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SWARMED AND QUARTERED

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Jared Goff and the Rams' offense never found a rhythm against the Pats' defensive wrinkles

FIFTEEN MINUTES after he became a footnote in history, Jared Goff sat at his locker in blue spandex pants, head in his hands, face puffy with emotion. Eventually he got up and went over to veteran center John Sullivan, who was at his locker, fully dressed in street clothes.

Sullivan, 33, is the on-field brain of L.A.'s offense; when he arrived in 2017, then rookie coach Sean McVay would censure him for calling out the defense at practices before others—Goff included—could decipher it. At Sullivan's locker, the two whispered back and forth, Goff describing plays with slow sweeps of his arm; Sullivan, hands in his pockets, nodding patiently.

Goff completed just 19 of 38 passes for an unimpressive 229 yards and, in the final minutes, underthrew a fade to Brandin Cooks that Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore anticipated and easily intercepted. The Rams' high-powered offense punted nine times (season average: 2.68) and sputtered in the 13--3 loss. And so the narrative this offseason will be that the 24-year-old Goff choked on football's grandest stage.

But the Patriots' D presented him with a game plan that few quarterbacks could handle. It was perhaps Bill Belichick's most masterful strategizing since he bested a juggernaut Rams offense in Super Bowl XXXVI by using the unexpected tactic of hitting running back Marshall Faulk every time he released into a route. In Super Bowl LIII, Belichick unveiled another unexpected tactic: quarters coverage, a matchup zone concept in which two outside corners and two deep safeties each patrol one-fourth of the field.

"Playing Cover 4 was unscouted," Sullivan said. "Or it was different from them, let's put it that way." The Rams had struggled against quarters in the regular season, most notably in Week 13, when the Lions deployed it under coach Matt Patricia, the former New England D coordinator who runs a Belichick-style man-to-man scheme. "The game plan unfolded the way we wanted it to," said one Pats defensive assistant. "Our players did a really good job of marrying the rush with the coverage and handling this scheme."

Quarters is usually deployed on passing downs, but the Patriots, just like Detroit, used it on first and second down. That's when L.A.'s passing game, predicated on play-action, is most dangerous. In quarters, the inside safeties can take away the slant and post routes that Goff throws with great anticipation. For good measure, the Pats beefed up their coverage by replacing free safety Duron Harmon with cornerback Jonathan Jones, who had never played safety before.

Because both safeties are back, it's dicey to play quarters against a strong running team such as L.A., which is why Belichick featured another schematic wrinkle: 6-1 fronts. The Pats' outside linebackers crowded the line of scrimmage, taking away the edges that L.A.'s foundational outside-zone runs aim to exploit. This allowed their defensive linemen to penetrate gaps, rather than just clogging them. That disrupted L.A.'s run-blocking cohesion. Even better, it disrupted parts of the Rams' passing game. With no first- and second-down success, they faced a slew of third downs, when the defense no longer had to respect the run. That's when New England unleashed its complex five-man amoeba blitzes.

L.A. had seen those exotic looks from the Pats on film, but the pressures, said Sullivan, "are a different animal when you're actually picking it up as opposed to when you're preparing for it." Goff was sacked four times, including twice by outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The Rams were as arrhythmic on third down as on first and second, and they were ultimately throttled by a modestly talented Pats defense. Afterward, McVay put it succinctly: "I got out-coached."

He's not the first Super Bowl foe Belichick has done that to.