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Patriots or Rams: Digging into key matchups that will decide Super Bowl LIII

Patriots or Rams: Digging into key matchups that will decide Super Bowl LIII

We've had a week to watch the Rams closely and crunch all the relevant numbers. We'll have almost another full week before Super Bowl LIII arrives, but there's already plenty to chew on in terms of how this matchup between Bill Belichick and Sean McVay's teams will play out. 

Here's what we found . . .

McDANIELS and BRADY vs. PHILLIPS

Belichick was very clear last week: Wade Phillips' scheme is Phillips' scheme. It's been that way for 30 years and it isn't changing now. Belichick noted, however, that within Phillips' scheme there are all sorts of different looks from which Phillips can choose. He likes man-to-man coverage. He likes single-high safety (or post-safety) deployments. He likes "under" fronts at the line of scrimmage, meaning two wide outside linebackers on the edges, a five-technique defensive lineman to the strength of the formation, a one-technique defensive tackle off the strong-side shoulder of the center, and a three-technique off the outside shoulder of the guard away from the strength. How can Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady attack what they're seeing? Man-beaters like the ones they used late in Kansas City should work. We could see the Patriots stacking receivers before the snap or running rub routes (hi-low crossers, flat-slant combinations) in order to force the Rams defense to communicate and/or create some traffic in the secondary for Phillips' players to navigate. One matchup that should pose problems for the Rams if they opt for man-to-man: a suddenly rejuvenated Rob Gronkowski. They ranked 25th in football in yards per attempt to tight ends (8.3), and don't seem to have any obvious candidates to check the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. If the Rams are in zone, Brady will have to decipher what it is he's looking at. If it's Cover 3 with a single-high safety, they won't have to think back all that far to find some potentially-successful pass plays. The Chargers (as well as the Seahawks, Falcons and Eagles) were a Cover 3 team, leaving soft spots underneath, down the seams and on the outside with receivers one-on-one. In nine games between the Brady-McDaniels combo and Phillips, the Patriots have averaged 29.3 points per game, and Brady has completed 58 percent of his throws, with a yards-per-attempt average of 7.14, 21 touchdowns and seven picks. (In Brady's last three against Phillips -- while Phillips was with Denver -- he completed 51 percent of his passes, accumulated a 5.98 yards per attempt average, and he was sacked three times.) On the ground, the Patriots should have success using their 21-personnel groupings, and they may turn to those early and often the way they did against the Chiefs. Against "21" in 2018, the Rams allowed 9.9 yards per pass attempt and 5.1 yards per carry. In two postseason games, the Patriots are averaging 10.2 yards per pass out of "21" and 6.2 yards per carry. We went into some detail last week on how the Rams front is relatively light and could have difficulty against Patriots packages that include two backs, two tight ends or both. If the Patriots then go to their play-action game off of some hard-charging "21" runs, that should be effective as well. 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. 

PATRIOTS INTERIOR LINE vs. SUH and DONALD

The Rams did not rank among the league's better defenses this season in a number of categories. They were 24th in yards per pass attempt allowed (7.7 yards). They were 17th in quarterback rating allowed (93.8). They were last in yards allowed per carry (5.1). However, they have a distinct ability to impact throws without sacrificing numbers in coverage. The led the league in pressure percentage without blitzing (32.2 percent, according to ESPN), and they fell just short of the third-down pressure percentage the Patriots have been able to generate this year (44.9 percent to 44.7 percent, the top two among Divisional Round participants). Agains the Cowboys and Saints in the Divisional and Championship rounds, the Rams blitzed just seven times each. How do they still generate pressure? With two of the most talented defensive tackles in the league. Belichick called Aaron Donald "pretty much unblockable" last week. Despite seeing double-teams for much of the season, he used his quickness and power to rack up 20.5 sacks, 20 hits and 65 additional hurries, according to PFF. Ndamukong Suh, meanwhile, was in on five sacks and posted 12 hits and 30 hurries. No other interior duo comes close to those kinds of disruption numbers. Because Phillips encourages his linemen to use their athleticism and aggressiveness in obvious passing situations, the Patriots could try to take advantage of Donald and Suh's playing style with screens in the passing game or trap plays in the running game. The risk run in those instances would be that both Donald and Suh are athletic enough that if they go unblocked, even for a moment, it might be enough time for them to ruin the play even if it was designed that way. Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason will have their work cut out for them in terms of figuring out when to double and for how long in case one of their other teammates needs help. Having added Dante Fowler midseason as an edge presence has helped the Rams finish off plays that Donald and Suh have blown up -- both in the run game and pass game. In the Super Bowl, L.A.'s two interior specimens don't have to get to Brady themselves, but if they can push the pocket and make it hard for him to step up, then someone like Fowler will have opportunities for sacks. 

