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Rams defense committed to stopping Pats' run game

While the world focuses on how Los Angeles can pressure and slow a quick-triggered Tom Brady, Rams defenders are zeroed in on first stopping the New England Patriots' deadly rushing attack.

"I think first and foremost you want to stop the run," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said of slowing the Patriots' offense. "Make them a one-dimensional team, where they have to pass the ball. Hopefully, from that particular standpoint, we've got a great set of DBs, secondary and linebackers and whatnot. And it's our job to either get balls tipped or knock the quarterback down or whatever it may be to get those turnovers and eliminate them from moving the ball down the field."

The Rams' run defense has done an about-face during the playoffs.

During the regular season, L.A. ranked 23rd in the NFL, allowing 122.3 yards per game on the ground, and dead-last in the league in yards per carry allowed, 5.1. The only team to allow more yards per carry than the Rams in a season (5.1) and make the Super Bowl was the 2006 Colts (5.3) -- won Super Bowl XLI.

In two postseason games, L.A. has smothered Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing just 49.0 rushing yards per game, on 21.5 carries, and a minuscule 2.3 yards per tote.

The difference for Rams defenders has been attention to detail.

"I think it's a thing where we've always been capable of stopping the run, we were just inconsistent with it," linebacker Mark Barron told NFL.com. "But I think right now we have a lot of guys that believe in each other and we trust in each other more than we ever have at this point in the season."

In the postseason, L.A. stacked the box, filling gaps that were otherwise open during the regular season, and Suh and Aaron Donald have been masterful at squeezing holes at the line of scrimmage. The Rams have sealed off previously devastating interior runs. L.A. allowed 4.8 yards per rush inside the tackles in the regular season (third-most in NFL). In the postseason, they've given up just 3.0 YPC on interior carries -- a lower figure than any team allowed in the regular season.

"It's no different than what we plan to do with any other team," Ethan Westbrook told NFL.com of facing the Patriots' run game. "You study the run offense, who they've got in, formations and whatnot, and just try to capitalize on that. Just try to pack as many people where they want to go, so they're not able to go there every time."

The Pats' run game, however, brings a different beast. While Brady garners the deserved overwhelming attention, New England has been at its best this season when pounding away on the ground.

The Patriots can utilize a diverse three-headed backfield with rookie Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead. Fullback James Devlin also brings a bruising, gap-bursting blocking element. The multiple-back formations make New England difficult to corral. According to Next Gen Stats, the Patriots have used two-plus RB personnel groupings on 37.8 percent of plays this season (second-highest in NFL) and have scored 22 TD in these groupings (most in NFL).

The Pats' diverse ground attack utilized each back in a unique way to puncture defenses.

"I feel like that's kind of what they've always done," Barron said of the Patriots' attack. "They've always used their personnel wisely. They've got a good trio of backs so they're using them, they're putting them to work. You could say it's kind of old-school physical football type of game."

Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner noted the way the Patriots' offense has evolved makes it dangerous because they can switch up at any moment.

"It's hard, I've seen the Patriots from watching the film over the course of the season transition from three different offenses," he told NFL.com. "Early on they were attacking guys with the passing game. Then when you look at their season, how they were able to get the ball to James White in the run-game and get him one-on-one with safeties and linebackers. And now you see Sony Michel, the way he's toting the ball with the gap scheme, with the way they're getting gaps open for him. So it's like 'how do you prepare for these guys?' You just learn their talent, their skill sets and that's the only thing you can go off."

Specifically slowing Michel has become a problem for defenses, particularly on inside runs -- a place where the Rams struggled during the regular season. Since Week 16, on inside the tackle runs, Michel has gobbled up 337 rushing yards on 68 carries with five touchdowns and 20 first downs.

When Michel is on the field he's likely getting the ball, or it's a fake.

According to Next Gen Stats, the Patriots have run on 76.5 percent of plays with Michel on the field this season (highest run percent with a skill player on the field, minimum 300 snaps). When both Michel and Devlin are on the field together, the run rate jumps to 84.2. Per Pro Football Focus, New England has either run or faked a run on a whopping 91.9 percent of snaps with Michel on the field -- used play action on 22.6 percent of dropbacks without Michel.

The biggest danger for the Rams in selling out to stop the Patriots run: Becoming vulnerable to Tom Brady's lethal arm.

The Rams allowed a 132.9 passer rating versus play action in the 2018 campaign, highest in the NFL. Barron noted that the linebackers and safeties must be constantly cognizant of play-action passes from Brady.

"Us as linebackers we've just got to make sure we're smart and have some awareness and read our keys and have great eyes," he said. "As a defensive player there are just things that will tell you whether it's play-action or not, whether that's the linemen, or it can be anything, a specific formation you pick up on, you've just got to be disciplined and have great eyes."

If the Rams second-level defenders sneak too far up, Brady will kill them with crossers over the middle and quick strikes.

"We have a big trust on this defense. So you know Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler, we're expecting those guys to handle that along with Mark Barron and Corey Littleton, and we can focus on the pass," Joyner said. "Because if you get nosy as a secondary guy in the run-game, Brady will eat you alive."

To slow the Patriots' potent run attack, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips must trust his defensive backs in man-to-man situations so he can commit more bodies to the box. One thing the veteran DC knows is whatever scheme he deploys in the Super Bowl he won't deceive Brady long.

"You don't fool the great ones, you've just got to outplay them," Phillips said.

Outplaying Brady first starts by the Rams caging New England's ground attack.

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