The last time Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Sean McVay met, the Rams’ 34-year-old head coach got a schooling from the future Hall of Fame coach.
Before the opening kickoff of Super Bowl 53, Belichick and McVay had an on-field greeting where the Rams’ head coach swooned over Belichick’s ability to game plan.
“The way that you guys are able to shift your identity and really still be able to figure it out, I mean, week in and week out, it’s unbelievable,” McVay told Belichick.
Little did McVay know, or maybe he did know that Belichick would adhere to his belief that the Pats could morph their defensive structure once again to combat the Rams’ offense perfectly.
After playing predominantly man coverage against the Chiefs two weeks earlier, Belichick shut down the top-ranked LA offense with a zone-heavy plan that featured a unique defensive front.
On early-downs, the Patriots played a mix of cover-three and quarters structures with six defenders on the line of scrimmage (4-3 tilt) to stifle McVay’s wide zone/play-action series.
New England held Los Angeles to a success rate of 35% on first and second down, forcing the game into young quarterback Jared Goff’s hands, and the Pats hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
This season, both the Rams (8-4) and Patriots (6-6) are quite different personnel-wise, even though the two head coaches remain the same and aren’t likely to change soon.
But the Rams, who are in first place in the NFC West, are playoff-bound while “The Path” remains a long one for New England, who has a 13% chance of making the postseason.
As McVay looks for his revenge on Belichick, the question for the youngest coach in football is, what else do you have in your bag?
Belichick knows how to stop your foundational plays, so McVay better cook up some wrinkles in the lab, or he’ll suffer the same fate.
Expect the Patriots to start in a similar defensive structure as the Super Bowl 53 game plan, then adjust if McVay throws something new at them; let the chess match commence.
On the other side of the ball, superstar Aaron Donald anchors a defense that’s performing at a higher level this season than it was back in February of 2019, a tough test for the Pats offense.
But the sliver of hope for the Patriots is that the Rams will need to think outside the box to match up against New England; they can’t run out the same offense or defense they play every week.
Here’s a plan for the Patriots on both sides’ of the ball for the Super Bowl 53 rematch:
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
As much as the story in New England focuses on quarterback Cam Newton and the offense, the chess match between Belichick and McVay is far more intriguing this week.
First, we’ll discuss a few new wrinkles that McVay has added to his arsenal recently, starting with less downfield passing and an enhanced quick-game with Goff struggling.
In 2018, the Rams’ quarterback was 12th in average air yards per attempt (8.7). But that number has steadily declined each season since and is down to 6.7 in 2020.
Last week, McVay called a hefty amount of screen passes to create easy yards for Goff and used an empty formation package that spread out Arizona’s defense to get the ball out quickly.
Goff threw seven screen passes, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt, so both of those things are new elements of McVay’s offense that Belichick will need to prepare his team for this week.
Three throws from Jared Goff in a bit of a redemptive performance.
*Working progressions out of empty and staying on-time
*Crosser variations and throwing on the move
*Placement against tight coverage pic.twitter.com/rc9iBftAtw
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) December 8, 2020
Plus, the Rams quarterback attempted 19 passes without a running back in the backfield, completing 15 of them for an average of 7.5 yards per attempt with a touchdown. They were effective.
However, McVay’s system’s foundation remains the same, especially Los Angeles’s running game, which is still predominantly a zone rushing attack.
The Rams call outside zone on 48 percent of their running plays, making up the majority of their runs, and still play most of their snaps with three wide receivers on the field (69%).
McVay has incorporated more two tight end sets this season, 25%, but continues to rely on complexity within only a few personnel groupings.
Starting with the run defense, the Patriots shut down Los Angeles’s rushing attack in the Super Bowl by playing their 4-3 tilt front and ignoring all the window dressing and motion by McVay.
The Rams love to use different types of motion to either gain numbers to one side or make the defense adjust to the movement on the fly while they hand the ball to the backs.
New England’s strategy to combat outside zone was to play their 6-1 front, get vertically up the field on the interior to prevent longer developing runs and cutbacks and ignore the motion.
Here, the defense barely reacts to the motion, while nose tackle Danny Shelton swims over the left guard to immediately get into the backfield, and the running back has nowhere to go.
