Tag Archives: Tom Brady

Super Bowl LIII: Defense Matters

It is, of course, not surprising that the reviews of Super Bowl LIII were not outstanding.  Coming on the heels of one of the most prolific offensive seasons in the sport’s history, America was expecting a shootout between the league’s second (LA) and fourth (NE) highest scoring offenses.

During the 2018 regular season, all teams averaged 373.5 points (the second highest in history), and averaged 5635.6 yards (also second highest in history).  The 26.5 touchdown passes thrown per team were an NFL record.

It isn’t surprising that the casual fan, spoiled by the offensive excess of the regular season should take a little offense at the little offense provided a couple of Sundays ago.  It is easy to be underwhelmed by the New England Patriot’s 13-3 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Too many fans, I fear, have been drawn to the pinball-like quality of play over the recent seasons – to the point where they can no longer appreciate the achievement of both of these under-rated defensive units.

But the resounding message from both teams on this latest Super Bowl Sunday – and, perhaps a message that will resonate through the coming season – is that defense matters.

Defense matters a lot.

Last year we ran through a few of the offensive achievements of the almost-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history.  This year’s collection of Super Bowl notes will be much different.

Super Bowl Notebook:

New England’s 13 points were the fewest ever by a Super Bowl winner.  The Miami Dolphins completed their perfect 1972 season with a victory in Super Bowl VII (7) by scoring just 14 points in beating Washington.

With the 14-7 final, that game had been the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever until this one.

The Rams tied the record for fewest points scored in a Super Bowl game.  That was also set by the Dolphins when they lost Super Bowl VI (6) to Dallas, 24-3.

Back in Super Bowl III (3), Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory.  His prediction was correct, but he, himself, threw 28 passes that afternoon without throwing for a touchdown.  He became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl without throwing a touchdown pass, and his 28 pass attempts stood as the most ever thrown by a winning Super Bowl quarterback without throwing a touchdown pass.  That record stood until this last Super Bowl, when none of Tom Brady’s 35 throws resulted in a touchdown.

Jared Goff’s 229 passing yards were the fewest by a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since Rex Grossman threw for just 165 in losing Super Bowl XLI (41) to Peyton Manning and Indianapolis 29-17.  That next year, the almost undefeated Patriots would lose the first Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.

Speaking of Manning, he is still the last losing quarterback of a Super Bowl to average less than 6 yards per attempted pass in the big game.  In the shellacking that he and his Denver teammates absorbed at the hands of Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), Peyton threw 49 passes, but gained just 280 yards (5.71 per attempt).  Goff came close to joining him – he averaged just 6.03 yards per attempted pass.  His 12.1 yards per completion is also the lowest among losing Super Bowl quarterbacks since that Manning game – Peyton averaged only 8.2 yards per his 34 completions.

Brady’s victory pushed Michigan ahead of Notre Dame as the college with the most alumni-quarterback Super Bowl victories.  Michigan now has 6 – all belonging to Brady.  The fighting Irish have earned four from Joe Montana and one from Joe Theismann.  Notre Dame quarterbacks have lost only two Super Bowls (one each by Theismann and Daryle Lamonica), so their percentage is still better.

University of California quarterbacks continues to struggle on the big stage.  With Goff’s loss, they are now 1-4, with Aaron Rodgers accounting for their only victory – but also one of their losses.  The other U-Cal losses belong to Craig Morton (2) and Joe Kapp (1).

The Rams’ 62 rushing yards were the fewest by a losing team in a Super Bowl since the Denver Broncos managed just 27 rushing yards against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), and the 35 rushing yards that Todd Gurley led the Rams with were the fewest yards rushed for by the leading rusher of a losing team since Denver’s Knowshon Moreno led the Broncos with 17 rushing yards in that Super Bowl against Seattle.

You have to go back 18 years, to Baltimore’s demolition of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV (35) to find a losing team that managed fewer total yards than the Rams’ 260 this year.  On that day, the Giants finished with 152.  Those Giants were also the last team not to score an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl until the Rams this year.

The previous record for fewest combined offensive touchdowns in a Super Bowl was two. This had been done in six previous Super Bowls – most recently in Denver’s 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.  This year, the Rams and Patriots combined for just one.

On the plus side, a few individuals came through with noteworthy performances.

This Super Bowl now marks a dozen years since the winning team produced a 100-yard rusher.  Indianapolis’ Dominic Rhodes ran for 113 yards against Chicago back in Super Bowl XLI (41). New England’s Sony Michel’s 94 yards this year is the closest anyone on the winning team has come since then (although two losing teams have managed 100-yard rushers in the interim).

Meanwhile Julian Edelman’s 141 receiving yards are the most by a member of a winning team since Super Bowl XXXVIII (38).  That was another New England Super Bowl win, with Brady to Deion Branch accounting for 143 yards.

Taking On the Patriots

Defending the explosive and creative LA Rams is a significant challenge for any defense.  In some ways, though, the Patriots present a more difficult challenge in that they have been the playoffs’ most persistent and prolific running team.

They bludgeoned the LA Chargers with 155 rushing yards (and 4 rushing touchdowns) on 34 carries in their Divisional Round game.  They followed that up by laying 176 more rushing yards (and 4 more rushing touchdowns) on 48 rushes on Kansas City in the AFC Championship game.

Before them now was a Ram defense that had been exceedingly susceptible to the run all season.  All regular season, that is.  During the regular season, they had ranked twenty-third at stopping the run, allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game, and 5.1 rushing yards per attempt – the league’s worst such figure.

But as the playoffs dawned, this Ram run defense flipped the switch, providing a turnaround as unexpected as any I’ve witnessed.  Confronted with top running offenses in their first two playoff games, Los Angeles first muffled the Dallas Cowboys – possessors of the NFL’s top rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  Dallas finished the game with just 50 yards rushing (47 by Elliott).  Next up were the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints had been the sixth-best running team in football during the season, while leading the league with 26 rushing touchdowns.  They had racked up 137 more yards in their first playoff game against Philadelphia.

Again, though, the surprising Ram run defense had all the answers.  The Saints managed just 48 yards on the ground against LA.

So one of the sub-themes of this contest would be the matchup of the suddenly unstoppable Patriot ground game against the suddenly immovable Ram run defense.

Starting the game with the ball in their possession – as the Rams deferred – the Patriots began with the ground assault.  On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Michel burst for 13 yards.  All of New England’s first four plays were runs, the first three of them gaining at least five yards. Three plays into the game, the Patriots already had half as many rushing yards (24) as New Orleans had managed against the Rams in the Championship Game.

The fourth running play managed “just” three yards, setting up Brady’s first pass on second-and-seven from the Ram 34.

New England’s Openings

To this point, this drive was eerily similar to the Patriots’ previous two playoff games.  Getting the ball first against both the Chargers and Chiefs, New England had authored two long clock-draining, soul-crushing touchdown drives.  They had marched 83 yards in 14 plays against the first LA team.  That drive had taken the game’s first 7:11.  In their next matchup against KC, they pounded them for 80 yards in 15 plays of a drive that consumed the first 8:05 of that game.

Four plays into the Super Bowl, the combined totals for all three of their first drives read 33 plays, earning 190 yards that had run a collective 18:02 off the clock.

But a funny thing happened as New England sat poised to score their third consecutive opening drive touchdown – an interception.

With Ram cornerback Aqib Talib dropping into deep zone coverage up the offensive right sideline, Receiver Chris Hogan sat down in an open spot in the flat. What should have been an easy first down, though, turned into disaster as Brady’s throw brought Hogan back toward the center of the field, allowing defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman to get back in the play, where he deflected the ball high enough in the air that linebacker Cory Littleton could slide under it and make the interception.

While that play didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game, it did turn the tide on the Patriot running game.  After allowing those 24 yards on New England’s first three runs, Los Angeles would surrender just 37 more rushing yards on the Patriots next 16 runs (2.3 yards per attempt).  Of those rushes, the only one to gain more than five yards was an 8-yard wide receiver sweep run by Edelman.

Under-Appreciated Defenders

In the silencing of the Saint running game, the Ram defense was led by their two highest profile defensive linemen – Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Bill Belichik and Josh McDaniel’s brilliant response was to not run at Donald.  Of New England’s 32 rushing plays on the evening, only six were run in Donald’s direction – and two of those occurred when Aaron was the only defensive lineman on his side of the field.  If the Rams were going to stop the New England ground game, it would have to be stopped by someone other than Donald.

For most of the game, that someone (or those someones) tuned out to be Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler. Brockers made 7 of the Rams 31 tackles against the run after gains of just 17 yards (2.4 per). Fowler was primary on 3 tackles against the run for a total of one yard lost.

Even when they weren’t making the tackle themselves, they were disruptive forces in the run game.  Mostly lined up against Joe Thuney, Brockers consistently stood his ground, clogging the line and preventing linemen from advancing to the linebackers.

Fowler seemed especially aware of what the Patriots were attempting.  He foiled a couple of screen passes (and Brady and the Patriots were only 1 for 4 completing screen passes) and made quick penetration on several running plays.

With 9:55 left in the first quarter, and New England facing a first-and-ten on their own 24, they tried to send Michel up the middle.  The blocking scheme on this run called for Trent Brown – the tackle lined up opposite of Fowler – to help Thuney double Donald.  With that, the Patriots pulled Shaq Mason from the left side to block on Fowler. But Dante read the play instantly and was into the backfield before Mason could get near him, smothering Michel for a 4-yard loss.

Later on in that drive, now with 6:17 left in the opening quarter, New England sat at third-and-eight on the Ram 31.  They tried to sneak a draw to James White underneath the pass rush of Donald.  Fowler read that, too, and chased White down after a three-yard gain – a play that forced a failed New England field goal attempt.

This was the pattern through most of the game, as the Patriot offense ground to a near halt as the running game sputtered.

For a little while.

Persistence Pays Off

But the ever patient Patriots kept running the ball.  On 68% of their first down plays (23 of 34), the Pats ran the ball.  And eventually, the Rams did wear down.

Beginning with a 19-yard sprint from Michel with 1:18 left in the third, the Patriot running attack took over the rest of the game.  New England’s final 12 rushes would account for 94 yards (7.8 yards per), 4 first downs, one touchdown, and the two runs that basically decided the game.

The last Patriot drive of the season began on its own 4-yard line.  There was still 4:17 left in the game, and the Patriot lead was a slim 10-3.  After their first run earned a yard, the Patriots faced second-and-nine from their own 5.

To this point, NE had almost completely avoided running at Donald.  Of the six times they did test him, five of those runs gained just 4 yards.  At this critical juncture, though, with Donald playing three-technique (over the outside shoulder of right guard Mason), the Patriots lined up with two tight ends to the left of the formation (away from Donald). The Rams overshifted, moving their other two defensive linemen to the left side, leaving Donald and two linebackers alone on the right side.

Just prior to the snap, tight end Dwayne Allen came back in motion to the right side, balancing the lines.  At the snap, Marcus Cannon and Mason doubled Donald, with Cannon then going through for Littleton.  Allen kicked Fowler to the outside, and Thuney came pulling from left guard to lead through the hole by blasting undersized linebacker Mark Barron.  The rest was green grass for Michel, whose 26-yard gallop brought New England from the shadow of its goal line.

Now it is two plays later – with still 2:42 left in the season, but the Rams now down to one time-out.  The Patriots face second-and-seven on their own 41.  Now, the Patriots would do the same thing, but in reverse. And with the same success.

NE lined up with two tight ends to the right side, and the Rams responded by overshifting their line to that side. The Pats then motioned Rob Gronkowski back to the left side and ran there. Thuney and David Andrews put an initial double-team block on Brockers (lined over center, the farthest left defensive lineman the Rams had), with Thuney then going through to get in the way of Littleton. Brown tossed Fowler to the inside, and Gronk crunched Lamarcus Joyner to the outside. James Develin led through the hole and removed Barron from the equation. Rex Burkhead then sliced back inside and ran to daylight.

New England had done the same thing to Kansas City late in that contest to spring a couple of long runs.

