Encino Hills, Calif. — At 8 p.m. PT, Sean McVay sends one of his trademark no-punctuation texts:
I left front door unlocked when you get here so you don’t have to ring doorbell thanks This way the dog won’t get all excited haha
Despite following McVay’s instructions, Kali—McVay’s and his girlfriend Veronika Khomyn’s one-and-a-half-year-old pitbull, with a heart of gold and manners still a work in progress—greeted me in the kitchen, where I found McVay, in Rams gym clothes, sifting through papers at the island.
“Kali, OFF!” McVay says, just a little too lovingly, as she jumps up on me, putting a paw on each shoulder, as if we were slow-dancing. McVay and I visit at the dining room table for a few minutes before making our way back to his windowless office, just behind the kitchen. (Kali follows us in but, unable to keep to herself, soon gets the boot.)
A big screen hangs on the front wall closest to the door, and on the side walls hang large action-shot photos from McVay’s playing days at Miami (Ohio). Beneath one is a picture of a 22-year-old McVay with Tiger Woods. The whole room is red and white except for an old Rams bobblehead doll in the front corner of McVay’s desk. Opposite the bobblehead is a 2017 Los Angeles Sports Council Coach of the Year trophy; McVay’s 2017 NFL Coach of the Year trophy sits on a shelf in his theater upstairs, with the rest of his memorabilia.
On the floor beside the arm chair, where I sit perpendicular to McVay’s desk, is a large three-ring binder labeled ‘New England Patriots Scouting,’ left over from the Super Bowl—the game that we proceeded to discuss for the next three hours.
Three months ago, the Rams defense produced what could prove to be the most impressive forgotten Super Bowl performance in history. Tom Brady and the Patriots came in averaging 27.3 points a game in the regular season and 39 points a game in the playoffs, and Los Angeles held them to just 13. It wasn’t a perfect outing; the Patriots still moved the ball, including on the ground late. And true to form, there were things McVay thinks can improve, but he acknowledges that “if our defense next year plays like this again, we’re going to win a lot more games than not.”
McVay has watched the Super Bowl film a few times, the first being the Monday after the game. That morning he had immediately boarded the team’s plane, spending the flight from Atlanta back to L.A. thanking players one by one for all they’d done. That afternoon, soon after landing, he was in his home office, clicker in hand. By then he was more than halfway through his postgame grieving process, which he says was never that bad to begin with.
“I was ready to talk a couple of hours after the game,” McVay says. “It would be spurts where [I would] be OK and then [suddenly] it was like, ‘I can’t flippin’ believe that we lost that game!’ Or you suddenly think, ‘I was so bad in that moment!” Then when you think you are past that, something comes up and again you’re like, ‘I can’t flippin’ believe that!’ But I really was over it in 48 hours.
“But you have to give the Patriots credit, they were their best when their best was demanded. And personally, I wasn’t good enough. I have to do a better job.”
McVay has thought about the adjustments he’ll make should the Rams “be fortunate enough to return” to a Super Bowl—and much of it would be in his personal preparation. Ahead of Super Bowl 53, he asked former Rams head coach Dick Vermeil and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, plus assistants on the Rams staff who had coached in Super Bowls, about what to expect, but parts of the pre-Super Bowl process you can’t fully prepare for without firsthand experience.
“In the back of my mind, [when making the Super Bowl game plan back in L.A.], I operated knowing I had another week. That urgency to completely finalize the gameplan wasn’t quite there, and that led to me watching so much film that you can almost water down your thought process.”
A coach’s instinct, he explains, is to want to do as much work as possible. But before the Super Bowl, McVay admits that “you have so much time that you can over-prepare and get away from some of the things that helped you get there. I watched every game from New England’s season. You see stuff that worked in, say, Week 3, but you forget about the amount of stuff that’s taken place since Week 3. You can watch so much film that you lose perspective. You have 18 games of film you can pore over. And then I even watched the Philly and Atlanta Super Bowls closely.” A hint of disgust leaks into his voice as he says this last part, shaking his head.
It’s easy to think that L.A.’s Super Bowl loss would be that much more painful for an offensive-minded coach whose high-powered unit was held to a season-low three points on the same day that L.A.’s defense held the equally high-powered Patriots to 13. But McVay shows little sign of this—a by-product, perhaps, of his ardent commitment to treating the Rams not as two units, but one team.