In this play, nobody cares about the motion. Shelton swims the center and makes a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Again, get up the field and shut it down before it starts.
With Shelton no longer on the team, the Patriots could deploy Adam Butler in his role, as Butler has the length and get-off to penetrate successfully into the backfield.
If they don’t go 6-1, expect the Patriots to use their Baltimore strategy with rookie Kyle Dugger as an overhang player to set the edge against outside zone, forcing the ball back inside.
Another trend that should make Patriots fans feel better is that the Rams aren’t as potent of a rushing attack without starting left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is on injured reserve.
Whitworth has missed the last three games due to a torn MCL and won’t play on Thursday night, and the on/off splits for the Rams’ running game without Whitworth are notable.
The Patriots must stop LA’s rushing attack as they did two years ago because, without it, the Rams become reliant on Goff and their play-action series, which Belichick has a plan for too.
DEFENDING MCVAY’S PLAY-ACTION SERIES
The absolute best part of McVay’s offense is how he marries his running game with play-action passes, and Goff attempts the fourth-most play-action throws in the NFL (34.8%).
McVay’s two favorites are bootleg play-action, where they’ll slide receivers out the backside of the formation into the flats and usually turn it into some form of a levels read for the QB.
The Rams also love to dial up shot plays off play-action, with McVay’s “rage” concept as a staple, where they pair a vertical route with a crosser to put post safeties in conflict.
New England’s strategy was to play either quarters or cover-three structures, with the deep safeties in quarters passing off the crossers or “buzzing” a safety into the crosser window.
On this play, Dont’a Hightower, the one defender at the second level, falls underneath the crosser while the two deep safeties pass off Robert Woods coming across the field. Gilmore is out-leveraged on the post, but Goff is locked onto his first read on the crosser, and the pocket collapses. The Pats would adjust later on to have the backside corner help leverage the post.
Then, there was cover-three against bootleg play-action. Former Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy takes out the slide route with a huge hit, which prevents the offense from high-lowing Hightower in the middle of the defense. The backend rotates into cover-three, with the safety coming up into the crosser window, and there’s nobody open for Goff.
As Van Noy did above, holding up the slide rotates to avoid the Rams throwing into the flats is a must, as is playing assignment-sound football in the backend to leverage and pass off routes.
The Patriots already have the plan in place to stop the Rams’ offense; now it’s about execution.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England’s offense, thanks to a well-designed opening script by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, ran the ball almost at will in the first half against the Chargers last week.
The Patriots went on a 13-play opening touchdown drive that featured ten runs and finished the half with 27 carries at 4.7 yards per rush and a success rate of 59.3 percent.
McDaniels dialed up a heavy dosage of option runs threatening the Charger defense with quarterback Cam Newton’s legs and got breakout running back Damien Harris involved.
However, Newton only threw for 69 passing yards on 19 attempts, 13 of which were throws within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, as the Pats weren’t interested in downfield passing.
Some of that was understandable; the running game was working, the Chargers’ philosophy is to limit big plays in the secondary, and defensive end Joey Bosa is a game-wrecker.
But there will come a time where Newton and the passing game will need to produce more than it has over the last two weeks, and that’ll be the Rams’ goal on Thursday night.
New Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who replaced veteran coordinator Wade Phillips, learned under Broncos head coach Vic Fangio and runs a similar system.
Fangio, of course, held the post-COVID Pats to 12 points in a Week 6 victory for Denver, but Staley’s Rams defense will be in a “styles wins fights” battle with the Patriots offense this week.
Although the Rams run defense is grading out well this season, the Pats’ offense is a bad matchup for Los Angeles’s defense.
The Rams are in either nickel or dime defense on 86% of their defensive snaps and play split-safety coverages, either quarters or cover-six, on 42% of opponent drop-backs.
As we know, playing lighter personnel with two deep safeties is foolish against a New England offense that has the highest early-down rush rate in the NFL, so what will Staley do?
For the Patriots, the Rams feature the ninth-best run defense based on DVOA despite their play style due to a stout defensive line led by Donald, so what will McDaniels do to run effectively?
With how the Pats’ passing attack has looked lately, finding ways to run the ball is a must.
HOW WILL THE RAMS LINE UP TO STOP THE RUN?
