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.
Highlighting their terrible start to 2018, the New England Patriots’ offense was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three. However, once they got on track they ended the season ranked fourth in scoring offense with 27.3 points per game and 436 points. They were fifth in yards with 6,295 and averaged 5.9 yards per play (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
The balanced offensive attack showed in the final stats. The offense was eighth in passing yards with 4,258 yards and sixth in net yards gained per attempt at 7.2 (passing yards minus sack yards per pass attempts and total sacks). On the ground, the Patriots rushed for 2,037 yards (fifth in the NFL) their highest total since 2013. However, the effectiveness of their dedication to the ground game was just 20th in the league at 4.3 yards per attempt.
Coming out of week three, the New England offense ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots finished 13th in the NFL converting 40.8% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage was a problem all season and finished 15th in the league at 59.6% (34 of 57 drives).
How do the New England Patriots get past a Los Angeles Rams team with a strong pass rush led by Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler and a defensive secondary that held Drew Brees to less than 250 yards passing last week?
THIS IS A RUN-FIRST TEAM:
The New England Patriots have morphed into a team that leans on the run in 2018 more than any other team. Here is the most telling statistic to define the 2018 New England Patriots:
When they rush for 100 yards or more they are 9-0 in the regular season and 2-0 in the postseason.
When the Patriots rush for less than 100 yards on the ground and they are 2-5 (and in one of those wins against the Colts they rushed for 97 yards).
In the NFC Championship game the New Orleans Saints were completely unable to run the ball effectively against the Los Angeles Rams as Mark Ingram had just 31 yards on just nine carries and Alvin Kamara added only 15 yards on eight attempts. In the Divisional round, the Rams shut down Ezekiel Elliott–one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL–holding him to just 47 yards on 20 carries.
To combat Los Angeles’ impressive interior pass rush and strong cornerbacks in the secondary, New England needs to use all of their many weapons in the running game.
The New England Patriots offensive coaching staff knows where the Rams are going to make an impact on defense–right in the middle of the defense. Both Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are two of the most aggressive interior pass rushing duos in the modern NFL. It is an aggressive defensive front including edge rusher Dante Fowler and Michael Brockers that loves to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback.
Donald is an All-Pro and arguably the best interior defender against the run and the pass and he has a highlight reel of him blowing up numerous rushing attempts penetrating into the backfield. Suh, even as a nose tackle, is a penetrating pass-rusher first, but that penetration is disruptive in the run game as he can affect the game with negative plays in the backfield.
Linebackers Cory Littleton, Samson Ebukam and Mark Barron are responsible for cleaning up the ball carries if they get past the front four. Unfortunately for the Rams, that happened more often than they would like during the regular season as they finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. Even more alarming, the Rams were dead-last in the league allowing 5.1 yards per rush during the regular season.
Los Angeles–like the other Los Angeles team that the Patriots faced in the Divisional playoff round–has a very light linebacker group. Ebukam and Littleton are smaller and quicker linebackers and Barron is a converted safety. While they were able to slow the Saints and Cowboys in the playoffs, the Patriots have been playing a true smashmouth style that could be a lot for the Rams defense to try to handle.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots’ offense was at its best in 2018 when first-round draft pick Sony Michel was healthy and clicking with the offensive line healthy in front of him. When Michel hit 98 or more yards rushing the team was 5-0 in the regular season and 2-0 in the playoffs and scored 38, 38, 43, 27, 24 and 41 and 37 points in the postseason.
Michel finished with 209 carries for 931 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) as a rookie in the regular season despite injuries slowing him in training camp and holding him out at the start of the season. He missed a few games in the middle of the season due to his knee injury. Michel was a beast in the playoffs piling up 129 yards on 24 carries and three touchdowns against the Chargers and then 113 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown against the Chiefs .
Of course, the Patriots will also mix in Rex Burkhead and receiving running back James White should see plenty of action at running back. In fact, the running backs had almost equal playing time against Kansas City with all three having 30 or more snaps on offense.
Burkhead opened the season as the lead back with Sony Michel injured, but a neck/concussion landed him on injured reserve. Burkhead had a limited role against the Chargers with four carries for 12 yards, but he added a touchdown as well bursting around the left end into the end zone. In the AFC Championship he piled up 41 yards on the ground on 12 carries to go with his four receptions and added two more rushing touchdowns.
