Sean McVay didn’t mince words when his Super Bowl 53 loss to the New England Patriots came to a close. He knew his team, the league’s second-ranked offense after scoring nearly 33 points per game in the regular season, suffered a catastrophic letdown in the biggest game of McVay’s career.
“[Patriots head coach Bill] Belichick did an outstanding job,” McVay said to kick off his postgame press conference. “There is really no other way to put it. I’m pretty numb right now, but definitely, I got outcoached. I didn’t do nearly good enough for our football team.“
It wasn’t that the Patriots winning stunned McVay, the Rams, and football fans across the globe. It’s how they won. New England bullied Jared Goff back to his rookie self, turning the 2018 MVP candidate into an overmatched quarterback against a fearsome pass rusher and vacuum-sealed coverage. The Patriots scored the fewest points they ever have in a Tom Brady Super Bowl and still walked away with their largest margin of victory in a 13-3 win.
And the reason why New England was able to escape Atlanta with a win on a night when its star quarterback scored zero touchdowns comes down to two men: Belichick and his de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores.
The Patriots found a way to keep the Rams from falling into any kind of groove
New England’s biggest strength in the 2019 NFL playoffs was the ability to overcome its own mistakes en route to wins. The Pats handcuffed the Chiefs in the AFC title game, holding them scoreless through the game’s first 32 minutes. They were even better against the Rams, who couldn’t even convert a third down until the game was well into the third quarter.
This was not supposed to happen.
Super Bowl 53 was supposed to be a shootout, a meeting of two great quarterbacks and powerful offenses. The over/under was the second-highest in the game’s history at 57.5. ESPN polled 97 different experts and the lowest total score they could imagine was 37 points. In two seasons with the Rams, McVay’s lowest scoring output was a six-point showing against the Bears this fall. On Sunday, they cut that in half.
McVay didn’t come in cocky. He spent the run-up to the big game showing the utmost respect to Belichick and the Patriots. He had two weeks to analyze how New England stopped the Chiefs’ juggernaut (for two quarters, at least) and come up with his counterpunch.
But Belichick, in the words of the great Roddy Piper, found a way to change up his questions once McVay and the Rams — and Andy Reid’s Chiefs before them — thought they knew the answers.
Belichick followed the Giants’ blueprint from their Super Bowl wins in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, pressing the action up front and having faith in his secondary to clean up any messes that caused. New England blitzed on 57 percent of Goff’s dropbacks Sunday evening before LA’s final drive against a defensive back-heavy, prevent-ish defense. The Pats pressured the young quarterback 14 times — the second-most pressures he’s faced in a game this season.
That effort clearly rattled a player who was making his first-ever start on the game’s biggest stage. Goff had an awful performance, needing 38 passes to throw for just 229 yards. The game swung wildly on his biggest mistake of the night — a floating interception in the face of a six-man blitz that hung up just long enough for Stephon Gilmore to pluck it out of the air.
That was endemic of the completely uncomfortable gameplan that turned McVay’s team into a disorganized mess. Goff’s longest completion streak of the night topped out at three passes. He gained 16 yards with those plays.
Goff miiiiight be a little overwhelmed tonight pic.twitter.com/bl3Y1vwVdG— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) February 4, 2019
It was a confusing, game-changing philosophy that McVay was able to appreciate, even in his losing effort.
“They have done a good job with that — with the stunts and different things,” he told reporters. “They mixed it up. They played almost exclusively some man coverage principles and decided to take away — really in the early downs, all they ended up was playing some single-high buzz structures and some quarters principles. Third down, they had their designers and things like that. They did a great job. It was a great game plan. There is no other way to say it, but I got outcoached.
“Until I go back and look at the tape, it is really hard to say. I think the biggest thing is that the play selection didn’t really give [Goff] much of a chance. I think it starts with me, and that is where you have to look back and see what are the things that we can do to be better for our players and then what can the players do better to execute. Those will be the things we look at.
