From a pure talent standpoint, the 2016 New England Patriots team is not much better than the 2016 Los Angeles Rams, aside from the obvious quarterback difference. Without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots now do not have their biggest playmaker, leveling the playing field even more. Unfortunately for the Rams, Jeff Fisher’s “expertise” and “preparation” do not, in any way, match that of Bill Belichick’s.
The Patriots are easily the better coached team and that will be the difference on Sunday.
Rams Offense vs Patriots Defense
This game is an opportunity for Jared Goff to show what he is about. The Patriots don’t have a good pass rusher unless they blitz, which will either allow Goff ample time to throw or the defense will have fewer men in coverage to guard Goff’s targets. The Patriots can’t really cover, either. As of now, their pass defense ranks 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat. Their run defense is top five in the league, so getting Gurley going may be tough, but at least Goff, in theory, has a good match up.
The aforementioned Patriots run defense is odd. For the most part, they do not penetrate the line of scrimmage, nor do they have dominant 0/1-techs to ravage the interior of the defensive line, but the entire front does a great job playing assignment football. Seldom are Patriots players out of their gaps. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is the leader of the group and he does most of his leading by example. Hightower is an aggressive, smart linebacker who is always in the right place at the right time.
- Patriots DL has a lot of depth, but none of the interior guys are consistently forceful. Trey Flowers, who plays defensive end and also kicks inside of the tackles, is their most consistent defensive linemen.
- Aside form Dont’a Hightower, all of the Patriots LBs are up and down. They generally play the right assignments and follow their keys, but don’t always finish in the way that they could. Hence why the Patriots run defense is more about creating minimal gains, not fighting through the line of scrimmage.
- Patriots play their cornerbacks in off-coverage a lot of the time. The talent they have there is lackluster, so they’ve taken a conservative approach to coverage.
Dont’a Hightower is a Manimal
Dont’a Hightower is the Patriots best defender. Not only is he their most reliable run defender, but he may be their best pass rushing weapon, too. Of course, when he isn’t asked to rush the passer, Hightower can hold his own in coverage. He is a jack of all trades, master of all.
Hightower is a stud in run defense. Not only is he excellent in the way that he reads his keys and follows the play, but he does not allow offensive linemen to win the physical battle. Hightower takes on blockers with great efficiency and ferocity.
On the play above, Hightower could have easily been blocked out of the play, despite how well he read the play. He refused to let that happen. At the point of contact, Hightower plants his outside leg to gain leverage, rocks the offensive linemen to keep his frame clean, then hunts down the running back to hold the play to no gain.
Hightower is impossible to stop when he gets going. He has a compact frame that is loaded with explosive athletic ability. When Hightower is flying downhill, the best way to handle him is to dive at his feet and hope to trip him up. He can not be blocked head on, especially by a running back.
On this blitz, Hightower takes his time with his first few steps in order to allow is blitzing lane to open up. Once his opportunity is available, Hightower strikes and makes a bee line for the quarterback. The running back in pass protection tried to stop Hightower, but the all-star linebacker obliterated the poor running back and eventually brought down the quarterback.
Hightower is whatever New England needs him to be. He erases the mistakes of those around him. The Rams offensive line is going to be a long day trying to block him.
Tight Defensive Fronts
The Patriots answer to not having a dominant 0/1-tech is to congest the interior of the front. Throughout the season, the Patriots have employed “Bear” fronts and similar compact fronts that are designed to clog the interior with big men and trust the linebackers to flow to the edge, if necessary. It worked for them early on, like when they played the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1, and it has worked for them recently. Compact fronts have been a staple of Belichick’s ever changing defensive scheme this season.
On this play, the Patriots line up defensive linemen at 3-tech, 0-tech and 4i. With the assumption that the 0-tech will handle both A-gaps, the 3-tech on the left side will handle the B-gap next to the left guard and the 4i will handle the B-gap next to the right guard. Over the top of the defensive linemen, the inside linebackers are farther away from each other than in a normal alignment, so as to make flowing out to the perimeter easier for them, since they probably won’t need to stress attacking the interior as much.
As it has for a large part of the season, clogging the interior worked for the Patriots on this play. Unless the offensive line has mauling strength up front, it’s extremely difficult to create rushing lanes versus this type of front. Of course, this type of front is more susceptible to passing attacks, but Belichick isn’t afraid to sell out to shut down the running game.
Rams Defense vs Patriots Offense
Coaching is going to be the difference in this battle. The Patriots offense is a well oiled machine that functions at a high level regardless of which starter are or are not playing. The Rams defense, on the other hand, is a highly talented group that suffers as a result of subpar discipline. Gronk or no Gronk, the Rams will have a tough time on defense.
- Running back LeGarrette Blount is very good. For a big back, he has some wiggle and acceleration. He could be a problem.
- Offense runs through wide receiver Julian Edelman when tight end Rob Gronkowski is out.
- Rushing game plan involves a fair amount of “power” concepts and pulling guards.
- Offensive line doesn’t generate push. Rams defensive line has to dominate up front.
- Quarterback Tom Brady isn’t hitting the homerun ball this year. Many of his deep throws sail too much or simply miss the mark.
The Patriots Offensive Line Can Be Sloppy
The Patriots have cycled through offensive linemen quite a bit this season. Their offensive line was not outstanding to begin with, but the shuffling has caused them to have more ugly plays than they normally do. Whether it be because of miscommunication or the inability to generate push, the Patriots offensive line is often out-played by their opponent. If the Rams want to win this game, the front seven has to dominate in the way that they should.
On this play, the Patriots center passes off the 0-tech (#92) too quickly. The center needed to carry the 0-tech for a few steps and allow the left guard to get over there to finish the block. Instead, the center immediately passes off the 0-tech without giving the left guard any shot to make the block. With #92 running free, he is able to get into the backfield and derail the initial play.
Though, despite the bad play up front, running back LeGarrette Blount saved the play. He has the ability to rip off big runs like this at any time. He may not have great speed, but his vision, agility and confidence as a runner makes him a menace.
Deep Passing + Dion Lewis
As mentioned in the preview notes, Brady has been off when throwing down the field this year. He still occasionally hits his targets, as all quarterbacks will, but he has been inaccurate overall. Without the presence of Gronk, Brady has to hit his shots down the field if the Patriots offense wants to be explosive.
Brady has to hit this throw. The receiver split out to the left gets enough separation against his man in coverage, but Brady leaves the ball up for too long and too far wide. The receiver tries to slow down to make a play on the ball, but only an alien could have made a play there. The Patriots have plenty of players who can get open down the field. Brady has to hit them or else the Patriots won’t be able to dictate how the Rams approach them.
The interesting part of this play, regardless of Brady’s poor throw, is that Brady’s target was running back Dion Lewis. Lewis, who had been injured for a large chunk of the year, is a phenomenal athlete. He is a running back with wide receiver-like movement skills. The Patriots normally get him the ball out of the backfield, but he has the ability to line up at wide receiver and get touches from there. By lining him up out wide, the defense either walks out a linebacker to cover him (mismatch) or let a cornerback cover him (generally seen as a “waste” of a cornerback’s coverage ability, seeing as he could be on a real wide receiver).
There is an avenue for the Rams to win this game, though it is unlikely. If the Patriots limit themselves from being able to make big plays on offense and the Patriots defense gives up a few big throws, this could be a Rams victory. It may be a pipe dream, but the blueprint is there.
In reality, the Patriots aren’t losing this game. The Patriots have the home field advantage and possibly the greatest head coach of all-time. Weirder things have happened, but the Rams almost certainly will not grab their fifth win of the season this week.