How did this happen? How did a defense that was too slow and lacked talent take on and beat one of the league’s top passing offenses? How did the offense with Brady’s worst supporting cast finally break through against a defense with a line that was said to be too dominant?
Come with me. I’ll show you.
In all seriousness, this post won’t explain all the ways the Patriots were able to find success against the Rams, but I picked out some plays that that I think demonstrate their general approaches on both sides of the ball. Defensively, it revolved around mixing up looks not only in coverage, but along the line of scrimmage. Offensively, it was about taking Aaron Donald and Ndamakong Suh out of the equation to spring big runs and exploiting matchups with their two best offensive weapons in the passing game. They did all of these things spectacularly.
These aren’t necessarily the biggest impact plays, but they are some of my favorites that I pulled together as a representative sample.
The first is the 3rd and 8 on the Rams’ possession right after Tom Brady’s first-quarter interception. Dont’a Hightower and Adrian Clayborn are both lined up to Goff’s right. They’re the guys to look for on this play.
Both Clayborn, who starts in a three-technique (just outside of the guard) as the defensive end and Hightower both make a move upfield, then peel to the inside like they are going to run a stunt around defensive tackle Adam Butler.
A stunt is exactly what Clayborn is doing here. He is freed up because at the same time, middle linebacker Kyle Van Noy goes to his left, attempting to circle around the right side of the Rams’ offensive line. The right tackle, who was blocking Trey Flowers, passes flowers to the right guard to engage Van Noy and holds him off. They did it right on that side. But on the left side, it’s chaos. Butler penetrates between the center and right guard. The right guard reaches for Clayborn, but can’t get to him and Clayborn has a wide open lane to the quarterback.
Meanwhile, Hightower has peeled back into coverage. Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth suddenly has no one to block, so he tries to help on Butler instead of locating Clayborn.
In addition to creating confusion on the line, Hightower is right in the lane into which Goff is looking to throw. In addition to having Clayborn in his face, Goff has to adjust his throw around Hightower. Josh Reynolds can’t handle it and ends up getting popped after the play for good measure.
Here’s Julian Edelman’s first-quarter 25-yard catch. This is a simple one, but it illustrates well the Patriots’ receivers’ responsibilities and how they have to make sure they’re seeing what Brady is seeing.
Edelman starts outside the numbers, then motions inside to just about the 30 painted on the field.
At the snap, he breaks heads straight downfield. This is where it gets interesting. This is an option route. Edelman, based on what the defense is showing, has the choice of at least two different routes on this play. He can cut over the middle, or work back to the sideline.
In this case, cornerback Aqib Talib is in man coverage and Edelman gives him a little move that forces him to play the inside. Then Edelman runs a flag route to get wide open. Easy pitch and catch for Brady.
This one is specifically noted here because later in the game, the Patriots ran the same play, but seeing zone coverage, he cut inside and found a soft spot over the middle for an 8-yard completion on a 2nd and 13 play in the third quarter.
Here’s John Simon’s pass breakup early in the second quarter. Goff and the Rams were backed up on their own 9-yard line for this third-down play. This play is a great example of one of the exotic looks the Patriots threw at Goff.
The Patriots line up with just one lineman with a hand on the ground and that’s defensive end Trey Flowers. The Patriots are showing man coverage on the receivers and a cover-zero look, meaning there is no safety help. That’s because Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon are all down around the goal line.
At the snap, Harmon drops into coverage, heading to the deep middle portion of the field. McCourty, who as in the middle of the field, runs to the left suggesting he’s going to blitz to Goff’s right side, but instead, he drops back into a short zone as well. Chung, who was to McCourty’s left, crosses the formation and engages the Rams’ left side.
While this is happening, Van Noy (in the middle) and Hightower (to Goff’s right) run a cross, while linebacker John Simon attempts to break through the line on the other side with the help of Chung.
No one gets to Goff in time and he attempts a throw over the middle. Simon is held up at the line, but reads Goff’s eyes and gets his hands up.
Truthfully, this play was likely doomed whether Simon got a hand up or not as Goff appeared to not recognize McCourty in zone cutting in front of his receiver. The result may have actually been better for the Patriots, but this was a good opportunity to show how the Patriots mixed up their looks to confuse the young QB.
No real scheme analysis here. Just a slideshow of Danny Shelton blasting his way through the line and stopping a 235-pound C.J. Anderson in his tracks. Yikes.
Here’s another great concept involving Julian Edelman. This one resulted in a 26-yard catch and run in the third quarter on 3rd and 4.
Edelman starts on the right side of the formation, then motions left, setting up on left tackle Trent Brown’s hip. It’s man coverage with Marcus Peters following Edelman across the field.
Edelman runs up the seam, right past Peters who tries to jam him. Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski, who was set up to the outside, runs a crosser, taking Mark Barron (in man coverage) and Dante Fowler (dropped into a short zone) with him, giving Brady a clear lane to lead Edelman. Edelman catches the pass in stride and turns it into a big gain.
This is the play everyone is talking about. Or at least they should be. Jason McCourty saves a touchdown and perhaps the game in the third quarter.
The Patriots are playing a Cover-4 zone on this play. Brandin Cooks, on the bottom of the photo, runs a straight go route. Robert Woods, who starts in a stack with tight end Gerald Everett to Goff’s right, runs a deep crosser.