With a second 26-yard run in a matter of four plays, New England authored a game-clinching, nine-play, 67-yard drive (all of them running plays!) that ended in a field goal.  It left the Rams with a ten-point deficit, no timeouts, and 1:12 of season left to do something about it.

Although they were essentially stalled for most of the game, in the end, New England finished with 154 rushing yards (and another rushing touchdown) and their sixth title.  In winning their three playoff games, NE had scored 11 touchdowns – nine of them on the ground.

The Develin Factor

Once a staple of offensive football, the fullback has become almost a relic.  In the new pass-happy NFL, the fullback has mostly given way to a third or fourth wide receiver.  But in New England, the fullback is alive and well in the person of James Develin – a specialist whose job it is to ensure green pastures for the running back who will follow him through the hole.  Develin was on the field for only 30 plays (42% of the offensive snaps), but his presence was felt.  The Rams had 13 runs of more than three yards in this game.  Develin led through the hole on 7 of them.  He also led through on the two-yard touchdown run.

It is a stretch to say that the success the Patriots have found with Develin will spread to other teams.  But the concept certainly works in New England.

Brady and the Passing Attack

With the running game mostly held at bay, the very confident Ram defenders gave Tom Brady and his receivers all they could handle.  In one of his least effective Super Bowls, Brady finished with 262 passing yards and a 71.37 passer rating.  Tom didn’t have his best game.  Some of his throws were off target, and a few of his decisions could well be questioned.  But the largest parts of this story are the Ram defenders.  Whether in zone or in man, Talib, Joyner, John Johnson, Barron, Robey-Coleman – and yes even Marcus Peters – continuously provided tight coverage and gave Brady few opportunities.

But with such opportunities as presented themselves, Brady managed to get the ball mostly to his two prime-time targets.  Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman finished catching 10 of 12 passes thrown his way for 141 yards and 8 first downs.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 6 of 7 for 87 yards and 3 first downs.

Combined, Brady was 16 of 19 (84.21%) throwing to those two for 228 yards (12 yards per attempt and 14.25 per completion).  His passer rating to those two targets was a Brady-like 116.67.

But when the Rams managed to take away those targets and force Brady to go elsewhere, the story was much different.  Throwing to all other receivers, Brady was 5 of 16 (31.25%) for 34 yards (2.13 per attempt) with one interception – a 14.58 rating.

It’s Julian’s World

The challenge with Edelman is mostly a man coverage issue.  One of football’s quickest receivers, Julian is almost always able to get that first step on a defender.  And while he doesn’t have the kind of break-away speed that will leave a defender in his wake, he is as tough at catching footballs with defenders hanging on him as you will find in the league.

In this contest, Edelman was kept company by all of the principle Ram defenders.  He saw a lot of Talib, but frequently lined up slot-left where he would draw slot-corner Robey-Coleman.  He would then frequently run across the field (left-to-right) with Nickell in pursuit.  Of Julian’s receptions and yards he caught 5 of 6 for 73 yards and 4 first downs on the right side of the field.  Against all man coverage, Edelman caught 7 of 9 for 112 yards and 5 first downs – almost all of these with a defender within arms grasp.

These were difference making catches and yards.

Gronk in the Zone

While zone coverages will tend to minimize Edelman’s impact, they are a double-edged sword as someone will then have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, one of the NFL’s best at finding soft spots in zones.  Brady threw to Gronk in zone coverages 4 times, his 4 completions resulting in 40 yards (although just 1 first down).  Gronk would have his moment against man coverage, too.

There is 7:43 left in the season, game tied at that point 3-3, Patriots on LA’s 31.  Here would be the first of a series of plays that would determine the outcome of the season.

As the Patriots lined up, the Rams made one last attempt to confound the New England passing game.  As Edelman went in motion to the right, no one followed him – a zone indicator.  Then Littleton crowded the line, threatening a blitz – which would probably be man coverage.  Perhaps they were a little too cute, here.  Apparently, the only ones they confused were themselves.

On Brady’s last pass of the season, the Rams found themselves in man coverage, but with disadvantageous matchups.  They finished with safety Joyner on Edelman and cornerback Talib on running back Burkhead.

The defensive lineup also left Littleton one-on-one with Gronkowski all the way up the left side line.

For the game, Brady would only throw three long passes.  All would go up the left sideline.  The first two of these came with Marcus Peters isolated on Chris Hogan, with Peters responding to the challenge both times.  This time a perfect pass led Gronk over the top of Littleton.  Rob’s catch gave the Patriots first and goal on the two, and set in motion the end game.

Third and Less Than Automatic

Against the Chiefs, the Patriot offense thrived on third down, converting 13-of-19.  The Ram defense kept its team in the game by holding the Patriots to a much more pedestrian 3 of 12 on this down.  Here they played predominantly man coverage, leading to something of a hit-and-miss result.  In spite of the fact that New England only converted three of these opportunities, Brady was still 6 for 10 on third down, and the Patriots averaged 7 yards on third down.  The three first downs were all catches by Edelman (11, 25, and 27 yards).  New England’s other 9 third down plays accounted for a total of 21 yards.

Defending the Rams

With the Patriot offense managing just enough points, this game fell on the shoulders of the New England defense in their matchup against one of the game’s top offenses.

Ram quarterback Jared Goff supervised the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack, while he finished eighth in passer rating at 101.1.  When you have an offense that has too many weapons to concentrate on, usually the best answer is to stop it at its source.  The Patriots answered the new-age Ram offense with an age old defensive prescription.  They dialed up the pressure.

While Jared saw about an even mix of coverages (he saw man coverages 49% of the time) it was the effectiveness of the man coverages that made the difference.  In his 20 snaps throwing against man, Goff was just 8 of 18 (44.44%) for just 101 yards and his interception – a 39.35 passer rating.  He was also sacked twice.

And whether the Pats were playing man or zone, Jared was under frequent blitz pressure.  All told, Goff was blitzed on 46.3% of his pass attempts (19 of 41).  And even when they weren’t blitzing, the pressure on Goff was nearly constant.  After registering only 30 sacks during the regular season, the Patriots racked up 10 in three playoff games.  The use of blitzes was a big part.  Even more than that, though, over their last three games the Patriots raised the defensive line stunt to almost an art form.

The defensive line stunt has been in existence since the beginning of football.  The defensive end comes in and the tackle loops around.  It challenges the awareness of the offensive line.  By this point of the season – with football’s two best teams left – it should be assumed that both offenses can handle the concept dependably.

But in New England the Patriots have been tinkering with this – combining it with blitzes, stunting with linebackers, employing the experience of their defenders to analyze and adjust.  The benefits could not have been predicted.

Kansas City was never able to solve the Patriot stunts.  The Rams fell into the same pattern.  Goff faced at least some pressure on 30 of his 41 pass attempts (73.2%).  According to the scoresheet, he was hit on 12 of those (with linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower each accounting for 3).  Including the sacks, Jared faced extreme pressure on 16 of his passes (39%).  Repeatedly – especially early in the game when the Patriots played more zone – this pressure averted what could have been disasters downfield.  On the 12 passes when Goff was being hit while throwing, he completed just 3 for 36 yards and his interception.  His rating on those plays was 4.86, and, including the sacks, the Rams gained a total of 5 yards on those 16 plays.

By contrast Brady (who was only blitzed 8.3% of the time) only saw that level of pressure on 8.3% of his attempts (3 of 36).

Stephon Gilmore (who mostly stayed with Brandin Cooks) and Jonathan Jones (who was impressive against Robert Woods) were principle heroes in this contest.  Jones has not been a name to conjure with for the most part this season, but over the last two games, Jonathan has met the challenges of Tyreek Hill and Robert Woods.  He was most impressive.

The Results

The results of this suffocating pass defense could hardly have been anticipated.  Goff never completed more than three consecutive pass attempts, and LA – failing on its first 8 third down attempts – ended up punting on its first 8 possessions.  The Rams accounted for a total of 82 yards in those first 8 drives, averaging 2.7 yards per play.

Los Angeles ended the day 3 for 13 on third down.  Goff dropped back to pass on 12 of the 13 third-downs.  He finished 3 of 10 with 2 sacks, being blitzed on 6 of the 12 plays.  All told, Los Angeles’ 13 third-down plays totaled 13 yards.  The answer throughout the game was relentless pressure.  New England had several defensive lineman that executed the stunts to perfection and applied frequent pressure.  Lawrence Guy, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers all played very well.

But the difference really was the linebackers Van Noy and Hightower.  With the speed to loop from one side of the formation all the way to the other, and the instincts that guided their timing in and through the line, they were a complication that neither the Chiefs nor the Rams ever managed to solve.

Fourth Quarter Excitement

Los Angeles’ first play of the fourth quarter came with 14:47 left and the score tied at three.  To that point, Goff and the passing game had been dominated.  Jared was 9 of 21 (42.86%) for just 95 yards (4.52 per pass attempt) and 3 sacks for 29 yards of loss.  The vaunted LA passing attack was sitting at 66 total yards for the night.

The fourth quarter – in spite of the fact that the Rams would never score again – would be different.  Throwing 17 times in the fourth quarter alone, Jared completed more passes in that quarter (10) and for more yards (134) than in the entire game previous to that point.  On the receiving end, Brandin Cooks emerged, catching 5 passes for 88 yards.  With the big quarter, Cooks finished the game with impressive totals of 8 catches for 120 yards.  But the numbers looked better than they played for both.

Almost all of this damage came during Los Angeles’ last two possessions.  With the season winding down Jared completed 6 of his last 11 throws for 102 yards and 5 first downs.  Cooks was the target on 5 of those throws – finishing with 3 catches (all for first downs) and 64 of the 102 yards.

But.

While the first of those drives began promisingly enough, there was much more opportunity there than was realized.  And the Rams’ last drive of the season – even after I’ve watched it several times – remains a head scratcher.

That Puzzling Last Drive

OK, I grant from the beginning that at this point the Ram chances were very slim.  With 1:12 left, they were getting the ball on their own 25, down by 10 and with no time outs.  Their bad situation was immediately complicated by a holding penalty by Rob Havenstein (who was certainly not in consideration for Super Bowl MVP).

Back on his own 15 now, with 66 ticks left on the clock, Goff and the Ram offense would throw three consecutive short passes to the middle of the field, completing the first two.  By this time, the New England zones were quite soft, as they invited Los Angeles to throw all the short passes they wanted.

Woods caught the first one for 10 yards and was tackled in bounds.  Cooks turned a dump off into a 24-yard gain up the middle, but was also tackled in bounds to keep the clock running.  When the third straight short pass fell incomplete, it was something of a blessing for the Rams as the clock finally stopped – albeit with just 21 seconds left.  During all of these short attempts, the Rams neither sent anyone deep toward the end zone, nor did they send any receivers to the sidelines.  Everyone ran short sit-down routes designed to get them open against zones – and they did achieve that.  But they were long past the point in the game where getting open underneath the zone coverages would do them any good.

The next throw was deep-ish, Goff tossing a nice pass into a small window into the arms of Cooks for 21 yards (and 45 of Cooks’ yards would come on his two catches on this drive).  But again, with no time outs, this throw went over the middle.  Down two scores, Goff finally made it up to the line and spiked the ball with all of 8 seconds left in the season.

Again, the situation was difficult and victory unlikely however they went about this last drive.  But exactly what they thought they would accomplish with that play selection will remain one of the enduring mysteries of Super Bowl LIII.

Wither the Ram Running Game

To this point, we haven’t discussed the Ram running attack – mostly because there is little to discuss.  As pointed out earlier in this piece, it has been a long time since a running attack accounted for fewer yards in the Super Bowl than the Rams’ did.  Truthfully, it didn’t seem like the running game was even an important part of the game plan.  Kansas City had seemed uninterested in running against the Patriots two weeks before.  They ran just 12 times all game.  In the Super Bowl, the Rams followed suit.  They ran just 18 times all day – in spite of the fact that until that last drive they were never more than 7 points behind.  Fifty-five plays the Rams ran this in this game within one score of the Patriots.  They threw on 37 of them.  They ran 20 plays with the score tied.  They threw on 14 of them.  Los Angeles ran only 16 plays all evening in New England territory – throwing on 15 of them.

