FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots coaching staff have begun the process of game planning for the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, and one of the intriguing subplots will be how they choose to defend head coach Sean McVay’s high-flying offense.
Arguably the greatest strength of the Patriots’ defense is the ability to take away what an opponent does best. But what the Rams do best seems to change on a week-to-week basis, which adds to the Patriots’ already-formidable challenge.
“They switch things up a lot, they just do it with the same players,” Belichick said Tuesday. “That’s what makes them so good – everybody can do everything.”
Added defensive line coach Brendan Daly: “It’s an offense that’s very balanced, versatile; they’re good at a number of different things. They present a lot of problems, both with their personnel and scheme.”
One of the first goals for Patriots players as they return to Gillette Stadium on Wednesday for the first official meeting specific to the Rams will be to become more familiar with their personnel. It’s a team and scheme they don’t know well.
Then ultimately, the coaches will need to determine where best to allocate their resources on defense.
Will it be extra attention to speedy receiver Brandin Cooks? The Patriots obviously know Cooks (80 receptions in the regular season) well from having him on their team in 2017, but he’s not the only productive player at the position, which also includes Robert Woods (team-high 86 catches) and Josh Reynolds (29).
Or perhaps more focus will be on the running game, led by Todd Gurley II (coming off a poor NFC Championship Game) and C.J. Anderson, the latter of whom has provided a big spark since joining the team in mid-December?
Meanwhile, tight ends Gerald Everett (33 receptions, 3 TDs) and Tyler Higbee (24 catches, 2 TDs) might not jump off the stat sheet, but if the NFC title game is any indication, the Patriots will see plenty of them, too. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Everett played 47 snaps in the game, while the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Higbee was on for 37 and had a big touchdown grab.
Then, of course, there is quarterback Jared Goff and determining how best to make him uncomfortable.
The Patriots did a commendable job in the AFC Championship Game against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, highlighting his knack for extending plays inside and outside the pocket as something they made a top priority to combat. Goff, who completed 65 percent of his passes in the regular season with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, isn’t as elusive as Mahomes.
So as Belichick, playcaller Brian Flores and the defensive staff craft a plan, one thing is clear after what they did against the Chiefs: They won’t hesitate to turn to any player on the roster.
One of the underreported stories of the victory was how the Patriots relied on Jonathan Jones, their No. 4 cornerback, and Keion Crossen, a seventh-round rookie cornerback from Western Carolina who had hardly played on defense all season, as key pieces to help limit dangerous Tyreek Hill to just one catch.
Why those two?
“Speed’s a part of it, no question. Keion and Jon Jones, those are two of our fast guys,” Belichick said in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI. “You have to have speed to keep up with speed. That was definitely part of it.”
The Patriots also had safety Devin McCourty over the top of Hill for extended stretches, as he provided support to Jones and Crossen in the tough matchup. Then they treated tight end Travis Kelce (just three catches for 23 yards and a TD) like a receiver, which meant they didn’t shy away from having cornerbacks matched up against him.
The defensive plan reflected well on the Patriots’ coaching brainpower and how they utilize the varied skill sets of their players in different ways on a weekly basis.
And, of course, it reflects well on the players’ ability to execute those ever-evolving plans.
Now comes a different challenge with the balanced and explosive Rams.