A mere three seasons after moving back to Los Angeles, and two seasons removed from the archaic Jeff Fisher regime, the Los Angeles Rams will have a shot to achieve the unthinkable. A parade, a possible national following, and all the glory that comes with hoisting a Lombardi Trophy is one victory away, but their final test will be no joke.
The New England Patriots, after an uneven regular season, have looked like wily old surgeons since the playoffs began. Tom Brady has looked comfortable and effective in New England’s victories over the Los Angeles Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs, largely thanks to a complete lack of pressure by either opponent’s defense.
The Chargers, who brought their killer combo of defensive ends, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III, to Foxboro for the divisional round, where only able to generate two quarterback hits and no sacks against Brady. In that game, Brady relied on a ton of quick release work underneath and swing passes to frustrate and abuse the Chargers normally solid defense. In the AFC championship game, the Patriots went to Kansas City to face the Chiefs who led the league with 52 sacks this season. Granted, against the Chiefs teams where often in throwing situations while trying to claw back into games against Patrick Mahomes and company, but guys Dee Ford, Chris Jones, and Justin Houston should be able to get home at least a few times per game. Not against Brady though. Again, Brady wasn’t sacked, and was only hit once.
For Brady, he has dropped back a total of 92 times this postseason, and has yet to be sacked.
So will the Rams be able to do something that the respected pass rushes of the Chiefs and Chargers couldn’t do, and disrupt Tom Brady in the Super Bowl?
It’s been well chronicled that Wade Phillips’ Denver Broncos defense tortured Tom Brady in the 2016 AFC championship game. That game didn’t resemble this year’s Patriots playoff run at all. Against the Broncos, Brady was hit a whopping 23 times and sacked 4 times. By the end of the game Brady was hearing footsteps, even on the few dropbacks when he did have time.
In that game, Phillips gave Brady plenty of looks, but didn’t really rely on blitzes; instead trusting linebackers Von Miller, and DeMarcus Ware to win their matchups, with some help from the interior. The Broncos were able to limit the Patriots to 44 yards rushing that day, which may be a good place for the Rams to start in Sunday’s matchup.
The Rams personnel is clearly different than the 2016 Broncos defense, which was one of the best units of all time. The Rams push will come up the middle, behind their twin tanks Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, who have been spectacular this postseason. Donald led the league with 106 pressures this season, and 20.5 sacks. In two postseason games so far, Suh has 7 pressures while doing a phenomenal job against the run. Suh also did a nice job of disrupting running back Alvin Kamara’s route running out of the backfield in the NFC championship, something that could come in handy against pass catching phenom James White of the Patriots.
The Patriots will likely tie up their entire interior line with the task of limiting Donald and Suh via double teams. Guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, along with center David Andrews have played spectacularly this postseason, and will be a tough three-headed monster for the Rams to deal with. Look for Wade Phillips to constantly allow Donald and Suh to slide around the line and attack from different gaps in order to keep the Patriots out of rhythm. If the big two for the Rams can create a quick push up the gut, that may be a perfect prescription to disrupt Brady who isn’t mobile and like to get the ball out fast. After that, if the Patriots are indeed tying up multiple linemen with Suh and Donald, guys like Michael Brockers, and EDGEs Dante Fowler and Samson Ebukam must make the Patriots pay. However, the Patriots have a pair of solid tackles in Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown as well as fullback James Devlin to try to buy some time for Brady, so things won’t be easy.
Coverage wise, the Rams should be able to match up with Patriots receivers Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson. The question will be how well they matchup with tight end Rob Gronkowski and James White on intermediate and short routes. Will it be safety John Johnson III on Gronk with linebacker Cory Littleton watching White out of the backfield? Will the Rams use linemen to check White and throw off the Pats offensive rhythm? Will Aqib Talib help on Gronk, just as he did on opening night against the Raiders’ tight end Jared Cook?
We’ll see what Wade is cooking up, but whatever it is, expect things to keep changing before Brady’s eyes.
This Patriots line is in far better shape than the one that faced Denver three years ago; but the Rams, unlike the Broncos are capable of adding pressure by scoring in bunches. If the Rams can put Brady in a comeback situation where they don’t have to watch the run as closely, they may be in business. Of course, this is Tom Brady we’re talking about so comebacks aren’t exactly a terrifying prospect for him or the Patriots.
Time will tell how this ultimately plays out, but the chess match should be incredible.