The battle between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII could produce fireworks on the field, with the combatants lighting up the scoreboard. I'm digging into the All-22 Coaches Film to come up with five ways each team could win the Lombardi Trophy. Here's my take on what the Rams need to do:
1) Give the ball to Todd Gurley early and often.
The Rams' RB1 is not only an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands, but he a prolific point scorer, having led the league in scrimmage touchdowns and rushing scores in each of the last two seasons. If that's not enough to sell his value, Gurley ranked second in touches per game (22.5), rush yards per game (89.4) and scrimmage yards per game (130.8). Moreover, the Rams are unbeaten when he gets 15-plus touches (11-0), 75-plus rushing yards (9-0) and 125-plus scrimmage yards (7-0).
Given all those numbers, it is imperative for McVay to put the ball in his best player's hands, allowing Gurley to set the tone for the offense and create opportunities for others on the complementary plays. The fly sweeps are effective because defenders key on Gurley plunging into the line. The reigning Offensive Player of the Year also provides the bait to lure defenders to the line of scrimmage on play-action passes. And he is a key figure in the passing game out of the backfield on swings, screens and checkdowns.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe the Rams need to give Gurley the ball on off-tackle runs with jet-sweep/reverse action from a wide receiver. The flash movement creates hesitation for defenders, leading to bigger creases inside on zone runs. In addition, Los Angeles should consider getting the ball to Gurley on a few fly sweeps from empty formations to take advantage of his speed and explosiveness around the corner. McVay could put Gurley and C.J. Anderson on the field at the same time with No. 30 designated as the fly sweeper, thus putting Patriots defenders in a bind when diagnosing the sweep/inside-zone combination. Although the Rams haven't featured both backs simultaneously to this point, I wouldn't put it past McVay using a unique tactic on the biggest stage in football to throw off New England's approach.
Furthermore, I believe the Rams' 1-2 punch at running back should actually enable Gurley to be a more important part of the game plan, because he should be fresher and more explosive in the fourth quarter. Sure, Anderson's emergence has led to some questions about which runner is a better fit in the offense during this playoff run, but I see it as McVay understanding the strengths of his best players and putting each of his runners in an ideal situation to succeed. Anderson is a downhill runner adept at finding creases on inside-zone runs, while Gurley is at his best attacking the perimeter on off-tackle plunges. When used as a tandem, they wear down opponents and allow the Rams to control the game with their offense (see: Divisional Round vs. Dallas).
In the passing game, the Rams would be wise to use Gurley on a variety of screens to put him in prime position to deliver explosive plays on the perimeter. He is a patient route runner from the backfield and his overall explosiveness will give the Patriots problems in the open field. Gurley is faster and more athletic than the Patriots' linebackers; his playmaking ability as a receiver could lead to big plays on high-percentage throws for the quarterback. If McVay wants to get his offense untracked early, he has to put the ball in his best player's hands and let him do his thing.
2) Attack the Patriots with crossing routes, but have a backup plan.
New England is known for throwing surprise looks at its opponents, but it is hard to imagine Bill Belichick and Brian Flores deviating from the man-coverage tactics that have been staples in their defensive game plans this season. The Patriots played some form of man coverage on 54.6 percent of their defensive snaps -- the highest rate in the NFL by nearly seven percentage points. Moreover, the Pats are holding opponents to a 53.7 percent completion rate (first in the NFL), 6.8 yards per attempt (third) and an 82.4 passer rating (fifth) in man coverage.
With that in mind, the Rams have to enter Super Bowl LIII with a game plan specifically designed to defeat man coverage. New England's sticky coverage tactics help prevent opposing quarterbacks from moving the ball down the field on "layups" (quick passes and screens) and give the pass rush time to get home. The Pats have posted a 33.5 percent hurry rate (third-best in the NFL) with a 7.0 percent sack rate (14th) in man coverage. In zone? Those numbers plummet to a 19.7 percent hurry rate (30th) and a 2.6 percent sack rate (31st).
Still, the Patriots' man-heavy tactics play to the strengths of Goff and his speedy receivers. Despite completing just 59.2 percent of his pass attempts against man, No. 16 averages 9.1 yards per attempt with a 10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 104.1 passer rating versus the coverage.
