FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick almost laughed. He definitely smiled. The corners of his mouth turned up briefly almost out of disbelief, it seemed. It was one of those chuckle-and-shake-your-head kind of moments.
The topic: Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his scheme.
As much as the Patriots have featured an old-school style of offense lately, Phillips' defense, Belichick argued, is the ultimate throwback.
"They do what they do in their system, they do it well. They have a lot of confidence in it, which they should," Belichick said. "[Phillips has] been successful everywhere he’s been. He’s been doing it for 30 years in multiple organizations with multiple groups of players against every kind of offense he could see. I remember dealing with him when I was in Cleveland. And to his credit, there’s not many of us that have a system that can last that long.
"I’ve certainly changed a lot in the last 30 years, schematically. Wade really . . . hasn’t. He really hasn’t. You’ve got to give him credit for that. The system has lasted. I mean, really, this is part of his dad’s system that he’s developed and adapted and developed there. I mean, I have a ton of respect for what he’s done and how he’s done it over every different kind of offense you can see. Multiple tight ends, run-and-shoot, 10 personnel, 11 personnel, 12 personnel, 21, 22. He’s been able to do the same thing -- not the same thing, but his system has been able to handle all that. And I think that’s a real credit to what he put together 30 years ago."
Belichick's respect for Phillips goes beyond the longevity of Phillips' NFL career, which began one year after Belichick's, in 1976 as a defensive line coach for the Houston Oilers. The Patriots have had their share of issues against Phillips of late.
Fresh in the minds of Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady and others will be their last three meetings with Phillips when he was coordinating the "No Fly Zone" defense in Denver. The Patriots lost two of those three games -- a regular-season matchup in 2015 and the 2015 AFC Championship Game -- and Phillips' defenses slowed down Brady in all of them.
Against the Broncos, with Phillips calling the shots defensively, Brady completed just 51 percent of his passes and his yards per attempt sat at 5.98. Brady was sacked nine times in those three contests.
The flip side to that is that the Patriots have played Phillips often enough (nine times with McDaniels calling the plays and Brady behind center), and had enough success against his scheme, that their overall numbers against him are solid. The Patriots have averaged 29.3 points per game against Phillips' teams, and Brady has completed 58 percent of his throws, with a yards-per-attempt average of 7.14, 21 touchdowns and seven picks.
But those last three games stand out. As has been the case over the last three decades, Phillips' scheme really hasn't changed since then.
"Well, the scheme’s the same," Belichick said. "I mean, I don’t think he’s changed his scheme. Wade does a great job of utilizing his personnel and putting his players in position to be productive and make plays. So, when he had Von Miller, he didn’t change what he did, just the volume and the percentages shifted to accentuate a player like that, or Aaron Donald or whoever it happens to be.
"Certainly, there’s an element of game planning and how he plays one team or another team varies, but it’s within the system that he has. I don’t think he’s out there drawing up a lot of new defenses. I think he has a menu and he selects the ones that fit best against his opponent and the situations as the situations come up in that game."
Phillips has selected some of what are -- for him -- more unusual choices off the menu lately. He's long been a proponent of man-to-man coverages, but less than 40 percent of the targets the Rams saw this season, per Sports Info Solutions, came when they were in man. With his top cover corner, Aqib Talib, out for eight games injured, Phillips moved away from some of his man principles -- perhaps taking some pressure off of their gambler of a No. 2 corner Marcus Peters -- and played more zone.
"They’ve definitely gone from a higher percentage of man coverage to a higher percentage of zone coverage here in the second half of the season, but that’s been very effective for them," Belichick said. "It’s obviously been productive and a good adjustment. But I’m sure they’re capable, because I know what they have in their system, they’re very capable of doing that or doing something that’s also in their system, whether that’s split-safety coverages, or their quarter-quarter-half, or man coverage. I mean, they can easily get to any of those things depending on how they want to play it."
Phillips said in mid-December that shifting from more man to more zone meant more opportunities at turnovers. They went from 15 turnovers in their first 10 games of the season to 10 turnovers in their subsequent three.
"We’ve been playing a little more zone and guys are seeing the ball better," he said at the time. "If you play a lot of man-to-man, you don’t get as many interceptions, but they don’t get as many completions. The other side of it, if you play more zone, they’re probably going to get more completions, but hopefully you get the tips and overthrows and interceptions. Now, you can do good in both, but overall, that’s the way it works. Both of them are good in certain ways."
Because Brady often dices up zone coverages -- as he did against the Chargers in the Divisional Round -- Phillips may go back to more man-to-man looks in Super Bowl LIII. But the answer for the Rams won't be deploying one or the other. It'll be finding the right mix to keep the Patriots off-balance.
Cover 1 (man-to-man with a single-high safety). Cover 3 (three-deep zone with a single-high safety). Cover 6 (the quarter-quarter-half zone coverage Belichick mentioned that Phillips like more than most).
They all could be on the table.
Belichick noted that the Rams don't run a lot of split-safety coverages, like Cover 2 (zone with two high safeties) or Cover 5 (two high safeties with man-to-man underneath). But they can. And when they do, you better recognize them.
"They’re heavy post-safety, but they do enough split-safety that if you miss it, I mean, they’re going to nail you," Belichick said. "They do a good job of that, especially with Talib and Peters out there. If you make a mistake on that, it’s going the other way."
If the coverage is halfway decent, that could be enough time for Donald or Ndamukong Suh to disrupt Brady on the occasions when he's not getting rid of the football in two seconds or less.
The Rams haven't brought much in the way of extra pressure lately -- only seven blitzes in each of their two postseason games, according to Pro Football Focus -- because between their tackles and edge rusher Dante Fowler (five hurries against the Patriots in Week 2 as a member of the Jaguars), the Rams have the ability to get home without sacrificing numbers in coverage.
That's what happened back in the AFC title game three seasons ago. On a percentage basis, Phillips blitzed the exact same amount -- that is to say, not much -- last week against Drew Brees (7 of 42 dropbacks, 17 percent) as he did in his last meeting with Brady (10 of 61 drop-backs, 17 percent). Yet Brady was under pressure on a whopping 30 of his drops in Denver that day because the Broncos' front was so explosive.
The key for the Patriots against the Rams may be to keep themselves in down-and-distance situations that won't announce to Suh, Donald and Co. whether they'll be faced with a run or pass. If the Patriots are able to run the football as successfully as they were against the Chargers and Chiefs, particularly early on, they could dictate the pace of play and keep those two star defensive tackles from aggressively busting into the backfield to ruin plays before they begin.
Relying on more 21-personnel packages wouldn't be a bad approach from McDaniels in trying to accomplish that feat. Not only has his offense been dominant running and passing out of those two-back sets in the postseason (10.2 yards per pass attempt, 6.2 yards per carry), but the Rams have struggled against those "21" groupings all season (9.9 yards allowed per pass attempt, 5.1 yards allowed per carry).
The bottom line with Phillips is that he has the ability to call on a plethora of looks within his defense, both up front and on the back end. There's a number of calls on his menu.
But the Patriots have seen him so often over the years, that they should have a relatively good idea of how the menu will be arranged in Atlanta.
"Wade’s system is his system, and then within that system, there’s plenty of variety," Belichick said. "So, they can get to what they need to get to. Again, I don’t think we’re going to see, like, three new fronts and three new coverages in this game that he hasn’t run in the last 30 years. I mean, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. But, if it does, we’ll adjust to it."