McVay’s renowned play recall and eye for detail is as sharp on defense as on offense. During the offseason, he spends significant time with the D because “the more I can learn defensive coverage rules and principles, the more complete a coach I can be, the better you can communicate with your team as a whole.”
Big plans are in place for the defense in 2019, with new dimension inspired by some of the many things that went right in Super Bowl 53 and some of the few things that went wrong. To set the stage for what the Los Angeles defense will be moving forward, the day after seeing McVay, I visited with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and several key Super Bowl defenders at the team’s facility. I wanted the complete inside story of the Rams defense in that stellar title game performance that history threatens to forget.
Much of Super Bowl 53 followed a pattern: New England would move the ball down the field only for the drive to stall when L.A.’s defense made a play. No snap better illustrated this theme than the pass deflection by slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman that resulted in an interception by linebacker Cory Littleton to end the first series. “That was huge for us,” McVay says.
The popular narrative said that the Rams perplexed Brady all game by showing him man coverage but playing zone. That was hyperbolized, and it certainly was not what happened on this play—instead, the quarterback simply made a rare boneheaded mistake.
New England started the play in a spread-empty formation, with running back Rex Burkhead out wide. Cornerback Marcus Peters lined up across from Burkhead, which told Brady it was zone.
“Also, if it was man, I wouldn’t have been on [tight end] Dwayne Allen [in the slot],” Robey-Coleman says, while watching the play on film at the team’s facility. “And when Julian Edelman motioned in [strong safety], John Johnson came down. That’s another tell; if it was man-to-man, J.J. would’ve already been down there on Rob Gronkowski.
“Brady’s too smart, he knows when it’s man and when it’s zone. He got his zone-man I.D. on this play, he just thought the throw would get there. When he threw it, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ You can see my reaction.” Robey-Coleman points to the screen where, indeed, he displayed the body language of a man whose eyes suddenly got big. “I couldn’t believe it. That’s a far-hash throw, he really trusted it. He didn’t even stare at it—he threw it blind. He’s probably like ‘Oh shhh, shouldn’t have thrown that!’”
Robey-Coleman asks to replay the tape so he can see Brady’s reaction. We roll the end zone copy, and the cornerback smiles as we see Brady regret the throw when it leaves his hand.
“Wade Phillips, [cornerbacks coach] Aubrey Pleasant and [safeties coach Ejiro Evero, nicknamed Coach E] did a great job emphasizing to me that the Pats love five-yard stop routes,” Robey-Coleman explains. “Brady is comfortable dinking and dunking you 80 yards. So when we’re in pure zone, we really have to push [fast] to get out to the landmark. We call it ‘super-buzz.’ You can’t just wait on Brady.”
Walking back into the huddle for the next drive, Brady told his teammates, “I ain’t making another mistake all night, boys.” He was prophetic; the Rams, effective as they were, did not force any other turnovers—or major field-position-swinging plays—and the game became a fistfight for field position.
In the days after the conference championships, Bill Belichick said to reporters, “To [Wade Phillips’s] credit, there’s not many of us that have a system that can last that long. I’ve certainly changed a lot in the last 30 years, schematically. Wade really…hasn’t. He really hasn’t. You’ve got to give him credit for that. The system has lasted.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if that’s praise or not,” Phillips says, laughing, as he joins me in the Rams’ media room. “You just try to get the players to play as well as they can play. Our scheme is still versatile enough to try to take away things your opponent does well—just like Bill’s is. He changes his defensive look to do it. We line up in the same look but try to adjust to what the offense does. And so to say we haven’t changed—we’ve changed a lot. We try to change with what our players do.”
As an example, Phillips cites the decision late in the year to play less man coverage and more zone, catering primarily to cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who are “good vision players.” (It should be noted that Belichick also complimented Phillips for this.)
For the Super Bowl, the adjustment was committing to playing just one safety deep. As safety John Johnson explains, “We usually try to hold a 2-deep safety look [at the snap], but this game we went more single-high and played different coverages from there. We had rotations to and away from the passing strength side in man or zone, trying to throw the QB off.”
This tactic was mostly successful out of zone (Cover 3) or man, often with a robber coming down in the shallow middle to double-team whatever in-breaking route showed first (or, in select situations, to double Julian Edelman).