To find useful reps on tape, one almost has to watch the Rams defense in the red zone because that’s the only time they try to take away the run.
One of the primary ways the Rams play the run is out of a 3-4 bear front, with three defensive linemen between the guards to avoid double teams on the line of scrimmage. The strong safety will creep closer to the line, giving them eight in the box, making it tough to run inside.
Another front they might use that was successful for Denver against the Patriots is a 4-3 EX front with a defensive tackle over each guard to plug the A and B gaps. The EX front leaves more gaps uncovered on the line than a 3-4 bear, but it’s harder to run outside with wide edges.
Both styles of fronts have their weaknesses, as any defense does, which we’ll get to next.
HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL?
As we mentioned, the Rams’ run defense is ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric this season, but the Pats are capable of moving the ball on the ground against anyone.
This week, depending on how LA plays them, get ready for a heavy dosage of crack tosses, draws, whams, and trap blocks, which were effective against an aggressive front last week.
Los Angeles lets Donald one-gap up the field to create penetration and wreck running plays, so the Patriots will need to use that aggressiveness against him or run away from no. 99.
When the Rams go to their bear fronts, Seattle found success with crack tosses that get away from the three interior linemen.
Above, the Seahawks put a lead blocker in motion to get the numbers in their favor to the weak side of the formation, away from the tight end, a vulnerable spot against bear fronts. With the motion block, Seattle has a hat-on-a-hat to the left of the center, and the running back just needs to beat the deep safety for a touchdown.
Other offenses, such as the Bills and 49ers, also successfully ran toss plays to the outside.
When the Rams go to their even fronts with four on the line, look for the Patriots to try and double-team one of the defensive tackles and run trap schemes with the puller kicking out the standup edge defenders. The Chargers are in a more traditional 4-3 front above, but the point remains, as the Pats double the B-gap player on the right side while Thuney kicks out.
Lastly, draws and wham plays are an excellent way to combat aggressive one-gaping systems. Above, the Pats use Jakobi Meyers’s motion and double-pass threat to distract the defense and then run a lead draw to Harris for a nice gain.
New England will need to be mindful of how the Rams defend their offense and where Donald is on the line, but Los Angeles’s run defense isn’t some impenetrable force.
Plus, the Patriots might have the advantage of LA playing a style of defense they’re not accustomed to with more defenders in the box and fewer defensive backs.
Although it won’t be easy, especially with the Rams likely keying on the running game, there are yards to be had on the ground if the Patriots attack Los Angeles’s front correctly.
1. Pats Interior OL vs. Aaron Donald: Donald might be the best player in football at any position, and his production is stupid. He leads the NFL with 71 quarterback pressures, seven more than T.J. Watt in second place, and packs power into a stout frame with elite explosiveness. The Patriots handled him well in the Super Bowl by sending various blocking designs at him, and then left guard Joe Thuney shut him down one-on-one in a few instances. They’ll need another monster game from Thuney on Thursday night.
2. Pats Special Teams vs. Rams Special Teams: the Patriots have another distinct advantage in the kicking game this week, and it needs to play out that way. New England is ranked third in DVOA on special teams, while the Rams are 30th. The Pats can take advantage of a lousy kick and punt coverage unit.
3. Pats DT Adam Butler vs. Rams Interior OL: as we mentioned, Butler could be in the Shelton role as an inside penetration against outside zone. Butler’s length and explosiveness are tough to block inside, making him a perfect fit for that role. The Rams’ interior O-Line has graded out well this season, so this will be a strength-on-strength matchup.
4. Pats Slot Defenders vs. Rams WR Cooper Kupp: the biggest difference personnel-wise for the Rams is that Kupp, their chain-mover, is healthy. Kupp runs 62% of his routes from the slot, and McVay loves tight splits, so he’ll play mostly inside. Whether it’s Stephon Gilmore or bracketing Kupp, the Patriots need a plan. Kupp has similar value to the Rams offense as Keenan Allen did to the Chargers’ operation.
5. Pats RB Damien Harris vs. Rams Linebackers: the Rams have no off-ball linebackers, and that’s a big reason why Staley plays so much nickel and dime defense. If the offensive line can block LA’s defensive line, Harris and the backs will get into the second level of the defense, where they need to expose a weak group of linebackers.
Stats provided by Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions