I admit that I’ve been snakebitten by the Patriots the last couple of Super Bowls. I picked Atlanta to win two years ago and explained all the things the Falcons actually did right in the first three quarters of the game, and then the Patriots came back to win and embarrassed me. Last year I picked the Patriots because, among other things, I didn’t believe in Nick Foles — and then New England goes out and embarrasses me again.
Regardless of the actual outcome of Super Bowl 53, my hope is that after it’s over, you will be able to come back to this column and most of the things I predicted for both teams will have come to pass. I’m just going to point out that last year the Eagles did just about everything I predicted and won, while the Patriots didn’t ... and lost.
Here’s how I see this year’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Rams unfolding. But first, I’m gonna talk a little about about what makes both teams so damn good.
Let’s get to know both the Patriots and Rams.
Tom Brady hasn’t had a running game like this before.
This is probably the best running game we have ever seen from a Brady-led Patriots team, and that makes them one of the hardest Brady-led teams to defend. If you sell out to stop the run — something that has become increasingly necessary for opposing defenses by the end of this season — Brady can still carve your ass up in the passing game.
But if you don’t sell out to stop the run, the Patriots will just keep mashing you out all the way down the field until you stop them. It is really a conundrum for defensive coordinators.
The Patriots have an outstanding running game this season particularly when they have a fullback in the lineup. Something that stands out to me about their blocking is the timing on their combo blocks. You consistently see a tandem of offensive linemen — usually the center and a guard, or a guard and a tackle — execute excellent scoop blocks where one guy posts a defensive lineman, the second guy tries to push that defensive lineman into the opposite gap, then the second guy comes off of that block to pick up a linebacker or safety.
New England has a stable of running backs with Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead, and all those guys know how to set up those scoop blocks so that their runs are in sync with the blocking. With the way the Patriots block up front, the hole usually opens and closes quickly, leaving just enough time for one of the running backs to scoot through and get into the secondary.
The Patriots tend to run the ball quite a bit to their right, and they really like to pull left guard Joe Thuney to the right on counters and power Os. However, when they run to the left, they also do a great job of coming downhill on fullback lead plays behind their massive left tackle Trent Brown. One thing that I noticed is that while some teams like to incorporate cut backs into a lot of their run schemes, the Patriots tend to keep most of their runs front side.
To that end, center David Andrews is great at reach blocks. Once he gains outside leverage on a nose tackle, that usually creates a nice lane for the running back to the front side. Both Thuney and the right guard, Shaq Mason, are pretty good with reach blocks too. Opposing interior defensive linemen always have to be on their toes because if they play too heavy looking for a scoop block or a double-team, they may look up and find themselves reached instead and the ball getting outside of their gap.
All of New England’s running backs have the ability to cut back or bounce the ball outside if the situation presents itself, but most of the time they just hit the hole like 40 going north, expecting lanes to open up as they approach the line of scrimmage. Constantly running downhill like that makes it really hard for most defenses to stop them at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Even stacking the box is not guaranteed to keep the Patriots from gaining positive yards with how well they are running the ball these days.
The Patriots know how to get the extra yard.
The Patriots have basically weaponized pre-snap motion, using it not only to help discern what kind of coverage a secondary is running, but also to create confusion about their responsibilities in coverage and chaos in their run fits.
On film, I saw the Patriots use motion to outflank defenses, set up rub routes, force mismatches in coverage, and pull defenders outside the box, only to run the ball right where they came from. If defenses aren’t prepared to adjust to all the pre-snap motion the Patriots are going to throw their way, it’s going to be a long day for them no matter how much talent they have on their side of the ball.
Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski will still see a lot of the downfield passes, but don’t sleep on how important James White has been to the passing game. When it’s third-and-medium, White always seems to find a way to get open underneath, often short of the sticks, and then get just enough yardage for the first down.
Few things must be more frustrating for a defense than covering well down the field, only to have a dump-off to White move the sticks on them.
Although he has dropped a few screen passes lately, when he does catch them the blocking is usually set up for him to get good yardage — and he knows how to get every yard out of every play.
That is something I will say is consistent across the board with the Patriots’ skill position guys: None of those cats go down easy under any circumstances. They are going to keep pumping their legs after contact every time, so if a defense doesn’t swarm to the ball, the Patriots will keep falling forward and getting an extra yard or two. In the Super Bowl those extra yards here and there can really add up.
Don’t be fooled. The Patriots’ passing game is still lethal.
