, more and more of the burden of the offense shifts from the running backs and Sean McVay to the arm of Jared Goff. It’s nothing personal against Jared Goff, who I think will challenge Patrick Mahomes for best new-age quarterback in his prime. But at this point in his career, that shift in responsibility is an advantage for the Patriots because quite simply, Goff can’t win games by himself yet.

Should the Patriots continue to play aggressive man defense?

It’s no secret that the Patriots are preparing for an offensive skill group of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, Tyler Higbee/Gerald Everrett, and Todd Gurley/C.J. Anderson. They can expect that five on over 90% of snaps, and as a result, they won’t need to do much substituting in the secondary. Against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots deployed their four cornerback dime package with Jonathan Jones over Duron Harmon because they treated Travis Kelce like a big wide receiver. With Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, both versatile tight ends that can block, I would expect Harmon to slide back into his natural role as deep safety.

The Patriots have had a lot of success with press-man coverage, ramping up their already league-high usage in the playoffs. But the Rams often times used condensed formations that prevents jams and allows free-releases from their wide receivers.

When the Rams line up in stacks and bunches, they’ll get free releases. And the Rams use all sorts of methods to ensure that they have always have a safety valve available. For this reason I can see the Patriots utilizing a lot more zone. Against elite veteran quarterbacks that can pick apart holes in a zone it’s a problematic strategy, but I’m not convinced that Goff can do that. And there are plenty of ways for the Patriots to be able to scheme away from a vanilla zone through zone blitzes and other disguised pressures.

When the Patriots do play man, I expect them to put Stephon Gilmore on Robert Woods, J.C. Jackson on Josh Reynolds and Jason McCourty with help on Brandin Cooks. Like I mentioned before, this group takes a huge hit without Cooper Kupp, but these three can all get open through scheme or talent.

Sean McVay’s path to elite NFL head coach over the last few years is remarkable. He has his system: lots of plays from under center, lots of play action, lots of no-huddle and almost all from 11 personnel. And so far it has worked, vaulting a third year quarterback and an offense without any elite pass catchers to the second best team by offensive DVOA.

For me, this matchup will come down to the trenches. The Rams’ offensive line is fantastic, led by the ageless Andrew Whitworth at left tackle. But if Goff feels pressure, he loses most of his effectiveness, going from a 72.1% completion percentage and 9.1 yards per attempt when unpressured to a 43.4% completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt and more interceptions than touchdowns when under duress. In my opinion, the Patriots and their rejuvenated pass rush will get home just enough to slow down the Rams offense.

Final prediction: Patriots 34 Rams 30