Studying the All-22 tape, I see that the Rams' passing game features a variety of crossing routes at short (fewer than 10 yards) and intermediate (10-20 yards) depths. These catch-and-run concepts enable the receiver to get the ball on the move, leading to explosive plays when opponents aren't able to hold up in 1-on-1 coverage. Goff has crushed opponents on crossing routes this season, completing 27 of 41 passes for 479 yards with a touchdown, equaling a 113.8 passer rating. Considering he has targeted a receiver on a crossing route on 20.9 percent of his attempts (second-most in the NFL), the Rams' QB1 is at his best when he's hitting Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds on drags and deep-overs.
If Belichick and Flores sense they're unable to keep the ball in front of the defense, the Patriots could play more zone-based coverage and force Goff to beat them with precise throws into tight windows. In early December, the Lions and Bears stymied the Rams' QB1 into a pair of dismal performances using zone-heavy game plans that resulted in No. 16 posting a 48 percent completion rate with a 1:5 TD-to-INT ratio. Given those numbers, the Pats could employ more zone coverage than expected and dare Goff to play a dink-and-dunk game from the pocket, particularly given that he posted a 10:8 TD-to-INT ratio and a 94.8 passer rating against zone coverage this season. If that's the case, the Rams can use pre-snap motion (jet/fly-sweep motion) and backfield deception (play-action) to create bigger windows at intermediate depth. The Rams' deep in-breaking routes (curls, digs and overs) off play-action could exploit voids created by the Patriots' linebackers overreacting to Gurley's fakes into the line.
3) Load the box and stop the run.
Despite all the adulation being thrown in Tom Brady's direction for getting New England to its ninth Super Bowl in 18 years, this Patriots installment is fueled by an old-school running game that features a three-headed monster in the backfield. Rookie Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead are hammering opponents from a variety of run-heavy formations with 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE and 2 WRs) on the field. Fullback James Develin has really emerged of late as a devastating lead blocker. While the rest of the league has decided spread football is ideal, New England's commitment to a 1980s-type rushing attack has challenged opposing defensive coordinators to pull out their old playbooks to come up with solutions.
Luckily for the Rams, they have a defensive play caller with a ton of experience and a strong reputation for crafting elite units. Wade Phillips runs a traditional 3-4 scheme that's ideally suited to stop the run, with the nose tackle and defensive ends positioned in a variety of alignments to nullify some of the pin-and-pull tactics and power-based runs utilized by teams employing a downhill ground attack.
With a defensive front that features four former first-round picks (Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr.) with the collective size, strength and power to control the point of attack, Phillips has enough weaponry at his disposal to throw a variety of defensive looks to disrupt the Patriots' running game.
Now, I know the Rams surrendered 122.3 rush yards per game (rankings 23rd) and allowed a whopping 5.1 yards per carry (32nd) during the regular season, but they've played their best run-stopping football in the playoffs. Los Angeles has held its two playoff opponents to 49.0 rushing yards per game while allowing just 2.3 yards per carry, making them the only Super Bowl team to hold opponents to fewer than 2.5 yards per carry since the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Against the Patriots, the Rams have to fully commit to stopping the run by employing more eight-man fronts with man coverage on the outside. By utilizing man coverage on early downs, the Rams can drop an extra defender into the box while taking care of the Patriots' dangerous play-action passing game. That means safeties John Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner will need to be factors against the run as extra defenders near the line of scrimmage.
Studying the coaches film from the Rams' playoff games, I see they've used some odd fronts with Cover 0 against run-heavy formations to clog the gaps at the line. This coverage puts the onus on Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters to hold up on the perimeter without help from the safety, and the Rams' corners excel in off coverage and don't require constant assistance from a deep-middle player. If Talib and Peters can win their one-on-one battles on the outside, the Rams can nullify the Patriots' dangerous running game with extra bodies near the line of scrimmage in a variety of eight- and nine-man fronts against 21 personnel.
4) Throw different looks at Tom Brady -- and change them every quarter.
It is hard to confuse a quarterback with nearly two decades of NFL experience, but Phillips needs to pull out all of the stops to throw off the three-time MVP. Brady routinely picks apart opponents who decide to sit in soft zones, but he is equally efficient attacking defenses with blitz-heavy game plans. He knows how to find the weak spots in every coverage and eventually identifies the most vulnerable area when given sufficient time in the pocket.
