ATLANTA -- The Patriots have been met with fascinating schematic matchups throughout the 2018 postseason.
The Divisional Round featured a talent-laden defense with a predictable scheme taking on a quarterback who gobbles predictability like a morning shake.
The AFC Championship Game featured an explosive offense with a wizard at quarterback taking on a defense that has been as creative as any we've seen under Bill Belichick.
Super Bowl LIII is the best of them all.
It will feature one coach who has long been considered the game's brightest mind against another who has quickly worked his way into the conversation as next-best.
It will feature a defense that runs a variety of coverage and pass-rush looks against an offense that runs a wide variety of plays from very few looks.
It will feature another predictable defense with oodles of talent against an offense that has become relatively predictable itself but doesn't care.
To get a better perspective on the matchup -- specifically how the Patriots may go about trying to beat the Rams on Sunday -- we spoke to a handful of NFL coaches who game-planned against the Rams in 2018.
We'll start with how they feel Belichick and the Patriots defense can limit Sean McVay and his unique style of offense. For how they think Josh McDaniels can attack Wade Phillips' defense, click here.
HOW TO STOP THE RAMS OFFENSE
BE AWARE OF TEMPO: Much has been made of the fact that Sean McVay is in quarterback Jared Goff's ear up until the coach-to-player communication system is shut down with 15 seconds left in the play clock. For Goff, getting to the line quickly and having his coach help him identify coverage is a huge benefit. Defenses will try to combat that interaction by disguising their intentions until late in the clock. Not a bad idea. Negate the big brain on the Rams sideline. But the Rams have a counter. If you're not set, they'll snap it quickly better than anyone. Goff and his teammates rushed to the line and snapped the football in less than five seconds after the ball was set 127 times this season, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That was more than three times the number of most other clubs, Domonique Foxworth pointed out. Because the Rams run almost exclusively 11-personnel groupings, they can rush in and out of plays as well as any team. "You have to get lined up and get ready to go," said one NFC defensive coach. "They can get on it and snap it fast. Or they can get on it and take their time and make checks. Or they'll shift, motion. They do a good job of forcing you to be ready."
STOP THE RUN TO LIMIT PLAY-ACTION: A great deal of the Rams offense is predicated on executing their outside zone runs. They accumulated almost 400 yards more on those types of runs in 2018 than the next best team. How will the Patriots do it? They could get very wide with their front, allowing their edge defenders to play outside-in with their interior players aligned over Rams guards. That might allow linebackers to shoot the A-gaps on either side of the center and potentially disrupt those one-cut downhill runs. They could also play a five-man front -- "diamond" or "bear" -- with their nickel package on the field against L.A.'s 11-personnel grouping. A heavier front could eliminate "the bubble" -- a gap in the front zone teams target -- and make life difficult for Todd Gurley and/or C.J. Anderson. But that would put a significant weight on the shoulders of someone like Patrick Chung, who plays some linebacker responsibilities in nickel. "First and second down is stop the run, keep it to three or four [yards] and see if they're willing to run it on every play," one NFC assistant said. "Where you're [screwed] on first or second down is not containing the run, then the boot game is 15-20 yards every time. That's hard . . . If you stop the run, all that [stuff] starts to disappear. The play-action game -- you still have to defend it, but you're not playing it completely honest." The Rams have been one of the most effective play-action teams in football this season because of their effective run game, and because Goff is afforded time to throw. "Their play action protections are hard to break," the assistant said. "Stretch, play action, it feels like boot, then the receivers chip, the tackle steps down, the tight end works back and the receiver chips. It's a lot. It's not Fort Knox, but if the quarterback can get enough depth in his drop to get the ball off, if he can get the ball off on time, he has a chance. If he holds it because of your coverage, now you're in good shape."
DON'T OVERTHINK IT -- PLAY MAN: Where have we heard this before? "How would I handle it? You built your defense one way for a certain reason," one NFC evaluator said. "I'd say, 'We're gonna play man because we got man guys.' " The Patriots could be looking to break tendencies in the Super Bowl. That's the name of the game, in some respects, when teams have two weeks to prepare for their opponents in February. But the opinions of Rams rivals this week seemed to be unanimous: Do what you do. One reason why the Patriots may opt for continued man-to-man coverage gets back to a major game-plan tenet. Man coverage makes pre-snap run-game adjustments a bit easier. (We'll dive into this below.) It also allows Patriots corners to play to their strengths and execute a game plan similar to the ones they've been rolling out all season. They've played more man-to-man than any defense this year, and their "Cover 1 double" look stifled both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in the AFC title game to the point that the Chiefs were shut out in a half for the first time all season. The matchups aren't terribly overwhelming from a Patriots perspective. "It might make sense to have [Jonathan] Jones cover [Brandin] Cooks with help," said the NFC defensive coach. "Then you have [Stephon] Gilmore on [Robert] Woods . . . They're missing [Cooper] Kupp. [Josh] Reynolds isn't bad. He's big and fast enough. Kupp was a big-time guy on third down, good blocker. He ran intermediate and downfield routes well. [Tyler] Higbee is solid. Big, athletic. He's probably underused. [Gerald] Everett is OK. He's faster than Higbee, can run vertical routes. They drafted him to be the [Redskins tight end Jordan] Reed role. I think Higbee is pretty good. He's one of the better blockers in the league as far as tight ends go." If the Rams go with 12-personnel groupings, which they did to help slow the game down and get things under control in New Orleans, how the Patriots match Rams tight ends will be fascinating. A linebacker on either tight end could be viewed as a mismatch for McVay to pick on. The biggest issue for the Patriots in man coverage might be how they match up with Todd Gurley, if he's healthy. His speed would make him a dynamic option against Patriots linebackers, and Belichick may have to turn to one of his safeties for that gig.