There are three things you can be pretty much assured of when it comes to facing the Patriots’ passing game:
1. You are going to have to find a way to cover crossing routes because they are great at running them.
2. You are going to have to cover Gronk out wide at some point.
3. You are going to see rub routes to the flat all game.
If you don’t have a sound plan to try to stop all three of those elements, you might as well cancel Christmas. Of course that is a lot easier said than done, especially when you also have to deal with their tremendous running game.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a wild card on offense because even though they don’t target him a lot, he can make big plays downfield. He is also a big-time threat as a runner on end-arounds, and even out of the backfield at times. On special teams he is a difference-maker as a returner.
The Patriots’ defense will keep you guessing.
On defense, it’s hard to predict what the Patriots will do because their game plans tend to be opponent specific. They can line up with as many as six people at the line of scrimmage and still may end up rushing only two. You will never really know with them until the game starts; even then, they could change things up at halftime.
One thing you can bank on, however, is that they will use multiple fronts and coverages all game.
Up front they don’t have a lot of “big name” guys, but they do work together well as a unit. Led by Trey Flowers, the Patriots’ defensive line does really good work both with their run stunts and on passing downs. They set up their pass rush as well as anybody.
One of Belichick’s favorite tactics is to have what appear to be extra rushers coming from depth or from the edge to mess with the opposing offense’s protection rules. But in reality he is dropping other guys from up front out into coverage so that at the end of the day there are only four Patriots rushing the passer.
Many times you will see the Patriots scheme up a free rusher even when they are only rushing four guys. That free rusher ends up forcing the quarterback into a bad decision. It is really uncanny how successfully Belichick is able to do that a few times in just about every game, when some defensive coordinators can scheme up all-out blitzes that still don’t afford them a free rusher at all.
Two underrated Patriots players set the tone for the entire defense.
What I noticed about the New England run defense is that it does a good job of containment. It is rare, even on end-arounds, to see a team be able to bounce the ball outside on them successfully. Whether it’s preparation, alignments, or just “want to,” the Patriots’ defense always seems solid on the edges.
Two players who will likely be key in the Super Bowl are linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Van Noy is a chess piece for Belichick who can do a little bit of everything. He is an outstanding blitzer whether from outside or inside, from depth or on the line. He also has a real knack for beating blockers. He gets downhill in a hurry when playing the run, and he understands coverage well enough to at least not be a liability when he has to drop.
Roberts is also scary when he blitzes and an outstanding run defender. The Patriots use those guys to blow shit up in the backfield when they are trying to throw a team off schedule on early downs. When they are successful in this particular way, the defense is usually successful, too.
As for the secondary, Belichick has enough confidence in those guys that he isn’t afraid to play some zero coverage every now and then with no deep safety help. They also do a good job of doubling the other team’s “fast guy” deep by cheating the single-high safety over his way versus go routes.
If the opposing offense can’t figure out how to exploit that, its downfield passing game could be shut down before it even gets started.
The Rams’ offense starts with the running game.
The Rams also like to pound the running game. But instead of combo blocks, they try to use true double-teams on the opposing defense’s two interior defensive tackles up to their linebackers or safeties on the second level. It is a subtle difference between the combo blocks the Patriots employ, but the Rams’ offensive line makes sure they get push inside on their runs first, rather than being too concerned about getting up on the second-level defenders.
If they do get up to that linebacker or safety, great. If not, that linebacker or safety will have to run through their double-team block to get to the running back, anyway.
Either way, sticking on their double-teams like that gives them a chance to get the running back past the line of scrimmage on just about every run play. Once they get into the secondary, it can go from a 2-yard play to a 20-yard play in a hurry.
The Rams’ favorite scheme is pretty damn hard to defend.
Los Angeles has a diverse set of running plays, but its bread and butter tends to be the split zone. What that means is the offensive line will block zone in one direction while one of the tight ends, Tyler Higbee or Gerald Everett, comes across the formation, behind the offensive line, to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage away from the zone blocking.
Let me tell you why that’s important.
Since back when I was still playing football, I have always loved split zone/split belly plays from an offense’s perspective because they are so damn hard to defend against. First of all, if the offensive line does their job well, there could be a nice running lane frontside. Second of all, if that tight end does a good job walling off that end man on the line of scrimmage, there is also a natural cutback lane if the running back doesn’t see anything frontside.
For the Rams, if the second-level defenders don’t get over the top fast enough on that run, C.J. Anderson can go straight downhill and pick up good yardage. If the second-level defenders do get over the top fast, Todd Gurley can cut back between the tight end and offensive tackle, and it might end up a house call.
