- Of course Tom Brady and Jared Goff will be key, but beyond the quarterbacks, the game is all about matchups on both sides of the ball—which is why Patriots-Rams will be decided by less-heralded but critical contributors.
Have a nuts-and-bolts football conversation with an NFL coach and at some point you’ll be told that the pro game is all about matchups. Every formation, play design and pre-snap adjustment focuses on influencing individual matchups. Which means your personnel matters—a LOT. Lets’ examine—and rank—the 10 most important players on each side of the ball in Super Bowl LIII.
PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. RAMS DEFENSE
10. Rob Gronkowski, tight end, Patriots
Talk of his diminished receiving prowess has been grossly exaggerated—just ask Eric Berry. If Gronkowski gets matched on undersized Rams linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron, he’ll win. In the ground game, the praise for Gronk’s blocking has NOT been exaggerated. He has long been one of the NFL’s finest; an offensive coordinator even once told me he thinks Gronk is a better blocker than many right tackles. The Patriots have leaned on that blocking more than ever down the stretch. One of their biggest runs is “wham,” where a defensive tackle is allowed to penetrate off the snap only to have Gronkowski come down from his blindside and deliver a blow. Expect New England to deploy this early against a jazzed-up Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
9. James Develin, fullback, Patriots
Besides evolving into football’s best lead-blocker, Develin is serviceable enough in the passing game for the Patriots to run almost their full aerial assault when he’s in. Teams have historically liked throwing the ball out of two-back sets against Wade Phillips’s defenses.
8. Michael Brockers, defensive lineman, Rams
L.A. allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards per rushing attempt this season because the defense takes a boom-or-bust approach, encouraging Donald and Suh to penetrate rather than anchor. That leads to big stops in the backfield, but when those defensive linemen don’t reach the ball, blockers have clean paths to undersized linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron. Brockers is one Rams D-lineman who can win without penetrating. Though athletic enough to get north and south against the run, his best work comes on fist-fights in a phone booth and especially on east and west movement down the line of scrimmage. Anchoring the B and C gaps is important against New England, as many of their base run plays involve pulling guards, lead-blocking fullbacks and down-blocking tight ends in those areas.
7. Julian Edelman, wide receiver, Patriots
He began his career as The Next Wes Welker, and the image stuck, but in recent years Edelman has evolved into a complete wide receiver. The only thing he doesn’t do is run vertical routes along the sideline. But everywhere else on the field, particularly between the numbers, he’s lethal—be it on option routes, seam patterns or the invaluable slant and post routes that New England features in play-action.
6. David Andrews, center, Patriots
Andrews’s last two games have been the best of his four-year career. His newfound mobility headlines New England’s expansive backfield screen game and gives teeth to the double-team run-blocks he deploys with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, who are also amidst the best stretches of their young careers. Those double-team blocks will also come into play on passing downs, with Andrews the key help-blocker against Aaron Donald, toward whom the Patriots will slide their protections.
5. Aqib Talib, cornerback, Rams
Would the Rams consider putting the lanky 11th-year pro on Gronkowski in certain man coverages? Phillips did that at times when he had Talib in Denver. Most likely, Talib in this game will remain at his usual left corner position, where he’s still valuable, as Brady has been known to target the sidelines in crucial late-game situations. Also, with L.A.’s linebackers likely to be more aggressive downhill against a white-hot Patriots ground game, Talib will be isolated in difficult matchup coverages against the slants that Brady throws so well off play-action.
4. James White, running back, Patriots
The only Saint who gave L.A.’s defense trouble in the NFC Championship Game was Alvin Kamara, who burned underneath defenders John Johnson, Barron and especially Littleton on option and wheel routes, as well as a few fade patterns. White isn’t quite as nimble or explosive as Kamara, but he’s who Brady relies on to gain yards whenever the defensive call beats New England’s offensive call. In 10 postseason games since 2015, White has 53 catches for 439 yards. And lately he’s moved the chains on third-down run plays out of shotgun.
3. John Johnson, safety, Rams
He’ll be the unblocked run defender on many plays, responsible for corralling rookie tailback Sony Michel, a deceptively strong interior runner. More importantly, Johnson will have significant coverage responsibilities, especially when the Rams go man-to-man. On blitzes he’ll take either Gronkowski or James White—two of Brady’s favorite targets against quick pressure. He’ll do the same in man-lurk, where free safety LaMarcus Joyner will patrol the deep middle of the field and either Barron or Littleton will lurk along the shallow middle. And in man-robber, where the Rams show two-deep safeties but swoop one down over the middle after the snap (it’s usually Joyner), Johnson will be the last line of defense in centerfield.
2. Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Rams
He’s football’s greatest game-wrecker, simple as that. Most coaches believe that to beat Brady, you must move him off his spot. Donald might be the only NFL defender who can do that even against New England’s quick-strike passing game.
