Super Bowl LIII will feature two of the NFL’s smartest, most innovative coaching staffs.
Duh. How do you think they got here?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick might be twice as old as Rams coach Sean McVay, but both head men and their coaching staffs will search far and wide for any advantage they can find leading up to Feb. 3. And as McVay explained earlier this week, both clubs embrace the art of game-planning and making adjustments.
That doesn’t mean their teams are immune to trends. There’s 18 games’ worth of tape and stats on both, and the team that does the better job of exposing its opponent’s relative weaknesses should win the Super Bowl.
Belichick, as McVay also pointed out, is a master at that, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“They’re going to identify a couple of things that they say, all right — Coach Belichick’s the best at this — ‘What do the Rams do best, and how are we going to say we’re not coming out of this game letting them beat us doing this?’ ” McVay said earlier this week. ” … You know that they’ve got a great understanding of how to attack you and make you feel like you’re in defense mode when you’re on offense.”
Offensively, the Rams do a lot of things very well. Only the Kansas City Chiefs scored more points and gained more yards per play than the Rams — the same Chiefs team Belichick and the Patriots were able to stifle for a half in the AFC Championship Game.
We can’t know for sure what Belichick’s defensive game plan will focus on, but it might be best to zero in on the Rams’ running game.
The Patriots likely will see the Rams lined up a lot in “11” personnel: one running back, one tight end and three receivers. According to Sharp Football Stats’ personnel charting, no team ran more plays out of 11 personnel (87 percent) than the Rams this season. In fact, they’re kind of at the forefront of an “11 revolution” across the NFL.
LA had general success on the ground, averaging 4.8 yards per carry for the season, good for fourth in the NFL. A whopping 77 percent of the Rams’ rushes this season (including the playoffs) were out of an 11 personnel package, according to Sharp Football Stats. Unsurprisingly, that was far and away the most in the NFL, blowing past the league average of 54 percent. On those run plays, the Rams averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 243 carries and scored 15 touchdowns.
It’s especially effective when the Rams get creative with motion and blocking schemes, as evidenced by this 35-yard touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round.
So if you’re the Patriots, just find a way to take away Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, right? Obviously, that’s the plan, but for whatever reason, the Patriots have struggled (mightily at times) to stop the run out of 11 personnel.
Opposing offenses averaged 4.9 yards per carry against the Patriots on 216 carries when running out of 11 this season. Their numbers, according to the Sharp stats, actually are right in the middle of the pack. But in the games the Patriots were really gashed on the ground, a lot of the yardage came from 11 personnel groupings.
Here’s how the Patriots fared vs. 11 personnel packages in the five games this season in which they allowed at least 150 rushing yards:
Week 1 vs. Houston: 16 rushes, 67 yards
Week 3 vs. Detroit: 18 rushes, 108 yards
Week 14 vs. Miami: 10 rushes, 86 yards
Week 10 vs. Tennessee: 12 rushes, 38 yards
Week 17 vs. Pittsburgh: 17 rushes, 138 yards
The Patriots lost four of those games (although their offense didn’t play particularly well in any, either).
Here’s a good example of the type of play that really gave the Patriots fits in that game against Pittsburgh.
Sharp Football creator Warren Sharp actually predicted last year that New England would have problems with the Philadelphia Eagles’ rushing attack for the same reason: Two-thirds of Philly’s running plays last season came out of 11 (only the Rams were higher), and as Sharp pointed out, Eagles running back Jay Ajayi ran for 12.2 yards per carry out of shotgun in the 11. Ajayi then went and ran for 57 yards on just nine carries as part of a 164-yard rushing attack that helped the Eagles own the time of possession battle en route to a Super Bowl LII victory.
It seems safe to assume the Rams will at least try the same Feb. 3. Their attack might be a little more balanced, considering they also have a passing attack that finished in the top five in just about every category. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see McVay borrow from the Week 10 game plan Tennessee used against New England, especially considering his connections to then-Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
One thing to keep in mind, though: In Weeks 1 through 10, when the Rams had a healthy Cooper Kupp, 90 percent of their run plays came out of 11. In the games since the wide receiver was lost for the season with a knee injury, that number is down to 71 percent.
The Patriots’ best defense still might be to jump out to another early lead. It certainly worked against the Los Angeles Chargers and Chiefs, two teams that had a lot of rushing success out of the 11 grouping in the regular season. In those playoff games, they combined for 39 yards on only 13 rushes from that grouping, which certainly made life a lot easier for New England.
On Thursday, we’ll examine how the Patriots’ offense can attack the Rams’ defense.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images