SI's NFL expert weighs in on the old dynasty versus the revolutionary new guard
THE PATRIOTS' dynasty started with Bill Belichick stifling the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf offense in Super Bowl XXXVI. Seventeen years later he faces another prolific Rams O, this one led by wunderkind Sean McVay, whose system is defined by condensed formations. McVay doesn't use wide receivers so much as he does tight receivers, with Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds aligning just a few yards outside of L.A.'s tackles.
The benefits: This puts receivers close to one another so their routes crisscross and intertwine, creating traffic for man defenders and reducing the leverage in zone. And, since each route-runner lines up far from the sideline, he always has a two-way go. Above all, though, the tighter alignment enhances blocking for the ground game—and in McVay's scheme, which is predicated on designs that all start out looking like the same thing but that can go in any number of directions, a receiver's run blocking is almost as crucial as his pass catching. Drawing on the outside-zone-run designs that the Broncos made famous in the '90s, McVay has created a lethal play-action game, with receivers so meticulous in their spacing and timing that Jared Goff has become one of the NFL's best anticipation passers.
Can the Patriots disrupt McVay's machinations? Heading into SB XXXVI, Belichick realized much of the Rams' aerial assault hinged on flex tailback Marshall Faulk, so the coach rolled out a "bull's-eye" tactic, with D-ends and outside 'backers violently jamming Faulk when he ran routes. It would be a reasonable bet that Belichick takes a similar approach in SB LIII, using his edge defenders to jam L.A.'s tightly aligned receivers. That could wreck the Rams' timing on passes while congesting the edges against the run. Yes, this would de-emphasize New England's pass rush, which has been strong this postseason. But the Rams' play-action designs will blunt the rush anyway.
Disrupting L.A.'s outside-zone designs might turn McVay into an impatient play-caller. So, too, could the Patriots' ability to control time of possession by keeping the ball on the ground. With an interior O-line that has dominated during the playoffs, and with the rising inside running tandem of fullback James Develin and rookie tailback Sony Michel, New England has one of football's best power-rushing attacks. It was featured heavily on Sunday against a Chiefs defense that allowed 5.0 yards per carry in 2018. The only team with a worse rate this year? The Rams, at 5.1.
As we were reminded during the Pats' win at K.C., Tom Brady can still throw, too. When he was with the Broncos, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips schemed up a defeat of Brady in the 2015 AFC championship game, but that Denver D had better edge rushers and more physical cover corners than L.A.'s. The Patriots should have no trouble moving the ball. If they keep the Rams' offense below 30 points, they'll hoist their sixth Lombardi Trophy.