What makes the Rams’ split zone even more deadly than most is that they will, from time to time, incorporate an end-around element to complement it. If they fake the end-around to the same side that the tight end is blocking on, then it makes the tight end’s block much easier. Instead of that end man on the line of scrimmage trying to blow him up, he tends to try to get upfield and keep contain on the end-around, which opens the cut back lane even further.
On the other hand, if the Rams see that end man on the line of scrimmage trying to wrong arm the tight end a few times against split zone, then they can actually hand it off on the end-around. Then instead of a kick-out block, the tight end becomes a lead blocker and reaches the end man on the line of scrimmage to help spring the end around outside.
Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation!
When it comes to the Rams’ passing game, everyone can make a big play.
Another thing that stands out about the Rams’ offense is that they often line up early and call their plays at the line of scrimmage. That can make it hard for defenses that like to substitute for particular circumstances to get their preferred personnel in the game when they want to. They can try, but if LA snaps the ball while they are trying to sub guys in and out, the Rams get a free play.
Because the Rams only use a few personnel groupings, lining up like that doesn’t hurt them at all. They can run just about anything with whomever is in the game.
Their receiver corps has two top-notch guys in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods. Cooks is more of the deep threat, but he is also so much more than just that. Cooks is a great route runner with good hands and has a penchant for forcing big pass interference calls on opposing secondaries. I thought he would have a big role in the Super Bowl last year, but unfortunately he got hurt and missed much of the game. I don’t think that will be the case this time around.
Robert Woods is a dog, and I love how he plays the position. He’s a good route runner and he has excellent hands when fighting for contested catches. Josh Reynolds has taken over the third wide receiver role since Cooper Kupp went down in the middle of the season, and he continues to show he can make big plays as well.
One thing of note about the Rams’ passing offense is that they will employ quite a few bootlegs and rollouts to get Jared Goff out of the pocket and away from the rush. While Goff isn’t what most people would term a “running” quarterback, he definitely is athletic enough to get out on the edge and still make good throws down the field.
For that matter, when the situation calls for it, Goff is also perfectly capable of making good yards with his legs when everything else breaks down. That can make a huge difference in moving the chains if the offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders early.
Aaron Donald is UNREAL — and so is the rest of the Rams’ defensive line.
Any discussion of the Rams’ defense has to start with the fact that their defensive front is absolutely ridiculous. I really can’t put into words the kind of year Aaron Donald has had this season. The guy has faced an unprecedented amount of double- and triple-teams, and still finds ways to make big plays every week.
Then you have Ndamukong Suh, who can and has played damn near every position on the defensive line. He will line up in the A gap and kick your center’s ass one play, then line up as a defensive end and kick your tight end’s ass on the next. Donald and Suh are so dominant that it’s sometimes easy to forget that Michael Brockers, who is a beast in his own right, is also on that defensive line, and that he and Suh are pretty much interchangeable.
Outside on one edge you have maybe the most underrated and overlooked defender on this Rams’ defense, Samson Ebukam, and he can do a little bit over everything. He is strong as a run defender, he has a decent pass rush, and he can hold his own in coverage. On the other edge you have Dante Fowler, who has been lighting it up since coming over in a trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fowler plays a little out of control at times, but he helps create chaos in the opponent’s backfield — and that is always a good thing on defense.
Individually each one of those guys is pretty damn good, if not friggin’ awesome. But together? They’re like the defensive line version of Voltron with this shit.
Because they are so good up front, the Rams tend to not do a lot of blitzing because they don’t have to. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent a little more pressure in this game. You never want to look back and say you weren’t aggressive enough when everything is on the line.
The secondary has a secret star.
On the back end the Rams play quite a bit of zone, with quarters coverage and Cover 3 mixed in. The good thing about that is it allows them to line up and play without having to worry too much about motions and tight end trades. Of course, all zones have holes in them if you allow the quarterback enough time, but the Rams have the luxury of having a front that tends to force quick throws, and/or max protection.
Having said that, the Rams can also match up man-to-man if they so choose. With Aqib Talib back healthy at corner, they can now use him to match up with the opposing team’s No. 1 threat on any play in an effort to eliminate them from the game plan. Marcus Peters does better as a zone dropper where he can see the quarterback and break up on the ball, but he can more than hold his own in man-to-man to against most teams’ No. 2 wide receiver.