STICK TO YOUR PLAN VS. 'PAIN IN THE ASS' MOTIONS: The Patriots refer to these as "missile" motions. The Rams run them more than anyone. They run them so much, and so effectively that they have more than one description in coaching circles. "That's a pain in the ass because you have to handle it, and if you're in man you gotta run [with the motion man]," one assistant said. "Or the deep safety will drive it, and the corner will replace." The one benefit of man in these situations, though, which we alluded to above, is that the run game can be handled a little more easily in man when the Rams motion. "All the run fits in the box stay stagnant," the defensive coach said. "If you're in Cover 3, you have to bump across. Everybody's gotta move." That's what McVay and the Rams want. If you want to stay in zone to make it easier to track the motion man in coverage, then the defenders in the front often have to change their run fits and people can get out of position. What makes it even more complicated is if the Rams send their tight end in the direction of a "missile" or "orbit" (looping behind the quarterback) motion. Then everyone has to adjust two gaps to handle the run. There are other times when the tight end will head in the direction opposite the "missile" man at the snap. Both of those movements effectively cancel each other out in terms of gap responsibilities for a defense in zone. But if you react to one and not the other, there may be a gaping hole through which to run. "It's a headache," one coach said. "It's not really complicated, but it prevents you from playing downhill in zone." Man coverage can help a defense eliminate that hesitation.
COVER DEEP OVERS VS. 'NASTY' SPLITS: There are a few reasons why the Rams like to play their receivers so tightly to their tackles (aka "nasty" splits). No. 1: When they go in motion, the distance is shorter than if they were wide and sprinting a 40-yard dash play after play after play before the ball is even snapped. No. 2: It helps confuse defenses in the play-action passing game. This is another challenge associated with man coverage, if the Patriots go that route. "The receivers are in close so they can do dig out a safety," the assistant said. "It's hard for a corner. 'I'm outside, he's going inside. Is he blocking? If he is, I have to make the tackle. Is he running a route? I gotta go cover him . . . It's not impossible but it's hard. If the run game's working, and that block is working, the corner feels pressure. 'I gotta free myself up to make a tackle, but now you sell play-action, and I'm step late in coverage.' " If Goff has time, deep over-routes out of these tight splits can be difficult to defend. Especially in man-to-man. "The hardest Cover 1 routes to cover are deep overs," the coach said. "They try to get 20 yards deep on the opposite side of numbers. Against man, they'll sell a vertical route and then run away from you. You get your hips flipped and say, 'I gotta run with that mother[bleeper] all the way across the field?' Your only help is a linebacker at eight yards and a deep safety. You're running into no-man's land with no help. You have no leverage . . . That's the route you have to defend." You could make the argument that tight splits should force the Patriots into more zone looks, but the switch-releases that come from receiver stacks and bunches aren't typically an issue for Rams opponents until third down. "On third down they do have a good package of stacks and switch releases," the assistant explained. "But that's a third-down, two-minute, low red zone issue . . . You gotta deal with that on third down, but that's every team on third down."
GET ONE-ON-ONE BLOCKS INSIDE IN PASS RUSH SITUATIONS: The Rams' protection up the middle in passing situations isn't quite what it is on the edges. (Rams center John Sullivan allowed more pressures than anyone at his position this year, per PFF . Right guard Austin Blythe was also in the bottom half of the league among guards with 31 total pressures allowed.) The same was true for both the Chargers and the Chiefs, so it could very well be more of the same for Patriots pass-rushers on Sunday. Where they've been extremely effective of late has been with their games up front. They've run two-man games with Trey Flowers and Adam Butler. They're run three-man games where defensive linemen flush one way or the other to allow for a rush lane to open up for hard-charging, off-the-ball linebackers. They've also disguised, bringing five (or more) to the line of scrimmage and then dropped multiple players into coverage. That forced offensive linemen to focus on a potential rusher even if he was going to drop, freeing up others to get one-on-one blocks. "Play Cover 1. I do think you can do that. And disguise late," the NFC defensive coach said. "The Patriots don't seem to care about winning pass-rushes. They want to [mess] with protection and get singles inside." Goff ranked 22nd in football when under pressure this season, according to PFF, with a rating of 59.8. His completion percentage under pressure (43.3) was 24th, just behind Andy Dalton and just ahead of Sam Darnold. "It's the [bleeping] Patriots," the coach said. "They know what the [bleep] they're doing. I think you can hold this team under 30. They could score 30. They shouldn't score 40. The question is can the Patriots score 35?"
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