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How The Patriots' Defense Put The Rams In A Trash Can

Okay, so Jared Goff looked lost and Sean McVay had no clue how to adjust and the Patriots basically needed just one touchdown drive to win another stinkin’ Super Bowl while also defeating what we all thought was the future of the NFL. So what did New England do that so panicked Goff and McVay? Mostly, they attacked their tendencies.

That’s right: For all of L.A.’s ability to create mismatches before the snap, to scheme pass catchers open, and to overwhelm defenses by using the entire field, there was still an air of predictability to the Rams’ approach. Pats head coach Bill Belichick and defensive play-caller Brian Flores drew up a game plan specifically tailored to thwart those probabilities. Modern football, with McVay as its lodestar, finally met its match.

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The Rams love to use tight bunch formations and jet sweeps to give pass catchers plenty of running room and to pull defenders in different directions. But they also came into the game having used “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) nearly all the time. The Patriots of late had been pretty good at stopping “11” personnel.

The way the Rams thrive is to frequently show teams the same look, then to attack them based on what McVay and Goff see at the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Their preferred method for doing this is to line up quickly, and for McVay to help Goff with diagnosing the defense before his in-helmet headset shuts off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock. But, as Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported, the Patriots countered this by basically having two play calls sent in—one each for before and after the snap. The intent was to confuse Goff, and it worked.

On the back end, the Pats played a great deal of what’s known as quarters coverage, or a Cover 4. This involved keeping both safeties back; CBS analyst Tony Romo kept describing what New England was doing as a Cover 2, which is what it looked like at the snap. But in quarters, both the safeties and the two outside corners were responsible for playing a quarter of the field, and they mixed and matched between man and zone. This kept Goff from throwing much downfield, but it also worked to frequently take away the middle of the field—an area the Rams love to attack—by having one of those safeties roam up to take away crossing routes. Ironically, ex–Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, now the Lions’ head coach, had done this to Goff during Week 13, in a game in which Goff posted his third-lowest passer rating (68.6) of the season:

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During the regular season, per Pro Football Focus, 51.1 percent of Goff’s completions were in the middle of the field between the numbers. Yet last night, this is what his passing chart looked like. The middle of the field was much more of a struggle:

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Heading into the Super Bowl, the Patriots had played man coverage 62 percent of the time. But last night, they flipped that script by playing zone 61 percent of the time, per ESPN’s Brian Burke. Here again the Pats exploited the Rams’ tendencies because Goff had shown he’s a much better QB against man coverage:

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Some of this was necessity, too. Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, the Pats played much more zone after safety Patrick Chung—who was being used as a strong-side linebacker—left the game in the third quarter with an arm injury.

Up front, the Patriots put their linebackers at the line of scrimmage on the outside, which neutralized the Rams’ predilection for outside-zone runs on early downs. As SI’s Andy Benoit noted, this allowed New England to have its interior defensive linemen shoot gaps without having to worry about containing the edges. The added wrinkle is that the Pats frequently used stunts and twists—a twist is when two pass rushers stunt across each other—to aggressively attack the Rams’ offensive line, without telegraphing where the pressure was coming from. Here’s one reason this worked so well ...

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... with the other being that the Pats blitzed Goff 50 percent of the time, per Next Gen Stats. Why did this matter? Another tendency: The Rams used play-action more than any other team this season—34.6 percent of all Goff’s dropbacks during the regular season, and 40.3 percent during their previous two postseason games, according to PFF. What makes play-action so effective is when it gets defenders to hesitate for a moment. Yet the Pats rarely hesitated; they just came at Goff with abandon. [Update (Feb. 5, 5:45 p.m.): However, Warren Sharp compiled some data on the Rams’ use of play-action. They were actually better when they used it, and only used it 24 percent of the time out of “11” personnel:

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The real issue, as Sharp noted elsewhere in this thread, was the Rams’ failure to go up-tempo all that often, their lack of runs out of “11" personnel, and their reluctance to use much “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers).]

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Goff was sacked four times and hit 12 times, with linebackers Kyle Van Noy (one sack, three hits) and Dont’a Hightower (two sacks, three hits) leading the charge. The crowning achievement for the Patriots was when they brought six blitzers at Goff (including safety Duron Harmon, who had replaced Chung) on cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s ginormous interception after the Rams had driven to the Patriots’ 27 with a little more than four minutes remaining. But it was hard not to notice Goff just flat-out missed other chances to throw to a number of open receivers, such as when he forced a deep pass into double coverage even as Josh Reynolds streaked free across the middle right at the 50-yard line ...

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... or when he was way late in delivering what would have been an easy touchdown to Brandin Cooks:

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But that’s the kind of thing a great defense can do, even to the best of quarterbacks. The Patriots don’t have an outstanding defense full of world-beaters, and they finished 16th in defensive DVOA during the regular season. Wideout Julian Edelman was the game’s MVP, but a case could have been made for Gilmore, who racked up six tackles, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and that pick. Even when Gilmore got stiff-armed by running back C.J. Anderson, he still managed to punch the ball loose for what would have been a game-changing turnover had the ball not rolled out of bounds:

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“We don’t have stars,” Van Noy said, via the Washington Post. “We have elite football players.” A generation ago, as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, Belichick solved the Bills’ K-gun offense in Super Bowl 25 by pounding Buffalo’s receivers at the line of scrimmage and daring the Bills to run the ball. During the first of these six Super Bowls with the Pats, Belichick similarly slowed down the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” by getting physical with running back Marshall Faulk whenever Faulk streaked out to catch a pass. That was 17 years ago. Last night, the Rams could have run Gurley more, they could have thrown more screens to get the Pats to back off of Goff, and they could have gone with an extra tight end and more spread formations sooner than they did. But that would have meant getting away from what they do best, rather than adapting to what the Patriots were dictating to them. Belichick and several Patriots players gave credit to Flores for calling the defense this time, and Flores will now be taking over as the head coach of the Dolphins. In the meantime, Belichick and the Pats will still be here to forestall the future.

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About the author

Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.