Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The 53rd edition of the NFL’s biggest game will take place in Atlanta as the New England Patriots will face the Los Angeles Rams. Here’s what to watch for:
RAMS’ DEFENSE, WHILE TALENTED, IS INCONSISTENT
While Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favors a 3-4 defense that asks his front-seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it, his unit this season has been mediocre. The Rams’ defense in 2018 ranked 19th overall, 14th against the pass and 23rd against the run.
A few statistics stand out in regards to Los Angeles. Finishing middle of the pack in quarterback takedowns (15th in sacks) is an indicator of their lack of pass rush depth. Even though they employ the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, former All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, the underrated Michael Brockers and former Jacksonville Jaguar Dante Fowler – who are all solid gap penetrators – the linebacker position is a barren wasteland beyond former safety Mark Barron.
The Rams were also third in interceptions and 26th in passing touchdowns allowed. This speaks to the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. While they both excel in man and zone coverage along with nickel cornerbacks Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman, they – along with safety Lamarcus Joyner – love to take risks and go for interceptions.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Peters has allowed 21 touchdowns in his four years in the league – third most in that span – but also has intercepted the most balls (24). Sometimes taking chances pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, as being consistently aggressive can come back to hurt you.
The Rams can create pressure with a four-man rush, which is generally the right idea in order to try and stop Tom Brady and company. More often than not, the blueprint league-wide has been to eschew blitzing and play stifling coverage behind the rush – especially in press-man, in order to not allow New England’s wide receivers to use their leverage against defensive backs in their vaunted option routes. The best examples of this came in three Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants (2007, ’11) and Philadelphia Eagles (2017), and in the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.
Phillips’ defenses are usually schematically excellent, but his coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations, and he has utilized zone on most of the Rams’ defensive snaps. Look for the Patriots to try and exploit this trend.
GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO
Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines nearly 20 years ago, the team didn’t have anything remotely close to fielding a good offense for a long time. That has changed since Sean McVay took over last year, and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.
Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington, and also was on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.
The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – including the Rams’ Todd Gurley, who is also dangerous in the screen game and on routes to the flats.
Backup running back C.J. Anderson, a former Bronco and Panther, has also been rejuvenated in Los Angeles, as he and Gurley have executed runs out “11” personnel (one tight end, one back) on 83.6 percent of the team’s rushes – most in the league. The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses. In front of Gurley and Anderson are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein.
Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate, intelligent and throws a better deep ball than some realize. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him. Since slot extraordinaire Cooper Kupp went down for the season in week 10 with a knee injury, his statistics while under pressure have taken a nosedive – completing just 21 of 48 passes for 219 yards and two picks, numbers that are comparable to rookie Josh Rosen’s.
Goff is also sometimes a tad late when it comes to exploiting coverages. According to USA Today’s Doug Farrar, “(Goff) throws with anticipation to a degree, but he’s often throwing guys open when they’re already open, meaning that he’s throwing them closed and allowing defensive backs to jump and pick routes. The problem gets worse when his receivers are challenged.”
The weapons that Goff has at his disposal are wideouts Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Cooks, a former Patriot, is one of the NFL’s best vertical threats. Woods has emerged as a solid possession receiver since leaving the Buffalo Bills and Higbee and Everett have been relied upon more following the injury to Kupp.
One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties. This will likely continue on Sunday.
PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE RAMS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS
Brady has executed many different schemes throughout his illustrious career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.
The Patriots’ passing game is built around concepts and using formations and motioning to create favorable matchups for their inside weapons – check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here (http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/). Their premier pass-catchers are veteran Julian Edelman, who is still as quick and shifty as ever, and running back James White, who excels in the screen game.
Gronkowski – by all accounts the league’s best at his position – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can run almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. However, the wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries (notably a back issue that has dogged him throughout his career) has slowed him down this year.
New England’s offensive line is made up of Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. This unit might be the most under-appreciated in the league, as it is capable of providing push in the running game and can protect Brady with ease. Thuney and Mason, in particular, have been impressive, as the former hasn’t allowed a sack all year and the latter since the opening week of the season.
Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan are reliable in the deep and intermediate parts of the passing game, respectively. Josh Gordon, one of the NFL’s most talented players, has been suspended for the fifth time in his career and his playing days are likely over.
Running back Sony Michel has also provided a shot in the arm on the ground, giving the Patriots 931 yards and six scores behind a power-blocking scheme that is reminiscent of the Pats’ ground game tactics utilized earlier this century. In fact, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has used two backs or more on 37.3 percent of the team’s plays this season – second-most in the NFL. Fullback James Develin has emerged as an elite blocker and a serviceable receiver, and his talents have added another dimension to New England’s multi-faceted attack.
One such old-school running play that the Pats have executed to great success this year is Power-O – a man-blocking play which features double-teams at the point of attack with a guard pulling towards the side of the play. Michel has picked up a lot of yards from this, and the Patriots also succeed with play-action off of the same scheme. Pulling guards in play-action can influence linebackers’ coverage responsibilities, and New England could certainly apply it on Sunday.
NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE NO LONGER MULTIFACETED
Early in Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England, his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.
According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.
“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”
Heady veterans Devin and Jason McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Stephon Gilmore and rookie J.C. Jackson hold down the fort on the back end, while the versatile Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are their starting linebackers. The technically-sound Trey Flowers is New England’s only proven pass rusher, and Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise make up the rest of their front four.
Lately, Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores have gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing six players with stunts and twists when opposing offenses show a five-man protection scheme – often with man-coverage across the board and no deep safeties (also known as Cover Zero). They have also blitzed mainly on third-down, as they have rushed more than four players 57.7 percent of the time in those situations since Week 12 – the highest rate in the NFL.
THIS AND THAT
- Look for the Patriots to liberally use press coverage in order to disrupt the timing in the Rams’ passing game, and not just by their defensive backs. Belichick could conceivably use his linebackers to also chip on wideouts while they are near the line of scrimmage before passing them off to cornerbacks – similar to the scheme the team used in their last Super Bowl matchup against the Rams in 2001.
- Gronkowski is deadly on “wham” blocks – aka run blocks where a defender is left unattended to, only to receive a crack-back block at the last second.
- If the Pats commit to setting the edge against outside-zone running plays, McVay might use more man-blocking runs with pulling guards and power concepts.
- Phillips has used Talib in man coverage against Gronkowski in the past, especially in the 2015 AFC title game. Will he do it again?
- Watch for the Pats to blitz in the interior gaps against the Rams, which is a good way to eliminate cutback lanes for running backs in zone-based schemes. The Pats’ defensive linemen also have good size, which helps them plug gaps.
- The Rams allowed 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season, worst in the NFL, but just 2.3 in the playoffs. The Patriots’ opponent in the AFC title game, Kansas City, allowed 5.0.
- The Detroit Lions, who have a defense engineered by a former Belichick assistant in Matt Patricia, had success against the Rams in Week 13 by using Cover Four – a matchup-zone coverage that divides the field into quarters. While New England hasn’t used much of Cover Four this season, they could attempt to mimic the Lions’ approach. Conversely, the Rams could also create a few new passing plays in order to defeat such a coverage.
- Will the Rams attempt to cover White with Barron? Barron has struggled against running backs this season – see Alvin Kamara’s 11 catches for 96 yards against him in the NFC title game – but the Rams have usually taken him off the field for backup Marquis Christian in such situations. Problem is, if Christian is in the game, Brady could change the play and run the ball at Christian.
- If Edelman lines up close to the line of scrimmage, it’s an indicator that he will run a crossing route – usually off of play-action.