Belichick’s general defensive philosophy was simple: Find out what the other guys do best — which is what they always want to do, especially under pressure in a big game — take it away from them, and make them do things that they are uncomfortable with.
— David Halberstam, The Education of a Coach
Seventeen years ago, Bill Belichick’s Patriots upset the Rams with one of the most well-coached Super Bowl efforts the NFL has seen. The Rams were two-touchdown favorites, powered by an underrated defense and a devastating, balanced passing game. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were both 1,000-yard receivers, and role players like Ricky Proehl and Az-Zahir Hakim were around to devastate you if you somehow slowed their primary weapons.
Belichick and his staff knew that Marshall Faulk was the heart of the offense, though, and New England built a game plan around swarming him, hitting him as hard and as frequently as possible (even when legality was questionable), and not letting him out of the pocket in pass-rush situations.
It worked as well as anything could. Faulk carried 17 times for just 76 yards, and while he did catch four of four passes for 54 yards, New England threw the Rams out of rhythm just enough to get off the field in key moments. St. Louis scored under 20 points for just the third time in 19 games; they out-gained the Pats by 160 yards but turned the ball over three times and saw drives stall out at the New England 32 (field goal), 34 (missed field goal), 40, 49, and 50 (all punts).
Take away what you’re best at and force you to play left-handed. It’s not a unique idea, but Belichick has done it better in big games than pretty much anyone.
If that means keeping the ball out of Faulk’s hands and risking getting beaten by others, fine. If it means letting Buffalo’s Thurman Thomas run wild (relatively speaking) and overplaying a dangerous Bills passing game in Super Bowl XXV, that’s okay, too.
It begs a pretty obvious question as the Pats prepare to play a completely different Rams team in the Super Bowl: what do the Rams do best? And how do you take it away?
And that’s a pretty difficult question to answer.
The Rams are awash with interesting and unique offensive talent, and head coach Sean McVay’s offensive scheme has proven particularly adaptable, capable of shifting from speed-based to powerful, based on how you’re trying to go about stopping it.
As Josh Hermsmeyer recently wrote at Five Thirty Eight, the Rams do a great job of dictating the choices you make schematically.
[A]n NFL offense is not just at the mercy of the defense when it comes to running against stacked or light boxes. Play-callers actually have a large degree of control over how many defenders near the line of scrimmage they will have to face. When an offense trots out three or more wide receivers, the defense nearly always matches with an equal number of defensive backs, which limits the number of linebackers on the field and lightens up the box. [...]
[T]he Rams used the 11 personnel more than any other team in the NFL in 2018. ... [I]t’s really not so much a matter of who you run the ball with — or behind — it’s a matter of when you run it. McVay chooses his spots as well as anyone in the NFL.
When we talk about taking away someone’s strengths, we usually think in terms of how you handle a specific player, or rush the passer, or load the box against the run.
The Rams are balanced enough to punish you for whatever choice you make. They have two different running backs (Todd Gurley and recent addition C.J. Anderson) who have rushed for at least 150 yards in a game. In the passing game, even without receiver Cooper Kupp, injured since midseason, they have two wideouts with at least three 100-yard receiving games (Brandin Cooks has six, Robert Woods three), two other weapons with at least three 70-yard games (Gurley and Josh Reynolds), and two tight ends who combined for 57 regular season receptions, plus eight more in the playoffs.
Their biggest strength might be that they have a counter for whatever you take away. How do you take that away?
You probably do it by attacking their biggest weakness. From a Five Factors perspective — efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, turnovers — it’s not too hard to spot.
Los Angeles is absurdly efficient for all the reasons noted above. But considering how infrequently they find themselves in awkward downs and distances (which tend to be well-correlated to turnovers), the Rams sure do give opponents quite a few opportunities to make takeaways.
- Fumbles per game (including playoff games): Rams 0.9 (20th in NFL), Patriots 0.4 (second)
- Passes defensed per pass*: Rams 11 percent (14th), Patriots 8 percent (fourth)
- Passes defensed per pass on passing downs (i.e. pressure situations): Rams 14 percent (22nd), Patriots 11 percent (13th)
* A pass defensed is one that is either intercepted or broken up. On average, 19.6 of passes defensed in 2018 were intercepted.
Quarterback Jared Goff fumbled 12 times in the regular season, tied for the most in the league. The other 12-fumble QBs either faced a lot more pressure than Goff (Dak Prescott, Derek Carr) or ran the ball a ton and faced a decent amount of pressure (Lamar Jackson).
Fumbles are random enough that we have to be careful about labeling someone as fumble-prone in general; that’s doubly true for Goff, who fumbled only 13 times combined in his first two seasons. But it remains true that the ball has fallen out of his hands a lot this year.
There’s also occasional danger when the ball intentionally comes out of Goff’s hands. When the Rams are forced behind schedule, Goff has his pass either intercepted or broken up 14 percent of the time — about once in every seven throws. Sometimes that’s a decision-making mistake, but as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, sometimes it’s also simply a poorly-thrown ball.
During the season, Goff was incomplete or intercepted on 24 deep passes with more than a 50 percent shot of being completed per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, more than anybody else in football. He was the quarterback for the three worst deep misses of the season, when he one-hopped the dig route to Cooks, failed to connect with Kupp against the Raiders (on the same drag-and-go concept Kupp would run for a touchdown against the Vikings three weeks later), and threw behind Reynolds on this beautiful fake screen in Week 17. Each of those three passes had between an 85 and 90 percent chance of being completed per Next Gen Stats, and Goff has to shoulder a reasonable amount of the blame for not hitting them.
Granted, the Patriots aren’t the best in the world at attacking the ball in general — they’re 22nd in passes defensed per pass on passing downs — but they have probably spent most of the last two weeks trying to figure out how to bait Goff into misfires.
In Barnwell’s preview, he surmises that Belichick will try to put the game on Goff’s shoulders. I agree. McVay showed wonderful adaptability in re-crafting the Rams offense to lean more on Anderson and a powerful offensive line, but it came out of necessity, as Goff had begun to lose the plot after Kupp’s injury.
New England finally figured out how to generate pressure late in the season, and after a brief, sputtering disaster in pass protection, the Rams once again figured out how to keep the pressure off of Jared Goff late in the year.
Rams sack rate allowed: 3.3 percent in the first five games, 7.3 percent in the next eight games, 2.2 percent in the last five.
Patriots sack rate: 3.8 percent in the first 12 games, 8.1 percent in the last six.
Los Angeles committed a rash of midseason turnovers — 11 in four games, compared to nine in the other 14 — and it coincided almost directly with the uptick in the sack rate. Once the latter settled, so did the former.
The Rams try to lay your choices bare, force you to commit to stopping the run or the pass, then destroy you with the other. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots put enough defenders in the box to dictate the pass and take their chances from there.
It doesn’t always work, of course. Belichick might be the greatest coach in NFL history, but the Patriots’ defense hasn’t ranked in the DVOA top 10 since 2006, and the greatest coach in NFL history still oversaw a defense that gave up 373 passing yards to Nick Foles in last year’s Super Bowl. And just two years after holding Warner to a 78.3 passer rating in the Super Bowl, the Pats gave up a 113.6 to Carolina’s Jake Delhomme.
As a defensive coordinator and head coach, he’s coached in more big games than anyone, and he’s been burned a few times along the way. Goff might respond well to the moment, and his accuracy might be mostly on point.