“He did a great job. There is really no other way to put it. The Patriots coaches did an outstanding job putting their guys in positions and then the players did a great job executing. They definitely changed it up with what they had done over the past couple of weeks, especially when you look at some of the things that enabled them to have success against the Chargers and against the Chiefs. They still played some front structures that we anticipated and they did an excellent job with it. When (Patrick) Chung went out, they ended up playing a little bit more of a base defense just based on the personnel groups we were presenting. Their coverage principles were definitely mixed compared to what they put on tape. They did a great job, and it is something that I’m disappointed that I didn’t do a better job of adjusting in the framework of the game. That is one of the things that makes them great.”
This was the kind of performance that allowed the Pats to escape with a win while scoring only 13 points against one of the league’s most dangerous offenses.
This was an opus for Belichick, Flores, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia
The Patriots’ coaches built a team that could win a shootout or a rock fight. This was the difference between making Brady the winningest player in NFL history and losing more Super Bowls than anyone else in the league.
That credit goes to Belichick and Flores, the homegrown assistant who saved his best performance for the last game of his New England tenure; he’s headed to Miami to take over as the Dolphins latest head coach on Monday. Goff may have had more time in the pocket Sunday night, but his targets were more likely to be covered and he was more likely to have to throw through static him front.
And while New England’s playcalling wasn’t particularly inspired, the team’s blocking was. The Patriots’ peaking offensive line neutralized Aaron Donald, who finished his postseason without a sack.
Aaron Donald has been limited to just 1 QB pressure on 27 pass rush snaps (3.7% pressure rate) through the 3rd quarter, his 3rd-lowest pressure rate in a game this season.#SuperBowl— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 4, 2019
Brady was sacked once on the evening, and it was on a completely avoidable play that saw him churn through entirely too much time in the pocket. The Patriots came into 2018 needing to replace a longtime starting left tackle. They ended it just one bad Brady play away from posting the first clean sheet for an unsacked postseason quarterback since 2004 (which, coincidentally, was also Brady).
The unifying thread between those two teams was Scarnecchia, the longtime Patriot assistant to whom Brady owes much of his longevity. The 41-year-old quarterback struggled through bouts of unsettled throws and glitchy passes, but he came through when his team needed him the most thanks to a clean pocket.
Scarnecchia’s blockers were also instrumental in the clock-killing drive that effectively ended the game. His reliance on tight end Rob Gronkowski and fullback James Develin to erase defenders and win the battle at the line of scrimmage gave New England the chance to shuck off the Rams’ comeback attempts.
the Patriots get so much crushing mileage from the Develin/Gronk combination in the run game. pic.twitter.com/8syAYk1ivO— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) February 4, 2019
McVay can learn from Belichick
McVay came into Super Bowl 53 as the hyped wunderkind whose success had changed the way teams hired coaches across the league. His ability to rescue the Rams from Jeff Fisher’s mediocrity created a league economy where Kliff Kingsbury can go from being fired at Texas Tech to landing a head coaching job with the Cardinals.
Belichick’s only commitment to innovation comes on the football field. He doesn’t follow trends; he creates his own. His coaching tree gets harvested every few years regardless of his assistants’ big job success. He adjusts to technological advancements, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it:
no man has hated a product more than Bill Belichick hates the Microsoft Surface Tablet (TM)— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 21, 2019
HE PICKED IT UP JUST TO THROW IT AGAIN pic.twitter.com/x2s79CSgLz
In the end it was Belichick holding the Lombardi Trophy on a night where McVay gave a frustrated interview to a throng of reporters about the biggest loss of his coaching career. McVay’s career won’t be defined by a Super Bowl defeat in a game where he was a clear underdog. The man with the encyclopedic knowledge of every play he’s ever called will be able to learn and grow from this.
And if he internalizes this defeat and allows it to turn him into an unfeeling football robot, he could become the next Belichick.