Now those are the big name guys in the secondary, but I tell you what: Rams safety John Johnson kept catching my eye on film. He does a really good job in run support, coming up and smacking people in the mouth. He is decent in coverage as well.
Here’s what should expect from both teams in the Super Bowl.
Who has the edge when the Patriots are on offense?
I believe the Patriots will come out running the ball early and often. I also believe they will use James Develin a lot with fullback lead plays on early downs to try to get positive yards and stay ahead of the sticks. Then they won’t end up with a lot of third-and-longs facing that Rams’ defensive line that loves to pass rush.
Running the ball a lot might also be an endeavor to try to wear the Rams down up front so they can’t get after Brady in the fourth quarter.
There are a couple ways the Rams can try to slow the Patriots down.
I think the Patriots will find some success on the ground, especially with Michel, but I also believe that the Rams will force some negative yardage runs. Donald is just too freakish to get blocked by anybody for a whole game. I am really looking forward to seeing how much the Rams decide to play Suh at defensive end when Develin is in the game so he can match up with Gronk. Talk about your battle of the titans. That could well be a winning edge for the Rams to try to shut down that Patriots’ running game.
Well, it’s something I would try to do if I were the DC, anyway.
I’d also have Suh and Brockers lined up in a 2i technique when playing nose tackle to make it much harder for the center to reach them, which should force a lot more cut backs by the running backs.
Up front for LA, I think the Rams are going to have to run some line stunts all game to try to keep the Patriots off balance. That Patriots’ offensive line is simply too good when they know where you are going to be. A few stunts mixed in should keep them on their heels just enough to allow the guys to make some plays in the backfield. It would also aid in getting quick pressure on play-action pass.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson has a big day, especially in helping to hamper the running game.
See the fullback? That means the Patriots are going run — usually.
When they see Develin in the game, the Rams to treat that as run. Yes, the Patriots will throw sparingly when Develin is in there, but usually they are gonna come downhill right at your ass and you had better be ready. With the Rams having smaller interior linebackers in Mark Barron and Cory Littleton, they need to shoot their gun as soon as they see a run read, rather than waiting on the second level for that New England offensive line to scoop the hell out of them.
And in the event it’s a play-action pass? Might as well keep going!
OK, there is one exception to the Develin rule. If the running back behind him motions out of the backfield then that is pass all day long.
Gronk is important, but another receiver could bust out.
Speaking of the passing game, because the Rams play a lot of matchup zone, I expect White to have another big day catching the ball short, making a guy or two miss and picking up good yardage. I can easily see him with 10 catches or more for the game.
I also can see Edelman working the flat a lot with rub routes. The most interesting matchup to me is who the Rams put on Gronk when he is flexed out. I would probably put Talib on him a lot and match up Peters on Edelman, but I’d be interested to see what Barron could do matched up on Gronk when he’s in the slot.
Gronk is key in that I think the Patriots can still win even if he doesn’t have a big day, but if he does have a big day I don’t think the Rams can keep up with them.
Keep an eye on Phillip Dorsett in this game, too. He is a guy that I really liked coming out of college, but who was somewhat of a bust for the Indianapolis Colts, the team that selected him with the 29th overall pick in the 2015 draft. He’s fast, he will fight for the ball, and he already has a touchdown in each of the two playoff games so far. With all the attention the Rams are sure to show Gronk and Edelman, don’t be surprised if Dorsett tacks on another touchdown Sunday.
Also, I believe Fowler against right tackle Marcus Cannon will be a matchup that favors the Rams all game. I think Fowler will force Brady to step up into some interior pressure several times on Sunday.
Advantage: Everything being added up, I narrowly give the edge to the Patriots in this matchup.
Who has the edge when the Rams are on offense?
How Los Angeles’ offense fares in this Super Bowl will largely come down to Gurley, in my humble opinion. In the NFC Championship Game he had some uncharacteristic drops, one of which was intercepted by the Saints.
The problem is that Gurley might not be 100 percent.
Overall he just didn’t look healthy when I went back and watched the film. Everyone was focused on his lack of touches, but what jumped out to me on film was how poorly he performed in pass protection.
He appeared to be favoring one of his legs, and when he tried to pick up blitzes he just didn’t seem to get to the rusher quickly. Even when he did make it there in time to make a block, Gurley appeared unable to handle any power rushes at all.
He will have had a couple of weeks to rest and recover from that game, and maybe he will be healthy by Sunday, but I don’t know how I could possibly be confident of that.