These are not the numbers of a team with a running mindset.

And when they did run, they seemed almost insistent that they were going to run behind right tackle Havenstein.  Of their 18 running plays, 8 went over right tackle.  One of them developed into Los Angeles’ longest run of the day – through no success of Havenstein’s.  At the edge, he was stuffed by Flowers, but Gurley cut the run back the other way for 16 yards.  The other 7 runs behind Havenstein gained just 18 yards.

In-Offensive Lines

Heroes in the Divisional Round win against Dallas, when they racked up 273 rushing yards, the Los Angeles offensive line – all of them – came up short in the Super Bowl.  They struggled in pass protection all night and failed to generate any sustained semblance of movement for the running game.  In a game that was hard fought and tight throughout, the Rams’ fatal flaw was the offensive line that had been their backbone throughout their breakthrough season.

But of all the struggling afternoons, no one’s was longer than right tackle Rob Havenstein’s.  Especially the fourth quarter.

Rams’ first drive of the fourth quarter.  It is second-and-11 from the LA 22, game tied at 3 with 12:23 left.  Deep routes from Woods and Cooks cleared the right flat for Gerald Everett.  But Goff had no time to get the ball there as he was sandwiched between Flowers (who had slipped past Austin Blythe) and infrequently used defensive end John Simon, who beat Havenstein around the edge.  The throw fell incomplete.

Now facing third-and-11, the Rams profited from a defensive holding call and a 16-yard pass to Cooks – in spite of the fact that this time it was Guy who was beating Havenstein on the pass rush.

A 13-yard run from Gurley was then erased by a holding penalty – not Havenstein this time but center John Sullivan, setting up a first-and-20 from the LA 33.

With the Patriots in zone this time, Woods found an open spot deep in the middle of the coverage that would probably have achieved them the first down.  But Goff had no chance on this one, either.  This time it was Flowers turn to blow through Havenstein, who barely touched him.  Flowers flushed Jared immediately out of the pocket and into the arms of Jonathan Jones for a two-yard loss.

Goff was able to get the next throw off – incomplete on a deep route to Cooks.  There was pressure, though, from Hightower working, again,  around Havenstein.

Facing third-and-22, LA tried a running play.  This time it was Flowers, again, shooting past Havenstein to make the play in the backfield.  The Rams punted on the next play.

While this drive – in which he was beaten on five consecutive plays – marked the low spot, Rob’s day was generally underwhelming.  A defensive tackle named Deatrich Wise Jr – who didn’t play in the Championship Game against KC, and was only on the field for 31 snaps in this one – still led New England in tackles against the run with 5 (and after gains of only 18 yards).  Most of this success came at Havenstein’s expense.

This will not be a film Rob will look forward to reviewing.

The No Fly Zone

Of all the interesting statistical tidbits that emerged from this contest, maybe the most illuminating concerned the fifty-yard-line.  In this defensively dominated game, both offenses mostly had their way when they were operating in their own territory.

While on his side of the field, Brady completed 17 of 23 passes (73.91%) for 213 yards (9.26 per attempted pass and 12.53 per completed pass) for a 102.26 rating.  The Patriots ran 44 plays on their side of the field, gaining 335 yards with those plays (7.6 per) and earning 15 first downs.

Goff, for his part, was also better in his own end where he completed 14 of 25 (56%) for 181 yards (7.24 per attempt and 12.93 per completion).  His rating in his own end was 78.92, and the Rams gained 238 yards on their 44 plays in their own territory (5.4 per) with 11 first downs.

But as soon as each offense crossed the fifty, the defenses took over.

Brady was 4 for 12 (33.33%) for 49 yards (4.08 per attempt) and his interception in Ram territory (12.15 rating).  His Patriots managed 72 yards and 3 first downs in their 24 plays in Ram territory (3.0 per).

Goff was 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 48 yards (3.69 per attempt) and his interception (and two sacks) – good for a 17.47 rating.  With LA running just once on the New England side of the fifty, the Rams finished with 22 yards and 2 first downs to show for their 16 plays in opposition territory – 1.4 yards per play.

Combined the two star quarterbacks finished 9 for 25 (36%) for 97 yards (3.88 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions and 3 sacks (a 14.92 rating) on the other side of the fifty.  The two teams ran a total of 40 plays in each other’s territory, finishing with just 94 yards (2.4 per play) and 5 first downs.

Of New England’s 154 rushing yards, 122 came on their side of the field.  All of Edelman’s passing yards, and 117 of Cooks’ 120 came on their own respective sides of the field.  The two teams combined for 27 plays that went for at least ten yards.  Only three of them came on the far side of the fifty.  The Rams had two of the three – 18 and 17 yard passes to Robert Woods when they were just barely over the fifty.

New England dialed up only one impact play in opposing territory – that last pass to Gronkowski.

That play to the Ram 2-yard line, set up Sony Michel’s touchdown run.  The game’s only touchdown thus came on the only red zone play from either team on an evening when neither team would start a drive in the other’s territory, and – thanks to superior punting from Johnny Hekker and Ryan Allen – each team started three drives inside its own ten-yard line.

That is how you get a 13-3 game.

In one of the most impressive post-season performances in memory, the Patriots played the league’s top two scoring offenses in consecutive contests. The Rams and Chiefs combined for 107 offensive snaps.  They never took one snap with a lead in either game.

The Plays that Weren’t Made

For all of that, though – for as well and as passionately as the Patriots played on defense – the entire contest could easily have gone in the other direction.  As always in tight contests like this, it comes down to a few moments – a handful of plays made and not made.  Most of these swirl around former Patriot Brandin Cooks, whose 120 receiving yards will be forever overshadowed by the yards he didn’t get.

There was 3:42 left in the third.  New England was clinging to a 3-0 lead, but the Rams were sitting on the Patriot 29-yard line.  New England was in cover four – a defense they don’t run very often, and don’t execute with much confidence.

Robert Woods settled into a pocket in the zone over the deep middle, drawing the complete attention of both of the middle zone defenders, Jones and Devin McCourty – so much so that Jones paid no heed at all to Cooks as he sped up the middle into the end zone unattended.  Just before he reached the end line, with no one else around him, he turned and looked for the ball.  Goff delivered a strike for what might have been a game-changing touchdown.  But at the very last second, Jason McCourty – whose assignment had been the deep right sideline – came racing from the far side of the field to deflect the pass, just as it was about to nestle in Brandin’s hands.

That enormous play fended off disaster and kept the Rams at bay until that penultimate – and game deciding – fourth quarter drive.  Here, down 10-3, they faced third-and-nine on their own 45 with 5:29 left.  The Rams will spend the off-season wishing they could have back any of these next four plays.

Goff converted the first down with an 11-yard toss over the middle to Josh Reynolds.  Effective, yes.  But this was one of the few plays in which Jared wasn’t under immediate pressure. And there were opportunities upfield.  Cooks had beaten Gilmore off the line and had a step on Stephon up the left sideline.  Perhaps even more open was Woods, who had split his doubleteam up the middle.  Either of those were big plays (and maybe touchdowns) waiting to happen.

Goff completes his next pass as well – this time 17 yards to Woods on the right sideline.  But again, the greater opportunity was missed as Reynolds had blown past Jason McCourty up the right sideline.  The Rams have moved to first-and-ten on the Patriot 27.  But with the rare gift of time in the pocket, the opportunities had been so much better.

Having passed up the deep option the last two plays, Goff wouldn’t let that happen a third time.  Cooks ran a go up the right sideline, separating just enough from Gilmore.  At the goal line, the football, Cooks and Gilmore all arrived at about the same time.  The throw was perfect.  Cooks had it briefly in his right hand.  But Gilmore had just enough hold of his left hand that he couldn’t bring it up to complete the catch.  A second later the ball was rolling harmlessly in the end zone.

Interference?  I would say yes.  Gilmore clearly held down Cooks’ arm and by the accepted understanding of pass interference that would qualify.  Should it have been first and goal?  Probably.  But before any Ram fans get too worked up, let me hasten to point out that this missed pass interference call was nothing in comparison to the flagrantly missed pass interference that put the Rams in the Super Bowl in the first place.

Karma, I suppose.

Now it’s second-and-ten.  For three straight plays, his beleaguered offensive line had bought Jared enough time to read the defense and make a throw.  They would not be able to provide him a fourth.

The Patriot blitz overloaded the offensive right side, with Hightower rushing to Havenstein’s outside shoulder, and Wise clubbing Blythe to the inside. Into the gap created by those two rushes, NE sent two defensive backs. Gurley properly took the inside rusher (Devin McCourty), but there was no one to account for Duron Harmon, who came free.

Under serious pressure Goff heaved the pass up the right sideline. With six rushing, New England’s defensive backs played deep, and Gilmore – staying on top of Cooks’ vertical – was waiting for the throw.

This was pretty much the dagger.  New England’s running game then keyed the drive to the field goal that gave us the final score.

Rare Symmetry

That interception was part of an uncommon symmetry that began and ended this contest.  After this interception, the Rams’ final drive of the season ended with a missed a field goal.  The Patriots had begun the game with an interception and a missed field goal on their first two possessions.  In a sense, the season itself was somewhat symmetrical as well.  Not quite five months earlier, the Falcons and Eagles had begun the season with what was expected to be a shootout.  It wasn’t, with Philadelphia escaping with an 18-12 win.  That was on a Thursday.  The next Sunday Patrick Mahomes would light up the Chargers and begin the magic carpet ride that was the 2018 season.

With this re-assertion by two determined defenses lingering now in our memories for the next seven months, it leaves us with questions to ponder as we await the 2019 season.  Does this game signal a turnaround for defenses?  Will there be concepts that other defensive coordinators will steal from these two teams that will cause scoring to drop next year?  During the season, a few teams turned to run-first philosophies.  Most of these of necessity, but at least one of them seemed to do it from choice.  Will Neanderthal football continue its resurgence?  Or was this just a non-passing fancy?  And what will be the result of the blown call that ended the season for New Orleans?  Will the NFL react to that? And how?

Every year, now, I find that instead of being the final answer, the Super Bowl leaves more questions to answer for the next year.  Enough to stew on over the next seven months.

Patriots Advance on a Head and a Hand

Heads is the call.

After 60 minutes, 128 combined plays, 739 combined yards, 8 combined touchdowns and 62 combined points, it came to this.  A historic night of football – one that had begun in controversy in New Orleans and continued in the bracing 19-degree chill of Kansas City (that, at least, was the temperature at the beginning of the game) – came finally to New England’s Matt Slater standing next to referee Clete Blakeman calling the overtime coin toss.

Heads.

It was a head, and that set in motion the series of events that would decide the NFL’s second overtime Championship Game of the day. 

The NFL’s requirement for getting both teams at least one overtime possession is pretty soft.  All the Chiefs needed to do to put the ball back in the hands of Patrick Mahomes was keep New England out of the end zone.  Keeping offenses out of the end zone, however, had become a lost art in this game.  The Patriots had taken each of their last two possessions 60 yards for touchdowns.  The Chiefs had scored on all of their last three drives – two touchdowns and a field goal.  Even that is deceptive, though.  Kansas City was only held to a field goal on its last possession because they began that drive on their own 31-yard line with just 39 seconds left and needing the field goal to tie.

As the coin went up in the air, there was a strong suspicion that a trip to Super Bowl LIII hung suspended with it.  The coin landed in New England’s favor, and the Patriots did not waste the opportunity.  Thirteen plays and 4:52 later, on the Chiefs’ 2-yard line, tight end Rob Gronkowski – lined tight to the left of the formation – pushed KC linebacker Breeland Speaks further out to the left and back towards the end zone.  At the same time, tackle Trent Brown (lined up next to Gronkowski) drove defensive tackle Justin Hamilton the other way – back into the line of scrimmage.  Through the opening produced by those two blocks came Patriot fullback James Develin.  He collided with – and pushed back – linebacker Reggie Ragland.

All this set the stage for Rex Burkhead, who plowed into the void, bowling through the attempted arm tackles of Ragland and Speaks to end the 37-31 Patriot victory (gamebook) (summary), and send New England back to the big stage for the third consecutive season.

