ATLANTA – It’s funny how things work out.
On the biggest play of the biggest game, the player the Patriots paid a boatload of money to in free agency -- Stephon Gilmore -- was covering the player the Patriots were not going to pay a boatload of money to -- Brandin Cooks.
The Rams were happy to pay Cooks, though, and give up a first-round pick for the chance to do so. And it worked out for them.
Cooks helped them all season and he helped them get where they were at that moment. The Patriots’ 27-yard line, trailing 10-3 with 4:24 remaining.
It’s also funny how things said in July can foreshadow things that happen in February.
Brian Flores, elevated to defensive playcaller after the departure of Matt Patricia, was going to make things simpler, allow guys to play faster and be more aggressive, promised linebacker Donta Hightower.
With this rock fight of a Super Bowl being as close to “on the line” as it would get, Flores played the ace he had in his pocket. A zero blitz. No safeties in the middle of the field to help, everyone playing man-to-man and two secondary players added to the pass rush.
The two blitzers would be Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.
McCourty lined up off the left hip of defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, one step back from the first level of the defense. Hightower was over the right tackle, Rob Havenstein. Harmon was about 5 yards behind McCourty, creeping.
When Rams quarterback Jared Goff took the snap, Hightower engaged Havenstein and created a lane. McCourty took an angle that made running back Todd Gurley step to his left to block him aside. Harmon had a free run at Goff and he was in a dead sprint by the time the ball hit Goff’s hands.
This Patriots team which had so often been maddeningly non-aggressive in getting after quarterbacks before this season was about to lock up Super Bowl LIII by dialing up pressure.
When Goff saw Harmon coming, he got jumpy and lobbed the ball in Cooks’ direction. Gilmore, who knew the ball might come out fast, was locked on Goff and ready to react. Cooks had no idea there was chaos unfolding behind him until he saw Gilmore stop covering him and step forward to intercept the underthrown ball. Cooks could only manage a meager wave of his arm at Gilmore as the Patriots All-Pro corner – the latest in a line of brilliant corners to wear No. 24 for the Patriots – rose up and came up with the pick.
The ball was back in the Patriots possession and, unlike all the other Super Bowl wins this team has had, it wasn’t going to be Tom Brady’s arm that sealed it off but a potent running game that churned through the Rams for the rest of the game.
“That play was our season,” said McCourty. “When that moment comes up, everyone’s gonna do their job. I blitz, I make sure the back takes me. Du comes scot-free. Quarterback lobs it up. Steph picks it.
“It was cool to me because we talked about not blitzing as much as we’d done in weeks past,” McCourty explained. “It was similar to (a blitz used in the AFCCG against) Kansas City but we said, ‘When we hit it, we gotta hit it.’
“Flo talked about when he wanted to call it and there was a time earlier in the game where he thought about it but he didn’t (call it),” McCourty continued. “This time when it came up, there was no hesitation. And when he called it we all kinda looked at each other like, ‘Here it is…’ . We talked about it all week, if we got there quick we could make him throw it up. All eyes back on the quarterback. Steph did what he’s done all year.”
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Gilmore struggled mightily in his first few games with the team in 2017. But by the middle of last year, with the Patriots playing less zone and more man, Gilmore hit his stride. He’s been one of the best corners in the NFL over the last season-and-a-half.
“It was zero blitz,” Gilmore said. “I trust our D-line to get there. They put pressure on (Goff) the whole night and I was able to keep my eyes on him the whole time and make a good play.”
Was he at all nervous?
“I make plays like that in practice every day,” he said. “It’s just like practice – looking the ball in, trusting your teammates to get there and force the ball out.”
On the previous play, also a throw to Cooks, Gilmore and Harmon jarred the ball loose from Cooks at the goal line. It was a near miss.
“He got me off the line a little bit and I had to catch up to him,” said Gilmore of the previous play. “Duron had a great break from the middle of the field and we were able to take him out at the same time.”
Harmon may not have been on the field at that time were it not for the arm injury suffered by safety Patrick Chung. But having a player of Harmon’s ability as depth says a lot about the way this Patriots defense was built. Continuity and communication are as important to that group as all the physical tools corners and safeties need to have.