BROWN vs. FOWLER

Tasked with slowing down Fowler could be Patriots left tackle Trent Brown. Over 71 percent of Fowler's regular-season pass-rush snaps this season came off of the offensive left, according to PFF. Fowler rushed 25 times off the offensive left in the NFC Championship Game compared to 19 rushes off the opposite ride. The Patriots met Fowler once already this season, in Week 2 when Fowler was a member of the Jaguars. But Fowler only played 18 snaps that day (he played 66 in the conference title game) and only four of those were pass-rushes on Brown. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder notched one pressure in those four snaps. Brown outweighs Fowler by almost 130 pounds and should win his reps any time Fowler gets into Brown's pads. But the Patriots left tackle will have his foot-speed tested as Fowler tries to explode past him up the field. Scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency after the season, this has the potential to be Brown's last game in a Patriots uniform. 

BELICHICK and FLORES vs. GOFF

The Patriots have successfully pressured each of the two quarterbacks they've faced in the postseason and now they'll take on Jared Goff, who ranks behind both Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes in terms of rating and yards per attempt. That's not to say Goff is some slouch when it comes to those categories; he was eighth in rating and fourth in yards per attempt in 2018. But the best way to make Goff look pedestrian -- worse, in fact -- is to pressure him. He's not bad out of the pocket thanks to designed roll-outs and bootlegs, checking in with a 105.3 rating. But when he's pressured, he falls apart. He 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. So how do Belichick and Brian Flores bother Goff? They may feel as though what they did against Rivers and Mahomes could work again: pressure the Rams up the middle. That made sense against Rivers because they wanted to knock him off his spot. It made sense against Mahomes because his protection on the interior was weak, and the same appears to be true again this week. Rams center John Sullivan allowed more pressures than anyone at his position this year, per PFF (37). Right guard Austin Blythe was also in the bottom half of the league among guards with 31 total pressures allowed. Expect to see some of the same games and stunts we've seen the last two weeks, with ends and linebackers shooting up through the interior, to try to get Goff off his game. Now when it comes to coverage . . . 

McVAY vs. PATRIOTS DEFENSIVE BACKS

. . . things may get a little more complicated for the Patriots. The strength of Belichick's defense all season has been its depth and top-end talent in the secondary. But they'll have their hands full with Sean McVay's scheme. First and foremost, McVay makes it difficult on opposing defenses to play man-to-man. Unfortunately for the Patriots, that's how they've thrived in the late portion of the season. By year's end, no team had played more man than New England. The reason it's difficult to check the Rams by manning up is because of the designs that make McVay's offense a unique branch off of the Shanahan tree. He aligns his receivers tightly to the formation, often using stacks or bunch sets, to create traffic for defensive backs off the line of scrimmage. Those sorts of alignments also give Goff's receivers much of the field to work with. The tighter they are to their tackles, the close to the middle of the field they reside, the greater their options are. They can run deep overs or out-routes. They can run shallow crossers or up the seams. It's hard to get a bead on what they're doing before the ball is snapped. Then there are the many types of motions McVay will call for. His "missile" motions are challenging for man-to-man defenses because if someone with Brandin Cooks' speed takes off in a full sprint down the line of scrimmage and someone like, say, Stephon Gilmore, has to wade through his teammates on the other side of the line to keep up, that very well could go poorly. Against man-to-man this year, according to PFF, Goff has completed 59 percent of his passes at a clip of 9.1 yards per attempt. His rating in those situations is 104.1 and he has a 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Against zone? Goff's numbers aren't quite as good. He completes more of his passes (68.6 percent), but his yards per attempt (8.5), rating (94.8) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (10-to-8) are worse. Will the Patriots be willing to shift to more frequent usage of zone calls in the biggest game of the season when they've relied so heavily on man-to-man to get themselves here? They may have to be.