The Running Patriots

The yards were the final two of an impressive 176 rushing yards the New England hung on the KC defense on the last of 48 soul-crushing runs – most of them into the middle of that over-extended defense.  The Patriots finished with touchdowns on 3 of their last 6 rushing attempts, and have now rushed for four touchdowns in each of their playoff games so far – this after rushing for 18 touchdowns through 16 regular season games.

It is somewhat characteristic of Bill Belichick that it would be Burkhead at the end.  On an evening when running back Sony Michel set the tone early and often – on his way 113 rushing yards of his own and two touchdowns – Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels switched to Burkhead with about six minutes left in regulation.  Rex isn’t quite the battering ram that LeGarrette Blount had been in seasons past – but he is stylistically similar. Rex is a no-nonsense, here-I-come kind of runner.  Perhaps, the Patriot brain trust wanted to employ a slightly more physical runner against the tiring KC defense.

Whatever the cogitations, it was Burkhead carrying the ball on 8 of New England’s last 9 rushing plays, including the dive that sent New England on and sent Kansas City home.

Mahomes Rises to the Moment

While the final taste is bitter for the Chiefs, it is nonetheless impressive that they pushed the game that far.  Mahomes and Kansas City ended the first quarter with minus 11 offensive yards, as Pat was 0-for-2 passing with a sack.  The Chiefs would be held to no points and just 32 offensive yards throughout the first half – a half in which Mahomes would throw just 8 passes while being sacked 3 times.

Had you watched only the first half, you would have left with the impression that this young Chiefs team was badly outclassed by the superior Patriots.  Even through three quarters, with New England holding a comfortable 17-7 lead, you might have considered the contest decided.

But back came the Chiefs, scoring 24 fourth-quarter points to force a tie game, with Patrick Mahomes throwing for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.  After his unexceptional first half, the Chiefs’ first year starter at quarterback completed 12 of his 23 second half passes for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Nine of those 12 completions went for first downs, and his passer rating for the half was a satisfying 126.81.

With his primary targets (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) getting heightened attention from the New England defense, Mahomes found success throwing the ball to a couple of less attended receivers.  “Other” receiver Sammy Watkins caught 3 passes in the second half for 102 yards, and running back Damien Williams caught 5 for 66 more yards and 2 touchdowns.

Along the way, though, this offensive performance by Kansas City was stylistically very different than most of their regular season games.

The Chiefs Try to Adjust

First of all, Kansas City abandoned their running game very early.  The ground attack whose 180 yards was very instrumental in dismissing Indianapolis the week before was a non-factor.  KC ran the ball only 12 times (and one of those was a scramble from Mahomes) for just 41 yards.  It is not at all clear that they ever intended to run the ball, and certainly after New England showed some early offensive success, the Chiefs were more than willing to put the running game away.

In the aftermath of that very entertaining 54-51 shootout that Kansas City had earlier this year against the Rams, I questioned both teams’ will to run the ball.  I think that came into play here.  The Chiefs were at home, playing against the twenty-second ranked pass defense (by yards) with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.  They didn’t want to get there running the ball.  They intended all along to pass.

In the end, KC threw the ball on 25 of their 29 first-down plays.

That suited New England just fine.  They would rather not have to concern themselves with the run.  Defending Kansas City’s passing attack was challenge enough.  Throughout the season, Mahomes had led a high-percentage passing attack.  With most teams backing off Hill – and sending a lot of defenders deep to watch him – and with Kelce usually dominant over the middle against both zone and man coverages – Patrick finished his regular season completing 66% of his passing attempts.  He was very near that in his first-ever playoff game against Indy (65.9% on 27-of-41 passing).

But now, New England will change the dynamic.  They tightened up the coverage and emphasized pressure.  They diligently double-covered Hill, and pressed Kelce off the line.  Tight press coverage has its advantages.  It gives the defending team an opportunity to challenge every pass – making it more difficult for the offense to sustain drives.  It is also a precarious decision, as press man coverage also opens the door to potential big plays down the field.

That is precisely what the second half of this game evolved into.  In a sense Belichick and McDaniels engaged in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette with Mahomes and the KC passing attack.

Patrick’s 12 completions in 23 throws is only 52.2%.  But half of those completions gained more than 20 yards (those 6 completions, in fact, totaled 196 yards) – including all of his last 4 completions of the season (which totaled 109 yards).  Of Mahomes’ 31 pass attempts, 9 were up the field at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 4 of the 9 for 144 yards.

As the Chiefs advanced the ball out of their own territory, the downfield game became even more dangerous.  Between the 50-yard line and the red zone, Mahomes was only 4-for-8.  But all four completions covered at least 23 yards – totaling 121 yards.  In total, when starting on the New England side of the field, Mahomes was 6-for-11 for 134 yards, with all 6 completions going for first downs – including 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating in Patriot territory was an outstanding 137.88.

Defending Patrick

Man? Or Zone?

That’s always the question as a defense prepares a plan for an opposing passing game.  While there are no absolutes, a zone defense will provide more of a mental challenge to a quarterback, while man defenses will tend to challenge his physical abilities.  For that reason, I expected to see New England challenge Kansas City’s first year starter with mostly zone coverages.  They didn’t – although perhaps they should.

Mahomes saw no zone coverages at all in the first half of the game, and only 8 zone coverages in the entire game (22.9% of his drop-backs).  It’s a small sample size, but Pat didn’t respond very well to them, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards (and being sacked once).  Beyond just the numbers, he seemed hesitant.  Two of the throws he just heaved out of bounds.  Three of the others were just dump offs.  Only two of the attempted passes went beyond ten yards (one toward Kelce and one towards Williams) and both fell incomplete.

Hard to say how it would have played out if New England had kept mixing in zone coverages.

But the game plan against Mahomes and KC was more basic.  Deny Tyreek Hill.  To that end, Hill (and Kelce and Mahomes) saw a steady diet of man coverage.  In Hill’s case, it was an almost constant double-team, with Jonathan Jones pressing Tyreek at the line, and safety Devin McCourty staying over the top on any deep route.  With no safety help, Kelce was mostly given over to the care of a young defensive back named J.C. Jackson.

That part of the plan went pretty well.  Hill only beat the double-coverage once – his 42-yard reception being his only catch of the night, and Kelce finished the game with just 3 catches for 23 yards, although Jackson did commit a fairly critical pass interference penalty against him.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of man coverage on 26 of his 35 drop-backs (and this doesn’t even count one play of prevent-man that New England ran against him late in the fourth quarter).  Mahomes met the challenge admirably – even without much participation from his two leading receivers.  Against the man schemes of the Patriots, Pat completed 13 of 23 passes (again, just 56.52%), but for 268 yards and all 3 of his touchdowns.  Ten of those 13 completions gained first downs, and his passer rating against these man coverages was a superior 137.32.

If the Patriots were intent on taking away Hill and Kelce, Mahomes made them pay with Watkins and Williams.  Sammy Watkins was 0-for-1 working against zone defenses, but he damaged the Patriots’ compromised man coverages to the tune of 4 receptions for 114 yards.  Williams results were similar – he was 1-2 for 4 yards against zone, but 4-for-6 for 62 yards against man concepts – but here a different weakness was exploited.

Super Check-Down.

The challenge against Watson was defending the vertical without safety help.  With Williams the problem was all the room allowed underneath.  All 4 of the passes completed to him were less than five-yards from the line of scrimmage, but he broke two of them for long gains (33 yards and a 23-yard touchdown on a screen pass).  His day might have been even more electric, as he was open up field on all three of the other throws sent his way.  In what was an otherwise sterling effort, those three passes (all overthrows) might be the only ones Patrick might wish to have back.

Pressing Pat

In as much as blitzing Mahomes goes, the Patriots were cautious.  Blitzing is one of those elements that will sometimes play to the strength of athletic quarterbacks.  They blitzed him only 10 times – but were very effective when they did.  Three of the 10 blitzes resulted in sacks, and Mahomes managed completions on only 2 of the 7 passes that he managed to get off against the Patriot blitzes (granted, both completions were chunk plays, totaling 69 yards).

Even without directly blitzing, the Patriots were still able to apply substantial pressure.  They were not always close enough to hit him as he threw – although they did manage that level of pressure on 13 of his drop-backs – but they were almost always able to provide enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable.  On 60% of Mahomes’ pass attempts (21 of his 35) there was at the very least an onrushing defender or a hand grasping for him, or some presence near enough to force the pass to come out sooner – or at a different angle – than intended.  For the most part, this pressure also achieved its secondary objective of keeping Patrick in the pocket.

The Patriots are not a team with a dominant pass rusher.  They, in fact, finished the regular season ranked thirtieth in sacks (with just 30) and thirty-first in percentage of times sacking the quarterback (Patriot opponents only went down on 4.7% of their pass attempts against New England).

The Patriots have picked up this area of their game now that the playoffs are upon us.  Against the Chargers, they sacked Philip Rivers only twice, but showed consistent pressure.  They sacked Mahomes 4 times in this game, with the pressure coming from several different defenders through a variety of line stunts – that Kansas City had repeated difficulty picking up – and disguised rushes from the secondary.  In this mix, defenders like Don’t’a Hightower, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers were consistently in Mahomes’ face.

Most visible of all, though, was linebacker Kyle Van Noy.  Van Noy accounted for 2 of the 4 sacks and several other pressures.  In addition, he made 4 other tackles against the passing game, and 2 of the 11 tackles made against the KC running game.

Beyond the numbers, though, Van Noy seemed to be a constant presence on the field.  There were times during the game that you might have thought there were three guys out there wearing Kyle’s jersey.

More Mahomes

Through all of this, young Patrick kept bouncing back.  

At various times, New England threatened to turn the contest into a rout.  They lead by 14 at the half, and spent a good chunk of the game ahead by at least ten points.

At these moments, Mahomes played some of his best football as he kept bringing the Chiefs back.  Taking the field to begin three different drives with deficits of at least 10 points, Mahomes led his team to touchdowns on two of them.  The only time he failed was at the very end of the first half – down 14-0 – KC began with the ball on its own 42 with 27 seconds left.  That one-play drive resulted in a sack and a 15-yard loss, after which the Chiefs quietly retired to their locker room.

Through those other two critical drives, Patrick was 7 for 9 for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Also, while one of the Patriot focuses was keeping Mahomes in the pocket, that kind of thing is easier said than done.  While they were mostly successful – and they did hold him in the pocket on 26 of his 35 attempts despite nearly constant pressure – they couldn’t always contain him.  And when Mahomes got outside of the pocket, he continued to demonstrate why he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks on the perimeter.

I do, first, want to draw a distinction between Mahomes outside the pocket and under control, and Mahomes running for his life and just flinging the ball away.  The later dynamic did happen a couple of times.

But on the 7 plays where Patrick rolled out under his own control, he completed 6 of the 7 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It was on these plays that Watkins was at his most dangerous as well.  Three of the 4 completions and 104 of the 114 yards that Watkins totaled during the game came with Mahomes wandering from the pocket.

It was a dangerous, dangerous quarterback that watched from the sidelines as New England ended the game.  Sometimes, in this crazy game, it’s possible to be too dangerous.  It could, perhaps, be argued that on this evening Kansas City may have been too explosive.

Too Explosive?

If it’s true that New England’s use of man coverage provided opportunities for big plays, it is also true that those big plays minimized the time that Kansas City’s offense had on the field.  Kansas City hurt New England with 4 touchdown drives on their way to their 31 points.  But – because they were big-play dependent – those 4 touchdown drives consumed a total of 7 minutes and 54 seconds.  The Patriots opened the game with a touchdown drive that – by itself – was longer (8:05) than all of KC’s touchdown drives added together.

By the time Burkhead’s plunge ended the affair, the KC defense had been on the field – absorbing the relentless pounding of the Patriot running game – for an almost incomprehensible 94 plays and 43 minutes and 59 seconds.

This, too, was part of the Patriot game plan.  The most secure way to keep Mahomes from beating you is by keeping him on the sidelines.

This part of the game plan fed off the victory the week before, and begins to form a trend that the Rams should at least be concerned about.

