At the end of a dour Super Bowl in Atlanta only a mother could love, it really shouldn't have been a surprise that Bill Belichick was the one standing triumphant.
Last year, Tom Brady produced what was arguably the greatest single performance in Super Bowl history, only for Belichick's defense to get run over by Eagles backup Nick Foles. On Sunday, with Brady struggling en route to his worst passing performance in a title game, Belichick's defense saved the day. The Patriots delivered Belichick's masterpiece in their 13-3 win over the Rams.
What we saw from the Patriots on Sunday night was the best defensive performance we have ever seen in a Super Bowl.
I don't say that as hyperbole. To start, the only other time a team has allowed just three points in the Super Bowl was when the Cowboys defeated the Dolphins 24-3 in 1971. Those Dolphins scored 22.5 points per game during the regular season, while Sean McVay's Rams were up at 32.9 points per contest. The Pats allowed the Rams just 9.1 percent of their scoring average, the best mark in Super Bowl history:
You might argue that we're rewarding the Patriots for not allowing a late garbage-time score, as was the case when the 1985 Pats scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to shorten Chicago's lead to 44-10 in Super Bowl XX. That's true. The other side of the coin, though, is that the Patriots' defense couldn't simply pin its ears back and rush the quarterback all game. They weren't up against Steve Grogan.
They had to come up with stops drive after drive to win against the Rams, who were the second-best offense in the second-highest scoring season in NFL history. Scoring 13 points against the Rams, as the Patriots did Sunday, would have earned a team a 1-17 record against the Rams in the 2018 season. The only time Los Angeles failed to hit 13 points was when the Bears held them to six in Week 14, but Chicago was the much-celebrated best defense in football. The Patriots ranked 16th in defensive DVOA and had just allowed 31 points in the second half to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
McVay, who admitted after the game that he "simply got outcoached," never found a solution. His offense slowly suffocated throughout the game. The same Rams team that bragged about its physicality after running all over the Cowboys in the divisional round produced just two first downs on 18 rushing attempts. Jared Goff and the Los Angeles passing attack averaged just 4.7 yards per dropback, with an unsung Patriots pass rush sacking Goff four times and knocking him down on 12 occasions. An offense that made it to the red zone a league-high 80 times during the regular season failed to make it inside the Patriots' 20-yard line even once Sunday.
To me, it topped the two most famous Belichick game plans of all time. The 2001 Greatest Show on Turf Rams managed to score 17 points and rack up 26 first downs on the Patriots, who won Super Bowl XXXVI thanks to big plays. Ty Law took an errant Kurt Warner throw to the house for a pick-six. The Pats recovered a Ricky Proehl fumble at midfield and scored their lone offensive touchdown before halftime. Jeff Wilkins missed a 52-yard field goal in the first half, and the Rams had five drives that went to or past the 50-yard line that resulted in zero points. This defensive performance was more consistently dominant.
Belichick's game plan as the Giants' defensive coordinator against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV resides in the Hall of Fame, but again, this showing should join it. Belichick sacrificed his run defense to stifle Jim Kelly, and Thurman Thomas subsequently ran for 135 yards and a touchdown. The Bills still managed to get into position for a 47-yard field goal that would have won the game, only for Scott Norwood to push his kick wide in a 20-19 nailbiter.
Those performances were legendary, but the win in Super Bowl LIII surpasses them in the pantheon of brilliant defensive game plans from Belichick, with credit also going to defensive coordinator and future Dolphins coach Brian Flores. So, how did the Patriots pull it off?
How Belichick, Flores and Patricia stopped the Rams
You might note that one of the coaches in that subhead isn't on the Patriots' payroll anymore. "We had to put together something that would neutralize the running game and their big play-action passes on early downs," Bill Belichick said to ESPN's Steve Young after the game. "We felt like if we could make them drive it and earn it, similar to what the Lions did to them," he added, "... we would have a chance to get them off the field on third down."
What Belichick said shouldn't be a surprise. If you read my preview on the game, I suggested that the Patriots were going to focus on stopping the outside zone and taking away play-action, just as Lions head coach (and former Patriots defensive coordinator) Matt Patricia emphasized in Week 13 against the Rams. Goff finished 5-of-9 for 68 yards on play-action passes, with Belichick forcing him to try to win the Super Bowl as a conventional dropback passer.
