FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Stephon Gilmore made arguably the biggest play of Super Bowl LIII. Give Duron Harmon credit, too, for getting to Jared Goff on the Patriots’ all-out, second-and-10 blitz. Don’t forget de facto coordinator Brian Flores, either, for the call, or Bill Belichick for assembling a heady defense ready for the moment.
And then there’s the other critical piece of that championship team: Brian Hoyer, the Patriots’ backup quarterback, the only one of 46 New England players in uniform who didn’t make it into the game two Sundays ago.
It may sound crazy to say that the Patriots might not have lifted their sixth Lombardi Trophy in 18 years without a guy who didn’t take a meaningful game rep all year. But after listening to the way Devin and Jason McCourty talk about their backup quarterback, it’s clear just how much of a difference Hoyer made on the team, and a play that will be forever remembered here, one for which he wasn’t actually on the field.
And maybe the coolest part about all that is how his impact has a way of explaining just who the 2018 Patriots became—a group that squeezed every inch out of every roster spot it had.
“Hoyer’s been crucial,” Jason McCourty says from Devin’s kitchen table, at his house about a mile and a half from Gillette Stadium. “Hoyer’s not a scout-team quarterback from the standpoint where, ‘O.K., here’s the card, here’s what’s circled, and I’m gonna throw the ball here.’ Hoyer lines up, and says, ‘here’s the card, but this is just a route concept.’”
“Bill would tell him, ‘Read what you think and go,’” Devin says.
“He’s reading our defense for what he thinks it is—‘if it’s Cover-3, I’m going here.’ So the whole time, he’s reading and reacting,” Jason says. “So I think for us as a defense, if something gets carved up in practice, it’s ‘Hey, Hoyer, what were you seeing there? O.K., that’s something we need to adjust from a look standpoint.’”
Details win titles in the NFL, and the Patriots have always owned the details. But even for them, following the bouncing ball on this one, all the way into the waiting hands of Gilmore eight nights ago, is dizzying.
We’re going to look a little ahead, and a little back in this week’s MMQB. And in there, you’re going to get plenty to chew on, including …
• How special teams coaches are getting vocal about the lack of head coaching chances they’re getting.
• Why Sean McVay is still who we all have made him out to be over the last two years (and why I’d expect the Rams to be back here again).
• What is going on with the Alliance of American Football, and how it or another one of these fledging leagues might eventually serve the NFL.
• Where the tension is at inside the Jets building, why it’s not a horrible thing.
• How the Bengals and Browns may have made out nicely with their offensive coordinator hires.
And we’ve got a whole lot more on top of that, but we’re starting with the couple of hours I spent with the McCourtys on Friday, looking through the coaches tape of Super Bowl LIII, and talking about their team, their season and how the biggest moment of their professional lives came to be.
Hoyer began his career in New England, but he got his first shot as a starter in Cleveland. In 2014, his second year there, he started 11 games for coordinator Kyle Shanahan, then played for Shanahan again in San Francisco in ’17. Rams coach Sean McVay coached tight ends for Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington from 2010-13, which led Hoyer to believe he’d have some institutional knowledge of McVay’s offense.
Before the Super Bowl, he watched an episode of Peyton Manning’s Detail series on ESPN-Plus on Goff, and it hit him right away—the offense is the same. Looking at the Rams tape confirmed it. Then, he saw an NFL Network interview where Goff and McVay discussed the coach being in the quarterback’s ear up until the 15-second play-clock cutoff, which was something Shanahan did with Hoyer. Then, Hoyer went back to Amazon’s All or Nothing series on the Rams; it was about the 2016 season but had footage of OTAs from McVay’s first spring there. Hoyer recognized the language.
“I guess that’s the risk in putting yourself out there like that,” Hoyer joked over the phone on Sunday.
