The Rams Defense Played Great But Couldn’t Finish the Job

Wade Phillips put together another outstanding Super Bowl game plan. His defenses have now allowed 10 points (2015 vs. the Panthers) and 13 points (2018 vs. the Patriots) in two Super Bowls. In his last three games against Tom Brady and the Patriots, Phillips’ defenses have allowed 18, 16, and 13 points respectively (15.67 points per game). Unfortunately for Phillips and the Rams, their defensive performance was the best in Super Bowl history by a losing team.

It didn’t start out pretty for Los Angeles. The Patriots came out and did the things they’ve been doing so well this postseason on their first two drives.

On the very first play of the game, New England ran a fullback Wham running play for 13 yards, something we thought they’d utilize to try and create uncertainty on L.A.’s defensive line.

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On their second drive, the Patriots turned to their play-action game. They used a pulling guard in their play-fake, which helped sell the run, and this influenced three key Rams defenders. You can see below that it sucked Mark Barron and Cory Littleton towards the line of scrimmage, creating a huge void behind them for Rob Gronkowski’s route. The pulling action also forced Dante Fowler to hesitate and rush inside initially in anticipation of the run. That created time and protection for Brady.

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On those first two drives, not much seemed different from the Patriots’ previous playoff games. New England looked like they would easily put points on the board. And they would have, if not for self-inflicted mistakes.

The first was the interception Tom Brady threw on his very first pass. You can see below that the Rams were playing Cover-3. Brady didn’t get fooled or anything. There really wasn’t much to the coverage. Chris Hogan was open in the flat to the right.

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Brady simply threw a bad ball. He yanked it a bit, and this brought Hogan back inside where the curl-flat defender, Nickell Robey-Coleman, could make a play.

You can see from the replay that the ball did not come out of Brady’s hand clean.

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On their next drive, the Patriots called a running play on 3rd-and-8 from the Rams 31-yard line…with Tom Brady at quarterback. The Patriots almost deserved what happened next, a missed 46-yard field goal attempt.

On that second drive, the Rams showed they weren’t going to be pushed around in the running game like the Chiefs and Chargers were. Ndamukong Suh was not rendered hesitant by the wham run we showed on the first play of the game, as some defensive tackles become against traps and whams.

Instead, as the Patriots tried to pull the right guard aligned in front of Suh on a power run, he responded by penetrating quickly into the backfield and blowing up the play. On the other side of the formation, Dante Fowler also recognized the look and the pulling action and immediately shot into the backfield. The result was a loud 4-yard loss.

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The Patriots got away from their running game a bit after that. Not including Brady kneels, the Patriots gained 94 yards rushing on 12 carries on their first and last drives of the game. In between, they were limited to just 62 yards on 18 carries.

On New England’s third drive, the Rams reacted much better when the Patriots attempted play-action with a pulling guard again. Watch linebacker Cory Littleton not even inch forward in response to the run-fake, and instead, get underneath Rob Gronkowski’s over route.

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The result here was a coverage sack, the only sack the Patriots would allow all postseason.

The Pats’ decision to spread it out and throw more often as the first half progressed enabled Wade Phillips to start deploying his disguises against obvious passing looks.

On this 3rd-and-5, the Rams disguised a pressure look. First, check out the matchups below. The Patriots were in an empty formation. This was clearly man coverage based on the fact that safety Lamarcus Joyner was aligned on the perimeter over running back James White.

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Now keep an eye on Cory Littleton again. He made a move towards the line of scrimmage just before the snap. It looked like a well-timed blitz.

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It turned out he was not blitzing, though. In fact, the Rams were only rushing 3 and playing man coverage behind it. The extra defenders dropped into the middle of the field to take away any short crossing routes, something we wrote about from Wade’s 2015 gameplan against the Patriots.

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Brady looked to James White on the perimeter first, but Joyner was playing tight man coverage on him. Brady then looked inside, but the crossing routes were taken away by the extra help underneath. He held the ball long enough for the pass rush to get to him.

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The result was an incompletion and a punt.

Let’s talk a little bit about how the Rams matched up to Patriots receivers, because this was a big part of their ability to disguise man and zone coverage. The Rams are very often a man-coverage-by-alignment defense. Predominantly, cornerback Aqib Talib plays on the outside left, cornerback Marcus Peters plays on the outside right, and cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman plays in the slot. The Rams don’t follow receivers around the field pre-snap in man all the time. This helps them avoid tipping the coverage.

The Rams do sometimes follow receivers, but they don’t play the same matchups on every snap of man. They certainly didn’t in the Super Bowl. We saw Rob Gronkowksi covered by Talib, safety John Johnson, and linebacker Mark Barron at various times. Julian Edelman was covered by Talib, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Marcus Peters. Pats running backs were covered by an assortment of safeties and linebackers. Sometimes they played man press. Sometimes they looked to be aligned in zone but were actually playing soft man coverage. Sometimes, they played matchup-zone concepts.

But even when the Rams did follow receivers around the field, they still took the opportunity to disguise zone coverage in key moments. On a 3rd-and-7 in the 2nd quarter, the Rams put Aqib Talib inside. This could have been an indicator of man coverage because he was aligned over Gronk, who he had covered at times in man.

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They also looked like they could be playing Cover-3 on this play.

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Either of the two routes shown below that the Patriots were running could work against Cover-3 or man.

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As it turned out, though, the Rams would rotate to an inverted Tampa-2 coverage, which is an unconventional look.

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The deep middle defender took away Edelman’s crosser. The Cover-2 zone at the top of the screen took away the out-route. Brady dumped the ball off underneath and the Rams rallied to make the tackle short of the first down.

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The disguise in this case didn’t necessarily trick Brady into making an ill-advised throw or turning the ball over. It did prevent him from getting into a good play vs. the coverage pre-snap.

Wade Phillips seemed intent on not letting Patriots running backs make an impact in the passing game. A few plays ago, we showed you Lamarcus Joyner up in James White’s face on the perimeter, treating him like you might treat a great receiver or pass catching tight end. Phillips also used defensive ends to take away New England running backs releasing out of the backfield.

On this 4th-and-1 at the end of the first half, watch how Dante Fowler attacked the running back’s release, all but eliminating him from the play.

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Brady was forced to work back inside, where Gronk was covered in man and where L.A. had help in the middle of the field. The result was another stop by the Rams.

Patriots running backs caught only 3 passes for 20 yards on the night.

The Rams also tried to take away Rob Gronkowski with multiple defenders at times. You can see how they played him on this 3rd down below.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

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Phillips’ approach certainly gave the Patriots trouble, and Tom Brady did not have a good game. A large part of that was certainly due to the Rams. A large part of that was due to Brady’s performance itself.

Brady had one of those days where the ball just wasn’t coming out of his hand great (as you saw on the interception). This happens to every quarterback at various times throughout the season, even the great ones. The pinpoint accuracy we’re accustomed to seeing from Brady just wasn’t there, as he physically missed a few throws. He also seemed to lock onto his favorite targets a little too much, and this led to some missed opportunities.

On this 3rd-and-9 below, keep your eyes on the two receivers at the top of the screen. They both ran in-breaking routes over the middle of the field. The Rams were playing quarters coverage, and this route combination was perfect for attacking it. The deeper route held the safety, leaving Phillip Dorsett wide open underneath. Brady came off the route too soon, though, and dumped it off to Gronk in the flat instead.

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We guess it’s not entirely a bad move to put the ball in Gronk’s hands, but Brady missed this one. New England settled for a field goal.

Despite the success the Rams Defense had, the Patriots Offense did do a few things well.

First, they didn’t let Aaron Donald become a factor. As we anticipated, Donald saw a lot of double-teams. Normally, the Patriots can take care of the rush just with their quick passing game alone. But when they do need to get the ball downfield, Brady needs more time to hang in the pocket. Stopping Aaron Donald in those situations on Sunday was critical.

On this big completion to Julian Edelman, watch how the Patriots slid to Donald’s side (#99 on the left side).

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We saw this look often. This left the rest of L.A.’s pass rush in plenty of 1-on-1 situations. They still didn’t get much pressure on Brady. The Patriots offensive line was, once again, up to the challenge. They also got some help from chips by their running backs and tight ends on the edge opposite Donald’s side, as you saw on the play above.

Second, the Patriots leaned on eventual Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman. Edelman was basically uncoverable. The Rams seemed content to leave him in a lot of 1-on-1 situations, both in man and zone.

Based on the way defenders were matching up to Edelman, L.A.’s game plan was clearly to take away Edelman’s crossers and in-breaking routes. So what did the Patriots do? They sold inside routes initially and then attacked the outside.

On this 25-yard gain, watch Edelman at the bottom of the screen. He motioned inside. This is a high tendency in-breaking-route look for Edelman. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who was covering him, was ready to take the middle away. But Edelman was actually running a corner route.

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Edelman did a great job there of getting upfield with his stem. He attacked Talib, squared his shoulders, stepped on his toes, and then broke to the outside at the last minute. That looked like it could have been an in-breaking route, similar to what we’ve seen all year, until the very end.

On this next big reception for Edelman, another 25-yard play, Edelman again started inside and looked to be running a crosser. Nickell Robey-Coleman, the corner covering him, was trying to get underneath and prevent the crossing route. When Edelman broke back outside unexpectedly, Robey-Coleman was left in the dust.

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Despite Edelman’s play, the Patriots still only had 3 points on the board with less than 10 minutes remaining. Then, they marched down the field for an easy 69 yards and a touchdown on 5 plays. It was as if they had been doing it with ease all night.

So how did the Patriots finally break through?

On the first play of the drive, the Patriots got Gronk matched up on linebacker Samson Ebukam in man coverage. Brady took advantage off of play-action for 18 yards.

Then, the Patriots aligned in “22” personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) and called the exact same play on three snaps in a row. They dressed it up differently each time. Rex Burkhead motioned out of the backfield on the first two plays, and Edelman motioned across the formation on the third. They also flipped the formation from the first snap to the next two to keep the Rams from anticipating identical plays.

The Patriots went back to their ways of spreading out the defense, aligning running backs on the perimeter to help identify the coverage pre-snap, and targeting the best matchup. This was a great decision by Josh McDaniels to counter Phillips’ ability to disguise.

As you can see below, Rex Burkhead and fullback James Develin were the outside receivers on both sides.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

It was clear before each snap that the Rams were in zone because Talib and Peters were aligned over Burkhead and Develin on each play.

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The Rams were not opting to use their best corners to cover those two in true man coverage.

Still, the decision to match up in this way was surprising to say the least. It set up 1-on-1’s against Edelman and Gronk inside that just did not favor the Rams. The two best pass catchers on the field were not covered by the Rams’ best cover defenders.

On the first snap of this 3-play sequence, the Rams went with quarters coverage. That left three underneath defenders with a lot of space to cover and got Edelman matched on a linebacker inside. The result was an easy 13-yard completion. On the next two snaps, the Rams went with a matchup-zone Cover-3.

This second play, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t seem that meaningful. It was just a simple completion to Rex Burkhead for 7 yards. But watch closely. Below, you can see the route combination. A go route from the slot for Gronk, and a hitch for Burkhead.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Marcus Peters in Cover-3 was responsible for the deep 3rd vertical. He gave Burkhead a lot of cushion on this play because he had to be ready to react to Gronk if he went vertical. You can see him looking inside during the play. Gronk was jammed at the line though, disrupting his route, and Peters was able to stay on top of him. That left Burkhead wide open for an easy 7 yards underneath, though.

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The Patriots ran the exact same play on the next snap. Peters didn’t want to give up an easy completion to Burkhead again, so he played a bit tighter to him.

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This time, though, Gronk wasn’t jammed at the line. It looked like Edelman’s motion across the formation got the Rams a little crossed up. The result was that Gronk had a free release, and this enabled him to get on top of the underneath defender who locked onto him in the slot. It also allowed him to beat Peters downfield. Peters was slow to react because of the previous completion to Burkhead, and because he was playing tighter to Burkhead on this snap.

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Brady didn’t make many great throws in Super Bowl LIII. This one was absolutely perfect. New England was in the end zone one play later.

The Patriots can win in so many ways.

There is no question that the Rams Defense won the matchup on this side of the ball. Unfortunately for them, their offense was completely shut down by New England. The Patriots are once again Super Bowl champs as a result.

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