Where I was surprised, though, was with how the Patriots built their coverages. The Lions played more zone against the Rams than they had in their prior games, particularly by using more quarters (or Cover 4) shells. I figured that the Patriots, who have much better cornerbacks than Detroit, would still rely heavily on man coverage to try to stop the Rams and their endless series of stacks and bunches.
I was wrong. As McVay noted after the game, the Patriots played plenty of zone coverage throughout the game, including quarters looks on early downs. Quarters helped the Patriots keep the intentions and depths of their safeties disguised before the snaps, while simultaneously allowing New England to flood the box with defenders to stop the run. The Pats used what amounted to a 5-1 over front with Patrick Chung as a strongside linebacker to try to penetrate into the backfield against outside zone. Here's a play -- animation courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats -- where we see both the over front and quarters coverage behind, with Dont'a Hightower dropping into coverage and knocking away the dig route to Josh Reynolds:
Things got more complicated when Chung went down with an arm injury in the third quarter, which cost the Patriots both a veteran communicator and a versatile starting safety. Duron Harmon took Chung's place, and the Patriots subsequently were forced to play more conservative coverage concepts. When they did play man, the Pats again surprised by generally sticking Stephon Gilmore one-on-one against Brandin Cooks, with Robert Woods doubled by Jonathan Jones and a safety.
On third down, the Patriots tormented Goff and McVay with stunts and twists to throw off their pass blocking while preventing Goff, McVay and center John Sullivan from diagnosing where pressure was going to come from before the snap. Teams that load up on twists often struggle to keep contain or leave an obvious running lane open for the opposing quarterback, but the Patriots did an excellent job of getting pressure against the interior of the Rams' line (particularly guard Austin Blythe) while simultaneously closing down Goff when he bootlegged out of the pocket. Goff was 2-of-3 passing for 2 yards and two sacks when he waggled to the sidelines.
Overall, the Patriots were wildly productive when they threw extra defensive backs on the field. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, the Pats posted a 45 percent success rate on defense with four or five defensive backs on the field. Their dime package, though, had a dominant game. On 20 snaps, the Pats racked up three sacks and held Goff to a dismal line: 6-of-16 for 60 yards and an interception. Fifteen of those 20 snaps were regarded as successful plays for the Patriots' defense in terms of keeping the Rams from getting on schedule, good for a 75 percent success rate.
McVay took the blame after the loss for not adapting or adjusting his playcalling, and you can certainly wonder whether the Rams should have tried different things. It seems like they could have used late motion before the snap to try to take advantage of a static Patriots defense and thrown bubble screens to try to gain a numbers advantage and/or force the Pats out of quarters. The Falcons, who shared some similarities under Kyle Shanahan to these Rams in terms of their outside zone emphasis, had success running the crack toss against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and the Rams could have used that to set up screens.
At some point, the Rams might have been better off force-feeding Todd Gurley II; they ran the ball just once on 20 snaps against the Pats' dime personnel grouping, which New England was comfortable running on first-and-10 and third-and-2. The Rams went with 11 personnel on more than 78 percent of their dropbacks, but for the second week in a row, they were more effective getting a second tight end on the field with 12 personnel. The Rams posted a 40 percent success rate with their traditional three-wideout set, but that jumped to 54 percent with Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee on the field.
The Rams eventually got some offense going in the third quarter. Goff made two great throws, including a picture-perfect 18-yard pass to Woods on third-and-7, to get into field goal range. The Rams got their one big chance of the game when the Patriots badly blew a coverage and left Cooks wide open running up the seam on a Yankee concept, only for Goff to belatedly recognize his good fortune and give Jason McCourty, who played every snap on Sunday, enough time to find work and knock away the pass.
A beautiful Pats pass rush subsequently limited the Rams to a field goal when Hightower got inside Blythe for a sack. It was a critical play, given that Goff wasn't able to find a wide-open C.J. Anderson for a checkdown that would have moved the chains:
The Rams had to punt on their next drive after a questionable holding call on Sullivan wiped out a 13-yard Gurley run, but after the Patriots scored a touchdown, the Rams drove down the field with a screen to Cooks and a pick play that freed up Reynolds to convert third-and-9 over the middle. On the next play, Goff dropped a perfect ball over Gilmore for what could have been a touchdown pass to Cooks, only for Harmon to jar the ball loose with a hit.
