How Will the Patriots Defense Choose to Match Up in Super Bowl LIII?

This is always the question with Bill Belichick, isn’t it? The man with a different gameplan for each opponent is often tough to predict. One thing that’s certain is that he’ll need an answer for the Rams’ tight splits, stacks, and trips-bunch formations.

While it might be difficult to predict Belichick’s approach entirely, it’s a safe bet to say that he will opt to have his defensive backs jam, jam, and then jam some more. We’ve seen an aggressive approach from Belichick’s secondary this season, and that has only increased during the playoffs, as you can see below.

Watch J.C. Jackson jam the front man of this stack formation against the Chargers:

1_Pats D Jam vs Stack 1.gif

Watch Stephon Gilmore re-route the #2 receiver in the middle of this 3×1 formation:

2_Pats Jam vs. Chiefs.gif

Against this trips bunch formation, Gilmore got his hands on the point receiver:

3_Chiefs Trips bunch Pats hands on point man.gif

Even in zone coverage, the Patriots still managed to deal with the Chiefs’ trips bunch by re-routing their receivers.

4_Patriots D - contact

Contacting receivers is so important to disrupting the timing of the passing game. It will be incredibly vital for New England against Sean McVay’s passing attack, which is largely based on timing and receivers’ routes precisely meshing together.

We don’t see Belichick taking the exact same approach he did in the AFC Championship Game against Tyreek Hill. In that matchup, a safety rolled over top of Hill on almost every passing play. He was limited to just 1 reception for 42 yards.

Belichick might see Brandin Cooks as having a similar impact on the Rams’ passing attack, though probably not quite as significant as Hill’s. Our bet is that he will use Gilmore on Cooks in certain situations and maybe give Cooks the Tyreek Hill treatment on key downs.

One thing to keep a serious eye on is how well running back Todd Gurley is moving in the early going. For most of 2018, this Rams Offense revolved around Gurley. He missed time at the end of the season due to a knee injury, though, and did not look comfortable moving against the Saints two weeks ago.

If Gurley appears to be his normal self on Sunday, expect him to be a big factor in the passing game. Don’t be surprised to see Patriots defensive ends chip him before going into their pass rush. If he looks like he did against New Orleans, though, you probably won’t see Belichick have his defenders pay extra attention to him.

From a pass-rush standpoint, the Patriots love to bring pressure in the quarterback’s face. We’ve seen them frequently use stunts and blitzes with the design of the pressure coming up the middle.

Just look at this T-E stunt against Philip Rivers and the Chargers in the Divisional Round. First, notice how New England’s alignment dictated 1-on-1 matchups across the offensive line.

SB LIII Pats D Pressure_1
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The beauty of this stunt, which came from the right side, was that defensive end Trey Flowers was coming from the outside shoulder of the right tackle to the left shoulder of the center. The distance from which he came made it a little more difficult for the center to anticipate or recognize the scheme and fall off his man.

SB LIII Pats D Pressure_2
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Flowers ended up coming from three gaps over, and the center didn’t even see him. There was no other help inside because each lineman was occupied by the initial rush of the defender over them. The result was a free rusher up the middle against a 4-man pressure.

5_Patriots T-E Stunt vs. Chargers Sack.gif

The below pressure scheme against the Chiefs was again designed to attack the middle of the offensive line. Similar to the play above, look how the Patriots’ alignment forced five 1-on-1’s across the board.

SB LIII Pats D Pressure_3
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

You can see the design again called for the inside pressure to come from three gaps away. This time it was Dont’a Hightower.

SB LIII Pats D Pressure_4
Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Mahomes was spooked by Hightower’s rush up the middle, and this led to the sack.

6_Pats Sack vs. chiefs, stunt up middle.gif

At his worst, Jared Goff can be overreactive to pressure, as we saw in Week 14 against the Bears. The Patriots already target the middle of the offensive line with their stunts and blitzes. It makes sense that they would want to bring pressure in Goff’s face to try and get him to react.

There are plenty of variables in this game, as there always are in the Super Bowl.

For instance, so much of the Rams running game is based off of motion and misdirection holding defenders and creating great blocking angles for the offensive line. The Rams were not able to utilize quite as much of this in the NFC Championship Game due to the crowd noise in New Orleans. It’s tough to time up some of that motion while using a silent count. Not to mention, the defense has an advantage in that situation because the silent count is visible. They can anticipate the snap better and penetrate into the backfield to disrupt those runs. The Rams’ running game suffered as a result.

In the Super Bowl, crowd noise likely won’t be as much of a factor. If it is, though, the Rams might not be able to use their entire assortment of motion and misdirection.

Whatever does end up working well for the Rams Offense, you can bet Bill Belichick will make adjustments and keep it from working for all four quarters. Sean McVay will need a few more tricks up his sleeve than normal for the Rams to come out on top in this one.

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