We’ve stated multiple times here that getting pressure on Tom Brady does not come from the pass rush first. It comes from coverage. It comes from forcing Brady to hold the ball, either by disrupting his receivers or disguising coverage enough to delay his decision-making. Even if Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, Bruce Smith, and Derrick Thomas were rushing Brady, they would make little impact if the coverage behind them allowed free releases and quick underneath throws.
Assuming that the Rams will attempt to disrupt the timing of the Patriots’ passing game, how New England’s offensive line handles Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler and Michael Brockers will play a major role in deciding the Super Bowl Champion. It all starts with Donald, though.
Donald is a game-wrecker. He is the most athletic defensive tackle in the game. Leaving him on an island vs. far less-athletic interior linemen in 1-on-1 situations, whether it’s a run or pass play, is a disastrous proposition for the offense. So how will the Patriots try to neutralize him?
This is a Bill Belichick team we’re talking about here. Does anyone think he’ll allow Donald to make a huge impact? Of course not. That means Donald is going to face plenty of double-teams on Sunday night.
The Patriots will try to limit his impact by running right at him, which makes it easier to orchestrate those double-teams. They will likely dedicate two linemen to Donald in pass-protection as well. We saw the Saints take this approach and basically neutralize his impact on the game. When the Rams did get pressure on Drew Brees, it was due to Donald’s counterparts taking advantage of the resulting 1-on-1’s they had, as you can see below.
On this first sack, you can see the alignment of Fowler, Donald, Suh, and Brockers.
Even with Suh aligned in the A-gap, the Saints chose to slide towards Donald and ensure that he was double-teamed. This left Suh in a 1-on-1 situation with the left guard, which he ended up winning for a sack.
On the below sack, which occurred on the very next play, the Rams aligned defensive end Michael Brockers inside in the A-Gap.
Again, the Saints still slid to Donald to ensure he was doubled. This left Brockers 1-on-1 against the right guard.
Brockers didn’t get credit for the sack, but his pressure made this play happen.
On this next pressure, which forced a Drew Brees interception in overtime, the center and left guard once again slid to Donald’s side. This left 1-on-1’s for Fowler and Brockers to the other side.
Fowler and Brockers executed an E-T stunt, which led to Fowler getting inside pressure on Brees as he threw. The center was not there to help out with the stunt because he was sliding to Donald’s side. The result was an interception.
What does this all mean? It means the battle to protect/get pressure on Tom Brady will come down to the non-Aaron Donald 1-on-1 matchups that will occur across the defensive line.
So what can New England do to neutralize some of those matchups? This is where the running game comes into play. Forcing the Rams’ defensive line to honor the run will slow down their pass rush on pass plays, similar to how it slowed down the Chargers’ and Chiefs’ defensive lines. Not including Tom Brady kneels, New England has run the ball 79 times in their two playoff games for 333 yards (4.21 yards per attempt) and 8 (8!) touchdowns. Sticking with the run has been a major contributor to the protection Brady has received. He has not been sacked once in 90 playoff pass attempts. In fact, he’s barely even been hit.
One particular way the Patriots can use their running game to force hesitation on L.A.’s defensive line is with Wham and Trap concept plays, which they love to use. One of the few successful runs we’ve seen against the Rams this postseason came on a Wham concept, shown below. Keep your eye on the nose tackle over the center and the full back.
This is a great way to play games with Rams defensive linemen. It’s also a great way to get to the second level and generate big runs.
During the regular season, the Rams Defense allowed 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, good for dead last in the NFL. They’ve turned it around in the playoffs, though. Not including QB kneels, they’ve allowed 100 yards on 41 attempts (2.44 yards per carry) against two very good rushing attacks. We anticipate the Patriots keeping the Rams honest with their running game, but we don’t see them having the same kind of success on the ground that they had against the Chargers and Chiefs.
It will, of course, come down to the matchup of Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game against the Rams pass defense. When it’s all said and done, Wade Phillips’ approach in coverage will be the #1 factor in determining what type of pressure the Rams will be able to get on Brady.
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