Behind the O Line: Super Bowl LIII preview

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The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams meet in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX -- or maybe, 15 years from now, this pairing will be a rematch of Super Bowl LIII.

Either way, these are two teams that look somewhat familiar on one sideline (Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still leading the Pats), and vastly different on the other (Sean McVay was a 14-year-old fan in attendance at XXXVI, and Jared Goff doesn't even remember the game). Oddly enough, though, the two squads feature similar top-tier offensive lines.

And since this is Behind the O Line, after all, why not dive into their similarities and their differences, which just might prove to be the difference?

Let's give a tale of the tape to start. Standing in this corner ...

The Rams' strength up front is on the outside. Rob Havenstein leads all Rams linemen in player grade with an 84.3 (third among all tackles), with Andrew Whitworth right behind him at 83.1 (fourth). Guard Rodger Saffold is tied for eighth among all guards at 73.2, but that's a significant difference between him and the aforementioned tackles. Guard Austin Blythe ranks 11th at 71.8, but hasn't allowed a sack all season, tied for fewest among guards. Center John Sullivan is the lone weakness in terms of grade, ranking 31st at 51.7 and last among centers in pressures allowed (37).

New England boasts one of the best interior lines in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus position grades. The Patriots feature the league's best guard in Shaq Mason (grade: 82.7), and center David Andrews is eighth among centers at 70.8. Guard Joe Thuney comes in at 13th with a grade of 70.8, while New England's tackles aren't as good, with Marcus cannon ranking 24th (72.7) and Trent Brown ranking 39th (66.9). Despite these grades, New England is excellent in terms of sacks allowed, allowing a combined total of just eight sacks on the year. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has allowed 13 sacks.

This leads us to the next important point of this matchup, which will become the theme of this preview. Each team's strength matches up fairly well against the opposition's strength. Los Angeles relies on interior defenders Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh to get pressure, with Donald leading the league in that category among players at his position. He'll meet the uber-reliable Mason and Thuney, who each team up well with Andrews to create a formidable interior group. This isn't the NFC title's mismatch between Andrus Peat and Donald. The Rams might have to look elsewhere to generate pressure.

That is a problem, too, because New England is the best in the NFL against edge rushes, per Next Gen Stats. They allow a sub-9 percent pressure rate on the edge, making for a tough go of things for opposing defenses.

The solution then would be to blitz to turn up the pressure, right? Wrong. While New England ranks first in pressures allowed (103) and pressure percentage (17.3), and third in sacks allowed (21), per Next Gen Stats, Tom Brady is also effective when blitzed. Brady ranks seventh in completion percentage, sixth in yards per attempt, fifth in passer rating and first in pressure percentage (allowed by New England linemen) against the blitz, according to Next Gen Stats. This is because New England is the best line in the NFL at passing off rushers, both on stunts and straight rushes, even with additional rushers coming after Brady.

The problem only grows from there for the Rams. Los Angeles ranks dead last in completion percentage and passer rating allowed when blitzing, and 29th in pressure percentage when sending extra rushers. It seems as though adding extra rushers isn't a viable solution to stopping New England, either.

How about the running game? Well, the Patriots are about as balanced as they come. They've gained 1,011 rushing yards on runs to the left (fourth-best in the NFL), and 1,101 yards when running right (again, fourth best in the NFL). They average 4.4 or more yards per rush in each direction. This is because their traditional gap and power schemes are extremely effective, because not only are New England's linemen good in a variety of rushing approaches, but they also benefit from effective blocking on the part of Rob Gronkowski and James Develin.

This speaks to what former Patriot and current Eagle Chris Long said on NFL Network's Super Bowl Live on Wednesday: New England is fantastic at morphing into whatever offense it needs to be to attack an opponent's weaknesses. The Patriots became a ground-pounding machine in the playoffs against the Chargers and Chiefs, and also targeted the running back out of the backfield plenty against the Chargers, who ranked last in the league on such attempts. It produced a resounding win and a thrilling victory that secured yet another conference title.

The Rams' best hope is their bread and butter: zone runs with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, and play action passes out of 11 personnel. Los Angeles ran zone schemes on 50 percent of rushing attempts, the highest percentage of any rushing approach for the Rams. And Goff is excellent in play action, which they do a lot, ranking first in attempts and completions, seventh in yards per attempt, and is tied for 11th in passer rating. The only weakness is completion percentage (35th), which speaks more to Goff's ability to connect with receivers and their ability to consistently get open.

This has become a bit of an issue since the Rams lost Cooper Kupp to injury, but Los Angeles managed to use it well to defeat the Saints. The key will again be targeting Brandin Cooks efficiently and relying on other receivers to make plays in the opportunities afforded to them, and establishing an effective ground game by running behind their versatile line, led by Whitworth, Havenstein and do-everything guard Rodger Saffold, the longest-tenured Ram on the roster.

But can the Rams get to Brady enough to level the playing field, or will they have to air it out to keep up? Los Angeles' worst-case scenario is a game in which New England dominates time of possession and keeps the ball out of Goff's hands, taking away the Rams' best weapon. They'll have to rely on the ground game, which is more predictable than New England's, and pick their spots to take their shots.

Otherwise, they'll have to rely on their defense, which faces a huge challenge in attempting to pressure Brady. That could spell trouble for the upstart Rams, who will have to beat one of the best offensive lines in the NFL while their own premier group watches from the sideline.

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