The New England Patriots are in Super Bowl 53 as the improbable run of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are going to their ninth Super Bowl since both arrived in New England in 2000. This is basically the third iteration of the Patriots Dynasty with their head coach and quarterback as the two constants as there were three different teams with the 2000-2006 Patriots, the 2007-2013 Patriots, and the 2014-present Patriots.
In 2018 the Patriots finally seemed to be vulnerable and possibly not a contender as the season kicked-off. From a off-season filled with locker room drama regarding Tom Brady’s personal trainer’s role with the team, Brady and Rob Gronkowski retirement rumors, Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension, to a 1-2 start including a loss to former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and to the Jacksonville Jaguars (in an “AFC Championship Game Rematch”), it did not look like the Patriots–after losing Super Bowl 52 to the Eagles and Seth Wickersham stories about the professional marriage of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick eroding–would be in this position of being in the Super Bowl yet again.
However, a six-game winning streak–including a thrilling win in prime-time over the then undefeated Kansas City Chiefs–seemed to quell those fears. However, the Patriots then lost three of five–including an ugly performance on the road against former Patriots great Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans and back-to-back losses in December on the road–including the “Miami Miracle” on a multi-lateral touchdown to the Dolphins and an ugly performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers which included an atrocious Tom Brady interception.
The season ended on an upswing by outlasting an impotent Buffalo Bills offense 24-12 in Tom Brady’s ugliest game of the season and a good old-fashioned stomping of the Jets 38-3 to make everyone believe everything was all good heading into the playoffs. As the playoffs began, the New England Patriots scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions and forced five consecutive punts to jump out to a 35-7 lead as they crushed the Los Angeles Chargers 41-28.
The AFC Championship game featured the Patriots going on the road and out of their comfort zone in Foxboro, MA. The high-powered Kansas City Chiefs were the best team in the AFC all season but the Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead. Although transcendent quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs back in a fantastic fourth quarter, the Patriots overpowered the Chiefs and won 37-31 in overtime.
Super Bowl 53 this week will be broadcast by CBS again on Sunday night at 6:20PM ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Once again, Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Evan Washburn, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely will work from the sidelines.
Super Bowl 53 will be broadcast on Westwood One with their top-notch team of Kevin Harlan calling the play-by-play and Kurt Warner and Mike Holmgren as analysts. Tony Boselli and Ed Werder will provide sideline analysis. Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and local talk radio personality Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday in Super Bowl 53.
The New England defense finished 2018 strong holding the potent Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense to just 17 points, the hapless Buffalo Bills’ offense to just 12 points (and the only Buffalo touchdown came with just over a minute to play and the Patriots ahead by three scores) and the New York Jets managed just a field goal in week 17. In the playoffs the Chargers exploited a defensive breakdown on the first drive but the Chargers did not score again until it was 38-7. Against the Chiefs, the Patriots shut out one of the most potent offenses of the decade (century?) in the first half.
The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season. The defense held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their last six games following their bye week. The defense was temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed before giving up 34 points to Tennessee in week ten and 34 to Miami in week 14.
The Patriots finished the season seventh in points allowed although the defense was 21st in total yards allowed. The defense was 22nd in passing yards allowed and 11th in rushing yards allowed. However, they were 29th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowing teams to rush for an average of 4.9 yards per attempt. In the playoffs the Chargers generated a pitiful 19 yards on ten rushing attempts and Kansas City had just 41 yards on 12 carries.
The defense was excellent on third downs in November and December and finished the season 16th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 38.6% of the time (76 of 197). The New England defense was 16th in the red zone allowing teams to score 58.7% of the time (27 touchdowns on 46 trips). Los Angeles was just five of 13 on third downs last week but two of seven until the Patriots went into the prevent defense leading 38-7 halfway through the third quarter. The Chiefs were just four of nine on third down as the Patriots forced five punts
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against the explosive Rams’ offense with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson and wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods after a strong finish to the 2018 season and playoffs?