At Devin McCourty’s kitchen table on Friday, the the brothers brought up Hoyer’s value, Devin remembers a moment a moment during the team’s preparation for Kansas City in October when the first defense showed the scout team a blitz look that had all 11 defenders within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
“We were all up there the way everyone’s been seeing us, moving around,” Devin says. “And Hoyer said, ‘If I’m the quarterback, I’m just going to catch the ball and throw it deep—all of you are close, so I’m throwing it deep.’ Sure enough, that week, we started seeing it more. Kansas City did it. Green Bay hit us with it.”
The adjustment, as Jason explained it, was for those in coverage, at the snap, to “play off and read the quarterback.”
And with Hoyer having done his research that Tuesday of Super Bowl week, gaining an understanding that he really knew the Rams offense, he was able to pass along reinforcement on that principle. That came, in fact, right after the defense ran the blitz look at him that they’d pull out at the most critical time a few days later.
“Having played in that offense, they don’t have an answer for all-out pressure,” Hoyer says. “Their answer is for the quarterback to make a play.”
The flip side? In this cat-and-mouse game, the Patriots knew McVay’s offense had different ways it could crush all-out pressure, so Flores had to be judicious about calling it. New England showed pressure a ton, but didn’t send everyone much at all.
“We didn’t blitz them a lot, just because of their offense, so many missile motions, so many crossing routes, misdirections,” Jason says. “We talked about it—‘there’s going to be a time when we get in a second-and-long situation, and we’re going to want to switch it up and throw a blitz at them just so they respect that look, and they know, ‘Hey, they could be coming.’ Flo [Flores] waited until that moment and called an all-out blitz.”
Because the defense had played so well, that call wasn’t necessary until there was 4:24 left in the game. It was second-and-10, the Rams were trailing 10–3, at the Patriots 27-yard line. All 11 defenders were within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. The one lined up furthest back? Gilmore, heeding Hoyer’s lesson. Covering Cooks, Gilmore never took his eyes off Goff. The rest was academic.
“I think we almost hit them with [the blitz] earlier in the game, and it was on the tip of Flo’s [Flores] tongue, and he kind of decided not to,” Devin says. “The call came in so late. And when I got to the sideline, he said, ‘That was my fault, I gave you that call late.’ And I’m just thinking in my head he probably wanted to blitz and was trying to decide in his mind, ‘Is this the time or not?’”
If he’d done it then, it would’ve been, again, about making sure the Rams respected every defensive player on the field as a pass rusher. As it was, Flores keeping it in his back pocket then, and pulling it out later worked to do a lot more than just that.
This sequence reflects how this team came together—a heady, veteran group able to perfectly unlock the genius of Belichick and his staff. Not everyone can morph its defense on Super Bowl Sunday, going from man-heavy to zone-heavy, or adjust its offense in-game in the fourth quarter to throw out of two-back, two-tight end sets. It takes a certain type of player, and certain type of team, and if you watch the Super Bowl again, you can find examples of it all over the place.
When I sat down with the McCourtys to have them walk me through some of the bigger moments from the Super Bowl, the vibe I got from them wasn’t that the Rams or Goff or McVay were easy to take apart. Moreso, it was pride in how difficult their defense was to play against. In the fall, many of us looked at that unit (my hand’s raised) and saw a talent deficit. Turns out that what they gave up in raw ability, they more than made up for in experience and intelligence.
The Gilmore pick was one example of how having all that experience—the 11 Super Bowl starters on defense came in with 69 NFL seasons, 46 under Belichick, between them—paid off, in conjuction with the knowhow Hoyer passed along. And there were others instances that the McCourtys showed me on Friday that worked to torpedo the NFL’s second-ranked offense. So let’s dive in.
The situation: Second-and-eight from the Rams’ 29-yard line, 11:37 left in the first quarter.
This was Los Angeles’s second play from scrimmage, following a two-yard Gurley run. The Patriots expect the Rams to throw off play-action, and Los Angeles went to their bread-and-butter, a bootleg off an outside-zone fake to Gurley. Instead of following the run, Kyle Van Noy stays home, knowing the box is loaded, and sees Josh Reynolds coming across the formation. Van Noy promptly buries Reynolds, serving two purposes.