EDELMAN vs. ROBEY-COLEMAN

Nickell Robey-Coleman might've stepped in it early in the week by saying "age has definitely taken a toll" on Tom Brady, but if he can help slow down Julian Edelman in Super Bowl LIII it'll look like he called his shot. The Rams' slot corner has been among the better players at that spot in the league this year. He ended the regular season ranked eighth in rating allowed (84.9) from the slot. He was seventh in terms of coverage snaps per reception allowed, and he was second in football in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap inside (0.71). Edelman, meanwhile, is in the middle of his best two-game stretch of the season despite one drop that resulted in a pick in Kansas City. He's caught 16 of 21 targets sent his way in the postseason for 247 yards, including 78 yards after the catch. The last time the Patriots saw Robey-Coleman, in Week 8 of 2016, he allowed one catch on one target, and it hurt. It was a 53-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski. The previous season, in Week 2, he was targeted six times, allowing five catches for 72 yards, including two to Edelman for 24 yards and one to Danny Amendola for 29 yards. 

WHITE vs. RAMS LINEBACKERS

The Rams had a helluva time trying to stop Alvin Kamara in the NFC title game. Even though (as we mentioned above) Rams linebackers are of the smaller-quicker variety, Kamara still had a field day when Phillips called for man-to-man coverage. Kamara ate up Mark Barron (230 pounds and a converted safety) for four catches and 34 yards, while he got Cory Littleton (228 pounds) for five catches and 36 yards. On three separate occasions, it wasn't exactly the fault of the players in coverage that Kamara was open. The Saints ran simple slant-fade combinations, with a receiver running his slant into Kamara's defender, to open Kamara down the sideline. If the Patriots feel as though the Rams will still struggle with those types of concepts in man coverage, there's no reason James White or Rex Burkhead shouldn't be running similar routes early on. The Rams got so mixed up on one Saints rub route that John Franklin-Myers (280-pound defensive end) ended up trying to go stride-for-stride with Kamara down the sideline. The result? An easy 21-yard pickup. Barron (94.3 rating allowed) and Littleton (92.6) are 13th and 11th, respectively, in terms of rating allowed among 'backers who've played at least 50 percent of their team's defensive snaps. Their speed in coverage should give them a better shot to slow down White, who has 146 yards receiving combined in his last two games. 

PATRIOTS EDGE DEFENDERS vs. RAMS OUTSIDE ZONE RUNS

C.J. Anderson doesn't look like a walking mismatch the way Todd Gurley does, but he's been more productive than his teammate of late. In four games with Anderson, the Rams have averaged 193.5 yards rushing (he's averaged 116.5 of those), and they've become an even more run-heavy offense. They led the league in run percentage this season, but with Anderson over the last four games, they've been decidedly run-first, handing off on 55.7 percent of their plays. Gurley, when healthy, is still a handful. In 14 games, he averaged 130.8 yards per game and 5.8 yards per touch. The key for the Patriots to slow down both backs might be how well their edge defenders hold up. Despite his unique wrinkles, McVay still uses Shanahan-style runs. That means zone runs to the outside that allow for backs to put their foot in the ground and cut up the field whenever they find a lane they like. If Patriots edge defenders can help string out runs to the sideline or set a hard edge that funnels the backs back into traffic, that could cut off those types of plays as legitimate options. The Rams love to run bootleg passes off of their outside zone action, but those fakes may become less effective if the runs themselves don't go anywhere. It'll be key for all Patriots linemen, not just those on the edge, to be able to get off of their blocks on those types of plays. Simple enough, right? Yes and no. Because of the nature of those runs, with backs cutting across the grain, savvy offensive linemen can hold just long enough to make it impossible for defenders to turn and tackle without flags flying.


