The New England Patriots cracked the Los Angeles Rams’ defense in Super Bowl LIII by running the exact same play three times in a row.
New England ran the play out of its heaviest, non-goal line package. Strange as it sounds, the simple formula proved to be the antidote against an otherwise ferocious defense.
Wade Phillips’ unit hounded Tom Brady and the passing game almost all night. The Rams pestered the 41-year-old with myriad looks, timely coverage rotations and sporadic spurts of pressure, forcing poor reads, bad decisions, errant throws and even an ugly sack-fumble.
Almost all of Brady’s success came through Julian Edelman, who was named MVP, and occasionally Rob Gronkowski. Elsewhere, the Rams rendered the Patriots’ auxiliary passing-game weapons nearly useless.
To all other targets, Brady went 5 of 16 for 34 yards and an interception. Chris Hogan failed to catch any of his six targets, with one intercepted and another nearly picked. Phillip Dorsett — who caught a 29-yard TD two weeks ago — played sparingly and wasn’t targeted. Even James White was shut down, catching just one of his four targets for 5 yards.
With no supplementary weapons helping in the passing game, the Patriots essentially took them off the field for the biggest drive of the game, instead favoring run-heavy personnel in order to throw the ball. That sounds counterintuitive, but it worked perfectly because it reduced Phillips’ defensive options and gave Brady the clearest possible picture of the defense.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, defenses use base personnel so little that most install only a few coverages out of it, sticking to basic man and zone calls with little disguise. This has been one of Phillips’ few problem areas in recent seasons — teams have forced his defenses into base personnel, spread it out and thrown the ball. The Falcons and Patriots both did this with great success against Phillips’ Broncos in 2016.
With the Lombardi Trophy on the line Sunday, New England did the same on the game-winning touchdown drive, picking the Rams apart for 67 yards on four straight passes.
The Patriots opened the series with a crafty design.
With 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, one wideout) in an I-formation, Edelman motioned left to leave Gronkowski as the only receiver to the right side. Edelman’s motion confirmed man coverage, and L.A.’s alignment meant only safety John Johnson or edge rusher Samson Ebukam could cover Gronkowski. At the snap, Gronkowski blocked Ebukam, who naturally assumed — as did Johnson — it was a run. Johnson flew downhill and Ebukam fought upfield, only to find Gronkowski leaking out for an easy 18-yard catch.
Then New England went empty with 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, one wideout) and ran “Hoss Y Juke” back-to-back-to-back, flipping the formation on the second play and changing the motion on the third. The play calls for two curls on the outside (run by Rex Burkhead and James Develin), two seams up the slot — by Gronkowski (inside Burkhead) and Allen (inside Develin — and an option route by Edelman from the slot inside of Allen.
On the first, Burkhead’s motion from the backfield showed Brady the Rams were playing Cover-4 zone (also called quarters), with four deep and three underneath. The seams and curls completely cleared out the middle of the field and isolated Edelman on linebacker Cory Littleton, who had no chance amid so much space. Edelman picked up an easy 13 yards.
The Rams adapted on the next snap, playing a matchup Cover-3 zone but sending two underneath defenders to jam Edelman and having another jam Gronkowski as Mark Barron carried his seam vertically. His preferred options taken away, Brady still got 7 easy yards by checking down to Burkhead under Marcus Peters’ cushion.
Phillips ran matchup zone on the next snap, too, but motion — this time Edelman instead of Burkhead — created confusion, as Littleton and safety Lamarcus Joyner both moved to align over Edelman. Joyner quickly corrected Littleton, but the linebacker was late returning to where he should be — over Gronkowski — giving the tight end a headstart up the seam. Brady held the centerfield safety with his eyes, then dropped it over Littleton for 29 yards, setting up the game-winning 2-yard TD.
Perhaps most striking about this sequence was how easy it was. Gronkowski’s first catch was a one-read throw that was all but guaranteed to be open. All three plays out of empty defined Brady’s read either before the snap or immediately after it and produced wide-open targets.
And it was all facilitated by run-heavy personnel, even though no runs were called.
Of course, the Rams’ defensive efforts still should have been enough for a victory, if the offense could have just found the end zone twice.
But L.A.’s best chance at paydirt was thwarted by the lesser heralded McCourty twin, cornerback Jason McCourty, who spent 2017 on the winless Browns and was playing in his first postseason.
With 3:42 left in the third quarter, the Patriots called Cover-4, against a Rams formation featuring three receivers bunched right of the line and Brandin Cooks alone on the left. Off play-action, Cooks’ seam route perfectly bisected the deep zones of cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (outside) and Jonathan Jones (inside), and Gilmore tried to pass Cooks off to Jones.
However, Jones was trained on a deep crosser from Robert Woods, who had come from the bunch formation. In Cover-4 against trips, the backside “safety” (played by a cornerback in Jones, in this case) is responsible for vertical routes from the trips side of the formation, which is why Woods drew his attention. As a result, Cooks came absolutely wide open in the end zone.
Then McCourty came to the rescue.
The other two Rams in the bunch formation stayed in to block, leaving McCourty no receiver near his deep zone (outside to the offense’s right). But rather than sitting around, he went looking for work, reading Jared Goff’s eyes and spying Cooks open in the end zone. As Goff released the ball, McCourty was still outside the numbers at the 7-yard line, with Cooks on the far hash at the 3. Somewhat miraculously, the cornerback closed the gap just in time, arriving to jar Cooks’ arms in the back of the end zone.