Case in point, earlier in the game, a coverage breakdown left Cooks completely uncovered in the end zone. But Jason McCourty, new to the team but not to his twin brother or Harmon (all are Rutgers guys), saw the bust and took off like a shot to break up the pass just as it arrived.
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Harmon doesn’t play all the time. But he’s not a backup level player.
“I can’t give you the exact call (on the blitz), but it was a max pressure,” said Harmon. “It was at a time where we had to get after him, we had to force him to make a bad decision and he did, man. Any time you’re throwing a jump ball to 24, it’s not a good decision. He’s gonna come down with the ball 100 percent of the time.
“I was the trailer, the guy coming second and hopefully coming free,” he added. “I knew that I had a chance and I just wanted to make sure I got there. Steph did a great job of reading the quarterback knowing the ball would come out quick.”
How did he know a big play was made?
“The crowd,” he said. “The crowd. The crowd. This crowd sounded like 100 percent Patriots fans. Every time we went on defense, the amount of noise that we had … It made it hard for Jared Goff to call the game. A lot of times, he took it down to one second, two seconds (on the play clock) to get it snapped. The fans were amazing today man and when I heard that, I knew we made a big play.”
So all the talk about being more aggressive during training camp, it held true?
“He’s a different style play-caller,” said Harmon. “That’s Flo. Flo’s an aggressive guy. He loves to call the games that way and allow us to get after the quarterbacks and that’s what we were really good at. When we were able to get after the quarterback, confuse the quarterback and not let him know where we were coming from it made it hard and it made it easier for us.
“I tell people all the time,” Harmon continued. “Flo’s a smart coach, a great coach, but the best thing he does is, Flo is a leader of men. He can get the best out of anybody. I’m excited to see what he does next year (as head coach of the Dolphins, a post Flores will sign on for this week). We’ll see them twice and hopefully we’re whupping on them but I know he’s gonna do a great job down there.”
Flores deflected the praise for the play.
“The players executed it,” he said. “We practiced that over and over and those guys did a great job of executing it and it was a big play in the game. Steph made a great catch.”
As for the overall performance, holding one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses to three points?
“It’s a testament to the players,” he said. “I didn’t play today. Total team effort. I love each and every one of these guys and they played lights out tonight. We felt good. We knew we had to play well, though. You can feel as good as you want but if you go out there and don’t execute and don’t play well, it’s hard. And those guys, every snap was high level.”
McCourty doled out one more slice of credit for the pick that helped seal this game.
“A guy who doesn’t get any discussion is (backup quarterback) Brian Hoyer,” said McCourty. “This week, he was so great all week. He’d be up at the line, pretending he was talking to McVay, waiting at the line, act like he’s listening, act like he’s alerting calls. Having a guy like Hoyer who has 10 years of NFL experience, has started in the league and led teams, his ability to prepare us for quarterbacks, any quarterback, whether its Goff or (Patrick) Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, he deserves a lot of credit for how he helped us prepare this year.
“(Plays like that work) because we just kept repping it,” said McCourty. “Guys didn’t complain, it was like, ‘Alright, this is what we do.’ We practice it. And we practice against one of the best offenses in the NFL every day. We know if we can run it against them, and confuse Hoyer or Tom once in a while, we can think, ‘Hey, this is gonna work in the game.’ ”
All those little things have to fall just right. The timing of the call. The angle of McCourty’s rush. The space Hightower creates. If anything was just a little off – say, Hightower hadn’t gotten wide – maybe Harmon gets bumped on the way in and doesn’t get to Goff who now has Cooks 1-on-1 with time to throw.
It’s hackneyed. It’s cliché. It’s true. The Patriots do their jobs.
“It’s a grind every day,” said Gilmore. “It’s not easy to be a Patriot. It’s hard work and dedication day in and day out and even when we win games it feels like we lose sometimes because it’s hard.
“We want to be perfect and sometimes we’re not perfect but we believe in each other and in the end, we’re gonna be in the right position,” he added. “It’s worth it. Everything’s worth it. All the bumps and bruises, sweat and blood.”
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