JUDGE vs. FASSEL

Might the special teams coordinators end up playing a big role in this one? You better believe it, kicking-game freaks. The Patriots had a relatively down year in terms of their coverage units this year, but they still ended up No. 10 on Rick Gosselin's annual special teams rankings -- a list for which Belichick has expressed his admiration in the past. The Patriots ended up leading the NFL in opponent punting (40.8 yards), blocked kicks (five) and points scored (12). They were also second in kick returns (27.0 yards) and fifth in kickoff starting point (26.3-yard line). The Rams, meanwhile, were ninth on Gosselin's list. They came in second in net punting, fifth in points and fifth in blocked kicks. They also have perhaps the most athletic punter in the league. Johnny Hekker's fourth-down pass in the NFC title game should not have been unexpected. He has a strong arm and on every punt (or field goal for that matter) there's the potential for a throw. The Patriots are no stranger to trick plays in the kicking game, but Hekker and how Rams coordinator John Fassel uses him could cause Patriots coordinator Joe Judge fits. "He’s a weapon on the field," Belichick said of Hekker last week. "He can change field position and he’s a good situational punter and obviously he’s very athletic. You have to respect his ability to handle the ball. I think the main thing when you sent your punt return team out there is you want to make sure you get the ball at the end of the play. That’s not always that difficult but with these guys it’s pretty challenging."

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These stats highlight the Patriots' excellence protecting the quarterback

These stats highlight the Patriots' excellence protecting the quarterback

The pillars of any good offense in the NFL most likely involve good quarterback play, a solid offensive line and a scheme that maximizes the strengths of its skill players. 

The Patriots have checked all of those boxes for almost two decades, and it's helped them win six Super Bowl championships and nine conference titles. Tom Brady has been the constant for the entire run of dominance and the offensive line's ability to keep a clean pocket has helped him play into his age-42 season. 

According to Connor Price of Pro Football Focus, the Patriots have the fourth-fewest quarterback pressures (2,001) in the league over the last 10 years, trailing only the Bengals (1,786), Saints (1,945) and Titans (1,957). The league-average for the last 10 years is 2,025 quarterback pressures.

Not only that, but New England also sports the fourth-best pressure rate over that span as well (25.4 percent), behind Cincinnati, New Orleans and Pittsburgh with the league average hovering around 28 percent.   

The Patriots have consistently invested in their offensive line and have the masterful Dante Scarnecchia overseeing the unit, but Brady executing the team's offensive scheme to perfection goes a long way in these stats as well. 

What makes Brady so good, among many things, is his ability to understand opposing defense's tendencies and concepts. This allows him to dissect what's happening in front of him quicker than basically any other quarterback and hit his receivers before pass rushers can finish their moves. 

Without Rob Gronkowski going into this season and seemingly more weapons on the outside than normal, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots' offensive line can continue to keep the pocket clean for Brady if he targets more downfield throws. 

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Julian Edelman pumped for Patriots camp to begin: 'School's back in session'

Julian Edelman pumped for Patriots camp to begin: 'School's back in session'

Julian Edelman warmed up for training camp Saturday by putting on a clinic in near 100-degree heat.

The Patriots wide receiver helped conduct his football clinic for about 600 boys and girls at Lincoln-Sudbury High School about 40 minutes north of Foxboro. The Super Bowl MVP compared Pats camp, which begins Thursday at Gillette Stadium, to school being back in session.

“I’m extremely excited for the new year. This is a new team. Training camp coming up, this is kind of like when school’s back in session," Edelman told reporters. "We had summer break, [now] you get to see all the fellas. This is where you learn your team and learn each other and become accountable for each other and work hard together and create a consistency together."

The undisputed veteran of a Patriots receiving corps that is short on big names beside himself, Edelman, 33, is ready to mentor young receivers, such as first-round pick N'Keal Harry. 

“This is like the beginning shape form of your team, these next few weeks. It’s a crucial point. We put a lot of hard work in during the spring, and the next step to playing other teams, so it’s definitely exciting.”

With tight end Rob Gronkowski retired, Edelman takes center stage as Tom Brady's favorite target. He led all Pats receivers with 850 yards in the regular season despite an NFL-imposed PED suspension that kept him out of the first four games. His 10-catch, 141-yard performance against the Rams in Super Bowl 53 earned him game MVP honors.

Starting Thursday, he'll lead a receiver group that includes few familiar names: Phillip Dorsett returns, Braxton Berrios is back from the practice squad, Harry is a top draft pick and free-agent signees Demaryius Thomas, Dontrelle Inman and Maurice Harris are among those who've been added.