1. Tom Brady, quarterback, Patriots
We hear about Brady’s football IQ and leadership, which undoubtedly are at the forefront of his late-career dominance. But what’s so often overlooked is Brady’s throwing. Thanks to highly refined mechanics, he still delivers a quality fastball—especially between the field numbers. And his precision accuracy is off the charts. Brady in this 2014-18 Patriots dynasty is not just better mentally than he was in the 2001-04 dynasty, he’s also better physically.
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RAMS OFFENSE VS. PATRIOTS DEFENSE
10. Todd Gurley, running back, Rams,
Yes, C.J. Anderson has eaten into Gurley’s playing time, which solves last year’s debate about Gurley’s replaceability in L.A.’s scheme. But with an extra week of rest before this contest, and a bad NFC Championship Game performance to bounce back from, the Rams can expect more juice from their franchise tailback. Gurley will be given a full opportunity to reclaim his place as backfield weapon No. 1.
9. Kyle Van Noy, utility linebacker, Patriots
The ex-Lions second-round pick spearheads almost every schematic wrinkle that Bill Belichick and defensive signal-caller Brian Flores unveil. Van Noy can play up on the edge, off the ball, in the flats and over the middle. He matches up well in man coverage, blitzes effectively and has a sense for spacing and angles in zone. He does nothing great but everything well, which, in New England’s system, is more than good enough.
8. Trey Flowers, defensive end, Patriots
Meet New England’s only true pass rushing threat. Flowers can fire off the snap, though most of his plays are made later in the down, after his immaculately refined technique has had time to unfold. Late-in-the-down plays are important against a Rams offense that relies on slow-developing play-action passing. Flowers can make these plays from inside or outside, and he’s the key piece to the stunts and twists that New England has deployed voraciously this postseason.
7. Robert Woods, wide receiver, Rams
Woods’s forte are shallow crossers and pivot routes, which he ran well as a Buffalo Bill and has perfected in his two years with the Rams. But Woods this season led L.A. with 1,219 yards receiving because he emerged as more of a vertical weapon. He doesn’t quite have Brandin Cooks’ world class speed and body control, but you can ask Woods to do everything Cooks does. More importantly, Woods is an effective blocker, which is critical for L.A.’s outside zone ground game.
6. Brandin Cooks, wide receiver, Rams
Sean McVay will almost certainly dial up a deep shot early in this game, and the man he’ll target is the one the Rams gave New England a first-round pick (the Rams also gave up a sixth and the Pats threw in a fourth) to get. Cooks is not just a weapon because of his vertical speed; his ability to quickly throttle down makes him perhaps the best deep-curl route runner in football. He’s also proficient on digs and crossers, giving L.A. a dangerous deep-intermediate passing game.
5. Stephon Gilmore, cornerback, Patriots
It will be difficult for the Patriots to play their staple man coverage given how tightly L.A.’s receivers align to the ball and to one another. But there’s no way Belichick won’t employ significant snaps of man-to-man in the biggest game of the year, and with Gilmore slated to guard either Cooks or Woods (we’ll find out), the First Team All-Pro corner will be responsible for sorting out the congested stack- and switch-releases that derive from L.A.’s tight formations. Historically, when Gilmore has done this effectively, the Patriots have thrived. When he’s struggled, so has the rest of the D.
4. John Sullivan, center, Rams
In an honest moment, Rams coaches would probably tell you they’d be screwed without the 10th-year center, whose football IQ is as sharp as any center’s. The Patriots this postseason have perplexed prolific Chargers and Chiefs offenses with amoeba pressure looks and highly schemed inside blitzes. Sullivan is at the forefront of sorting those out.
3. Patrick Chung, safety, Patriots
Because the Rams rely so heavily on receivers blocking in their outside zone ground game, and because so many of those outside zone runs stretch to the perimeter, the “flat” defender—be it the box safety or slot corner, both positions Chung plays—is crucial. Lately Rams tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett have become weapons on rollouts designs. Chung will factor prominently in defending those.
2. Dont’a Hightower, edge linebacker, Patriots
As suggested in Monday’s Extra Point column, a good ploy against the uniquely condensed spacing that defines the Rams’ formations could be for Patriots edge defenders to jam those tightly aligned receivers off the snap. This has the potential not only to wreck the Rams’ aerial timing, but also to set a strong edge against the outside zone running game. Hightower will be crucial here, either as the jammer or as the stack linebacker who must blitz inside to replace the jammer.
1. Jared Goff, quarterback, Rams
The biggest story of this Rams’ playoff run is Goff’s emergence as a playmaker. A strong timing-and-rhythm thrower, he’s already a spectacular system QB—which, by the way, isn’t a knock when your system might be football’s finest. But in recent weeks, Goff has made several huge off-schedule throws, particularly outside the pocket. McVay seems to believe in his third-year passer’s out-of-pocket ability, as the Rams have lately expanded their play-action rollout and bootleg games. New England’s game plan will still focus on disrupting L.A.’s aerial timing, hoping to make Goff operate late into the down. But Goff is better equipped to respond now than he was even just a month ago.
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