The Patriots defense, at best, is “good but not great,” and some days it can be outright mediocre. But New England’s Super Bowl chances hinge on that defense, as it must contain the NFC’s best offense. Impossible? Hardly. The Patriots are in Atlanta because just a week ago they contained the AFC’s best offense—on the road at Arrowhead, no less. They did that by controlling the game with their own offense, keeping Patrick Mahomes and company off the field for much of the first half, when New England built a 14-0 lead.
One assumes that, for New England, “controlling the game offensively” means putting things in Tom Brady’s hands. And yes, down the stretch, when the AFC Championship Game morphed into a shootout, the Patriots did. But it was their 14-0 first half lead that most damaged the Chiefs, and that lead was established with a classic smashmouth running game.
A smashmouth running game is quietly critical in New England’s M.O. The Patriots this season employed a fullback, James Develin, on one-third of their snaps, far and away more than any team aside from San Francisco. Develin has become the game’s best lead-blocker, and he’s surrounded by a tremendous all-around blocking tight end (Rob Gronkowski), mobile guards (Joe Thuney and especially Shaq Mason), a quick, savvy center (David Andrews) and a superb downhill ball carrier (2018 first-rounder Sony Michel). New England’s base running game is imposing, particularly when you consider that Brady can also check in and out of any run at the line of scrimmage.
The only defense that allowed more yards per carry than the Kansas City defense that New England hammered in the first half is this Rams D, though its coordinator, Wade Phillips, asserts that giving up a few runs is the cost of doing business with an aggressive, penetrating defensive line that features home-run swingers like Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh (whose best two outings as a Ram have come in these playoffs, by the way). Donald and Suh can make splash plays that put an offense off-schedule and change the tenor of the game. More importantly, Phillips believes that the Rams, though undersized at linebacker and not overly impressive at defensive end, can flip a switch in games where they must stop the run—and he might be right. Recall these Rams shutting down Ezekiel Elliott and Dallas’s potent ground game in the divisional round.
The Patriots, however, are too good at throwing out of their two-back run packages for a defense to load up against the run the way L.A. did against Dallas. Every week you see Develin flex out wide to create empty formations for Brady to dink and dunk through the air. But for discussion’s sake, let’s say the Rams can indeed keep New England’s ground game in check. There’s still the not-so-little matter of stopping Brady through the air.
Despite facing dominant pass rushers like the Chargers’ Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and the Chiefs’ Dee Ford, Justin Houston and Chris Jones, Brady this postseason has dropped back 92 times and been sacked zero, thanks to a quick-strike passing game that gets the ball out before rush can get home. The Pats will use that quick game, as well as double-team slide blocks from center David Andrews, to try to neutralize Donald.
The best way to compromise Brady’s quick-strike rhythm is to take away his inside throws. As the Chiefs learned (the hard way) down the stretch last week, you can’t let Brady hit in-breaking routes to Chris Hogan and especially Julian Edelman.
The Rams were tasked with defending similar in-breaking routes in their own Conference Championship Game last week, as New Orleans’s offense runs through Michael Thomas, football’s best slant weapon. The Rams, quite impressively, held Thomas to four catches for 36 yards. They did it with man coverage that featured a free defender in the middle of the field—a look that Wade Phillips has deployed regularly since taking over L.A.’s defense.
This particular man coverage has different profiles for the Rams. If they rotate into it, the free defender is usually safety LaMarcus Joyner, a converted corner who has the shiftiness to at least compete with someone like Edelman. If the Rams simply line up in this man coverage, undisguised, the free defender is linebacker Cory Littleton.
On the surface, Joyner might seem like the better option, but playing him down low means playing the other safety, John Johnson, deep in centerfield. Johnson is fine there; the problem is it leaves only a linebacker—Mark Barron—to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski. If Littleton is the free defender, Joyner can play deep, Barron can guard the running back and Johnson, a rising star in man coverage, can battle Gronk.
The tricky part is that Barron matching up on a running back is problematic as well. New England is next to unstoppbale when tailback James White is catching passes in bulk, and recall that in the NFC title game, Barron struggled to cover Alvin Kamara, who finished with 11 catches for 96 yards. During the season, the Rams in passing situations would replace Barron with third safety Marquis Christian, but that option was less enticing against a Saints offense that, with Drew Brees’s brilliant pre-snap reads, can check into favorable run plays on third down. And so as the NFC title game progressed, the Rams kept Barron in and helped him by jamming Kamara with a defensive lineman.
Expect this sequence again on Sunday. The Patriots, like the Saints, can run on third down, which means Barron must stay on the field. Jamming White when he’s in the backfield aids Barron. Yes, those jams detract from your pass rush, but Brady’s quick release is likely to negate that pass rush anyway.
For the Rams to pull off a Super Bowl upset, they must win somewhere within the matchups outlined above—stopping the power running game and beating the Patriots with inside man coverage. Do that and the hollow axioms you’ll hear ad nauseam this week—create turnovers! force Brady off the field!—take care of themselves.
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