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, we spoke to a handful of NFL coaches who game-planned against the Rams in 2018. Here we'll hit on how they feel Josh McDaniels can attack Wade Phillips' defense. You can see how the coaches we spoke to feel about the Belichick vs. McVay matchup here.
HOW TO BEAT THE RAMS DEFENSE
GET A FEEL FOR PHILLIPS' PLAN: Belichick made headlines last week when he said that Phillips has run the same defensive system for 30 years. Phillips corrected him this week. It's been 40. The point remains: The Patriots shouldn't be baffled by what Phillips shows them Sunday. "Wade loves to rush five and play man," said one NFC assistant. "That's his baby. His change-up is quarter-quarter-half [zone] . . . He has one or two change-ups every week that he hasn't shown before. When those are right he's tough. When they aren't there, he's not. Wade's good at times, great in spurts. But probably just good." The Rams played a great deal of zone later in the season, likely because Aqib Talib was out injured and the team's de-facto No. 1 corner, Marcus Peters, is a better fit for a zone scheme. With Talib back, the Rams are back to loving man coverage, though Talib (offensive left) and Peters (offensive right) typically play their sides of the field and take the receiver across from them. "Peters is a better zone corner," one NFC offensive coach said. "We got plenty of zone . . . They're not particularly good at it. Assuming [the Patriots] can hold up in the protection -- and they may not even try to -- they'll want to find out the coverage. [Phillips] beat them before [in the 2015 AFC title game] not because the scheme was great, but because they got after him with three or four-man rushes. Chicago tried that [this season] and got gutted. Denver got home. If Phillips can get home rushing three or four, then it'll be tough." The coach added: "It'll be a constant cat-and-mouse game between rushing five and dropping eight. I dunno how they end up doing that. I dunno how many different ways you can disguise those things. If you throw out an old game plan versus Bill Belichick, he's gonna crush it. If you guess right, or disguise, you have a chance." One way to take those disguises out of the equation? Do what the Patriots have done throughout the postseason. Run it. "Obviously," one assistant said, "if they can run the [crap] out of the ball they will."
PUNISH THE RAMS BASE DEFENSE: "[Phillips] plays base versus your 11-[personnel] and [safety Lamarcus] Joyner plays nickel [corner]," one NFC coach said. "He puts his 3-4 out there versus '11.' It works against the run, but you can gash it [through the air]." Typically, against base defenses, offenses are more than eager to throw. This season, against "11," the Rams allowed 7.2 yards per attempt and a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those aren't abysmal numbers, and they'd suggest Phillips' plan can work. But the reason some coaches think throwing against Phillips' base defense from "11" is a good plan for New England is that there will be mismatches in the middle of the field for Tom Brady. If Talib and Peters are matched up with Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett on the outside, the Patriots will have no problem leaving them be. They'll attack the middle with Joyner and linebackers checking James White, Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski. If the Rams respond to "11" by playing nickel, the Patriots can make sure they get Rams base defense on the field by using their 21-personnel groupings. With two backs on the field, the Patriots should get Phillips' 3-4 front on the field and can then spread things out. That's when it gets interesting. If James Develin aligns wide and a corner sticks with him outside, Brady will know it's zone and find the soft spot. If a linebacker goes with Develin, Brady will know it's man, find his favorite matchup, and hammer it. Again, the matchups that look most favorable to the Patriots are on the interior with White, Gronkowski and Rex Burkhead working over the middle. The Rams have allowed about 10 yards per pass attempt and five yards per carry to "21" this season.
ATTACK LINEBACKERS IN COVERAGE: Rams linebackers are built in such a way that they should be good in coverage. Mark Barron weighs 230 pounds and came into the league as a safety. Cory Littleton weighs 228 pounds and is on the field as often as he is because of his athleticism. Yet Alvin Kamara lit up the second level of L.A.'s defense in the AFC title game and Patriots backs could do the same in Super Bowl LIII. Whether it's option routes over the middle or offensive linemen swallowing up linebackers in space in the screen game, Brady should have options. "I would think it would be a lot of screens," one NFC evaluator said. "They dropped some in KC. They could've been gone. Like gone, gone. You'd think the Chicago game plan would come to mind. [The Patriots] were constantly keeping [the Bears] off-balance. On the first drive, they had, like, three or four screens and two quicks. Chicago has Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack, some good rushers. It's a great front. But they said, 'We're not gonna let the front dictate the game.' "
DON'T LET DONALD AND SUH RUIN THINGS: "We're not gonna let the front dictate the game." Easier said than done. Aaron Donald is without a doubt the best defensive player in the league. And Ndamukong Suh, who has flipped a switch in January, isn't that far behind when he's motivated. "If they create one-on-ones, Suh is not blockable one-on-one," one NFC assistant said. "The issue for a lot of those [Rams] guys is motivation and energy. This is the one game you'll have maximum energy and adrenaline for every single snap. It's the [bleeping] Super Bowl. You're not gonna run out of gas in the Super Bowl." When Suh and Donald are playing well, they attract so much attention that they allow the Rams' smallish linebackers to play free. "It's all about team speed," one coach explained. "Their linebackers don't get blocked. You'd rather leave Mark Barron free if Aaron Donald is right in front of you . . . He is unblockable. He's the most disruptive player in the NFL. In passing situations, they'll put him outside. He's so fast, so powerful. He has a low center of gravity. Suh benefits tremendously from him being there. Suh's gonna get one-on-ones because you can't afford to put Donald one-on-one." One way to take advantage of Suh and Donald's aggressiveness up front may be with trap or wham plays, taking the blockers aligned across from them and having them block someone else. If Donald or Suh think they have a free path into the backfield and are met with a blocker they didn't see coming, that can be an effective way to neutralize them. Screens and the quick passing game, again, should be staples. Tom Brady is getting rid of the football in less than 2.2 seconds on average during the postseason. "I could see quicks, them going empty and saying '[Bleep] you. We'll slide to Donald and we'll use screens and quicks.' James White should have a million receptions.' "
DON'T FEAR PETERS: Even though, as we explained above, it makes sense for the Patriots to go heavy and deploy their "21" personnel groupings, there's one potential issue with that plan from a Patriots perspective. It means there are just two receivers on the field, which means Edelman will be matched up with either Talib or Peters. While Edelman would seem to have a quickness advantage in that matchup, it would still mean that one of Brady's favorite targets is matched up with one of L.A.'s better defenders. In theory. Would Brady shy away from Edelman on the offensive left when Talib is on him in coverage? Maybe. How about Peters on the offensive right? Even though Peters has a knack for intercepting the football, that's a matchup Brady won't fear. "I don't think Marcus Peters is particularly good," said one NFC offensive coach. "He's an off corner who takes a lot of chances. Talib is older but still plays at a high level. Peters is decent. But he's the worst kind of decent because he thinks he's elite. That's dangerous. If you're OK, and you know you're OK? You can play in this league. When you're bad, and you don't know you're bad? You can get torched." Double-moves -- like the one Dorsett ran for his touchdown in Kansas City -- and play-action could work out well for Brady when targeting Peters. As a team, the Rams allowed a 77.4 percent completion rate, 10.1 yards per pass and a 132.9 rating against play-action passes this year, per Pro Football Focus.
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