On the next play, Flores dared Goff to do it again by sending a six-man blitz against six Rams blockers with Hightower as an underneath robber and the four defensive backs in quarters behind. A panicked Goff rushed his dropback and made another throw toward Cooks, but while Goff's pass needed to be deep and toward the sideline to give Cooks a chance, his throw was badly short and amounted to a fair catch for Gilmore.
It's worth noting that Belichick and Flores didn't pull this off with a bunch of superstars in their prime outside of Gilmore, who had an inconsistent game before his interception. Hightower, Trey Flowers and Devin McCourty are homegrown talents, but Belichick the executive has also found useful talent on the cheap. Jason McCourty was acquired for a swap of sixth- and seventh-round picks when the Browns were about to cut him. Kyle Van Noy, who had a monster game with a sack and three knockdowns, was the product of a nearly identical swap with the Lions. Jones and J.C. Jackson were undrafted free agents. There was no Lawrence Taylor or Ty Law on the field for the Pats. No matter. This was the signature defensive performance from the greatest defensive coach in the history of football.
Julian Edelman to the rescue
Of course, the guy on the opposite sideline nearly had his own signature performance. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips dialed up a brilliant game plan, as Aaron Donald & Co. flummoxed Brady for most of the game. The nonexistent folks who supposedly were counting out Brady throughout the season nearly got to raise their straw hands in the air and celebrate their victory, only for the Rams' pass rush to finally tire just as Josh McDaniels found a way to unlock the defense.
As Tony Romo described on the CBS broadcast, Phillips did an excellent job of building his coverages to show man coverage to Brady before the snap before playing like zone afterward, or vice versa. It's difficult to confuse Brady at age 41, but he was absolutely flummoxed on a number of snaps. One trick came on the interception that ended the opening drive, when Brady read man coverage before the snap, then found out just as he threw that the Rams were in zone and playing a form of trap coverage, with Aqib Talib over the top and Nickell Robey-Coleman underneath. The slot corner broke outside on the throw to Chris Hogan and tipped away the ball, with Cory Littleton catching the tip for an interception.
During the first half, Brady simply didn't look comfortable with the pressure or looks he saw, especially on third downs. The Pats ran the ball on third-and-8 to set up Stephen Gostkowski's missed field goal. Brady threw away a third-and-5 pass under pressure from Donald. Early checkdowns to Gronkowski and James White didn't give those receivers much of a chance of turning upfield for a first down. Cordarrelle Patterson came up a yard short of the sticks on third-and-10, and when the Pats went for it on fourth-and-1, excellent coverage from the Rams forced Brady to try to hit an impossible window to a diving Gronk.
The one thing the Patriots did have working in the first half was Julian Edelman. My preview identified covering the slot as the biggest point of weakness for the Rams before the game, and for much of this contest, it ended up as their only point of weakness. The Rams surprisingly started the game with Talib traveling across the formation and into the slot to cover Edelman, but Edelman eventually just went over to Talib's side of the field and tortured him out of a reduced split. In the first half, Brady was 7-of-8 for 93 yards on throws to Edelman (with the one incompletion essentially an uncatchable throwaway) and 8-of-17 for 67 yards throwing to everyone else.
The Rams eventually started moving Marcus Peters around the formation to try to cover Edelman, and while he got away with a couple of holding or illegal contact calls, it was a better solution than Talib. The Pats tried to target Peters' propensity for jumping routes with fades and his struggles tackling by isolating him in space, but the former Chiefs star generally held his own on deeper throws. With Donald & Co. getting steady pressure on Brady, the Patriots had six drives in the first half break into Los Angeles' side of the field with only three points to show for it.
The play that won the Super Bowl ... three times in a row
The eventual breakthrough for the Patriots came with another concept I wrote about extensively in my preview: using James Develin to dictate mismatches in the slot against Los Angeles' base defense. The Pats came out in their 21 personnel (2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE) with Edelman in the slot on the first play of the game and got a 13-yard run out of Sony Michel for a first down, but the run defense that swallowed up the Cowboys and Saints showed up and bullied the Patriots at the line of scrimmage for most of this one.
