The Rams played much less man coverage in 2018 than we normally see out of a Wade Phillips defense. One reason for this was the early-season injury to cornerback Aqib Talib, which forced him to miss 8 games.
Even since his return, the Rams often have not had their corners follow receivers around the field in man coverage quite as often as we’d expect. They largely play man coverage by alignment. Talib mostly stays on the defensive left outside of the field, Marcus Peters stays to the outside right, and Nickell Robey-Coleman plays in the slot.
One of the benefits of this type of approach is that it doesn’t tip L.A.’s hand. When defenders follow receivers around the field pre-snap, it is often a telltale sign of man coverage. The Rams don’t always provide that indicator.
The Patriots like to use formations that force the defense to show if they are playing man or zone. They put tight ends and running backs on the perimeter and wide receivers inside. If the defense matches up with a linebacker or safety on the edge, it is likely man. If they keep their cornerbacks over the tight ends and backs on the edge and put their linebackers and safeties over wide receivers inside, it is likely some kind of zone. The Rams’ approach could be somewhat useful against these formations.
No matter what the defensive approach is, one thing is certain with the Patriots. They will still find ways to create and take advantage of mismatches by using these unconventional alignments.
If Rams defenders follow the Pats’ receivers, backs, and tight ends around the field pre-snap, Brady will know that it is true man coverage and work the most favorable matchup. Trust us, there will be at least one, and that’s all it takes.
If Rams defenders stay on their side of the field in man or play zone against New England’s unconventional personnel alignments, there will be some kind of mismatch inside. A safety or a linebacker will be matched on a wide receiver. So, while the Rams might be able to avoid tipping their hand entirely pre-snap, there is always a mismatch when the Patriots align this way.
One way to neutralize this approach is to jam Patriots receivers at the line of scrimmage, disrupt the timing of the passing game, and give the rush time to get to Brady before he can take advantage of a favorable matchup. We’ve said this countless times, but any defensive game plan against the Patriots should include being physical with their receivers at the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots are more than aware of this, though. That’s why they use stacks, motion, and pick plays so often. It makes the job of jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage extremely difficult.
Just look at this play from the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs. Watch how Julian Edelman motioned to a stack behind Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett’s route interfered with the cornerback’s ability to stick with Edelman. He even made contact with the corner, and this created a free release for Edelman.
All of this (the unconventional alignments, the motion, the stacks, the pick plays) can be neutralized by help defenders, though.
We wrote about how Wade Phillips used an approach (as the Broncos Defensive Coordinator in the 2015 AFC Championship Game) against the Patriots that took away so much of what the Patriots like to do with their passing game. Denver defenders jammed Rob Gronkowksi repeatedly. In man coverage, they played receivers’ releases instead of playing to a pre-snap assignment. Linebackers, safeties, and even defensive linemen provided lots of help inside to make it difficult for Brady to complete those in-breaking routes that are a staple of the Patriots’ passing attack. The Rams will need to utilize a similar approach to disrupt New England’s passing game in Super Bowl LIII.
It remains to be seen if the Rams can execute an approach like this. Against the Saints, Rams help defenders did not always provide adequate assistance in man coverage.
Take this play below. Cornerback Marcus Peters was aligned in the slot against wide receiver Michael Thomas. He was clearly playing man coverage with outside leverage. This means he was expecting help inside from linebacker Cory Littleton, who was in the middle of the field.
But watch what happened. Littleton kept his eyes on Drew Brees and didn’t move.
You can get a good look at where Littleton’s focus was from the end zone angle.
He didn’t hunt up any inside routes. We know he wasn’t spying on Brees. He was covering no one, helping no one, and might as well have not been on the field.
If the Rams aren’t ready for the Patriots’ inside routes, they will be in serious trouble. If they also play lots of soft coverage and don’t find ways to get their hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage, this game will be over by halftime.
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