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 Patriots need to do:
1) Control the tempo.
Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have become masters of "complementary" football, with the coordinators tailoring their game plans to give the team the best chance to win. Depending on the circumstances they're facing, they can speed up the game to wear out the opposing defense, or they can take a "turtle" approach, limiting the total possessions in a game to keep high-powered opposing offenses on the sidelines.
Against Kansas City in the AFC title match, the Patriots went into "turtle" mode, eating up 43:59 of clock time on 94 offensive plays. Thus, they kept the ball away from the ultra-explosive Chiefs offense and limited the number of touches for MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes. The Patriots were able to use this half-court basketball strategy to keep the score down through the first three quarters, despite dynamic skill players Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins occupying prime roles for Kansas City. Consider that, entering the fourth quarter, the Chiefs only managed to score seven points -- or nearly 20 points less than the team averaged in the first three quarters during the regular season (26.9 points).
Facing a Rams squad that scored at least 30 points in 12 regular season games, the Patriots would be wise to operate at a snail's pace to keep Sean McVay's high-flying offense on the sidelines. That's why I would expect to see Brady take a deliberate approach at the line of scrimmage, using a variety of pre-snap motions and shifts to burn time, then taking the snap with fewer than five seconds left on the play clock. With the Patriots also leaning heavily on the running game, the clock will tick, tick, tick away, provided New England owns the line of scrimmage and converts first downs.
2) Let Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead go to work.
The Patriots have quietly shifted from a pass-centric approach fueled by No. 11 and No. 87 to a multi-faceted, ground-and-pound attack sparked by Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead. Given that the Rams allowed 122.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season (23rd in the NFL), the Patriots should aim to pummel L.A. with an assortment of runs, particularly inside runs directed between the tackles.
Since Week 16, the Patriots have run for 735 yards, second only to the Rams. Based on the team's success on the ground in that span, New England should give the ball to No. 26 early and often, to see if he can wear down the defense. Michel has topped the 100-yard mark in three of his last four games, and he's one of five running backs in NFL history with multiple games of 100-plus rushing yards and two-plus rushing touchdowns in a single postseason.
The All-22 Coaches Film reveals that Michel is at his best when operating out of the I-formation with a fullback in front of him -- per Pro Football Focus, Michel is averaging 5.5 yards per rush in the playoffs with two running backs on the field. Considering the Patriots used two-back groupings on 37.8 percent of their offensive snaps this season (the second-highest mark in the NFL) and scored an NFL-best 22 touchdowns in these groupings, the plan should feature a healthy dose of runs with Michel and fullback James Develin on the field at the same time.
Naturally, the Patriots should also use a number of play-action passes with Michel in the game. This would allow them to take advantage of a Rams defense aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage to stop power runs. Per PFF, the Patriots have used play-action on 57 of 87 dropbacks (65.5 percent) with Michel on the field. Given the Rams' dismal efficiency numbers defending play-action passes (on such plays this season, L.A. has allowed a 77.4 percent completion rate, 10.1 yards per attempt, a 14:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 132.9 passer rating), the combination of run and play-action throws could create explosive plays.
The Patriots could also build a plan around White's versatile skills as a playmaker on the perimeter. The fifth-year pro has the most career playoff receptions (53) by a running back since Hall of Fame inductee Thurman Thomas (76), including an NFL-leading 46 receptions over the past three postseasons. As a dynamic route runner with explosive stop-start quickness, White consistently puts defenders in the blender on a variety of option routes out of the backfield, or isolation routes from out wide in empty formations. In addition, White is an outstanding playmaker on screens, with a knack for finding creases in traffic.
The Patriots could exploit the Rams' linebackers in coverage, particularly Cory Littleton, who struggled against Saints RB Alvin Kamara in the NFC Championship Game. Brady can motion White in and out of the backfield to identify the coverage (man or zone) and audible to routes that pit him against Littleton whenever he spots man coverage. Whether using option routes from the backfield or slants and fades from out wide in empty sets, the Patriots could put the squeeze on the Rams' weakest defenders by making White the primary pass catcher in the game plan.