That said, Brady can be baited into mistakes when opponents are able to generate consistent pass-rush pressure with solid coverage in the back end. This is how Phillips' unit in Denver succeeded against TB12 -- and he will need to get a similar effort from his star-studded Rams defense to walk away with another ring.
The Rams must have a plan to stop Brady from attacking the middle of the field at short and intermediate range. The 41-year-old quarterback prefers to throw the ball inside the numbers on in-breaking routes (particularly seams, crossing routes and digs). Interestingly, according to Next Gen Stats, Brady has completed 119 of 166 (71.7 percent) throws inside the numbers at short range, racking up 1,213 yards but also compiling a 7:6 TD-to-INT ratio. When targeting receivers inside the numbers at intermediate range, Brady has completed 50 of 71 passes (70.4 percent) for 933 yards with a 3:3 TD-to-INT ratio. The data certainly suggests TB12 is more efficient throwing over the middle, but he is also prone to interceptions when working inside.
With that in mind, the Rams should enter the game intent on packing the middle of the field with extra bodies to take care of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski running down the seams while also forcing Brady to throw into tight windows. The clever utilization of Cover 1 Robber (safety or linebacker lurks in the middle of the field at 10 yards with a deep safety occupying the post area) should help the Rams muck up Brady's sweet spot and force him to make some throws outside of the numbers. Although Brady boasts an 11:1 TD-to-INT ratio on short and intermediate throws to the outside, he is only completing 63.1 percent (99 of 157) of those throws for 1,030 yards, with that number inflated due to his spectacular efficiency throwing at short range to the right (34 of 45 passes for 260 yards). Considering those numbers, I would expect the Rams to mix in some press coverage to take away the easy throws outside, while varying their man and zone schemes to keep Brady from leaning on crossers and rub routes to attack the middle of the field.
Naturally, Phillips will need to disguise his intentions during the pre-snap phase to prevent TB12 from reading his mail. That means varying how the Rams line up against White when he is aligned out wide and how they want to match up with Gronkowski when he splits out as a quasi-wide receiver in spread formations. If Brady spots a linebacker out wide when No. 28 or No. 87 line up outside of the numbers, he is going to check to a man-beater to exploit an overmatched defender in coverage.
5) Win the kicking game.
The Rams have arguably the most dynamic special teams unit in football. John Fassel's bunch creates game-changing plays through returns, blocks and trick plays, consistently exploiting poorly prepared kicking units with surprise calls. We all saw the Rams change the momentum of the NFC Championship Game with a timely fake punt.
"They block kicks, they return kicks. They have a fast coverage team. They can change field position. Offensively, there's a lot of backup situations based on their kicking game -- put you on a long field."
Belichick certainly understands the challenge of dealing with the Rams' kicking units, but that might not be enough to keep Los Angeles from stealing yards and points in the special teams battle. The Patriots' lack of team speed could make them susceptible to a big return, particularly on a punt. JoJo Natson has four 20-plus-yard punt returns -- and another one of 40-plus yards -- on his 2018 resume. Averaging 10.8 yards per return, No. 19 could be an X-factor for the Rams as a field flipper with the ball in his hands.
Zuerlein could also make a huge difference as a long-distance kicker with incredible range. He connected on 27 of his 31 regular-season attempts, going 4-for-6 from 50-plus yards. Considering he is virtually automatic from 49 yards and in (converting 91 percent of those tries in his career), the Rams will be in scoring position whenever they get around the 30-yard line. If Zuerlein is on his game in Super Bowl LIII, McVay can call plays with the confidence of knowing he can get points even if drives stall in Patriots territory.
Hekker could be the key to the Rams winning the field-position battle, as a "pooch" specialist with a knack for knocking the ball inside the 20-yard line. He excels at pinning opponents deep with coffin-corner kicks, as evidenced by his 21 punts inside the 20-yard line, but he also has the leg to boom it from his own end. With a 46.3-yard average, Hekker is capable of flipping the field with a high-arcing kick that either forces a fair catch or provides the returner with limited room to run.