Before the Super Bowl I looked at how the New Orleans Saints went about stopping the Los Angeles Rams run game. In that particular example the Saints used a tactic of lining up straight over the guards to try and defeat the double teams. My theory was that the New England Patriots may try and do the same thing. However, as it is with Bill Belichick he had another plan to stop the Rams double headed hammer.
A Lonely Linebacker
You can see here that the Patriots have not four or five men on the line of scrimmage but six of their defenders crowding the offence. The Patriots defeated the Rams offensive lines ability to take out the next level of the defence by not really having a next line. Time after time on obvious running plays the Patriots lined up with six men on the line of scrimmage (LOS), with one linebacker in behind them. In the first half that linebacker was Dont’a Hightower, and he did an incredible job patrolling the centre of the field. However, this tactic was made possible in the first half in part thanks to the flexibility of a certain safety on the Patriots team.
The Patrick Chung Factor
One of the areas that worried me for the Patriots was how they would stop the run game without being gashed by running backs catching the ball out of the backfield. The only thing I could think of was that Patrick Chung had to play and big part. My theory was that he would line up as a linebacker and try to play above his size. However, I did not expect them to consistently line him up in a wide defensive end position.
It may look startlingly similar but this is actually a different play. The defender lined up on the left hand side of the screen on both plays is Chung. Until he got injured he lined up in that position on one end of the line a lot. His flexibility and ability to tackle in the run game was a major part of the Patriots game plan.
Confusion Reigns Supreme
It was not just Chung who was crucial. The man lining up opposite Chung in the first half was Kyle Van Noy, and his flexibility was also important in confusing the Rams offensive line. The ability of Van Noy to come after the passer, make tackles in the run game and drop into coverage allowed him to do everything.
This is a play later in the first half. Once again the Patriots had six men on the LOS. Chung never pretends to rush but his presence freezes Reynolds as a blocker and means he cannot go out into a route. However, the key is on the other end. Initially Van Noy looks like he is coming downhill after Todd Gurley or Jared Goff and it means that Andrew Whitworth has to look to block him. That leave another three immediate one-on-ones and one double team for the offensive line.
Upon seeing the play action Van Noy backs out of his rush. He is now able to shadow Gurley in the flat, but crucially he has also taken Whitworth out of the play initially. Whitworth is now only able to help block the original defensive end on the play. However, by that point two of the Patriots defenders who were initially blocked one-on-one gain leverage on their defender and rush Goff into getting rid of the ball.
This is just one example of how the Patriots six-man front was able to confuse blockers out of the play and allow their fellow defender to take advantage of a one-on-one block.
Not A Fool Proof Scheme
There is no denying the scheme was brilliant from the Patriots. However, even with the scheme the players still needed to be disciplined. By disciplined the Patriots defenders needed to go downhill not side-to-side. Tony Romo discussed it all night, the Patriots managed to shut the run game down by going vertical at the snap and not sideways. That prevents the Rams offensive line from being able to create angles and open holes for Gurley and C.J. Anderson to exploit. There was only really one example where the Patriots defensive line made a mistake it was the Rams longest run of the game.
The Patriots lined up in their six man defensive front but this time Malcolm Brown got caught going sideways while the man to his left as you look came downhill. That opened a massive crease for Gurley. In addition, Hightower went sideways and a lineman got up onto him and neutralised him. Gurley popped through the hole for a 16-yard gain and suddenly the Rams had some offensive momentum.
The very next play we saw the effect of the previous play. This time Brown makes a concerted effort to not go sideways and comes vertical. The Rams get a great block from Reynolds and Gurley goes five yards over left tackle. This is also the play that Chung gets injured on, ending his game, but we will come back to that later.
This time the Rams try the cut back again. However, the defence have learnt their lesson. They stay compact and the linebacker and the defensive line shut the play down for a minimal gain. This is a prime example of how the Patriots defence often do not make the same mistake twice in these key situations.
The Ever Flexible Hightower
I mentioned the Chung injury above and it was a huge moment. It could easily have been the moment that changed the game. With Chung out they needed a defender who could do all of the things he could. Unfortunately they do not have anyone quite like that on their roster. Instead they decided to get bigger on that front six on obvious running downs.
As you can see the man who replaced Chung was Hightower. Hightower does not offer the coverage ability of Chung but he offers more in the run stuffing and pass rushing department. On the back end the man who came in on obvious passing downs was Duron Harmon, who is more of a ball hawk. The person who replaced Hightower was Elandon Roberts playing that sole linebacker role. This was another example of how the Patriots have the ability to adjust on the fly and not miss a beat.
The stunning thing about this is that the Rams never really tried to exploit Hightower in coverage with Gurley. It would have been the obvious thing to do but at this point the whole situation had got so messy I do not think it registered properly with the Rams.
Bold Call Pay Off
This tactic from the Patriots completely shut down the Rams run game. It also allowed them to get to Goff quickly on a lot of play actions as they were able to create mismatches by taking away blockers, as we saw earlier with Van Noy backing off into coverage. Effectively this six man front took away the two things the Rams were best at this season.