“Brady’s so good it’s scary,” Phillips says. “He know what you’re in most of the time, knows where the matchup is, man or zone. We tried to switch it up, and that’s about the only chance you have.” Then Phillips adds a caveat that he would say several times in our visit. “You know, I’m still disappointed [about this game]. It’s hard for me to say we played great, we didn’t play great enough to win.”
And part of the reason was Brady bested the Rams a few times in man coverage. The Patriots masterfully exploit man-to-man by diversifying their formations and using presnap motion. The featured weapon here was the eventual Super Bowl MVP.
“Edelman made some really great, timely plays,” McVay says. His 10 catches, save for a short one in the fourth quarter, led to only three points, but they also swung field position and time of possession, which proved critical in a slugfest where the Rams for three quarters could not generate offense.
Making Edelman’s production all the more frustrating was that it stemmed mainly from execution, not scheme. “[I was surprised] that they didn’t change anything,” Robey-Coleman says. “We were on everything, there were no trick ‘em plays. They were just trying to run their best plays, we were running OUR best plays. That was my first Super Bowl, I would have thought the two weeks [of prep time] would change their gameplan, but there were no new wrinkles.”
“We got every look that we planned for,” Littleton says.
Except for one look early in the fourth quarter that they didn’t plan for. “Yeah, they got us with the ‘22’ and spreading out,” Robey-Coleman says. “If it weren’t for those (three plays), we could have come out with the win.”
We’ll elaborate on what ‘22’ means in a moment, but to fully appreciate it, one must first understand L.A.’s approach to defending the Patriots’ backfield. I ask Phillips how this Patriots team compared with ones he’d faced in previous years, most notably when he was coordinating the defense in Denver. “Their running attack this year was more potent,” he says.
New England’s ground game is built largely around man-to-man blocking, often with fullback James Develin leading the tailback or a guard pulling to the play side. “Everyone was running ‘12’ (1 RB, 2 TE) or ‘11’ (1 TE, 1 RB) the whole year,” defensive end Michael Brockers says, “and the Patriots switched and started running ‘21’ (2 RB, 1 TE). People weren’t prepared. You’re used to seeing speed on the field, and now you have to deal with a fullback.”
It was clear the Patriots wanted to go heavy and pound the rock against penetrating defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, and against undersized linebackers Littleton and Mark Barron. And, until the final drive when fatigue seemed to set in, the Rams front seven battled, allowing 92 yards on 23 carries.
Part of the Patriots' ground game efficacy stems from how dangerous they are on play-action.
“They hit [Gronkowski on a play-action over route against me] early in the game, and so I was like, ‘I can’t give that up again,’” says Littleton, who played with more depth after that 19-yard completion. That particular play-action came out of a three-receiver set, which meant just one running back behind Brady, no fullback. The 3-receiver play-action with a pulling guard was the Patriots’ most common and potent play-action design all season, even though they almost never actually run the ball behind pulling guards in this package.
“Yeah, but at the end of the day, all you can is play the look,” Littleton says. “How we line up and what we do is reactionary.”
But there were times where the look helped the Rams. “They had a big tell on two-back alignments,” Brockers says, explaining that if Develin aligned on the strong side, he would trap-block the nose tackle. If Develin aligned on the weak side, he would wind back across the formation as a lead-blocker.
A broader, more obvious tell came from who the Patriots had at running back. When Sony Michel was in, it was often with the fullback Develin, and the likelihood of a run was very high. So, the Rams played their stouter base 4-3 defense. But if Burkhead or especially James White was in, the Patriots were likely to throw. So here the Rams played nickel, even if one of those back was in with the smashmouthing Develin. “That wasn’t something we’d done much all year,” McVay says.
The Patriots have seen defensive personnel adjustments centered around White before. In Super Bowl 51 the Falcons deployed their rarely-seen 4-cornerback, 1-linebacker dime package because the Patriots had thrown the ball nearly 90% of the time with White on the field.
“White was a big, BIG part of their pass game,” Brockers says, “So we wanted to make sure we got contact on him to mess up their timing.” The plan was to “bullseye” White (or, in Rams vernacular, “bam” him), which meant an edge defender, especially if it was man coverage, would hit White as he released into a route out of the backfield. A few times, they also did this to Gronkowski. Coincidentally, the man who introduced this tactic to the NFL was Belichick, who curtailed Marshall Faulk with it in New England’s first Super Bowl against the Rams. The only drawback is that “bulls-eyeing” compromises one of your four pass rushers.