James White is more of a weapon in the passing game, but he will be counted on to run the ball when necessary. White was excellent in 2018 when pressed into service as a runner with 94 carries for 425 yards. Prior to this season, his highs for carries in a season were 43 and yards were 171. White has shown the ability to carry more of the load on the ground but he is receiver first. He had six rushes for 23 yards and four catches for 49 yards against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots have evolved into a running offense. Establishing a solid ground game is a must to help the passing offense slow the ferocious interior pass rush of the Rams. Look for the Patriots to again try and take advantage of the aggressive Rams front-seven and run the ball out of heavy looks early in the game to control the clock, keep the explosive Rams offense on the sideline and try to play from ahead again.
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must be able to move the ball effectively through the air despite the Rams’ strong pass rush and aggressive secondary:
DECIPHERING THE COVERAGE:
It is hard to believe that coming into the playoffs the New England Patriots had to answer many questions that the talking heads on television and radio both nationally and locally raised repeatedly about their passing offense and Tom Brady.
With Tom Brady completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions (106.5 QB rating) against the Chargers and then 30 of 46 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown, the New England passing offense looked back on track in the 2018 playoffs.
In the NFC Championship game, the Rams played much of the game with extra players in the secondary. Mark Barron is really a safety playing linebacker and third cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman is basically a full-time cornerback. Troy Hill and Sam Shields are the extra cornerbacks and the Rams do not hesitate to bring them in to help flood the field with defensive backs.
Safeties John Johnson and veteran Lamarcus Joyner rarely leave the field and are an underrated aspect of the secondary that features big names Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Talib is healthy and the best coverage cornerback, though best playing man-coverage. Peters is a liability in man-coverage, but one of the better zone cornerbacks but a bit of a gambler. Los Angeles has lighter linebackers Cory Littleton and Samson Ebukam who are fast to cover the field in man or zone coverage.
The Rams are focused on their pass rush with Donald, Suh, Brockers, and mid-season acquisition Fowler providing the pressure without having to dial up many exotic blitzes. They like to rush five on passing plays, making it difficult to decipher who the fifth rusher is and where he comes from. When they bring pressure they have Littleton and Ebukam (seven combined sacks) who can get to the quarterback in a hurry. In the regular season, Donald (20.5 sacks) carried the load, but in the playoffs the veteran Suh (4.5 sacks) has stepped-up and brought the disruptive pressure he was known for his entire career.
The New England offensive line has a big task with Suh and Donald rushing inside. The Patriots will give extra attention to Donald, but both Suh and edge rusher Fowler have made huge plays in the playoffs in the pass rush. While the Patriots will try to run the ball and use the screen game and quick-passes to offset the pass rush, the offensive line must step-up in Super Bowl 53 and protect Brady when the Rams know he has to throw.
The Rams mix zone and man coverage–playing more man coverage since Talib returned. However, Los Angeles will play their cornerbacks on whoever the Patriots march out to the outside: Talib on the left and Peters on the right. However, while Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, or Chris Hogan may add a few big catches, the bulk of the New England offense is going to be Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and the running backs.
The Patriots have played Donald and Suh in the past and know the best strategy is to get the ball out quickly to Edelman or Gronkowski in man-coverage. Edelman has had success in the past with Robey-Coleman in coverage in the middle of the field. Forget about Robey-Coleman’s mouth talking about Brady’s decline, he needs to be concerned about trying to stay with Edelman.
The Rams linebackers and safeties are too small to handle Gronkowski and in man-coverage it could be a nightmare trying to stay with him and be able to make a play on the ball. Even without his quickness and deceptive speed of the past, it could be a big game for Gronkowski as his size leaves the Rams with a bad match-up no matter who is on him.
The Patriots had success on third downs in the playoffs and finished seven of 14 (50%) on third downs conversions against the Chargers, and then was an amazing 13 of 19 (68%) against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. They need to be able to get quick chunks of five or six yards on early downs passing to keep from being in third-and-long situations where the Rams can pin their ears back and get at Brady.
James White and Rex Burkhead are the X-factors on offense in the passing game. Screens (to Marcus Peters’ side) and quick passes out of the backfield are going to be a big part of the game plan. Against defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Patriots have used the running backs in the passing game repeatedly going back to the Danny Woodhead/Shane Vereen days. It worked then–they are going to keep going to it until the Rams show they can stop it.
Brady is not going to be standing in the pocket holding the ball. He will establish if zone or man based on the pre-snap motion. Look for passing plays out of heavy sets with the Rams having to have an inside linebacker or safety on the running backs in the passing game.
The New England offense must continue to get production on the ground and grind out long drives. In addition, the Patriots need to decipher the Wade Phillips zone-coverage in his 3-4 defense and keep the pass rush off of Tom Brady. If they can do this on offense, they put themselves in a great position to get Super Bowl ring number six.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01