Both sidelines contain legendary coaches, so this game should be a chess match between two groups that have both shown the ability to adjust and attack relentlessly.
Let’s take a look at what Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips and the Rams’ defense should look at doing:
TE Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski hasn’t actually had a ton of production in the postseason as he only has seven receptions for 104 yards and no touchdowns. Now, it doesn’t really mean much, because Gronk has proven to be a deadly weapon time-and-time again. Luckily for the Rams, they do possess a rising star on the defensive side of the ball that’s generally had success covering tight ends in man coverage all year, and that’s SS John Johnson III. My opinion on what the Rams should initially start with is just that: let Johnson cover Gronk in man coverage and evaluate as the drives go. If he continues to succeed, let Johnson do it all game. If he shows a propensity to struggle, adjust the gameplan. For me, if Johnson’s coverage ability in man proves to falter, the first move I’d try is to move a cornerback on Gronk. The Rams did actually use CB Marcus Peters in coverage on Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce back when they played midseason, so that could be a distinct possibility. The last option to cover Gronk (if both fail) is to simply bracket cover him like they did against New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas last week. I also get that Gronk hasn’t scored a touchdown yet, but I do understand his potent ability down in the redzone which is why I would consider bracketing him down there just like the Rams did against Philadelphia Eagles TE Zach Ertz.
WR Julian Edelman
Edelman is a well known issue as he’s one of the most productive receivers in NFL playoff history. This season continues that trend, as in two games he’s accumulated 16 receptions for 247 yards and zero touchdowns. Edelman operates out of the slot most of the time, surely proving to be the biggest threat when it comes to the Rams defensively. The Patriots are a great team with a diverse set of weapons, but none is more of a combo of dangerous and reliable than Edelman. As soon as the sticks read “third down”, it’s time to key in on the chain mover who operates over the middle of the field. Much has been discussed about Rams’ nickel CB Nickell Robey-Coleman over the past 10 or so days, but nobody is talking about the assignment he’s going to draw in the biggest game of the season. I would strongly consider bracket covering Edelman on every third-and-medium (seven or more yards) or longer, because the defense needs to get off the field when given a chance.
The Patriots have a diverse running game which mainly includes power-running concepts, as opposed to a zone-based scheme like the Rams. The Patriots’ offense is averaging 165.5 rushing yards-per-game, also averaging 4.0 yards-per-carry. Like the Rams, the Patriots like to gash teams on the ground and then swing for the fences through the air. Unlike the Rams, the Patriots do it more traditionally. They will get under center and run out of I-Form, they will deploy a fullback doing it, and they will run power right at you. The key give away is a ton of pulling lineman, trap-style runs, counter runs, and a whole lot of power. The Rams’ front-seven needs to be disciplined more than ever in this game. Trust your eyes, read your keys properly, and watch the pulling offensive lineman. The one major positive I see here for the Rams is if the Patriots do eventually pull a lineman that’s lined up head-on DT Aaron Donald, it could pose trouble. Donald has proven many times that his explosion, athleticism, and speed allow him to knife into backfields and drag down ball carriers from the backside of plays.
Well, you know where we’re headed here, right? RB James White is a problem, and everyone should know it at this point. In the postseason thus far, White has 19 receptions for 146 yards and zero touchdowns. Though the Patriots will occasionally run the ball with White out of a shotgun formation (mainly when QB Tom Brady checks into it), he’s a wide receiver coming out of the backfield — it’s really that simple. White is as good as a route runner as you’ll find at the “running back” position, and although he doesn’t possess size or a ton of speed, his sweet feet and crisp routes almost always leave him open. The Rams most likely to cover White are going to be the ILB duo of Cory Littleton and Mark Barron. These guys are going to need to not only cover White in open space, but they’ll need to ensure good tackling in the open field when necessary. I wouldn’t be against bracketing White like the Rams did against New Orleans Saints RB Alvin Kamara at times, though I prefer that extra attention to be spent on Edelman. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rams’ defensive lineman chip White coming out of the backfield (again, like Karama last week), or to see S Lamarcus Joyner draw him a handful of times in man coverage either.
The matchups are obviously going to be crucial in deciding who’s going to win the game. It’s a given that ideally you want to stop the run, force the opposing offense into playing behind the chains, and then pinning your ears back and roughing up the QB. Those are going to be universal keys to win every single game you play, but I mainly wanted to look at the weapons the Rams will face and how they can ideally win those matchups.
What’s your keys defensively?