The Super Bowl 53 Tale of the Tape: Two Dominant Defenses, Gurley’s Disappearance, and the Real MVP
The film is in. Below are the bullet points of every key moment from Super Bowl LIII. Some, you already know. Others you know of and will learn more about. And some will be brand new.
Rams Offense vs. Patriots Defense
• This gameplan was every bit the Bill Belichick masterpiece that we thought coming out of the game. The key highlights, as covered here Monday morning, were the Patriots playing Quarters coverage on early downs, which took away L.A.’s play-action in-breakers, and the Patriots playing a 6-1 front, which took away L.A.’s outside-zone ground game.
• You can’t overemphasize how important the 6-1 fronts were. Patrick Chung played the edge on the tight end side, Kyle Van Noy played the edge on the other side. They took away the outside zone running lanes, allowing New England’s meaty defensive linemen to work one-on-one inside. The brilliance of the 6-1 front was Chung and Van Noy were also positioned to easily play the flats in coverage. And, as we speculated about two weeks ago, Van Noy frequently walked out over the Rams’ tightly aligned receivers, disrupting the timing of their route releases.
• Another enormous benefit of the 6-1 front: it negated L.A.’s jet sweeps so thoroughly that Sean McVay abandoned them in the second half. With only one stack linebacker, there was no one for the jet sweep action to impact.
• After Chung got hurt, Dont’a Hightower became the edge defender and Elandon Roberts replaced Hightower as the single stack linebacker. The Rams made New England’s post-Chung personnel shuffle easier by switching from their patented “11” (3 WR) package to more “12” (2 TE) packages.
• On passing downs, the Patriots played straight man coverage. If they blitzed (which was often), they put a defender directly over the center to command one-on-one blocking and then ran stunts and twists from there. Linebackers Hightower and Van Noy were critical pass rushers, as was Trey Flowers. If the Patriots did not blitz, they played with two unattached safeties, using one to patrol centerfield and the other to double the trips-receiver side.
• New England’s answer for the Rams’ switch releases out of trips-bunch was simple and brilliant. They put four defenders over the three receivers. They played straight man coverage, with the three defenders who had a specific receiver sticking with that original receiver instead of trying to switch assignments on the fly (which many defenses do against teams that run rub routes and pick routes). The fourth defender acted as a safety net, picking up whatever receiver got open from the rub routes. This eliminated several would-be completions and minimized the run-after-catch when a pass was completed.
• Kyle Van Noy was the game’s real MVP. He did not show up much in the stat book, but his stoutness setting the edge in run D, his consistency disrupting Rams’ receivers off the line, his patience and cunningness as a pass-rusher and his alertness in back side zone coverage were huge.
• Another critical defender was Jonathan Jones, who for the first time all year moved from cornerback to safety. That gave the Patriots more coverage prowess inside, which helped against the Rams’ play-action game. Jones also moved to his usual slot corner position on third downs, taking Robert Woods.
• Stephon Gilmore had the Brandin Cooks assignment. Cooks beat Gilmore on a few comebackers, but Gilmore did not let Cooks beat him deep. There were times when Gilmore won this matchup on the weak side playing with zero help.
• On Gilmore’s crucial interception, Jared Goff slipped before throwing, which is why the ball came up so short. It was still a poor decision by Goff. The Patriots brought their first (and only) Cover-0 blitz of the game. A QB must heave it to a receiver quickly there, but you can’t choose a receiver who is facing a corner with as much cushion as Gilmore had.
• Goff was poor on other plays, too. With no help from play-action, and with the timing of L.A.’s usually sharp route combinations being disrupted by New England’s press coverages, Goff had to be a purer dropback passer and second-reaction player, which is not his game. To be fair, it’s hard to quarterback under those circumstances, and on several snaps the pass rush moved Goff off his spot when receivers were open.
• The biggest play was the missed touchdown opportunity to Cooks when New England blew a coverage in the far red area. Our Robert Klemko broke down that play on Monday. The Patriots were in Quarters coverage and, thanks to deceptive spacing by the Rams’ formation and route designs, we can’t say who blew the assignment without knowing the fine details of New England’s Quarters coverage rules. It was almost certainly either Gilmore or Jones. The one DB we know was not at fault is backside corner Jason McCourty, who made an incredible play getting over to break up the pass. Goff could have still beaten Jason McCourty by throwing to Cooks’s right shoulder instead of left, and/or by getting less air under the ball. And it was a throw Goff should have seen sooner. Sometimes blown coverages happen away from the QB’s initial progressions, which exonerates a QB from not seeing it. But in this case, Cooks was clearly within Goff’s designed line of vision.
• Just like against Travis Kelce in the AFC championship, cornerback J.C. Jackson matched up one-on-one to the opposing tight end, this time getting the better of Gerald Everett.
• Todd Gurley never got involved because the Rams weren’t on the field enough early on to establish a rhythm. (That’s why Woods and Cooks also did not get involved early on.)
• The Rams did not attempt to feed Gurley through the air. They’d gotten away from that over the course of this season. The Patriots in third down passing situations were comfortable guarding Gurley with a deep safety—Chung in the first half and Devin McCourty in the second.
