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ATLANTA — How does six-time Super Bowl champions sound to you New England?
The Patriots, behind a masterful performance by Bill Belichick’s defense, captured the franchises sixth Super Bowl victory with a 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
One year ago, Belichick’s defense allowed 41 points in Super Bowl LII to the Philadelphia Eagles; a loss in a game where Tom Brady threw for over 500 yards.
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Fast-forward to Sunday night in Atlanta, and the defense picked up Brady on a night where the greatest quarterback of all-time was not at his best.
“I can’t believe it, man. What a year. How about our defense, man? How about our defense? They played unbelievably,” a glowing Brady said after the game.
The defensive game plan, crafted by Belichick and play-caller Brian Flores had four main components:
1. Stop the Rams’ potent rushing attack to put the game in 24-year-old quarterback Jared Goff’s hands.
2. Pressure the young Goff without blitzing knowing if they got to him early they’d rattle him and force him into mistakes.
3. Play more zone and off-coverage in the secondary to mix it up on the Rams after watching the Patriots play a heavy dosage of man coverage most of the season.
Three components, all executed to perfection for four quarters to remind us all that Belichick, not the young hotshot Sean McVay, is the best coach in NFL history.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl title:
1. Patriots’ Shutdown Defense Started With the Running Game
The first box the Patriots defense needed to check on Sunday night was stopping the Rams’ potent rushing attack led by running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson; mission accomplished, holding the Rams to 62 yards on 3.4 yards per rush.
To defend the LA’s wide zone scheme, the Patriots aligned their defensive front in a 4-3 even or sometimes even 5-1 defense. In this alignment, it was difficult for the Rams to execute the combination blocks that lead to big gains.
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Here, the Patriots are in that 4-3 even front, and the Rams try to run a variation of their zone rushing attack with a pulling guard. Nose tackle Danny Shelton feels the center step towards him and jumps inside him to shoot into the backfield for the TFL.
The Patriots defense wanted to play fast, physical and aggressive coming downhill every chance they got, and they shut down the Rams’ rushing attack with a great game plan from the coaching staff and execution by the players.
2. Patriots Secondary Breaks Tendencies to Confuse Goff and McVay
Other than the run defense, the story of the Super Bowl for the Patriots was the play of the secondary and its ability to move away from their successful game plan against Kansas City and morph into a completely different unit.
“Totally different,” safety Devin McCourty said of the game plan this week compared to the AFC Championship Game. “We don’t just do something because that’s what we do, we adjust.”
McCourty added that the Patriots rely on good fundamentals to play multiple techniques in the secondary whether its man, zone or variations of those coverages.
The Patriots used a variety of different coverages against the LA offense, and as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing with this bunch, they disguised it all to confuse Goff.
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On this third down stop, the Patriots are in their “playground” defense with everybody moving around before the snap. The Pats eventually settle on bailing out of the blitz and into a single-high coverage, and linebacker John Simon deflected Goff’s pass and nearly intercepted as he throws into coverage.
Next, we’ll go over how New England brought out their quarters coverage to slow down the Rams’ play-action attack in what was truly a two-week overhaul of their coverage plan.
3. Patriots Defense Shuts Down Rams’ Play-Action Passing Game
Entering Super Bowl Sunday, Rams quarterback Jared Goff had the highest passer rating in the NFL off of designed quarterback rollouts (139.5) and had the second-highest frequency of play-action passes. The Patriots defense knew that shutting down their running game and the play-actions off of those runs was the key to victory in Super Bowl LIII.
Based on film study, the Patriots’ coaching staff decided that the best way to combat McVay’s play-action schemes was to play cover-4 or quarters coverage against them. The Rams want to take shots downfield on deep crossing routes, and quarters looks allowed them to drop defenders across that area of the field to take those away. Plus, it was a tendency breaker for New England that’s mostly a post-safety or cover-1 or cover-3 defense.
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On Kyle Van Noy’s sack, the Rams ran their typical play-action with jet motion. The Patriots’ secondary didn’t flinch, dropped into a four across coverage, and Stephon Gilmore took away the deep crosser that Goff wanted. Goff was then forced to break the pocket, and Van Noy was shot out of a cannon to bring him down for the sack.
The Patriots saw something on tape that told them quarters coverage was the way to go against the play-action heavy Rams, and it worked to perfection.