“We talked about being physical, so boom, he sees him, knocks him out, gets right to Goff,” Jason says. “We talked about going right at them, attacking them, getting a little bit more upfield than we usually do and taking the game to them, We talked about it all week, we wanted to be the most physical team on the field.”
“Because we felt skill-wise they were really good,” Devin says. “So if we tried to finesse with them, and match them, they’d have the advantage over us.”
“Eighty-three is the first read on this play,” Jason says. “Reynolds is the first read for Goff on the bootleg, he’s coming back, you dump it off to him. So as soon as KV takes him off his feet, the play is dead.”
Van Noy was able to do it so easily that he kept his feet, then ran Goff to the sideline, where Goff dumped the ball into the bench area. The Rams’ first of eight consecutive punts came two snaps later.
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The situation: Third-and-10 from the Patriots 49-yard line, 8:06 left in the second quarter.
This play came after a pretty catch by Robert Woods that pushed the Rams over the 50. When we call up the play, Jason points at the screen—right at Trey Flowers, who’s lined up over center John Sullivan, and notices that he’s the only player in a three-point stance.
Then he points at Harmon. “So for Goff, is he gonna blitz through the b-gap, which, he blitzes through the b-gap on the interception to Steph?” Then both brothers point to the right edge of the offensive line. There are Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, the two hybrids the Patriots used all night to show one look and give the Rams another post-snap, to negate any help McVay might give Goff through his headset.
“That’s the hard thing, with High and Van Noy on the same side, unless it’s blitz, you’d think it’s probably zone because one of them is usually the dropper, the cover guy,” Devin McCourty said. “But then it’s, ‘Well, I don’t really know, they both could come. And then John Simon also could drop. [Patrick] Chung’s a DB, I’m a DB, JC Jackson’s a DB, so they all could be in coverage. … It’s just a hard concept to know.”
“Once we got to third down, this was our bread-and-butter, man-to-man coverage, corners up there, this is what we did all season,” Jason added. “First and second down was our chance to mix it up and do some different things. Once we got to third down, this was just us running our stuff.”
The ball is snapped, both Van Noy and Hightower flash their versatility in moonlighting as pass rushers. The line adjusts to block them, leaving Flowers on Sullivan, where he shows his own malleability as an outside rusher working on the inside. He beats Sullivan, forcing a short throw that Jason McCourty breaks up.
The situation: First-and-10 from the Patriots 29-yard line, 3:42 left in the third quarter.
The Jason McCourty tip. You may seen on Inside the NFL that the Rams saw they had the post to Cooks on this play in the first half, and said they’d come back to it. What you may not know is that the Patriots adjusted too. When Los Angeles ran the play in the first half, Jason recognized he had no one to cover.
“When we got to the sideline, I said, ‘Me, over here, I have no work,’” he says. “So it was like, ‘Hey, you need to be getting depth.’”
At the snap, Goff ran play-action to Gurley and, as he turned, Devin was still moving to the middle of the field. That caused Goff to look to Robert Woods, running an over route. Devin then planted and ran towards Woods. Meanwhile, Jason had, as he said, no work, and dropped further back. Goff saw Cooks. By then, Jason McCourty had just enough time, and was just close enough to get to the ball.
“People were bashing Goff for throwing this ball late,” Devin said. “But the truth is, in play action, when you turn your back, you can’t dissect the coverage right away. You can’t just get up and throw this post. If I’m running to the middle, it’s post coverage. So you should throw the over. He originally thinks it’s the over, this play happened in the first quarter, so he thinks, ‘I’ll throw the over.’
“But now we’re in quarters, so I have this guy, and Jonathan Jones cuts him and Steph [Gilmore] is just running with the post and J [Jason] should help with the post.”
And Jason could, because of that small adjustment.