Fast Starting Patriots

Against the Chargers, New England began the game with a withering 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed the first 7:11 of that contest.  They bettered that drive with their opener against the Chiefs with a 15-play, 80-yard, 8:05 drive.  So, combined, their opening drives in their two playoff games have consumed 15 minutes and 16 seconds of playing time, while covering 163 yards on 28 plays.

In addition, the Patriots closed out the first half against LA with a 35-7 lead, 20:11 of ball control and a 347-128 yardage advantage.  The halftime numbers against KC were very similar.  Even though the lead was only 14-0, the time of possession sat at 21:07 and the yardage differential favored New England 245-32.  Combining the first halves of the Patriots two playoff games, New England has out-scored their two opponents 49-7.  They have outgained them 592 yards to 160, and have held the ball for 41 minutes and 18 seconds.

New England has opened both of these games on fire, and have put their opponents on their heels from the very beginning.  In this game, the Kansas City offense trailed on every single snap they took.

Tony Romo – calling both of these games for CBS – referenced New England’s supposed under-dog status as a driving force.  I suspect some of that is true.  After last year’s Super Bowl, I made note of the fact that the Patriots had made a habit of digging themselves early holes in their playoff games.  I think the realization that they have been less than emotional in these contests in recent years – amplified by the sting of last year’s bitter Super Bowl loss has fueled this Patriot resurgence.

If you asked them, I would bet that every single one of them remembers clearly the feeling walking off the field after last year’s big game.

Patriot Imperatives

Nobody understands or plays the game of complimentary football better than New England.  Much of their emphasis on the running game had as its underlying purpose the controlling of the clock and keeping Mahomes a spectator.  On their 43 first down plays, the Patriots ran 28 times.  Eleven of those 43 first down plays earned the necessary 10 yards to gain another first down – 5 of those coming from the running game and 6 from passes.

On their way to 36 first downs, New England failed to manage at least one first down only twice in their 12 drives.  One of those was a damaging fourth quarter drive when a pass bounced off the fingers of Julian Edelman for an interception.  The other was the kneeldown by Brady that ended regulation.

Inside Brady’s Day

All of this provides context for what appears, on one level, to be one of Tom Brady’s least productive playoff outings.  He did throw for 348 yards, but that was after 30 completions on 46 attempts.  With his one touchdown pass off-set by two interceptions thrown, his passer rating was a modest 77.08 (just 67.30 in the second half).  Challenged repeatedly with man coverage – and Brady saw man coverage on 76.1% of his attempts (35 of 46), he was consistently unable to convert those opportunities into big plays – his 22 completions in those opportunities accounting for just 235 yards (10.68 per).

Noticeably absent in these moments was tight end Rob Gronkowski.  Covered almost always by safeties Daniel Sorensen or Eric Berry, Rob was only targeted 7 times in man coverage, catching just 2 of the throws (note, this is against man coverage when KC was not blitzing.  Brady completed two huge passes to Rob when they caught the Chiefs in blitzes).

Most of this had little to do with any diminishment on the part of Brady – or even with him having a bad game.  In this particular matchup, one of the Patriot imperatives was no sacks – a point I’ll enlarge upon later.  While Kansas City’s defense has statistically underperformed in most categories this season, their one great strength was their pass rush.  Their 52 quarterback sacks led the league, and their 7.6% ratio of dropping opposing passers was football’s eighth-best figure.

Playing on the Chiefs home field, in front of their raucous crowd, the Patriots came to the determination that the one sure way that they could lose control of the game was to put themselves in long-yardage situations and let the Chiefs’ destructive pass rush pin back its ears and come after them.

There were at least a half dozen moments in the game where Brady would have had an up-the-field opportunity had he held onto the ball for just another second or two.  But that second or two – in this particular game against this particular opponent in this particular venue – proved to be an unacceptable risk.

Repeatedly in this game, Brady dumped off to the first open receiver to consistently keep himself and his team out of deeper trouble.  But don’t for one moment misunderstand.  When the play was there to be made, Brady made it.  And most of the time on the receiving end was one of football’s most underappreciated receivers. 

Indomitable Julian

There is 1:57 left in the season.  The Patriots, on their own 35-yard line, now trail 28-24.  About 15 yards downfield, Julian Edelman breaks over the middle – Kyle Fuller, closing fast, narrowing the window.  The throw leads Julian away from Fuller, and is just a tad high – high enough to make sure that only Edelman can catch it.  With Jordan Lucas descending from his safety position to make the play, Edelman stretches for the ball.  He pulls it in safely, and turns up field for about five more yards before absorbing the hit.

Another play in the life of Julian Edelman.

Edelman doesn’t make many lists of the top ten receivers.  He is not among the biggest or the fastest.  But I submit that Julian Edelman is among the toughest receivers in the NFL, with his mental toughness the equal of his physical toughness.  In fact, a great deal of the success that New England has had over the years, I believe, traces back to the mental toughness of role players like Edelman.  It is at the root, if you will, of the Belichick mantra “Do your job.”

Here with the season on the line Edelman runs a very precise route, and makes a very tough catch in a high-pressure situation.  That is his job.

And his arena is what I call the intermediate middle.  This is that area of the field between the numbers at least ten yards from scrimmage but less than twenty yards up field.  It’s a high-traffic area, where receivers are subject to the ministrations of a wide variety of safeties and other defensive backs.

It’s an area of the field where only the tough survive, and where Edelman dominates.  In this contest, in this intermediate middle section of the field, Brady and Edelman were 5-for-5 for 88 yards.  A zone can sometimes interfere with these routes, but the very quick Edelman is usually tough to deal with on a man-to-man basis.  In this game, Julian answered man coverage by catching 5 of 6 for 63 yards.

Patriot Imperatives, Revisited

In the avalanche of numbers, plays and observations that float in the wake of a game like this, there is one play and one meaning that keeps resurfacing.  The play is as innocuous as can be imagined, but what underpins that play is as revealing as any other moment in this game.

There are six seconds left in regulation.  Kansas City has just tied the game at 31.  Brady has the ball at his own 19-yard line.  He takes the snap and kneels.  And the game goes to overtime.

This is, of course, no big deal.  Most games end with a kneel down by one side or another.  Until you realize this.  New England ran 94 offensive plays in that long and historic evening.  This was the only one that lost yardage.

The Patriots ran the ball 47 other times.  Each and every time the runner made it at least back to the line of scrimmage.  (This might be one reason they switched to Burkhead in the fourth.)  Brady dropped to pass 46 times.  He wasn’t sacked in any of them – sometimes getting rid of the ball early before any hint of pressure could arrive.

With about 5:30 left in the third, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is called for an offensive pass interference penalty.  It changes what would have been a third-and-four to a second-and-19.  Brady drops a screen pass off to Chris Hogan for 2 yards and then hands the ball of to James White for a couple more before they kick the field goal.

On this long and rewarding night, these were the only two plays the Patriots faced on any down the entire game that they needed more than ten yards for the first down.

One of the ramifications of this played out on third down.  New England converted 13 of 19 third downs.  Brady was 9 of 11 on third down (81.82%), for 119 yards, with all 9 completions going for first downs.  These were not all necessarily short-yardage third downs, either.  In fact, Tom was 6-6 for 84 yards (and 6 first downs) when faced with third-and-seven or longer.  But this was made possible by the fact that – with the exception of one drive – the Patriots never put themselves in a position where the KC pass rush could have at them.

(A footnote here.  On the game-winning, overtime drive, Brady faced and converted three third-and-ten’s.  Two of them went to Edelman in that intermediate middle.  The other was to Gronkowski, also in the middle but more underneath.)

Often I think we get caught up in game plans and designs.  While these are no doubt important, with the great teams I believe it frequently comes down to executing simple imperatives – with an imperative being an over-arching objective that may be of more importance than the actual game plan.

I actually think this is a constant of the Patriot approach.  They identify a few critical, necessary objectives, and then doggedly and consistently execute them.

Here, one of the Patriot imperatives was no negative plays.  At all costs, they wanted to keep themselves out of trouble by the Kansas City pass rush.  No negative plays is an easy thing to say. It’s the execution that’s the key.

A Final Moment to Ponder

And yet, for as well conceived and executed as the Patriot game-plan (and imperatives) were, they barely escaped to play another day.

For fans of the Chiefs, the long off-season might be filled with nightmares of a coin showing its head.  As damaging as that toss of the coin was, Chief fans might also have nightmares of a hand.

Dee Ford’s hand.

With 1:01 left in regulation, and with the Chiefs still ahead 28-24, Brady faced a third-and-ten from the KC 34 yard line.  But this time, his third down pass was intercepted by Charvarius Ward, and suddenly Kansas City had the ball and the lead, just 54 seconds away from Super Bowl LIII.

The euphoria was extremely short-lived.  There was a penalty.  Offsides – Dee Ford.  And there on the replay, plain as day, Dee’s hand completely across the line of scrimmage.

With the interception wiped out, it was only a matter of when.  Two plays later Burkhead scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the back-and-forth would continue.  Many Chief fans, I believe, knew then that this one was over

Kansas City committed only four penalties in the game for just 28 yards – and none in the first half.  That one will burn in the memory for a long time.

Up Next, Super Bowl LIII

With that, the stage is set for Super Bowl LIII (53, for those not into Roman numerals).  I’m afraid that I haven’t followed all the story lines, or any of the media madness which is attendant on this event, but mention must certainly have been made of Super Bowl XXXVI (36).  That was the first Super Bowl matchup between the Rams (then living in St Louis) and the Patriots – not yet a legendary franchise. 

Back then, St Louis was the established team – having won Super Bowl XXXIV (34).  They featured, arguably, the most renowned quarterback of that time – Kurt Warner, who led what was called the greatest show on turf.  The Patriots were the upstarts.  They had been 5-11 the year before, but were suddenly rising under a young first-year starter at quarterback named Brady.

The Patriots even advanced in the playoffs that year, like the Rams did this year, with help from a controversial game – you must remember the tuck rule game.  That was a Divisional Round game, and not a Championship Game – but the parallels are certainly there.  It would give a sense of coming full circle is the Rams and Jared Goff can do to New England what the Patriots did to them 17 years ago (has it really been 17 years)?

That will not be an impossible achievement.  The now-Los Angeles Rams present a significant challenge.  Again, their offense finished second in the league both in yards and in scoring.  If they are not quite as explosive as the Kansas City team New England just vanquished (KC finished first in both those categories), they are close (and certainly more balanced than the Chiefs).

I am also starting to believe in the LA defense.  I suspect that New England will have difficulty establishing that running game that has been so much a part of their first two playoff wins (they ran for 155 yards in their Divisional win against the Chargers).  In all honesty, I wasn’t overly impressed with the offensive line in this win – the 176 rushing yards notwithstanding.  It was more of a grinding effort than a dominant one, as NE averaged just 3.7 yards on their 48 rushes.

Of those 48 running plays, only 6 gained at least 10 yards.  Four of those came in the fourth quarter or overtime as exhaustion began to set in – and two of those took advantage of defensive lines that were over shifted, inviting New England to run to the under shifted side. 

On New England’s longest run of the day (a 14-yarder by Burkhead with 6:05 left in the fourth) the Chiefs only had two defensive linemen on the field. Xavier Williams lined up over the left shoulder of center David Andrews, and Allen Bailey played the three-technique tackle position in between right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.  On the offensive left side, there was almost no one.  From Williams to the sideline, Kansas City defended with only rush-linebacker Ford – split quite wide to the outside – and safety Sorensen standing five yards off the line.

As Brady audibled to the weak-side run, Andrews held up Williams and left tackle Trent Brown pushed Ford further wide.  Left guard Joe Thuney had responsibility for Sorensen – who he did take care of, but had to run almost five yards downfield to get to him.  The Chiefs did this several times – creating a natural bubble that New England took advantage of.

The way Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are playing, I believe New England will be hard pressed to establish a running game.

The passing situation is different.