4. Patriots Put the “Bullseye” on Rams Quarterback Jared Goff
The Patriots often refer to their game plan on Sunday night as the “bullseye” strategy. Put a target on the quarterback, and pressure him all night long. Asked if the Patriots defense thought they could rattle Goff linebacker Kyle Van Noy said, “yeah. We thought if we could stop the run and put the game in his hands it would be in our favor.”
The Patriots got the first part of that, stopping the run, taken care of, and then they unleashed the pass rush on Goff.
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Early on in the game, Adrian Clayborn set the tone with a third-down pressure that forced the Rams to punt. Clayborn perfectly executed a quick tackle/end game with Adam Butler to get a free run at Goff forcing the pass short of the sticks.
After Clayborn set the tone, Dont’a Hightower took over with another dominant Super Bowl effort.
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On one of his two sacks, Hightower caught Rams right guard Austin Blythe oversetting to the outside with Hightower shaded over his outside shoulder. The Pats linebacker “slanted” instantly into Blythe’s inside shoulder and went right by him for the sack.
The Patriots’ defensive front gave Goff a few different looks, but most of it was things we’ve seen them run over the second half of the season, and they had the 24-year-old Goff completely rattled.
5. Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman
Patriots wide receiver and now Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman was the best receiver in football during the postseason, and it’s not even debatable. Edelman led all players in the playoffs in both receptions (26) and yards (388) capped off by ten catches and 141 yards en route to MVP. For either team, Edelman was the best player on the field offensively.
The Pats wideout did it with from a variety of different alignments and against a variety of different coverages and defenders.
Early on, the Rams tried to match Edelman with top cornerback Aqib Talib, but Talib was no match for Edelman’s quickness.
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Here, Edelman burns Talib with what’s called a “burst” corner route. The Patriots motion Edelman towards the formation, and then he sets up Talib with an inside stem to sell an in-breaking route. Then, he uses some nifty footwork at the top of the pattern to shake Talib and runs a corner route for a huge gain.
Along with his route running, Edelman also killed the Rams after the catch.
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One of the more consistent alignments for the Pats and Edelman this postseason was the stack; when two receivers align one behind the other. Edelman, as he often does, motions into the stack here which prevents the Rams from jamming him at the line of scrimmage. He then runs a crosser over the middle underneath the coverage and gets a terrific block downfield from Sony Michel to pick up the first down.
In a game dominated by the defense, Edelman was still a worthy Super Bowl MVP.
6. Tom Brady’s Struggles Ended When it Mattered Most
For most of the game Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played like Maroon Five sang during the halftime show; poorly. Brady was not at his best, and the GOAT admitted as much after the game. On the Patriots’ opening drive, Brady threw an ill-advised interception on a pass intended for Chris Hogan that never stood a chance, and he couldn’t quite figure out Wade Phillips’ defense for most of the night. The Rams DC did a great job of rotating through various coverages, both man and zone, taking away Brady’s pre-snap reads that lead to his patented quick release. However, when the Patriots needed to put the game away, Brady was there to finish the deal.
Brady’s best throw of the game came on a 29-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski that set up Sony Michel’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
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Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels adjusted in the fourth quarter running more two tight end sets. On the play, the Pats were in 22 personnel with two tight ends (Gronk, Dwayne Allen), fullback James Develin and running back Rex Burkhead. The heavy personnel grouping forced the Rams into their base defense, but New England decided to spread the LA defense out instead of pounding the rock on the ground. The unconventional formation in that personnel grouping got Gronkowski a matchup on Rams linebacker Cory Littleton. Brady drops a dime into Gronk’s big mitts, and the rest is history.
7. Patriots’ Running Game There When They Needed It
Following a similar trajectory to Brady’s day, the New England rushing attack that was the backbone of this team throughout the playoff run had its ups and downs on Sunday.
To the Rams credit, their defensive front was impossible to move at times in those one, and strongside end Michael Brockers was at the center of anchoring their run defense holding steady at the point of attack while his teammates made plays around him.
But the Patriots won their battles against the LA defense, and multiple players said after the game that they knew if they kept at it they’d eventually breakthrough on the ground, and that’s precisely what happened.
On a critical nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive that took 3:05 off the clock late in the fourth quarter, and put the Pats up 13-3, the running game was the driving force accounting for all 67 yards.