The game-winning drive, though, required McDaniels to get even heavier. He dialed up a creative play-action look to start the drive out of 21 personnel, with Gronkowski blocking for a moment before turning upfield on a wheel route past a leveraged Samson Ebukam for a first down.
The Pats then brought in Dwayne Allen and ran three consecutive plays out of 22 personnel, with two backs and two tight ends on the field. On each of the plays, they split out wide Develin and a halfback (either Michel or Rex Burkhead), where they were covered by Peters and Talib, L.A.'s two best cover corners. That left Gronkowski, Allen and Edelman matched up on the interior against linebackers and safeties and allowed the Patriots to run one of their favorite plays.
Hoss Y-Juke has been a staple of the Patriots going back through the early days of this dynasty, so it's not exactly a secret that Phillips wouldn't have been prepared to see. You can see a breakdown of Hoss Y-Juke here, but it's remarkably simple. The "Hoss" call means you're getting hitch routes from the outside receivers, while the slot receivers run seam routes. Y-Juke calls for the third receiver from the outside, who is almost always Edelman, to run an option route against an overmatched linebacker.
The Patriots ran Hoss Y-Juke three times in a row. The Rams stayed in their base defense all three times, and the Patriots ripped them apart. On the first of the three plays, with Edelman matched up in the slot against Littleton, he ran the juke route for 13 yards and a first down.
The Patriots came back to the line and motioned out Burkhead before throwing him a hitch against Peters for 7 yards. On the third snap, the Rams must have known what was coming, but it didn't matter. They tried to disguise where their five-man pressure was coming from by sending Littleton toward Gronk in coverage at the snap, but Brady lofted in a perfect pass for a 29-yard catch. One play later, Michel plunged in for the only touchdown of the game.
It takes a unique set of circumstances for Hoss Y-Juke to thrive, but it's the perfect play for the Patriots. You need running backs who are viable threats to catch the ball. You need tight ends with the athleticism to stretch the field vertically and make plays out of the slot. You also need a quarterback capable of making a smart decision quickly out of an empty backfield.
I'm surprised the Patriots didn't motion Develin out wide more frequently. One first-half snap with him split out yielded a rep for Edelman in the slot against Ebukam and an easy completion, although two other short throws were quickly closed down or dropped. The Patriots did rack up 67 yards on 15 rushing attempts out of 21 personnel before the fourth quarter, so the running game with Develin in had been competent. It's possible that the Patriots didn't think Brady would have enough time to make his reads and get the ball out in an empty set before the Rams' pass rush tired, and indeed, Donald & Co. didn't deter the Pats from running Hoss Y-Juke three times in a row.
After the Gilmore interception, the Pats took over with 4:17 left and a chance to seal the game. The Rams had a reputation during the season for indiscipline within their run defense in an attempt to make plays, and while they were structurally sound for the vast majority of the Super Bowl, they finally cracked.
On the second play, Ndamukong Suh fired across the face of a guard to make a play but ran himself out of the action. The Pats briefly doubled Donald, moved him off the ball, and ran right into his gap, with a pulling Joe Thuney kicking out Mark Barron. Marcus Cannon essentially helped block three Rams, as he chipped Donald, blocked Littleton at the second level, and shielded an overly aggressive John Johnson in the process. Michel rode this beautiful blocking for a 26-yard gain.
Three plays later, it was Develin's turn. The Pats brought in Burkhead and ran directly at Dante Fowler Jr., who tried to stunt inside and was subsequently helped into the trash by Trent Brown. Lamarcus Joyner came down from safety and got into a three-point stance before blitzing into the backfield at the snap, but a motioning Gronkowski dispatched him with ease. The Rams scraped Barron over the top to try to seal the edge, but Develin laid him out at the point of attack. Talib was the unblocked defender, but Burkhead's cutback and the aftermath of Develin's ferocious block took the cornerback totally out of the play. The former Bengals backup cut upfield and outran Robey-Coleman before Peters made a touchdown-saving tackle. The 26-yard run put the Patriots in field goal range, and while they failed to convert a subsequent third-and-1, Gostkowski hit a 41-yarder to start the celebrations for a sixth time in New England.