SECONDARY IS PRIMARY:
The Los Angeles Rams have had a strong passing attack throughout the 2018 season. Head coach and de facto offensive coordinator Sean McVay spearheaded an offense which scored 527 points (second in the NFL) and averaged almost 33 points per game. Led by quarterback Jared Goff, the passing offense finished fifth in passing yards in the regular season.
The offense remained strong scoring 30 points against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round and then scoring 26 on a tough New Orleans defense. Goff had an MVP caliber season throwing for 4,688 yards, completing 64.9% of his passes and throwing 32 touchdowns.
A familiar face to the New England Patriots is former Saints and Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks. In his first season with the Rams the speedy Cooks had 80 catches for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns. Opposite him was another familiar face in former Bills wide receiver Robert Woods. Woods led the team with 86 catches for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns.
The Rams have been remarkable healthy on offense, but one missing piece has been wide receiver Cooper Kupp. At midseason Kupp tore his ACL in his left knee and was placed on injured reserve. Kupp had been Goff’s security blanket, particularly on third down. He had 40 receptions for 566 yards and a career high six touchdowns in just half a season..
To replace Kupp the Rams have had to turn to 23 year-old wide receiver Josh Reynolds. At six-foot-three and 195 pounds, Reynolds is a taller outside receiver who operates better on the edge than inside in the slot. However, in the NFC Championship game versus the Saints Reynolds took advantage of the extra attention paid to Cooks and Woods and had four big receptions for 74 yards.
The Rams use all three wide receivers interchangeably. They love to use the three wide receivers in a bunch on one side of the field to pressure the opposing secondary. The Patriots will have to communicate well in the secondary to prevent breakdowns in coverage as the Rams will use these bunch formations throughout the game..
In the AFC Championship game the Patriots mixed up their coverage options and put their fastest cornerback (Jonathan Jones) on Tyreek Hill and used free safety Devin McCourty as the bracket coverage on him. That is a potential plan to revisit in the Super Bowl against the deep-threat ability of Brandin Cooks in Super Bowl 53.
The Patriots also have the clamp-down ability of Stephon Gilmore and need to decide how to deploy him in coverage. Add in undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty and the Patriots have multiple options to match-up with the Rams in man-coverage.
Of course, with the Rams’ ability to utilize their wide receivers in multiple formations (including pre-snap motion and jet sweep looks) the Patriots could change-up their coverage and play more zone coverages against the Rams. With the Rams’ penchant for crossing routes, the zone coverage look can cover some bad match-ups in man coverage trying to defend those looks–particularly in bunch formations.
At tight end, the Rams use the duo of Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. Everett is the receiving tight end but only has two catches in two playoff games. Higbee is the run-blocker but despite having just 24 receptions on the season the Rams have passed more to him while running two-tight end sets and Higbee has six receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown this postseason.
Running back Todd Gurley is another weapon in the passing game for Goff while healthy. Gurley had 59 catches for 580 yards and four touchdowns in just 14 regular season games. In the playoffs he started strong against Dallas on the ground but was not doing much in the passing game (two receptions for three yards). Against New Orleans he was benched for C.J. Anderson after a drop led to an interception and he finished with just one catch for three yards.
Linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts are going to be responsible for running back Todd Gurley in the passing game. Gurley is a mismatch in the passing game against most linebackers and has great hands. He is weapon in the passing game and his role could be another reason to play more zone defense.
No matter what protection they are in, New England’s front six or seven has to help their pass defense with a strong pass rush. The Rams are solid on the offensive line–particularly in pass protection–allowing just 33 sacks in the regular season. Goff is a mobile quarterback who can move around in the pocket but not a designated runner who is going to tuck and run repeatedly. Where Goff’s mobility hurts teams is on designed roll-outs (it is the Shanahan/Kubiak offense) along with play-action after the stretch running plays have put pressure on the defense.
The Patriots will have to get in the face of Goff to slow the passing offense. Like any other quarterback Goff struggles with bodies around him. Hitting him, knocking him down, making him have to step-up into a busy pocket is how to get him to make mistakes. Teams that have sat in zone defenses rushing just three get burnt as Goff is at his best the more time he has to throw.