There were two big runs on that drive, both of which were 26-yard scampers one by Sony Michel and one by Rex Burkhead.
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On the Michel run that got the drive started, the Pats rookie got some terrific blocking from his offensive line. The Patriots ran one of their power plays with left guard Joe Thuney pulling out in front of Michel and right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon doubling at the point of attack before Cannon climbed to the linebacker. Michel followed his blocks and nearly ran away from the entire Rams defense.
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A few plays later, Burkhead got them into field goal range with another power play following fullback James Develin off the left side. This one looks like an ISO scheme where the Patriots offensive line kicks out at the point of attack opening a free shot at the linebacker for Develin to spring the ball carrier.
The Rams defense made it tough, but the Pats rushing attack got the last laugh.
8. Rob Gronkowski Caps Off Difficult Season With Clutch Super Bowl Performance
During the week, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski admitted that his body went through the wringer this season, and reports of both Achilles tendonitis and a bulging disc in his back surfaced this weekend.
After his third Super Bowl win, Gronk told reporters that this one was the most satisfying after what he went through physically and emotionally and after countless hot take artists counted him and the Patriots out throughout the year.
Other than Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman, Gronk was Brady’s only consistent option in the passing game, and the Rams tried to take him out with cornerback Aqib Talib and various double teams on third down.
We’ve already documented Gronk’s massive 29-yard catch in the fourth quarter, arguably the biggest catch of his career, but here’s another of his six catches that fittingly led to 87 yards for #87.
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Here, the Patriots ran play-action with Gronk pausing a beat to block Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam on the edge like a running play. Then, Gronk releases upfield on wheel route of sorts with Ebukam trailing him after the good sell job. Brady drops a perfect tear-drop throw into Gronk, who hauls in the pass for an 18-yard gain.
Like the Patriots, Gronkowski wasn’t always at his best this season, but he capped off a terrific postseason with a championship performance against the Rams.
9. Patriots’ Offensive Line Holds Its Own Against Aaron Donald and Company
Yes, the Rams’ defensive front had its moments on Sunday night. Aaron Donald and the LA pass rush registered the first sack of Brady this postseason and tallied three other quarterback hits as they made plays as we all expected.
Center David Andrews told me after the game that the Rams didn’t do anything up front that the Patriots weren’t expecting, but Phillips moved his chess pieces around the board to give New England different looks and got some favorable matchups for his guys as well.
The offensive line deserves credit for holding its own against one of the better pass rushes in the NFL led by the Defensive Player of the Year in Donald.
Brady was protected well when they needed it, and it took a group effort to slow down Donald.
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On this third and one play, the Patriots threw the kitchen sink at the Rams pass rush to give Brady time to find an open receiver. Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney stifled Donald with a well-executed double-team and Gronk chipped Ndamukong Suh on his way downfield. The MVP himself dusted Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Brady had plenty of time and space to deliver the pass.
The big uglies up front knew they wouldn’t win every battle with Donald, but they were able to slow him down enough to avoid him ruining the game.
10. Play of the Game: Stephon Gilmore’s Fourth Quarter Interception
When the defense holds the second-best offense in the league to three points, they get the play of the game. Yes, Gronk’s 29-yarder was a big one, but Stephon Gilmore’s critical interception sealed the victory.
The Rams drove all the way down to the Patriots’ 27-yard line, but defensive play-caller Brian Flores had one more trick up his sleeve.
Throughout the game, the Patriots didn’t blitz Goff much, and they only called a “zero” blitz three times saving that call for a big moment.
Captain Devin McCourty told me that play-caller Brian Flores said all week that he’d bring out the “zero” blitz at some point, and that when he called it in this spot the defense knew this was what Flores was talking about.
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On the interception, the Patriots brought both safety Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon on an all-out blitz on Goff. McCourty occupied the running back giving Harmon a free run at the Rams quarterback. In this scheme, the Patriots want their defensive backs to play as ballhawks with their eyes in the backfield like they would in zone knowing the ball needs to come out quickly. Gilmore told me he knew Goff was desperate as he saw the Rams QB release the ball under pressure, and read it the whole way for the interception.
When they show the highlights of this game, Gilmore’s interception will forever be the play that ultimately captured the sixth Lombardi Trophy for New England.
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