Patriots Offense vs. Rams Defense
• The Rams handled New England’s offense better than any defense has in 2018. Aside from several plays by Julian Edelman and three well-designed plays to Rob Gronkowski, New England’s passing game did nothing. It was more about good Rams defense than bad Patriots offense.
• The Rams won with coverage. They only blitzed Tom Brady once (a fire zone during the 2:00 drive at the end of the first half) and their four-man rush was not as disruptive as it appeared on the surface. The Patriots employed chip-blocks on the edges at times, and the Rams, on some snaps, sacrificed an edge rusher to help delay a backfield route from running back James White. Or, they dropped edge defender Dante Fowler into shallow coverage as a means of doubling an inside receiver (usually Gronkowski).
• L.A.’s run defense was stout in the first half. Linebackers Mark Barron and Cory Littleton aggressively shot gaps and took on lead-blocking fullback James Develin. (The Patriots eventually made them pay for this with one of their patented “power play-action” passes to Gronkowski for 19 yards, exploiting Littleton.) Unfortunately, the Rams’ run D got gouged in the fourth quarter, overshadowing what had been a mostly stellar performance. Three Rams who stood out in run D: Michael Brockers (anchoring), Fowler (play recognition and explosive redirect movement) and safety John Johnson (filling in the box as the unblocked defender).
• The Patriots operated primarily out of base personnel, not “11” (i.e. 3 wide receivers). When the Patriots did go to “11,” the Rams played a four-corner dime (unless one of the receivers was Cordarrelle Patterson, who the Rams treated more as a runner). In four-corner dime, if it was man coverage. The predominant matchups were Aqib Talib on Gronkowski and Marcus Peters on Edelman.
• Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips brilliantly diversified his coverages, alternating between man and zone, with many of the zones playing out like man-to-man, as L.A.’s back seven defenders aggressively matched up to receivers within their zones. For all intents and purposes, you could say the Rams played man coverage most of the game.
• In the first half, the Rams had a lot of success out of Cover-3, which is a zone with one deep safety. Cover-3 is what they played on the Cory Littleton interception, which stemmed from flat defender Nickell Robey-Coleman anticipating that Tom Brady would throw the hitch route to Chris Hogan. (Brady did not anticipate Robey-Coleman’s anticipation—it was poor quarterbacking.) The Rams rotated into Cover-3 out of different looks and even showed a 3-Cloud (CB Marcus Peters played loose and on-top, almost like a safety does in Cover 2) and a 3-Robber (free safety John Johnson played shallow in centerfield).
• In the second half, the Rams went with much more man-to-man. They almost always deployed a robber in man coverage, with either safety—John Johnson or LaMarcus Joyner—rotating down as a free defender into the middle of the field, hunting up in-breaking routes. L.A.’s back seven across the board was excellent in man-robber.
• The Patriots, as always, employed some man-beater route designs, with receivers going in motion, running stack releases and intersecting their routes. But the Patriots did not control the game here like they usually do because it was hard to decipher if the Rams were in man or zone. The Rams changed up their man-to-man assignments, at times even putting a safety or linebacker on a receiver to make it look like zone.
• Aaron Donald was kept in check. New England’s interior O-line did a nice job, often with center David Andrews sliding over to help against Donald. But when the Rams found one-on-one matchups for Donald, New England’s guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney survived. Donald’s only truly impactful pass rush play came on a 3rd-and-medium in the first half. The Rams showed a five-man pressure but dropped into a 3-man rush, playing man outside and zone inside. It was the same concept Phillips beat Brady with several times in the 2015 AFC championship. On this play, Donald had a designed D-line slant that put him one-on-one against Andrews, whom he beat for a QB hit. The Rams only went back to this three-man rush once, on a third-and-4 early in the first half. On that play Julian Edelman beat Peters’s man coverage with an excellent seam route for 27 yards.
• Edelman is a springy, controlled and nuanced route runner. At different points he burned Peters, Aqib Talib and Robey-Coleman in iso-man-to-man situations.
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• By far the biggest sequence in the game came on New England’s lone touchdown drive. The series began with a well-designed play-action fade to Gronkowski that beat mismatched edge defender Samson Ebukam. Then the Patriots went to spread-empty formations out of “22” personnel (two backs, two tight ends). It was the first time all season they’d shown that look—in fact, the Patriots almost never go spread-empty with No. 2 tight end Dwayne Allen on the field. The Pats did this three plays in a row, and the Rams were discombobulated before the snap all three times. Only one other time all game had the Rams looked unsettled before the snap. Prior to this “22” spread-empty sequence the Rams had been in total schematic control.
• The three plays in “22” spread-empty resulted in Edelman beating LB Littleton in Quarters coverage for 13 yards; RB Rex Burkhead beating Peters in man coverage for seven yards; Gronkowski beating LB Littleton in man-free coverage for 29 yards, setting up the game’s lone touchdown (Sony Michel).
• Left guard Joe Thuney had two monster blocks on the final drive: a pull block on Michel’s 26-yard “power” run (right tackle Marcus Cannon also dominated on that play) and a backside block on Burkhead’s 26-yard lead-dive (fullback James Develin got that play’s key block).
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