“But you’re not going to get to Brady very much anyway,” Phillips says, “unless you have an overwhelming pass rush.” White, who had 14 receptions for 110 yards against the Falcons and their dime package in Super Bowl 51, had just one catch for five yards in Super Bowl 53.
‘22’ is the football-wide description for the heavy personnel package that features 2 RB, 2 TE and just 1 WR. Defenses see it in obvious run situations, but with the score stubbornly stuck at 3–3, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided the team would operate their spread-empty backfield passing game out of ‘22’ even though they had never executed’—or, as McDaniels told NBC’s Peter King, even practiced—their spread game in that package. McDaniels, just like in years past, badly wanted to get Phillips’s defense out of nickel and into its base 4–3, where the D is less athletic and more predictable. Going to ‘22’ accomplished that.
“Josh McDaniels had a real feel for that game’s flow and how to play that game to try to win it,” McVay says. “I really respected his feel for the game, watching him call it and adjust.”
In ‘22’ McDaniels brilliantly put his best receivers, Gronkowski and the only wideout, Edelman, inside and then called a Patriots staple play where key routes worked the seams and middle.
“They got us,” Johnson says. “We were discombobulated.”
On the first snap of the spread ‘22’, the Rams went zone and Edelman caught a short ball inside, easily beating Littleton—which is exactly what New England wanted. So on the next snap, the Rams went man-to-man, but disguised it as zone. The Patriots were going up tempo, running the same play again. Brady hit Burkhead out wide against cornerback Marcus Peters.
By then it was apparent that the ‘22’ spread-empty look was creating uncertainty for the Rams, so the Pats again lined up quickly and ran the same play. Only this time, before the snap they motioned Edelman across, creating another layer of complexity for the scrambling defense. The result was a busted man coverage that left Gronkowski open down the seams. Littleton alertly recognized it but was a beat late playing the ball. Gronkowski’s 29-yarder put New England near the goal-line, leading to the game’s only touchdown. That 22 package with a spread formation presents “a lot of thinking, and they got us with it,” Littleton says.
The 22 package would get the Rams again in the closing minutes, this time more conventionally, on Burkhead’s back-breaking 26-yarder on second-and-7 after Los Angeles started using its timeouts.
“If it was a 7-on-7 game, I don’t think they would’ve beaten us at all—no shot,” Johnson says. “But things like this, we can hone in and be better. And as a defense we could have put our O in better positions to score or forced more turnovers. We can’t really point fingers, there are a lot of things we could fix.”
Back in McVay’s home office, he leans back in his chair and, looking ready for bed, reflects on the more personal side of his Super Bowl experience. On the first night in Atlanta, he had dinner in his suite with Veronika, his parents and younger brother. He didn’t know it then, but this would be the only time all week that he would relax and soak it all in.
“Adam Gase has been really good to me,” McVay says. “He sent me a text Super Bowl week saying, ‘Just make sure you enjoy the moment and what a great opportunity it is to be there. I never enjoyed a single second of it [as the 2013 Broncos’ offensive coordinator] and it was one of my biggest regrets.’ I don’t know if my [lack of enjoyment] was to THAT extent but,” and here McVay takes an introspective pause, “I didn’t appreciate it. I think there’s a lot to be said for the journey, and I appreciated what the season had entailed. But I could have appreciated the week and entirety of the event more. I kept myself kind of isolated because I didn’t want any distraction.”
Distraction will continue to be a challenge in 2019, too, as questions about a Super Bowl hangover will soon pour in as the start of the season approaches. Different members of the Rams processed Super Bowl 53 in different ways—McVay watched it immediately at home; Phillips watched it upon returning to the office the following week; Brockers watched it not at all and swears he never will (though an affable man, he did take in a few plays with me); and Johnson watched it on the bus ride from Mercedes-Benz Stadium back to the team hotel. However, what didn’t differ was L.A.’s expectations—not one Rams defender or coach expressed any surprise at having held the Patriots to just 13 points.
And with a now-more-experienced unit and savvier veterans like Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle aboard, lofty expectations—both external and especially internal—carry this defense into 2019.
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