Letting Goff have time to make plays down the field is what makes the offense so dangerous with Cooks and Woods. Edge rushers Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise will need to win some one-on-one match-ups with veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein. On passing plays expect to see John Simon and Adrian Clayborn on the field with Flowers kicking inside next to Adam Butler to get at Goff.
It is no easy task to slow the Rams’ passing game and the Patriots will need to be at their best in the Super Bowl. Slowing Cooks and Woods is a must to keep the Rams from making the game a high-scoring track meet.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against the Rams’ offense this week:
CONTROL THE RUNNING GAME:
The Los Angeles Rams are built on the foundation of the Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak offense filtered through the innovative minds of Kyle Shanahan and head coach Sean McVay. For all the innovation of the offense with formations and motions, it still is that same offense built around stretch runs and play-action passing.
To be successful throwing the ball, the Rams must run the ball effectively to play off of play-action passing. The presence of a strong running game behind Todd Gurley–and a resurgent C.J. Anderson–has resulted in an offense able to stress defenses with three wide receivers and a tight end on the field and running the ball out of this formation. The key to the Rams’ offense remains off-tackle running.
All-Pro running back Todd Gurley was nearly invisible in the NFC Championship game against the Saints after a number of miscues early in the game resulted in the Saints jumping out to an early lead. Both head coach McVay and Gurley insisted he was healthy but he spent much of the game on the sidelines watching C.J. Anderson in the offense.
Don’t buy for a second that Gurley will have a diminished role in the Super Bowl. After rushing for 1,251 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns in just 14 regular season games Gurley remains the key to the offense. While injured at the end of the season Anderson–who played in this offense for five years in Denver–was able to step in and produce..
In two regular season games Anderson rushed for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the playoffs, the former Broncos running back added 123 yards against Dallas and then led the Rams with 44 yards on the ground on 16 carries.
The Rams have a solid run-blocking offensive line featuring four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth who is won his first playoff games this year at age 37 after toiling for years in Cincinnati. Rob Havenstein is a solid run blocker at right tackle and left guard Rodger Saffold has been with the Rams since 2010 and works well in tandem with Whitworth to make a dynamic run-blocking duo. Center John Sullivan and right guard Austin Blythe are the weakest links and where the Patriots will need to target to blow up the running game.
New England brought in defensive tackle Danny Shelton in the offseason to bolster their run defense but he was inactive against Kansas CIty. New England rotated Malcom Brown, Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy (along with Flowers rotating in to play inside on passing downs) in the middle of the defense. Kansas City mustered just 41 yards rushing–11 of those yards coming on scrambles from quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The edge rushers for New England desperately need to set the edge and turn the running back inside–especially with the outside stretch runs that the Rams love to use. The Patriots also need their linebackers to shed second-level blocks and get to the running back to make plays near the line of scrimmage. Look for more playing time for Elandon Roberts–particularly on early downs–helping Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower in the run defense.
Setting the edge in the running game is vital for New England to keep Gurley and Anderson from getting their stretch runs outside. This puts additional pressure on Deatrich Wise, Trey Flowers, John Simon and Adrian Clayborn at defensive end. Especially with Gurley in the backfield (Anderson is more comfortable running inside) the Patriots defensive ends have a big job to turn the running backs inside to the interior defensive linemen and linebackers.
When the Patriots stop the run they are hard to beat. New England was 7-0 in the regular season when they held their opponent under 100 yards rushing and now they are 2-0 in the playoffs in that scenario. In their five losses (all of them on the road), they have allowed 104, 159, 150, 189 and 158 yards rushing.
Stopping the run is a must in this game for the Patriots. So far the Patriots have been stout against the run and able to play with a lead for most of the playoffs and force their opponents to be one-dimensional. Stopping the run and taking away the effectiveness of the play-action passing game will be a huge deciding factor in the game.
The game plan on defense seems simple for the Patriots: keep the various play-makers in the passing game in check. In addition, the Rams will try to test the Patriots’ rushing defense that was suspect at times in 2018 to keep the linebackers from helping in pass coverage and vulnerable to play-action. If the Patriots can make some big stops early and make the Rams’ attack one-dimensional, their defense may be able to slow them enough to outscore Los Angeles.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01