America’s worst nightmare is back in the Super Bowl, and this time against a familiar foe, the Los Angeles Ram’s.
The Ram’s were a much different group the last time these teams met in Super Bowl XXXVI back in 2001. Not only were they based in St. Louis, they were also the “greatest show on turf” who had an aging, experienced Hall of Fame quarterback in Kurt Warner who squared off against the unproven duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Sound familiar?
It truly would be the perfect bookend to Brady’s career if he could do what the 2001 Ram’s failed to do; continue their reign as the NFL’s best. However this Ram’s team and their fearsome front four are nothing to write off. Let’s take a look at what each team needs to do to take home the Lombardi Trophy come Sunday.
Protect Tom Brady
For the Patriots to stand a chance against arguably the most feared pass rush in the NFL, the offensive line of New England will have to put up a performance similar to the one against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. The Patriots offensive-line held Justin Houston and company to no sacks and just one measly hit on Tom Brady.
If we look back at recent history, the teams that have been able to pressure Brady have been the most successful.
When the Patriots took on the Denver Broncos in the 2015 AFC Championship with their dreaded defense consisting of future Hall of Famer Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, the Broncos defense amassed 17 hits on Brady including four sacks en route to a 20-18 victory. During that game, Brady was seeing ghosts. It wasn’t a matter of if the rush was coming, it was a matter of when.
In last years Super Bowl, Brady was hit nine times before a strip sack ended the Patriots chances at back-to-back championships. If history tells us anything, New England’s offensive line will need to keep a clean pocket and limit the hits on Brady to come out victorious in Super Bowl LIII.
Utilize Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett
One of many things that makes Bill Belichick such a great coach is his ability to take away what his opponent does best. In the case of the Ram’s, their best weapons are their outside receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods and their backs, Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson.
With the Patriots already having one of the top secondaries in the league, I feel they will be able to limit the damage down field so Belichick can focus on stopping the run.
However one position the Patriots struggle to cover is the tight end.
The Ram’s have two young tight ends in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, who together have combined for 57 receptions, 612 yards and five touchdowns. If Ram’s head coach Sean McVay can put his tight ends in positions to take advantage of a defense that allowed 832 yards and eight touchdowns to the position, it could be a long day for the Patriots defense that has played so well as of late.
The Gronk Effect
Future Hall of Famer and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowksi looks like he is on the last leg of his career. Toward the end of the 2018 season it seemed as if Bill Belichick was limiting Gronkowski’s reps in order to save him for a playoff run.
In the last three regular season games and the divisional round against the Los Angeles Chargers, Gronkowski caught just five passes for 70 yards and no touchdowns. This was shocking to see considering how depleted the Patriots receiving core was after losing Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks in the offseason before losing newly acquired Josh Gordon mid-season.
Last week when the Patriots traveled to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in the AFC Championship, Gronkowski was targeted a season high eleven times and caught six balls for 79-yards including a 25-yard catch on 3rd down and 5 to set up the Patriots go-ahead score in regulation.
Clearly Gronk is not what he used to be. And as the Patriots always seem to do, they are finding ways to adapt his impact on a game based on their gameplan and opponent. The Ram’s are going to have to come up with a plan to defend Gronk, and coach Belichick hasn’t made it easy for them. By limiting Gronks reps in game, Belichick is also limiting the available game film. Therefore the Ram’s will need to be on their toes when guarding Gronk come Sunday.
Gronk may not have been a force in the regular season, but he is coming on at the right time and hasn’t been this healthy entering the postseason since 2014, a huge benefit for New England.
DON’T Blitz Brady
Tom Brady has the ability to get the ball out of his hand faster than any quarterback in the history of the NFL. Because of this, teams need to think twice before blitzing.
A blitz is defined as a pass rush involving more than four players. By blitzing, a team gives up some defenders down field and in turn risk giving up big plays down field in an effort to sack the quarterback.
Let’s go back a few weeks to when the Patriots faced off in the AFC divisional round against the Los Angeles Chargers where Brady completed 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and one touchdown. Of those 343 yards, 113 of them went to running backs including 17 of his 34 completions and his only touchdown.
When the Chargers sent their pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram at Brady, it left one on one matchups in the middle of the field for Julian Edelman as well as many opportunities to dish the ball off to running backs James White and Sony Michel.
The Ram’s need to realize that by blitzing, they are falling into a trap that many Patriot opponents succumb to; they want to get to Brady, but by blitzing him are creating easy quick pass opportunities to slot receivers and tailbacks. On top of creating chances, blitzing Brady also keeps the Patriots offense on the field longer by enabling these shorter, conservative passes.
If the Ram’s want to slow down Brady, they need to mix their defensive looks up with a combination of disguised blitzes and man coverage, something the Los Angeles Chargers failed to do just two weeks back. As I said before, pressure on Brady is key, but blitzing will be futile.
It all comes down to this, just 60 minutes left in the NFL season to decide who gets to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Will brains beat brawn? Will youth trump experience? We’ll find out at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night.