For one thing, over their last two games, the Ram defense hasn’t had to deal with a tight end who is a threat.  Dallas was without their top receiving tight end (Geoff Swaim) and ended up throwing to Blake Jarwin and Dalton SchultzBen Watson – New Orleans’ best tight end – missed the Championship Game, and number two receiving threat from that position – Josh Hill – left after just nine plays with a concussion.  So the Rams will go from defending Blake Jarwin and Garrett Griffin to contending with Gronkowski.  Should be a stiffer test.

Secondly, while Aqib Talib played an outstanding game against Michael Thomas, I was still not all that impressed with the other corner, Marcus Peters.  He is still a weak link I expect Belichick to expose.

Even beyond the matchups, though, I think the Rams’ toughest challenge will be the endurance test.  Two Super Bowls ago, the Patriots wore down the Atlanta Falcons.  Two Sundays ago they wore down the Kansas City Chiefs (albeit it took them almost 65 minutes of football to do so).

While Donald and Suh are forces on that defensive line, it is also true that they rarely come off the field.  Will they in particular, and the Rams in general, have the stamina to stay with the Patriots for the full four (or perhaps five) quarters?

This New England outfit will be tough to deal with.  They have fought a long, hard year to get back here and the bitterness of the loss to Philadelphia is palpable around the organization.

My council to the Rams is, if you win the toss, take the ball.  Give yourselves the chance to hit the ground running.

Final Notes

First, to all those Cowboy fans who kept swearing to me that Tony Romo would make it to the Super Bowl, Sunday afternoon will prove you finally correct.  He will be there – in the broadcast booth sitting next to Jim Nance and predicting – with uncanny accuracy – what the offenses will do next.

Finally, Super Bowls past have sometimes been anti-climactic, with the game frequently falling short of the hype.  This matchup could produce one of the more exciting games.  But, for this game to top the Championship Games that have led up to this moment, well, it’s going to have to be some game.

Some game, indeed.

Super Bowl LII: The Last Word

For more than three hours on the evening of February second, all of America (or at least the football-watching portion of that population) tuned into Super Bowl LII looking for the precise moment that the Philadelphia’s Eagles’ Cinderella ride would turn back into a pumpkin.

Even after the Eagles – history’s most dis-respected number one seed – had opened up a 15-3 lead on the New England Patriots just 21 minutes into the contest, the haters remained unconvinced.  We had all seen this film before.

With 5:15 left before the end of the half, Nick Foles’ long toss up the right sideline deflected into the hands of New England’s Duron Harmon for the game’s first turnover.  Surely that would change the momentum of the game.  But after New England went 90 yards for a touchdown following the interception, Philadelphia answered with a touchdown of their own before the half and went into the locker room with a ten-point lead.

Like the monster in all of the slasher films, the defending champions from New England refused to die.  They opened the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and finally – with 9:22 left in the game – pushed ahead 33-32.  Surely this would finally be the end of the under-dog Eagles.

This was, after all, the same Patriot team that overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl just the year before, and just two weeks earlier had overturned an 11-point deficit against Jacksonville to qualify for this year’s big game.  It seemed almost expected that Philly’s 12-point lead would at some point evaporate.

But on this evening the under-appreciated Eagles slew the dragon from Boston by doing the one thing that the Falcons (in Super Bowl LI) and the Jaguars (in this year’s AFC Championship Game) were unable to do.

They kept scoring.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were done scoring at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter.  After having three earlier touchdown drives of at least 62 yards, the Falcons totaled just 44 yards (and 3 first downs) on their last 4 possessions.  Jacksonville scored its last touchdown of the game at 7:06 of the second quarter.  They had moved for 158 yards and 11 first downs in their back-to-back touchdown drives.  Over their final 9 possessions of the game, the Jaguars managed just two field goals, 193 yards and 9 first downs.

Doug Pederson’s offense never relented.  Every time the Patriots surged back into the game, the Eagles responded.  They ended the Super Bowl by scoring on all of their last 5 possessions following the interception to carry off a 41-33 victory (gamebook).

Reversing the Trend

There was an era not too long ago when the Super Bowl was traditionally one of the dullest contests of the season.  Beginning with the Raiders 38-9 thumping of the Redskins back in Super Bowl XVIII (18), all of the next 5 Super Bowls would be decided by at least 19 points, with four of the five being decided by 22 points or more.  The average margin of victory in those five Super Bowls was 27.6 points.  Two Super Bowls after the last of those (Washington’s 42-10 pummeling of Denver), the San Francisco 49ers authored the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history – a 55-10 rout also at the expense of the Broncos.  It was an era where advertisers pushed to get their commercials aired in the first quarter as a large percentage of the viewing population had moved on to something else long before halftime.  From Dallas’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI (6), through Tampa Bay’s 48-21 conquest of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII (37), only 9 of 32 contests were decided by one score or less, and the average margin of victory was a disappointing 16.5 points.

But, beginning with New England’s tense 32-29 victory over Carolina that next season, the dynamic has decidedly changed.  Ten of the last fifteen have been one score games – including this one, which ended with Tom Brady throwing into the end zone as time expired.

And while the recent decade has brought us more competitive contests, the last three have been nothing short of transcendent.  Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl brought us Peyton Manning’s farewell.  One of the great presence’s in recent football history, Peyton went out a champion, leading Denver to a 24-10 decision over Carolina.  Last season, of course, Brady and the Patriots authored one of the great comebacks of all-time.

And two weeks ago the no-chance Eagles fashioned a stunning upset in a game that set a hatful of Super Bowl offensive records. League-wide all teams averaged 334.1 yards per game.  The Eagles racked up 323 yards and the Patriots managed 350 yards.

At the half.

Offense Galore

During the entertaining first half, the two teams combined for 673 yards on 72 plays – a breath-taking 9.3 yards per play.  By about the mid-point of the third quarter the two teams had set the Super Bowl record for combined yardage.  They would finish the affair with 1151 total yards and 9 combined touchdowns.  Nine different players ended with a run or a catch of at least 20 yards.  Four of them had pass catches of over 40 yards.

Together, the Eagles and Patriots were 15 for 26 on third down (.577), including 8 of 12 (.667) in the second half.  They were also 3-for-4 on fourth down.  The 33 points scored by New England were the most ever by a losing team in a Super Bowl (supplanting the 49ers, who scored 31 points in losing Super Bowl XLVII [48]) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX [29] the 49ers outscored the San Diego Chargers 49-26).  Considering that this game saw two missed extra-points, a missed field goal, and two failed two-point conversions, that record held by the slimmest combination of circumstances imaginable.

The Defining Moment of Super Bowl LII

The contest will forever be remembered for the touchdown that the Eagles scored on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the first half.  Leading by just three points, and with New England set to receive the second-half kickoff, Philadelphia simply could not afford to come away from this opportunity without points.  So, even the decision to go for the touchdown here was risky.  And for Pederson to reach deep into his bag of tricks for the tight-end option pass to the quarterback ranks as one of the gutsiest calls in the now-long history of the Super Bowl.  The potential for disaster here was huge.  With an inexperienced passer throwing to the flat on the goal line, any of the numerous ways that play could have backfired would almost certainly have cost Philly the game.

But the play didn’t backfire.  Trey Burton threw an accurate pass, and Foles made the catch in the end zone.

It will be remembered by many as the critical play of the game.  But here’s the thing.  Even in spite of this highlight-reel play, the Eagles still found themselves trailing with nine minutes left in the season.  The actual play of the game – not so much highlight reel stuff – might well have been Philadelphia’s other fourth-down play.

That the Eagles trailed by one with 9:22 to go was the least of their concerns.  The raspberry seed in their collective wisdom tooth was the Patriot offense that they had not yet managed to stop.  In nine possessions to that point of the game, New England had managed at least 1 first down in all of them, and 2 or more in 7 of the 9.  Six of the nine had covered at least 74 yards, and eight of them accounted for at least 48 yards.  The nine had resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 missed field goal, 1 missed fourth-down play, and the end of the first half.  Every drive but one to this point had ended in Philadelphia territory – and the one that didn’t made it to the 50-yard line.  Philadelphia needed to find some way to keep this offense off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

So, as the Eagles lined up along their own 25-yard line with those 9:22 to go, more than just the score to put them back in front, Philadelphia needed to kill the clock.  And when a third-and-one screen pass to Torrey Smith ended shy of first-down yardage, the Eagles’ season hung in the balance.

There was still 5:39 left in the game.  With the fourth-and-one, Philadelphia sat on their own 45-yard line.  A punt here was an open invitation for New England to put an exclamation point on their comeback.  But a failed fourth-down play would give the Patriots a short field and a golden opportunity for the game-clinching score.  In spite of the fact that Philadelphia ran for 164 yards this day, they opted for a pass, risking everything on the arm and the judgement of the much maligned Nick Foles.

Nicky Who?

As recently as 2015, Nick was a sometimes starter for the St Louis Rams, fashioning a 4-7 record as a starter with an exceedingly modest 69.0 passer rating.  He spent 2016 sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and had much the same function in Philadelphia for most of this year.

And now, everything depended on him.

In a 3-tight-end set, Foles had Zach Ertz tight to the right side, and Brent Celek and Burton lined up tight to the left.  Ertz and Celek ran a simple shallow cross against New England’s man coverage.  Devin McCourty – in coverage on Ertz – ran headlong into Celek and Patrick Chung – who had coverage on Celek.  And now there was just Ertz roaming completely free underneath.  The pressure on Foles was quick.  Trey Flowers slipped immediately inside tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to flush Foles to his left, and Kyle Van Noy stunted around Vaitai’s back to hit Nicky just after he released the ball.  The throw was a little high, but Zach pulled it down.  And the Eagle drive continued.

That play was the lynch-pin of a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:01 from the remaining game-clock.  Foles connected twice more with Ertz for third-down conversions – including the 11-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) that concluded the drive.  McCourty had Zach in man coverage on that play as well, but Devin stumbled just slightly as Zach made his break to the inside, creating the opening that led to the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming off the game of his life against Minnesota, Nick Foles was very good again against New England.  He finished 28-of-43 (65.12%) for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns and the interception.  His rating against the Patriots overall was a strong 106.06.  But once again, he was at his very best on third down.

Against the Vikings, he completed 10-of-11 on third down for 159 yards and 9 first downs (including 2 touchdowns).  On third-down against the Patriots, Nicky completed 11 of 14 for 169 yards – again for 9 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Thus Nick Foles finished the last two games of the season completing 21 of 25 passes (84%) for 328 yards, 18 first downs and 4 touchdowns on third down – a combined 158.33 rating.

Of all the remarkable numbers amassed by Foles in his surprising Super Bowl run, his dominance on third down are both the most amazing and the most vital.

He also finished the game on a hot streak comparable to the way he finished up the Vikings.  Beginning with his 22-yard touchdown toss to Corey Clement about midway through the third, Nicky finished 13 for his last 16 (81.25%) – albeit for just 127 yards (9.77 per completion) – and 2 touchdowns.  His passer rating reached 139.32 as he finished the game.

Coming down the stretch, Nick began to look more and more for Nelson Agholor – who was matched mostly against Chung.  Patrick – one of the defensive heroes for the Patriots during the playoff run – had a tough Super Bowl that included being knocked out of the game twice.

Five of Foles’ last 16 passes went in Agholor’s direction, with Nelson catching all five for 54 yards and 4 first downs.

Defensive Measures

As did Minnesota, New England decided to play man coverage against the Eagle receivers and brought frequent pressure.  Nick got man coverage on 79% of his drop-backs, including being blitzed 37% of the time.  Foles chewed up the Patriot blitz to the tune of 11 of 16 (68.75%) for 126 yards and 1 touchdown (a 113.02 passer rating).  The Patriots did a little better when they played man and didn’t blitz (a 109.49 rating on 11 of 18 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and the interception).

Best of all against Foles may have been the zone defenses the Patriots threw at him, though they went to zone too infrequently to make much of a judgement.  Foles was 6 of 9 against the New England zones, but for just 63 yards and 2 first downs.

When they could pressure Foles, they did very well against him. Credit to the Eagle offensive line that Nick only threw 11 passes under duress (about a fourth of his attempts).  He completed only 3 of those passes for just 9 yards.  All three of those completions came in that pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown drive.  Foles was also just 4 for 11 when they could flush him out of the pocket. Again, this was something New England couldn’t do enough of.

