There are a lot of intriguing elements to Super Bowl 53 and the Rams run game is one of them. From Week 16 through to the Divisional round their run game dominated everyone they faced. That included a very good Cowboys defence. Using that run game they were able to boss the game and control the clock. When you are facing Tom Brady and the Patriots own clock control tactics that is extremely important. Winning time of possessions is key. But so is forcing the Patriots to load the box so they can take advantage of their sluggish linebackers on passing routes.
For the Patriots they need to dominate the Rams run game early. To do that they need to win battles with their defensive line. Force the Rams into long distance 2nd- and 3rd-downs means they can use players like Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon in coverage on Todd Gurley. That will mean they should not be left with the likes of Dont’a Hightower covering Gurley out of the backfield. Hightower is very good but he is not great in pass coverage. The Patriots want to avoid situations where the Rams can use the play action or get Gurley catching the ball in open space.
The Run Game Dominance
The Rams averaged 232.33 yards per game over the three week span I discussed earlier. Part of that was due to the fresh legs of CJ Anderson. But a lot was also due to the zone blocking scheme of their offensive line. They were able to use their scheme to double team a defensive tackle. That allowed their guards to get up into the second level and create holes for their backs. It was an extremely effective tactic and one they will surely continue to use in the Super Bowl.
Did the Saints Figure Out the Key?
The Patriots have had trouble against opponents running the ball at times this year. However, Bill Belichick is the master of scheming a defence to beat opponents, and he will be working hard to ensure the Rams cannot just run all over the Patriots. Interestingly though, this time he may have got his answer thought out for him by the Saints and Dennis Allen.
The Saints held the Rams rushing game to just 77 yards last week and regularly negated their zone blocking. Part of the reason was the Saints led pretty much the entire game. However, their scheme was also fascinating and it really seemed to disrupt the Rams offensive line.
Changing The Alignment
The Cowboys Approach
Before I get into detail I just want to credit Greg Cosell who spoke about this on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast and brought my attention to it. The image below is an example of how the Cowboys defensive line set up against the Rams in the Divisional round.
You can see the defensive tackle to the right of Jared Goff as we look at it is lined up between the Centre and Guard. This is perhaps the typical alignment that one of the defensive tackles would take, trying to shoot the gap between the two and make the play.
When the ball is snapped the Guard and the Centre are both able to immediately hit the defensive tackle and all but eliminate him from the play. It also give the Centre time to get into the optimal position to stay on the block and start to work his way across the defender and prevent him getting to Gurley. The play works perfectly and Gurley rips off a 9-yard gain.
The Saints Approach
The difference is subtle but it is noticeable. The defensive tackle to the right of Goff has slid away from the Centre and is lining up directly over the head of the Guard. The defensive tackle on the other side mirrors that but just before the ball is snapped he slides onto the left shoulder, as we look at it, of the Guard and into the same position the Cowboys defender on that side lined up. Therefore, the key is on the right side of the screen.
As the ball is snapped the Centre now has much further to go to try and make the double team block as the run goes to that side. You can see the gaping hole that has now appeared between the centre and the back side guard. The hole then allows Demario Davis to burst through and stop Gurley for a four yard loss.
There are multiple examples of the Saints using that tactic in the NFC Championship game. On another play the centre over pursues the defensive tackle and when Anderson tries to cut the ball back the defender slides off the block and makes the tackle. By lining up in a different way the Saints forced the Rams offensive line to do something different to the norm. They made the centre be more athletic and forced him to try and do more than he is used to doing. That is exactly the kind of wrinkle Belichick usually looks to exploit.
The question is will the Rams self scout this? Will they be practising for this type of scheme this week? The issue for the Rams is they might spend a lot of time on this wrinkle and the Patriots will never use it. That is not the end of the world but it is valuable practice time being used up. You may also see Belichick bluff the Rams by lining up like that early and then going conventional when if they start showing adjustments. A lot of the story lines this week will be about the Rams defensive line against the Patriots offensive line. That may mean this side of the ball slides under the radar but come game time it will be almost as important as what happens when Brady and Donald come eye-to-eye.