Burkhead is the wild card of the rotation, a change-of-pace back with the capacity to pick up key first downs as a runner or receiver. He could shoulder some of the load that normally goes to Michel or White in the game plan. Against the Rams, No. 34 could serve as the late-game closer in the four-minute offense, or as a sneaky pass catcher out of the backfield. If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels senses the Rams have a great plan against Michel or White, New England could turn to its RB3 to spark the offense in key moments.
3) Stop Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson by any means necessary.
Belichick and Brian Flores will build a defensive game plan designed to force the Rams to play "left-handed" for most of the game, and the Pats will do what they must to take away L.A.'s most dangerous playmakers, particularly running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson. Despite the attention Jared Goff receives as the franchise quarterback, the team MVP for most of the season was Gurley -- until Anderson emerged as a difference-maker in a series of strong performances on the way to Super Bowl LIII.
Anderson signed in December and started in Weeks 16 and 17 while Gurley sat after suffering a knee injury in Week 15. In four games (including playoffs) since bringing Anderson aboard, the Rams are averaging a whopping 193.5 rushing yards per game. This comes after they posted 129.1 rush yards per game (seventh-most) during the first 15 games of the season. The team has also upped its rushing percentage (from 40.8 percent to 55.7 percent) and rushing first downs per game (from 7.4 to 13.0) since Anderson joined the team.
Presuming, of course, that Gurley is healthy (as he claims to be, despite his surprising absence for much of the NFC title game), the Rams are still his team -- No. 30 is the engine that makes the offense go. The fourth-year pro averaged 22.5 touches and 130.8 scrimmage yards in 14 regular-season games, exhibiting exceptional speed, quickness and burst with the ball in his hands. As a long-strider with a smooth gait, Gurley is at his best working on the edges on the stretch and outside-zone plays, but he is also capable of delivering an explosive play on a downhill inside run or a perfectly timed screen on the perimeter. Gurley leads the NFL in scrimmage touchdowns (58, including playoffs) since 2015, and Belichick needs to account for his whereabouts on every play if he wants to slow down the Rams' offense.
Given the way Gurley torches opponents on off-tackle plays, the Patriots must have a plan for defending edge runs, particularly to the offensive left, when he runs behind veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth. Defenders Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower must set the edges on outside runs to force Gurley to cut back into clogged lanes on the inside. Also, the interior defenders need to stay on their feet against the Rams' zone-blocking tactics to eliminate creases at the point of attack.
In addition to utilizing a sound gap-control strategy, the Pats must be aware of the Rams' fly-sweep tactics, especially when Gurley aligns outside as part of an empty formation. If the Patriots utilize a lot of man coverage, their defenders must be disciplined with their eyes and stick with their assigned players -- otherwise, a variety of Rams could spring free for big plays.
Even if Gurley isn't 100 percent, the Patriots had better prepare for Anderson and his bulldozer running style. The Rams' RB2 has rushed for 466 yards since Week 16 (including playoffs), and no player has more rushing yards per game (116.5) and rushing first downs (31) during that span. As a punishing downhill runner with a unique combination of strength, power and light feet, Anderson runs through arm tackles in the hole and consistently finishes his runs falling forward. Whether Anderson is getting the majority of carries in Gurley's place or serving as a change-of-pace back, New England needs to account for him.
The Pats have to get a strong performance from their "inside three" (two defensive tackles and middle linebacker) to eliminate the creases in the middle. If Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Elandon Roberts win their individual battles at the line of scrimmage, the Patriots should have enough bodies in the hole to snuff out the power runs that have hurt the Rams' previous opponents in the tournament.
4) Keep the ball in front of the defense.
The Patriots make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and pass catchers by utilizing an extraordinary amount of man-to-man coverage. Belichick and Flores will eliminate the layups in the passing game by instructing their defenders to play bump-and-run at every turn. According to Pro Football Focus, the Pats were in man coverage on 54.6 percent of their coverage snaps -- that's the highest rate in the NFL (the league average is 31.3 percent). Most importantly, New England holds opponents to a 53.7 percent completion rate when in man coverage (first in the NFL), allowing just 6.8 yards per attempt (third) and a passer rating of 82.4 (fifth).