Does Foles Have an Encore In Him?

The great post-season mystery now becomes what happens with Nick Foles?  With emerging superstar Carson Wentz set to return, this playoff run was essentially an audition for Foles.  Have these last three games convinced anyone that Nicky is their quarterback of the future?  Or is it more likely – given his recent performance in St Louis – that this playoff run had more to do with the team around him?

Let me say this for Foles.  During the playoff run, he made excellent decisions and threw a very catchable ball.  He especially has a nice touch on deep passes.  In all this, though, I don’t think I’m completely convinced Nicky is the answer as anyone’s starter.   And even after all this, I’m not sure that everyone understands what was truly remarkable about Foles, the Eagles, and their 2017 playoff run.

Put the tape back in and watch the first possession of the game.  Watch Foles coolly and confidently run the Eagle offense.  In the eyes of the rest of the world, Nick Foles had everything to prove.  But that’s not what you saw two weeks ago.  You saw a backup quarterback playing in the Super Bowl with absolutely nothing to prove – to himself or anyone else.  That is because his entire team, from owner down to ball boy, had already placed their entire confidence in him.  Nick Foles was their quarterback.  The defense didn’t put extra pressure on themselves. Neither did the offensive line.  The coaches made no effort to hide their quarterback.  He threw 11 times in the 16 plays of Philadelphia’s first two drives (a field goal and a touchdown) and threw on 10 of the 14 plays of the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Without exception, everyone in the Eagle locker room firmly believed that Foles would deliver a starting quarterback effort that evening – and with 373 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes tossed – and one caught, Nicky Foles did just that.

Imagine for a moment how difficult that is.  Imagine All-Pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox standing on the sideline watching Wentz not get up after scoring that touchdown against the Rams.  Imagine what must have been going through his head.  And Jason Kelce’s.  And Zach Ertz’.  And coach Pederson’s.  In the pit of your stomach, how can you not feel that your season had just ended?  Remember, Carson Wentz was not just their starting quarterback.  He was the soul of the team.  He was the piece that made the whole machine go.  If you had been watching the NFL season up to that point, you would have tabbed Carson Wentz as one of the handful of irreplaceable players.  Every other member of the Eagle team must have felt his loss as a debilitating punch to the gut.

And then somewhere in between that devastating moment and the time the Eagles took the field for their first playoff game that most under-appreciated element of professional sports took over.  The Eagle locker room healed itself.  They embraced Nicky Foles, and endowed him with their complete trust and confidence.  This wasn’t a pretend “oh, sure, we’re all behind you” confidence.  Nicky Foles became – for a few dynamic weeks – the sum of the faith of his team.

Even should the Eagles and Wentz go on to experience success on the level of the Patriots, this first Super Bowl win (and the under-dog status that they carried into it) will always be memorable to them.  I’m not sure, though, history will forever remember this aspect of this remarkable achievement.

Oh, Yes . . .

Speaking of history, the quarterback on the other end of this entertaining contest has been involved in a bit of it himself.

The Eagles managed to hold Tom Brady and the Patriot offense to field goal attempts in three of their first four possessions by bringing fairly consistent pressure.  But as New England’s offensive line got their feet set under them, Brady became Brady again.

Beginning with a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the third quarter, and continuing until Brady threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski that put New England ahead in the fourth, Brady completed 12 out of 14 passes for 181 yards and all three touchdowns.  He worked with great frequency and effectiveness to the left side, where Ronald Darby was a frequent target.  Tom completed 12 of 14 passes (85.71%) to the offensive left side of the formation for 215 yards (15.36 yards per attempt) and 1 touchdown – a 142.56 rating.  In fact, subtract two spikes to stop the clock and his last 7 passes against rather extreme zone defenses, and Brady was 25 of 39 (64.1%) for 465 yards (18.6 yards per completion) with the 3 touchdowns – a 130.82 passer rating.

Not much that Philly tried against Tom succeeded. The Eagles went to predominantly man coverages – doing so on 70% of Brady’s pass attempts (other than the spikes or the prevents).  They blitzed less often than New England (only 20% of the time), but with no better results.  Tom went 6 for 8 for 111 yards against the Eagle blitzes.  But when they played man without the blitz, things went even worse.  Brady completed only 11 of 20 passes against those man coverages (55%), but for 215 yards (19.55 yards per completion) and 2 of his touchdowns – a 126.04 rating.  The Eagles didn’t play much zone – and just as well.  Tom was 8 of 11 (72.73%) when they did, for 139 yards (12.64 per attempted pass) and the other touchdown – a 145.08 passer rating.

Frankly, when Brady and the offense got the ball back, trailing by 5 with 2:21 left and holding one time out, I thought – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone – that the Patriots would add one more improbable comeback to their swelling playoff lore.

Not What You Might Have Expected

But then the unusual happened.  Instead of the Patriots making that clutch fourth-quarter, game-deciding play, it was the Eagles making it against them.  In a game that featured just one punt and one sack, it was the latter that finally decided matters.  With New England facing a second-and-2 on their own 33, Brandon Graham surged underneath Patriot guard Shaq Mason and closed quickly enough on Brady that he hit the ball as Tom was raising it for a pass.

For a small eternity the football – and the season – bounced freely on the turf, to be gathered in in the next heartbeat by Eagle defensive end Derek Barnett.  The Eagles had the ball on the Patriot 31 with just 2:09 left.

This would be the only time of the game that the Eagles would go conservative – and it almost cost them.  Three running plays gained 4 yards.  Jake Elliot finished the one minute-four second drive with the field goal that gave us the final score, and when New England finally got the ball back for their desperation drive, there was only 58 seconds left in the season – and the Patriots had 91 yards to cover.

And even at that, they were still throwing into the end zone as time expired.

A Warning Note

Among the more glamourous offensive records set in Super Bowl LII was the passing yardage record.  Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for 500 yards in a game (505 to be exact).  Whose record did he break?  Why his own, of course.  The year before in Super Bowl LI Brady had thrown for 466 yards.  Across all of football this year, the average quarterback threw for about 3800 yards for the 16-game season.  In the last two Super Bowls, Brady has thrown for 971.

Impressive? Of course.  But the reason behind the record is even more instructive.  In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots ran 72 offensive plays.  They trailed in every one of them.  They didn’t have so much as one offensive snap where they were at least tied in the game.  They trailed by 10 points or more in 24 of those plays.

Two weeks earlier against Jacksonville, New England held the ball for 61 offensive plays.  They trailed in 42 of those – finding themselves down by ten points or more in 22 of them.  In last year’s Super Bowl, they trailed in 67 of 93 plays, finding themselves at least ten points behind in 53 of them.

So, during their last two Super Bowl games and their last AFC Championship game, New England has run a total of 226 plays.  They have been behind 80% of the time (181 plays) and trailed by at least 10 points almost half of the time (99 plays – 43.8%).  Brady – of necessity – has thrown 110 passes in his last two Super Bowls.

Taking nothing away from the Falcons, Jaguars or Eagles, the Patriots have been having an increasingly difficult time matching their opponent’s emotion in these big games.  Brady reported to Al Michales that he didn’t even feel nervous at the start of this – his eighth Super Bowl.  In particular, during the start of the Atlanta game, the Patriots looked almost like they were standing still.

There are already a sizeable number of mysteries that the 2018 season will answer.  The 2017 season saw a lot of upheaval.  Long-time doormats in Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, Los Angeles (and, yes, Philadelphia) all earned playoff bids.  Are these teams on the rise? Or one year wonders?  Meanwhile playoff mainstays in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle watched from home.  Are they franchises in decline?  Or were they mostly unlucky?  What does the future hold for marquee quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith – not to mention backups turned into heroes Nick Foles and Case Keenum?

As compelling as any of these mysteries is what we will see from the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.  How they respond to this surprising loss will be one of the stories to follow – and one of the keys to the direction the franchise is heading.

As for the Eagles – who jumped from 7-9 in 2016 to world champions this year – they will now be challenged with handling success.  Staying on top is always harder than getting there.

It all sets up for a fascinating 2018.

The Patriots are Hard to Kill

It’s always difficult to say how things might have turned out.

As Tom Brady and the Patriots broke the huddle with just 10:49 left in the game – and possibly their season – they faced a third-and-18 back on their own 25-yard line.  They were trailing by ten points.  It’s not fair to say that the entire game rode on this play, but if Jacksonville could stop this one third-and-18 play and run any kind of time off the clock on their next possession, the noose would certainly tighten around the necks of the defending champions.

But, comfortable in the pocket, Brady fired a strike 21-yards down the middle of the field where Danny Amendola gathered it in for the first down.  A few moments later, Brady would throw the touchdown pass to Amendola that would set the come-back in motion.  To no one’s profound surprise, the Patriots would go on to claim a 24-20 victory (gamebook) and propel themselves into Super Bowl LII.

In one sense, it was classic New England.  With them it always seems that when someone needs to make a play, someone does.  The grit level on this team is uncommonly high.  But there is another aspect of this play (and this game) that will (or at least should) haunt the players, coaches and fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the rest of the off-season.  On perhaps the game’s pivotal play, Brady looked up to see the Jacksonville defense in cover-4.

The Zone of Woe

In last week’s Divisional Round, Jacksonville had barely survived Pittsburgh.  In spite of a seemingly insurmountable early lead, the Steelers kept crawling back into the game, and they did it by the grace of the Jaguar zone defenses (my review of the proceedings is here).  Repeatedly, linebackers didn’t drop deep enough or wide enough.  Frequently defensive backs abandoned their zone responsibilities to follow a receiver.  And time after time they were burned by it.

In the game’s very first series, analyst Tony Romo pointed out that – while the Jaguars had played zone on the first two snaps – the expectation was that they would play the New England receivers almost exclusively with man coverage throughout the game.

There was every reason for him to have this expectation.  Tony saw the same thing I did.  While they tend to play undisciplined in zone coverage, Jacksonville is among the very best in football at man coverage.  In fact, when Brady faced man coverage last Sunday, he was held to just a 45.45% completion percentage, while averaging 5.36 yards per attempted pass.  His passer rating against the Jacksonville man-coverage schemes was a pitiable 62.31.  When permitted to challenge the Patriots man-on-man, the Jaguar defenders backed up all of their bragging leading up to the game.  For all the chatter from and concerning second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the surprising star of the defense was Aaron Colvin who matched the quickness of Amendola almost every chance he had to cover him.

Mystifyingly, he infrequently got that opportunity.

Of his 42 dropbacks, Brady faced man coverage only 12 times – less than 29% of the time.  All the rest of the game he saw zone coverages – and relished them.  He completed 21 of his 27 passes against the zones he saw (77.78%) for 231 yards – an average of 8.56 yards per attempted pass – with both of his touchdown passes thrown against the Jacksonville zone.  His passer rating of 127.01 was more than double his rating against man coverages.  And for some un-obvious reason, Brady saw zone coverages over 70% of the time.

I’m not sure if Jacksonville believed that zone coverages could limit New England’s big-play opportunities, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  After giving up a bushel-full of big-plays to the Steelers, Jacksonville saw New England complete 5 passes of at least 20 yards, including 2 passes of at least 30 yards against those leaky zones.  On the third-and-18 play mentioned above, neither linebacker (Telvin Smith nor Myles Jack) really dropped at all into their zones.  They mostly stood still, creating at least a ten-yard gap between them and the secondary – more than enough room for Brady and Amendola to maneuver.

While all of the defensive flaws previously mentioned were in evidence, Jacksonville’s most exploited weak link last Sunday was probably cornerback A.J. Bouye.  Excellent in man coverage all year, AJ plays zone as though the concept were to allow the receiver to catch the ball and then make the tackle.  Cognizant of not getting beaten deep, Bouye gives ground, and continues to give ground.  Of Brady’s 21 completions against zone coverages, no fewer than 5 were passes of at least 10 yards to receivers (mostly Brandon Cooks) who simply ran up the left sideline and turned around to catch the pass.  These 5 pass played totaled 69 yards.