Don’t get me wrong, Anderson has been balling and I believe he will get his this weekend. But, having said that, Gurley is just on another level when he is healthy. That isn’t really a knock on Anderson, either. Hell, there aren’t many running backs in the league who are on Gurley’s level when he’s healthy.
If Gurley is himself, watch out. If not, the Rams’ offense might not be able to hang with the Patriots.
For the Rams to really be clicking against the Patriots, they will need Gurley to be at least close to his best. And by that I mean he has to be more than just “good” at running the ball on Sunday. He is also going to have to be a reliable outlet in the passing game, too.
And you can bet your ass if Belichick saw the same film I did of the Saints game (he did), he is going to be testing him in pass protection as much as possible. Gurley is going to have to be able to hold up there as well.
If Gurley can’t be the Gurley we saw most of the regular season I think the Rams will struggle a little bit on offense. If he can at least be close to that guy, I think the Rams will put a lot of points on the board. The thing is, judging by the Patriots’ recent work, the Rams are more than likely going to have to put a lot of points on the board to win the game.
Without Gurley beasting, I’m just not sure that’s going to be possible.
Speaking of which, not that it means anything now, but the Rams have only scored fewer than 29 points four(!) times this season, including the playoffs. The Patriots have failed to score at least 29 points on nine occasions this year. On the other hand, as I alluded to before, the Patriots put up 41 and 37 in their two playoff games, so it’s not like they can’t put up points, too.
I’d be very surprised if either offense laid an egg, but a healthy Gurley is key for the Rams.
I expect New England to send run blitzes on early downs with Van Noy and Roberts to try to take the Rams off schedule. I also expect them to cover the center and both guards some on early downs with traditional 3-4 fronts to keep the Rams from using those double-teams inside that they like so much. If Gurley is healthy he still should be able to pick up good yardage just about all game long. If not ...
The Rams can trip up the New England secondary.
In the passing game, I believe the Patriots will try to keep a safety over the top of Cooks when he runs go routes. That could open things up in the seam to his side for Higbee, Everett, and/or Reynolds. I would also expect to see some double moves from Woods because the Patriots’ secondary likes to jump routes, particularly Stephon Gilmore.
As I pointed out before the Super Bowl last year, the Patriots seem to have issues covering trips bunch and oopty oop (quads to one side) formations. It just so happens that the Rams run quite a bit of the former and some of the latter. I would expect to see some 10-yard stop route throws out of that trips bunch set and also a screen or two.
Patriots will send a lot of pressure at Goff, even if sometimes they aren’t technically blitzes.
Bootlegs will likely be a big part of the offense as well, to try to get Goff away from the pressures/not pressures that Belichick is sure to send after the young quarterback. I’d expect Higbee to show up on those throws and also for Goff to gain some yards on the ground on a few boots where everyone is covered.
I think the Patriots are going to use a lot of pass rush games to try to flush Goff from the pocket in a similar manner as they did to Patrick Mahomes two weeks ago. I think the Rams’ offensive line will hold up a little better than the Chiefs’ did in the first half of the AFC Championship game, but if there is one guy who I think will still find a way to get pressure it would be Flowers. He was an unsung hero in the epic comeback Super Bowl win over the Falcons, and there is no reason he won’t be a hero again on Sunday.
I would expect a mix of both zone and man on the back end Sunday, and they will do a good job of disguising their coverage pre-snap.
Advantage: I give the Rams an edge in this matchup if and only if Gurley is healthy. Otherwise it’s a wrap.
Which team has the edge on special teams?
The Rams have Johnny Hekker and the threat of fake punts, while the Patriots have Patterson and his awesome return ability. The Rams would be smart not to kick it to him all game. No reason to even give him an opportunity to ruin your day.
They will be playing in a dome, so I don’t think either of the kickers will have much of an advantage over the other.
Advantage: I’m going to go with a push.
OK, OK. So who’s going to win?
Now we come to my final prediction for Super Bowl LIII this Sunday, and I am hereby stating my choice to be *drumroll* ...
... the New England Patriots.
Yes, again. It’s almost like I can’t win with these cats. Hopefully they will listen to me this time around!
But for me this year, it comes down to this: I can see more ways for the Patriots to win than I can see for the Rams to be victorious. I do believe it will be a close, high-scoring game. But things will have to be almost perfect for the Rams to win this game. That simply isn’t the case for the Patriots.
So there it is, the Patriots will win another ring and perhaps Brady, Gronk, and Belichick will ride off into the sunset together, ending their careers on yet another high note.