Sunday’s game features plenty of stars, but it also pits two of the NFL’s most touted football minds against one another.
The specialties of Bill Belichick and Sean McVay clash on the most pivotal battleground as the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams fight for Super Bowl LIII.
1. How will Belichick combat McVay’s offense?
The Patriots predominantly use man coverage — and did so almost exclusively in the AFC Championship Game — but Belichick famously caters his plan to his opponent. Given what troubled McVay’s offense the most this season, odds are New England will lean on zone coverage Sunday, especially Cover-4 (also called quarters).
The Rams’ worst offensive outings — Weeks 13-15, a stretch that began against former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia — came mostly against Cover-4, a matchup zone in which safeties play shallower and attack downhill. Those safeties provide double teams against vertical routes in McVay’s downfield designs, while also sitting low enough to drive on crossers.
Cover-4 has weak points underneath, but it muddies the middle of the field. It also would prevent defenders from getting picked by intertwined releases out of stacks and bunches from condensed formations, a Rams staple. Though they’ve steadied this season, the Patriots have had issues in man against stacks and bunches since early 2017, including in Super Bowl LII.
Belichick could also counter condensed formations with his famed “bullseye” tactic — first debuted in Super Bowl XXXVI against Marshall Faulk — by using Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy to disrupt a receiver’s release before pass rushing. A physical jam against a bunch or stack could disrupt multiple routes at once, a huge bonus.
When New England does play man, expect extreme physicality, and not just at the line. Knowing nobody wants a flag fest, the Patriots always push the boundaries of illegal contact and holding in the postseason, and this year is no different. In Kansas City, a conservative eye saw six clear holding penalties on the Chiefs’ 11 first-half dropbacks (only one was flagged).
2. Rams’ O-line must exploit numbers advantages
When the Patriots play Cover-4 (or any 2-high coverage), L.A. will have the numbers edge in the box, which McVay and Todd Gurley excel at exploiting. But New England’s defense is better equipped than most to stop the run with a light box, especially against zone schemes.
Trey Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, Hightower (when playing outside) and John Simon are relentless, physical edge-setters who guide runs back inside. The Patriots also employ myriad fronts — often five on the line and one off-ball linebacker — and run blitzes to blur O-linemen’s responsibilities and prevent them from getting to linebackers. Likewise, Hightower, Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are outstanding at playing through blocks with physicality or slipping them in space.
New England routinely stymied Kansas City’s run game with just five or six in the box. The Rams’ run-blocking should fare better, but it had its own issues against the New Orleans Saints, who used a pair of 2-technique (head-up on each guard) defensive tackles to mess with angles and assignments.
L.A. must run well enough to stay ahead of the chains. That unlocks more opportunities for play-action, which limits pass rush by moving the pocket and/or keeping extra blockers in. Too many obvious passing situations would let the Patriots dial up the stunts, twists and blitzes that hounded the Chiefs’ protection two weeks ago.
3. More of the same from New England’s offense
The Patriots reached Atlanta with a run-first, ball-control approach, and there’s no reason to stop now.
Despite improvement in the playoffs, run defense was the Rams’ soft underbelly in the regular season (5.1 yards per carry allowed, dead last), and New England’s scheme is suited to attack it. Spindly linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron won’t have anywhere to hide against fullback James Develin, and Rob Gronkowski should have his way against L.A.’s edge defenders, especially Dante Fowler Jr.
The Rams’ interior has played excellent of late — especially Ndamukong Suh, reminding everyone what he can do with maximum effort — but the Patriots’ volume of designs is a load to handle mentally. Likewise, their trap and wham schemes could turn Suh’s and Aaron Donald’s aggression against them.
Perhaps more important to New England than actual yards gained on the ground would be potential effects elsewhere.
More runs would limit the pass rush’s bite, with fewer pass rush opportunities and more coming against play-action. Eating clock could also wear out Donald & Co. while testing McVay’s patience to maintain his own run/pass balance.
4. How will Wade Phillips play Tom Brady?
Even if the Rams can slow the run game, there’s a four-time Super Bowl MVP to deal with.
Teams that have given Brady the most trouble this season used safe blitzes (five rushers or fewer) and zone exchanges (a second-level defender rushes while a lineman drops) to pressure him without leaving gaping holes in coverage.
But that isn’t really Phillips’ style. He prefers standard four- and five-man rushes, with man coverage or matchup zones (mostly Cover-3, Cover-4 and Cover-6). That worked perfectly with the Denver Broncos, whose edge rushers and cover corners stymied Brady a few times, but the Rams’ personnel is entirely different.
Donald and Suh provide more interior rush, but Fowler will be lucky to reach Brady before his release. Aqib Talib remains excellent, but Marcus Peters is wildly inconsistent, and Nickell Robey-Coleman is solid in the slot, but not exactly Chris Harris. Of course, the Patriots’ best wideout, Julian Edelman, plays primarily inside.
John Johnson has the coverage skills to hang with Gronkowski, but his small frame (6-foot, 209 pounds) will get boxed out at times. Elsewhere, Littleton and Barron must handle James White better than they did Alvin Kamara, who had a field day on option routes from the weak side, something New England loves to do with White.
Expect plenty of lurk/robber coverage (a free defender to help against routes between the numbers) and selective double teams against Edelman, Gronkowski and even White at times. Phillips could also bet against Brady beating him downfield and have his safeties play extra aggressively downhill.
5. Watching for tendency breakers
Great coaches excel at self-scouting, and with two weeks to prepare, both sides should cook up surprises counter to their own tendencies.
Will the Rams run more from shotgun? After doing so almost never in the regular season, they’ve done it occasionally in the playoffs. A broader package might be worthwhile.
Could McVay resurrect the running back screen game? He killed opponents with Gurley on screens throughout 2017 before mostly scrapping the tactic this season, for whatever reason. The Patriots struggled against the Chiefs’ misdirection screens two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, New England could throw a curveball by using Develin as a decoy. Diverse as its run game is, runs virtually always follow him when he’s on the field, giving the defense a reliable key to read the play. Josh McDaniels could exploit that tendency with split-flow runs, sending Develin one way to provide a false key as the run goes elsewhere.
The Patriots could also throw more with Sony Michel — a capable receiver in college — or run more with White, counter to typical usage patterns.
The team with better surprises could grab the upper hand early. Just as important will be how quickly each adjusts to their opponents’ changeups.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media