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Early Super Bowl Preview: Belichick’s Old-School Plan for a New Rams Juggernaut

The first time they faced the Rams in the Super Bowl, Belichick’s underdog Patriots used an aggressive tactic to shut down Marshall Faulk. Why calling on a similar game plan could be the formula for slowing Sean McVay’s high-powered offense.

The Patriots’ dynasty started with Bill Belichick stymieing a juggernaut Rams offense—2001’s “The Greatest Show on Turf”—in Super Bowl XXXVI. Eighteen years later, Belichick faces another prolific Rams offense, led by wunderkind architect Sean McVay.

The second-year head coach’s system is defined by condensed formations. The Rams don’t have wide receivers so much as “tight” receivers, with Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds almost always aligning just a few yards outside the offensive tackles.

This has several benefits. One is that it puts receivers close to one another, where their routes easily crisscross and intertwine, creating traffic for man-to-man defenders and poor leverage for zone defenders. Another: A receiver aligned tightly inside, uninhibited by the sideline, always has a two-way go. And crossing patterns, which are huge for L.A., are deeper since there’s less ground to cover horizontally. But perhaps most importantly, a tightly aligned receiver is better positioned to block on run plays.

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A receivers’ run-blocking is almost as crucial as his pass-catching in McVay’s scheme, which is predicated on plays that start out looking the same but are different. Most of those plays hinge on the outside-zone run designs that Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos made famous in the 1990s. Behind this outside-zone-running approach, the Rams’ boast a lethal play-action game. Receivers are immensely detailed in their spacing and timing here, which has enabled third-year QB Jared Goff to become one of football’s best anticipation passers.

Can New England could disrupt that spacing and timing? In that first Super Bowl, Belichick realized that much of the Rams’ aerial assault hinged on flex tailback Marshall Faulk. To eliminate Faulk, Belichick revealed a never-before-featured “bullseye” tactic, with defensive ends and outside linebackers jamming Faulk whenever he ran a route. The Patriots could renew this approach in Super Bowl LIII, only with those edge defenders jamming L.A’s tightly aligned receivers.

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Those jams could wreck L.A.’s aerial timing and also congest the edges against the run. Yes, this would sacrifice New England’s pass rush, which has come to life this postseason. But that pass rush would be mostly neutralized by L.A.’s play-action designs anyway.

Disrupting L.A.’s outside zone designs could make McVay an impatient play-caller. So could the Patriots’ ability to control time of possession with their own ground game. With an interior O-line that has dominated this postseason, and the rising inside running tandem of lead-blocking fullback James Develin and rookie tailback Sony Michel, the Patriots have one of football’s best power rushing attacks. They featured it heavily in the AFC championship against a Chiefs defense that allowed 5.0 yards per rush this season. The only D that allowed more yards per rush was the Rams (5.1).

As we were reminded of in the AFC championship, Tom Brady can still throw. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips beat Brady in their last postseason matchup, the 2015 AFC title game in Denver. But that Denver defense had better edge rushers and more physical cover corners than this 2018 Rams D. The Patriots should have no trouble moving the ball. If they can keep the Rams offense below 30, they’ll win title No. 6.

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