Despite two powerful offenses meeting in Super Bowl 53, it was the defenses that took center stage for much of the game. Even though the New England Patriots moved the football well at times, they had only three points to show for it entering the fourth quarter. Likewise, the Los Angeles Rams were also sitting at three after they were forced to punt on their first eight possessions.
But after New England opened the second half with three straights punts, Tom Brady and company finally started to generate some offensive momentum on a drive that started inside of 10 minutes left in the game. What followed was the stuff of legends: first, the Patriots delivered a five-play touchdown drive to go up 10-3, followed by another series that burned the clock down to 1:12 and ended with a field goal.
Let’s dissect the first of the two series to find out how New England scored the game’s lone touchdown.
1-10-NE 31 (9:49) T.Brady pass short right to R.Gronkowski to NE 49 for 18 yards (S.Ebukam).
After a 39-yard punt by the Rams set New England up at its own 31, the team opened in a run look with fullback James Develin and running back Sony Michel aligning in an i-formation behind Tom Brady. Tight end Rob Gronkowski aligned on the outside shoulder of right tackle Marcus Cannon, with the play’s two wide receivers in a slot look on the opposite side. All in all, a run was likely to come out of this formation and situation:
However, the Patriots are never afraid to change things up to challenge defenses and they did right there. Instead of calling the expected run with Michel, Tom Brady faked the handoff to the rookie running back. From New England’s perspective, the misdirection worked perfectly as it drew three of the Rams’ second level defenders closer to the box as they all bit on the run fake. This, in turn, made the unit’s left side vulnerable for a pass.
The Patriots, of course, knew this when calling this play to counter the Rams’ aggressiveness. Gronkowski therefore started to run block against edge linebacker Samson Ebukam to further sell the run. However, he quickly released to work his way down the sideline on a swing route towards the boundary. Before he knew what had happened, Ebukam was already in a trailing position — and Gronkowski able to take the pass for 18 yards:
The call itself was a perfect drive starter called by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. With the Patriots willing to stick to the ground game all day, the play action worked well and was perfectly executed by all involved — especially Gronkowski and Brady: the tight end sold his blocking perfectly before releasing downfield, while the quarterback delivered a perfect touch pass to get the football to where only his target could get it.
1-10-NE 49 (8:50) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to J.Edelman to LA 38 for 13 yards (C.Littleton).
With the football at their own 49-yard line, the Patriots used a different personnel group and formation: New England went with a shotgun empty set aligned in a 3x2 formation. The key, however, is the skill position players on the field. While James Develin remained on the field to align to the far left, the team brought primary blocking tight end Dwayne Allen onto the field in place of Chris Hogan. Furthermore, Rex Burkhead subbed in for Sony Michel.
This, in turn, gave the Patriots a seldom used look: they essentially had 22-personnel on the field with Develin in his role as a fullback/tight end hybrid, but split everybody out with the goal of creating favorable matchups across the board. One of them came in the left side slot where Julian Edelman originally lined up:
Los Angeles countered with a two-deep zone look it liked to run on early downs against the Patriots. New England challenged the coverage by running two seam routes with the tight ends to challenge the deep parts of the field, and the outside receivers — Develin on the left and Burkhead on the right — running quick curls to force the underneath linebackers to come down:
In essence, this combination of routes cleared out the middle of the field and left Edelman one-on-one. All that was left to do for Edelman was to get open, and he did it on a familiar route: the same in/out motion he ran on the game-winner in the Super Bowl four years ago.
Edelman was able to get open quickly on the route and Brady tossed him a quick pass before the rush was able to get to him. Speaking of which: even though left guard Joe Thuney gets walked back by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, he is able to give his quarterback the time needed to complete the pass. The Patriots won in the trenches for most of the day, and this play is no exception.
1-10-LA 38 (8:16) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to R.Burkhead pushed ob at LA 31 for 7 yards (M.Peters).
New England stayed in the same personnel group on the next play, with the only pre-snap difference being the alignment — and even that was just due to the fact that it was mirrored: Rex Burkhead and Rob Gronkowski now aligned on the left side of the formation, with Julian Edelman, Dwayne Allen and James Develin to the right. Other than that, it was th exact same look New England used one play earlier.
The similarities did not end there, as the Patriots also used the same route concepts with its four outside receivers: both tight ends ran seam routes, with the boundary players attacking out of quick curls. Edelman, meanwhile, ran a shallow crosser but Brady did not go for his favorite target on the day — instead, he went with Rex Burkhead, who was open against the off-coverage by cornerback Marcus Peters.