The unit's success in man coverage has encouraged Belichick and Flores to also mix in some double-team tactics against Tier 1 pass catchers on the perimeter. For instance, the Patriots used variations of Cover 1 Rat (in which the designated pass catcher is referred to as the rat) against Tyreek Hill in the AFC title match, tasking a cornerback with pressing No. 10 at the line of scrimmage, with a safety pushing to Hill as a deep helper. The clever double-team tactics made Hill a non-factor -- he entered the weekend averaging 6.9 touches and 102.2 scrimmage yards per game, but was limited to one catch for 42 yards on three targets -- and forced Patrick Mahomes to go elsewhere with the ball.
To that point, the Patriots might use more press-man coverage, with or without a double-team behind it, against the Rams. They've been so successful with press coverage throughout the season, allowing a completion rate of 39.6 percent and a 50.9 passer rating when aligned in press coverage. Considering New England played some version of press-man on 30.4 percent of coverage snaps, L.A.'s receivers should expect nose-to-nose alignments on Super Sunday.
Here's the one thing that could make Belichick and Flores re-think their customary tactics: Goff has torched man coverage throughout the season (completing 59.2 percent of his passes with 9.1 yards per attempt, a 10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 104.1 passer rating, according to PFF), especially compared to his relatively modest output against zone coverage (a 68.6 percent completion rate, 8.5 pass yards per attempt, a 10:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 94.8 passer rating). Goff has taken advantage of man coverage by targeting crossing routes on 20.9 percent of his attempts against man, completing 65.9 percent of his throws (27 of 41 passes) for 479 yards, a touchdown and a 113.9 passer rating.
With that in mind, the Patriots could switch it up and use a little more zone to force Goff to throw into quick-closing windows against defenders playing with vision on the quarterback. Zone coverage forces receivers on crossing routes to sit down instead of running across the fields. This would reduce some of the big-play opportunities and force Goff to dink-and-dunk the ball down the field.
5) Steal yards and points in the kicking game.
The Patriots know the underrated key to winning games rests with their special teams play. In addition to emphasizing the field-position battle through the way his offensive and defensive play-callers manage the game, Belichick wants his kicking units to flip the field with solid execution. Although New England's special teams ranked just 11th according to football writer Rick Gosselin, the Pats have excelled in key areas to put themselves in prime positions to win games.
According to Gosselin, the Patriots' special teams led the NFL in opponent punting (40.8 yards), blocked kicks (five) and points scored (12), while also ranking second in kickoff returns (27.0 yards), fourth in extra-point percentage (98 percent) and fifth in kickoff starting point (26.3-yard line). Those numbers are significant when considering the importance and impact of creating scoring opportunities, particularly in playoff games, where points are coveted at a premium.
Against Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots stole three points in the third quarter by punting the ball inside the Chiefs' 5-yard line and forcing a punt six plays later from Kansas City's 8-yard line. Julian Edelman returned the punt to the Chiefs' 37-yard line, putting the Patriots in field-goal range before they'd even taken another offensive snap. The subtle field exchange led to three points that allowed the Patriots to control the game.
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots must try to steal an extra possession in a game that could explode into a shootout. New England has to find a way to handle the Rams' dynamic kicking units. Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel is a fearless tactician who routinely utilizes trick plays to change the momentum of the game. Moreover, he is an exceptional coach who gets his kicking units to execute at a high level in big games. I would look for the Patriots to explore a fake-punt opportunity when they see a favorable look against their punt block or safe formations. In addition, I would expect them to use their hockey-style line shifts and hard counts to attempt to bait the Rams into committing a neutral-zone infraction or burning a timeout.
Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson, meanwhile, have the potential to deliver explosive returns when they touch the ball. Don't be fooled by their averages, which don't necessarily reflect their big-play potential -- we've seen both players deliver field-flipping returns throughout their respective careers.
In a clash between a pair of five-star squads, the kicking game could be the deciding factor in Super Bowl LIII.