The late intervention wound up saving four points, as L.A. settled for a field goal and a tie instead of taking a 7-3 lead.
-Goff the goat
As great a play as it was though, McCourty never should have had the chance.
Goff had just two routes to read, and he was looking right at Cooks when the wideout — who put his arm up to call for the ball while crossing the 13-yard line — sprung completely free. Despite his target coming wide open and on-time by design, Goff inexplicably took three hitches from the top of his drop before throwing.
Even then, it still should have been a touchdown. The throw was wobbly and too high, hanging in the air, and thrown unnecessarily out in front of Cooks instead of right on him or to his back shoulder. McCourty needed every bit of Goff’s help to make the play.
More damning for Goff is that he should have known Cooks would be open. The Rams ran the same play with 4:19 left in the first quarter — out of 11 personnel (instead of 12) and with a different run fake, but otherwise identical — against the same coverage and it worked, freeing Cooks from Gilmore by 3-4 yards. Goff appeared to think about throwing to Cooks before hesitating, and then pressure forced him to throw it away.
The second time around, Goff should have known exactly what to expect. The design worked even better, with Cooks even more open. Goff had more time and space in the pocket. But for whatever reason, he still failed to make the play.
Unfortunately for the Rams, it was far from the only play Goff would want back.
The third-year signal-caller struggled to see things clearly throughout the evening. He threw two would-be interceptions that were dropped — the first could have been picked by Devin McCourty OR Jonathan Jones if John Simon had not batted it at the line — then botched the aforementioned play to Cooks, and finally made three critical errors in the fourth quarter.
On second-and-22 with 10:36 remaining, Goff failed to spot a likely 40-plus-yard gain. The Rams ran a “dagger” concept with Woods’ vertical route clearing out space for Josh Reynolds’ dig (the primary option on the play), which came wide open against the Patriots’ Cover-3 zone, with nobody within 10 yards of Reynolds. For whatever reason — perhaps a predetermined decision — Goff instead opted for Cooks’ out-and-up on the far side, which was blanketed by Gilmore.
On the next series, Goff went for the tying touchdown on a fade to Cooks and actually threw a terrific pass, dropping it in the bucket. But he failed to hold the single-high safety (Duron Harmon) long enough with his eyes, and Harmon was able to break to Cooks’ route (which came from a tight split) and help dislodge the ball.
Cooks still could have caught the pass — and Gilmore sneakily hooked one of the wideout’s arms before it arrived — but he very well might have hung on if not for a crushing hit from Harmon, whom Goff could have removed from the play with his eyes.
One play later, Goff all but sealed the defeat with a poor decision against 0-blitz, the Patriots’ first time all game sending six or more rushers. After showing a few 0 looks on earlier third downs but having Harmon bail to play free safety, New England brought them all this time, and Harmon came unblocked up the middle. With no short hot route available, Goff looked to Cooks’ vertical pattern but threw early and without definition, well before the receiver had the chance to turn and find the ball. With eyes on Goff the whole way, the 6-foot Gilmore easily elevated over the 5-foot-10 Cooks for the pick.
It wasn’t all bad from Goff, who made a few outstanding throws in the game. None was better than the 18-yarder to Woods on third-and-6 — one play before McCourty’s miracle break-up — as Goff fired a bullet past Jones’ tight man coverage despite Trey Flowers barreling into his face.
But the missed opportunities were crushing, especially in a low-scoring game that was there for the taking.
-Brilliant Belichick does it again
Naturally, Belichick deserves plenty of credit for Goff’s struggles.
His game plan was geared toward exposing the quarterback’s weaknesses by shutting down the run game and taking away easy play-action completions.
Up front, the Patriots used primarily five- and six-man fronts — with only one linebacker off the ball — and played aggressively uphill against the run. Extra men on the line created more single blocks, and penetration forced cutbacks into the waiting arms of other defenders. Belichick also employed various run blitzes and gap exchanges to distort the Rams’ zone-blocking assignments. Neither Todd Gurley nor C.J. Anderson found much daylight, with 57 yards on 17 carries between them (16 of which came on one play).
As we suspected in our preview, Belichick followed the lead of Matt Patricia’s Lions (and other teams that gave the Rams fits late in the regular season) by playing plenty of Cover-4 on early downs. The deep zones combined to double-team many of the Rams’ deep route combinations off play-action, limiting explosive plays. Goff wound up holding the ball, checking down, throwing it away or forcing it into coverage, as he did on Dont’a Hightower’s dropped interception to open the second half.
A better showing from New England’s offense would have forced Los Angeles to throw even more, but the Rams still wound up in plenty of obvious passing situations, putting all of the burden on Goff.
That’s exactly what Belichick wanted, and he made the 24-year-old miserable with an endless array of stunts, twists and blitzes, exactly like he did against Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game. None used more than five rushers — until the 0-blitz call on Gilmore’s interception — and many required only four. Hightower and Kyle Van Noy alternated between leading stunts and looping around the slants of defensive linemen, leaving the Rams’ highly touted offensive line helpless as it tried to pick up the weaving rushers.
The Patriots ultimately racked up four sacks and 12 QB hits, giving them eight and 21, respectively in the final two playoff games. This from a defense that had only 30 sacks (tied second fewest in the NFL) and 100 QB hits in the entire regular season.
The suddenly terrifying pass rush was just another example of Belichick’s uncanny chameleon-like qualities, shaping his defenses to fit the opponent and deliver in critical moments.
—David DeChant, Field Level Media