Basically, it was another simple “take what the defense gives” play that gained comparatively little yardage when view opposite the first two plays of the drive, but one that a) put the Patriots in a manageable second down situation, and b) set up what was about to happen on the next play — one run out of a familiar formation and personnel group.
2-3-LA 31 (7:43) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep left to R.Gronkowski to LA 2 for 29 yards (C.Littleton).
The biggest play of the day on either side saw two future Hall of Famers connection for potentially the final time: Tom Brady’s 29-yard hookup with Rob Gronkowski was a perfect display of what makes both players great, and also set up the Patriots at the Rams 2-yard line — the first and only time all day a football would be snapped in the red zone.
As noted above, the Patriots used a familiar personnel group and alignment on the 2nd and 3 play from the L.A. 31-yard line. And not just that: the team ran the same exact play it used on Edelman’s 13-yard catch, out of the exact same formation — only, like on the previous play, flipped. The pre-snap alignment therefore looked as follows, with Gronkowski in the left-side slot of the 2x3 formation:
So what made Brady go to Gronkowski instead of a shorter pass this time? The Rams did, for two reasons:
1. Despite facing the same basic alignment for the third snap in a row, the defense was scrambling to line up correctly. Linebacker Cory Littleton came over a bit late to cover Gronkowski after Julian Edelman’s left-to-right pre-snap shift across the formation. Generally, Los Angeles seemed a bit overwhelmed by the 22-look all drive long.
2. L.A. shifted to a one-high safety look right at the snap, with John Johnson serving as the deep centerfielder after originally lining up on Gronkowski’s side of the field. This, in turn, made the safety cover the deep portion from the middle instead of being able to bracket the tight end alongside Littleton. He and Brady made them pay for it.
After releasing into his route, Gronkowski played form an outside position but was able to get a step on Littleton. This was enough for Brady to trust his target to make a play on the ball — and he did by getting around the defender to catch the deep ball. Johnson, meanwhile, was as expected late to come over:
While Brady’s pass to Gronkowski was an outstanding play by both men, it would not have been possible without the offensive line again giving the quarterback ample time to make the throw as the route developed: the unit did an outstanding job against . Los Angeles’ five-man rush both in terms of winning at the point of attack but also when it comes to the communication and chemistry needed to successfully identify and stop the rushers.
Once again, both guards need to be pointed out: while Joe Thuney was able to stifle the NFL’s defensive player of the year — Aaron Donald — one-on-one, Shaq Mason was quick to get off his double-team block to move over and stop stunting wide-nine rusher Samson Ebukam:
Together with the other three linemen — left tackle Trent Brown, center David Andrews, right tackle Marcus Cannon — all winning their matchups as well, Thuney and Mason were therefore able to give their quarterback the time needed to take one of the few deep shots down the field. All in all, this play was masterfully executed by all involved: from the blockers to Brady and Gronkowski to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for using the 22-personnel to create advantageous matchups for his unit.
1-2-LA 2 (7:03) L.Waddle reported in as eligible. S.Michel left tackle for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The game’s first and only red zone snap resulted in the game’s first and only touchdown. The Patriots changed their personnel compared to the previous three plays to do what they did all year long: play smash mouth football. And as usual — especially during the postseason — the plan worked to perfection as New England used its goal line personnel to punch the football in.
The team approached the 1st and goal from the 2-yard line with a 23-personnel package that saw Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen and tackle-eligible LaAdrian Waddle line up at tight end, with Sony Michel and James Develin again in an i-formation in the backfield:
Right before the snap, Allen motioned across the formation from right to left — the side towards which the run was supposed to go. When the play was started, the Patriots immediately were able to control the line of scrimmage with Joe Thuney and Trent Brown winning their one-on-one blocks against Ndamukong Suh and Ethan Westbrooks, respectively. Meanwhile, Gronkowski set a hard edge against John Franklin-Myers.
This, in turn, left only one player unaccounted for on the off-tackle run: safety/linebacker hybrid Mark Barron, who was blocked out of the picture by James Develin. Thus, the path was free for Michel to score the sixth playoff touchdown of his young career — and to give his team a 10-3 lead with only seven minutes left in the Super Bowl.
The touchdown just like the four plays preceding it was perfectly executed by a New England offense that controlled the game for much of its first three quarters but was held back by its own miscues. When the unit did pull it all together, it was able to deliver a perfect series to take a lead the Patriots would not give up again. And while defense dominated the discussion all through the game, it was this excellent offensive series that helped tip the scales in New England’s favor.
This was the sort of drive that legends are made out of, or in other words: this was a vintage Tom Brady-led effort.