As Woods crosses the field, both safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon follow him. It’s possible Harmon was supposed to pass Cooks off to Gilmore. It’s possible he thought he was supposed to, but wasn’t. Either way, no one stays with Cooks. Cooks has called for the ball. Goff sees him, but seems to pause, perhaps to make sure one of the safeties or Gilmore doesn’t make an adjustment.
But both safeties continue to pursue Woods and Gilmore minds his zone, leaving Cooks in the clear. The benefit of this zone scheme is that Jason McCourty, with no one in his zone, has eyes on the quarterback and reads what Goff is seeing. Even before Goff releases the pass, McCourty is making a break for the back of the end zone.
The rest is just a matter of speed and time. It’s a 50-yard or so throw for Goff. The hangtime benefits Jason McCourty and the Patriots. Still an amazing effort. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, McCourty’s top speed was nearly 20 miles per hour and he covered 19.5 yards in 2.4 seconds. But the Patriots’ defense has no speed, right?
Sony Michel had a number of chunk runs in this game. This at the end of the third quarter is one of my favorites because it is a mix of some great blocking as well as good vision by the runner.
The Patriots are in their favorite personnel group – 21 (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers). Michel is in I formation behind fullback James Develin. Edelman starts in the left slot and then motions over to the right side.
It’s a pretty straight-forward run over the right guard, but there are a couple of things that you have to love here. First off, Rams linebacker Cory Littleton adjusts when he sees Edelman in motion and anticipates the run. He tries to fill the hole, but gets absolutely buried by Develin.
Secondly, the Rams opened up this play with Donald in a three-technique (on left guard Joe Thuney’s outside shoulder) and Ndamukong Suh lined up over the center. The Patriots get two bodies on both guys initially. Thuney and left tackle Trent Brown take on Donald while center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason double Suh. Right tackle Marcus Cannon is one-on-one with Michael Brockers. Rob Gronkowski is assigned Samson Ebukam. Because the run is to the right side, the line completely disregards Dante Fowler.
But here’s where the fun begins. Both guards release. Mason moves on from Suh and ensures linebacker Mark Barron (26) is out of the play. Thuney, meanwhile, works his way upfield and engages safety Lamarcus Joyner. This creates a nice lane and Michel makes a nice cutback and accelerates through the hole.
One other small note here is the headiness of Tom Brady on the play. He doesn’t turn into a full out blocker on this play, but he makes sure to cross in the path of Donald and Fowler, impeding their progress to Michel before he hits the hole. It’s a little thing, but it played a big role in how this one played out.
Rob Gronkowski had two great catches on the Patriots’ touchdown drive. There’s been a lot said about the big catch that brought them down to the 2, but here’s a look at the play that started the drive off. It’s an 18-yard pass from Brady to Gronk.
The Patriots are again in 21 personnel with the fullback in front of Sony Michel. Gronkowski is lined up across from linebacker Samson Ebukam up top.
It’s play action. Gronk engages Ebukam as a blocker, then releases, running a wheel route up the sidelines. Ekubam is at a disadvantage because he’s still watching the backfield, honoring the run.
Ebukan already knows he’s already overcommitted inside and panics, actually holding Gronk’s left arm as he attempts to run the route, but the big tight end is too strong and too fast. Brady has already identified this as the target.
Suh is closing in on this play in a one-on-one battle with left guard Joe Thuney, but with Gronk beating Ebukan with no help over the top, Brady is able to loft the ball over the linebacker and right into the bucket for Gronk.
Sony Michel with the game’s lone touchdown. This is pretty much just more fullback love. James Develin absolutely takes Mark Barron’s soul. Not much nuance here.
Here’s the interception that stopped what really was the Rams’ best possession of the game until this play. The Patriots are showing Devin McCourty close to the line of scrimmage and Duron Harmon starts out high, but walks down toward the line. The Patriots are in man cover zero. The corners are on an island with their receivers.
Both McCourty and Harmon come with the blitz to Goff’s right. The right guard has to honor Dont’a Hightower coming off the edge and the right guard has to engage Deatrich Wise, leaving a hole through which McCourty and Harmon both shoot.
There are just too many guys on that side to block and the running back has to make a choice. He takes McCourty out of the play (highlighed in red), but Harmon has a clear path at the quarterback.
With a defender in his face, Goff has to put more air under his pass than he normally would and ends up shorting it. Gilmore makes the adjustment and comes down with what was an easy pick.
The game wasn’t over at that point, but the Patriots made sure it was shortly after. Sure, the extra three points from Gostkowski made it so on the scoreboard, but two huge runs by Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead really took the air out of what was left of the Rams. Here’s Michel’s big run, which got them out from under the shadow of their own goal posts as they say,
The Patriots lined up with a single back and two tight ends. Donald is to Brady’s right this time, and that’s where this play is going. Mason and Cannon are going to double Donald, while Andrews is responsible for Suh. Thuney is the pulling guard on this play, swinging out to clear the hole for Michel.
Cannon and Mason start with a double on Donald and drive him to the inside. Andrews turns Suh aside, completely taking him out of the play. Thuney pulls, and Cannon disengages from Donald and works to the next level.
Cannon and Thuney meet defenders at the second level and tight end Dwayne Allen holds the edge against the linebacker, allowing Michel to waltz into the secondary for a 26-yard run.
Well, there you have it. I’ll note that there weren’t any sacks on this post. That’s not because I didn’t love them. I just might have something else planned for them.