Numbers From the Patriot Come Back

Zone or no zone, the game featured the usual Brady heroics.  He was 11 for 16 (68.75%) when trailing in the game by at least 10 points – his completions going for 167 yards – an average of 10.44 yards per attempted pass.  He also threw the first of his touchdown passes in this circumstance for a passer rating of 123.70.  In the fourth quarter alone he was 9 of 14 for 138 yards and both touchdowns.  Eight of his 9 fourth-quarter completions achieved first downs.  His fourth quarter rating was 136.31.  In case you are wondering, that is really good.

Fewer Heroics from Bortles

While Brady’s heroics have come to be expected, the curiosity in this game was the quarterback on the other sideline.  The much-maligned Blake Bortles had led his team into the Championship Game with a strong performance against Pittsburgh.  His passing line in this game would be good, but deceptively so.

His first appearance in a Championship Game finished with Blake completing 23 of 36 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown – good for a 98.5 rating.  But this number comes with a couple of caveats.

First of all, Blake’s great day was pretty much a function of short passes off of play action.  Because the Jaguar running game is so proficient, Bortles repeatedly threw off play action.  He was 10 of 13 (76.92%) throwing off play action for 158 yards (12.15 per attempted pass) and his only touchdown pass – good for a 142.47 rating.  Nine of the ten completions gained first downs.

Additionally, when throwing to receivers who were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake completed 18 of 23 (78.26%) for 180 yards and the touchdown – a rating of 113.77%.  When throwing to receivers at or beyond ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake was only 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 113 yards.

Additionally, Blake faded as the game went along.  He began his afternoon hitting 15 of his first 17 passes (88.24%!) for 184 yards and a touchdown.  Thereafter, Blake was only 8 for his last 19 (42.11%) for 109 yards.  Blake had some late-game opportunities.  But he either didn’t notice the receiver, or made a poor pass.

Missed Opportunities

It’s half-way through the third, with the Jags leading 17-10.  Bortles is backed up on his own 10-yard line, but rolls to his right and sees Marqise Lee open on a crossing route at the 25 or so, but he heaves the throw into the sideline.

In the waning moments of the third quarter, still 17-10, Jacksonville is first-and-ten on the New England 27.  This time it was Allen Hurns wide open up the right sideline, but Blake didn’t see him and dumped the ball off to Ben Koyack in the flat (who dropped the pass).

An early fourth-quarter pass to Marcedes Lewis might have done some damage, but Bortles couldn’t elevate the pass to give the taller Lewis a chance to out-jump the smaller Patrick Chung.

About half-way through the fourth quarter, still clinging to a 20-17 lead, another pass to Lewis was broken up by Chung.  Had he not made up his mind so soon, he would have seen Keelan Cole wide open over the middle for a damaging first down.  Instead, Jacksonville punted back to New England.

On their next possession he threw just behind Hurns, losing a first down and bringing up third-and-nine.

On their last desperation drive – trailing now 24-20 with 2:12 left – Bortles miss-connected with Fournette up the left sideline.  Even while Lee was uncovering on the right.

Of course, no quarterback – even Brady – hits every pass or notices every open receiver.  This is only to point out that while Brady was orchestrating his come-back, Bortles had opportunities as well.  There were plays there to be made.

Assessing Blake

What does all this mean in regards to Bortles?  There have been questions surrounding him all season (and I am one the ones who have asked them).  How do the Jags evaluate their future at this position?  In short, is Blake a quarterback to build around?

I don’t think we can say yet.  Certainly this game highlighted the gulf between Bortles and Brady.  But, honestly there is a gulf between Brady and everybody.  This was also Blake’s first playoff run.  I don’t yet know what his ceiling is.  But I am left with the distinct impression that the more he played – and especially the more he played in big games – the better and more confident he got. The verdict on Blake is “wait and see.”

Running Against the Patriots

The final great expediency before the Patriots was to stop the Jacksonville running game.  In their surprising run that brought them to within about ten minutes of the Super Bowl, the Jaguars unveiled the most prolific running game in the NFL.  They averaged 141.4 yards per game on the ground, and scored 18 rushing touchdowns – second most in football.  Seven different times during the regular season they rushed for more than 150 yards, including rolling up 231 yards on the Steelers the first time they faced them.  In their two playoff victories they stung Buffalo with 155 yards and Pittsburgh with 164.  Running the ball was clearly their offensive bedrock and their best chance to upset the invincible Patriots.

But, although they only finished twentieth in the NFL in defending the run, the Patriots run defense – as I have noted – has come together at the season’s most critical juncture.  They allowed just 124 rushing yards combined over their last two regular season games and then held Tennessee (coming off a 202-yard rushing performance in their first playoff game) to just 65 yards.

With the early success of the passing attack, Jacksonville opened an early 14-3 lead.  That, with an under-rated defensive effort that kept New England in check, allowed the Jaguars to keep attempting to run against New England.  Thirty-two times (30 times not counting a couple of kneel-downs by Bortles at the end of the first half) Jacksonville challenged the Patriot run defense.  They ran the ball on 19 of their 32 first down plays.

Those 30 legitimate rush attempts netted just 103 yards (3.4 yards per carry).  In the second half – when Jacksonville desperately needed to sustain a little offense – it was even worse.  Fifteen times they ran in the second half for just 41 yards (2.7 per).  After compiling 5 rushing first downs in the first half, they managed just 1 in the second half.  Four rushing plays in the fourth quarter – all by Leonard Fournette – totaled just 3 yards. (Note: one of the keys to this success was keeping Bortles in the pocket.  After Blake had rushed for 88 yards against Buffalo, he had only the two kneel-downs in this one.)

A significant portion of this success was defensive design. During 18 of those 30 running plays, New England stacked 8 or 9 defenders close to the line of scrimmage.  Those running plays earned just 43 yards (2.4 per).  The 12 times Jacksonville ran the ball with 7 defenders or less “in the box” they produced 60 yards (5.0 per).

But as in recent weeks, the bulk of this success was the disciplined play of an unheralded collection of defenders who have made a habit of imposing their will on some of the game’s better running games.  Again, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung provided outstanding run defense.  Ricky Jean-Francois made more plays than one might suspect.

But standing out to me in this game was a lightly-regarded six-year pro and former seventh-round draft pick playing his first season in New England and his first as a starter.  As the game went on, Lawrence Guy began to own it.

Only credited with 3 official tackles against the run, Guy repeatedly held his ground against double-team blocks to stack up the line of scrimmage.  Once in the second quarter he pushed the double-team formed against him back into the backfield to disrupt the play.  On one third quarter run, he tossed center Brandon Linder aside like so much laundry to make the tackle.  As near as I could tell, Lawrence had himself the game of his life in the most important game of his career (so far).

The significance of this development cannot be overstated.  With Carson Wentz unavailable for Philadelphia, the Eagles will be faced with the same expediency of running the ball that both the Titans and Jaguars had.  Unless they can manage this suddenly elite defensive front any better that Tennessee or Jacksonville, they will almost certainly suffer their same fate.

The Final Report on Super Bowl LI

I sometimes think most teams that play the New England Patriots are beaten before they step onto the field.  Imagine a speech that most head coaches might make to their team on Tuesday morning of Patriot week:

“Men, this week we play the Patriots.  Can we beat them?  Absolutely.  But only if we put together our most complete game of the season.  We can’t make mistakes, because this team will make you pay for each and every one of them.  So this will be our challenge this week – to play our most perfect game of the season.”

I don’t know how a team plays this game afraid of what will happen if they make a mistake.  But I have seen a lot of teams play New England with that kind of temerity.

Facing New England in the Super Bowl

Exactly what Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said to his team the week leading up to the Super Bowl I – of course – don’t know.  But I strongly doubt it bore any resemblance to the statement above.  From the game’s opening series this brash young team walked up to the four-time champion Patriots and punched them right in the mouth.  For two-and-a-half quarters the underdog Falcons treated the team from New England to a football version of “shock and awe” that featured explosive running, circus catches and eleven defenders who seemed to be everywhere on the field at once.  As the first half drew to a close, two shocking story lines were unfolding before the stunned Patriot team and dumfounded crowd of almost 71,000 at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

First, unbelievably, the Falcons were blowing out the Patriots.  The Falcons are a good team and – everyone conceded – a team that could well beat New England (if they played a perfect game).  But no impartial analyst that I know of would have predicted a blow-out victory.  But that was exactly what was happening, and there seemed nothing that New England could do about it.  For the first 36 minutes and 29 seconds of the game, New England was hopelessly outmatched on both offense and defense.

But even that might not have been as stunning as the second unexpected development.  The New England Patriots – the model franchise of the NFL – was melting down on the sport’s biggest stage.  After the game, they said there was no panic.  But those of us who watched the game know differently.

New England is Melting?

Over a 27:13 span that began at the 14:19 mark of the second period and extended through the 2:06 mark of the third period, almost every single one of the Patriot stalwarts failed to execute in opportunities to halt Atlanta’s momentum.  The skid began with the fumble by 1000-yard running back LeGarrette Blount.  Atlanta quickly turned that into a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.  Moments later a tight-end named Austin Hooper beat safety Patrick Chung on a deep post pattern for the score that made it 14-0.

Then it was Tom Brady’s turn.

With 2:36 left in the first half, and the Patriots holding the ball at the Atlanta 23, Danny Amendola beat cornerback Brian Poole to the inside and Brady threw him the ball.  But cornerback Robert Alford – who began the play trailing Julian Edelman – broke off his coverage and settled right in front of Amendola.  His interception and subsequent 82-yard touchdown return pushed the Atlanta lead to 21-0.

Before the half would end, Brady – rattled by the heavy pressure he had been under to that point in the game – would badly miss two open receivers (Edelman streaking past Alford over the deep middle of the field with 1:43 left in the half, and Chris Hogan in the right flat with 33 seconds left), and throw the ball just enough behind another receiver (Edelman again) open on a short crossing route, that the defender (Alford, again) could make a play on the ball.

They settled for a field goal, cutting the deficit to 21-3 at the half.

The Second Half

With the Falcons up by 18 and getting the ball to open the second half, it was widely conceded that the first two possessions of the third quarter would be critical to New England’s ability to stay competitive in this game.  First, they would need a defensive stop.

They got one.

After running back Devonta Freeman was dropped in the backfield for a three-yard loss on first down, he took a short pass for a seven-yard gain.  Then, on third-and-six, cornerback Eric Rowe defended a pass into the left flat to Taylor Gabriel (at that point, just Matt Ryan’s second incompletion of the game).  Atlanta punted.  When Julian Edelman brought the kick back to the Patriot 47 yard line, the stage seemed to be set.

But now it was Chris Hogan’s turn.  The 9-catch, 180-yard hero of the Championship Game, Hogan flew up the left sideline, gaining separation from cornerback Jalen Collins.  Brady’s throw was right to the outside shoulder where only Hogan could get it.  And it clunked off his hands.

A second-down screen-pass lost two yards, bringing up third and twelve.  Julian Edelman lined up to the right and ran another short crossing pattern with Alford again in trailing position.  This time Brady’s throw hit Julian perfectly in the hands.  But now it was Edelman who watched the ball slide through his fingers.

With the momentum quashed, the Patriots punted.  The Falcon’s would not go three-and-out again.  Eight plays later, Atlanta had covered 85 yards and opened a 28-3 lead.  That – for all practical purposes – seemed to clinch the title for the Falcons.

That the Patriots went on to mount the most remarkable comeback in Super Bowl history doesn’t diminish all that the Falcons achieved to that point of the game.  In the aftermath, individuals have surfaced who have wanted to criticize how the Falcons handled the rest of the game (play-calling, etc.).  While I’m sure that – if they had it to do over – they might make some different choices, what happened over the game’s last 27 minutes is more a credit to the New England Patriots than it is the fault of the Falcons.  If there were a few things Atlanta might have done differently or better, there were a myriad of things that New England needed to do almost perfectly to make the comeback happen.

That they were able to do that adds to the legendary status of some of the Patriot stars.  But even in defeat, there were several reputations either made or solidified on the Atlanta sideline.

Matt Ryan

Let’s start first with quarterback Matt Ryan.  Everyone knew the backstory.  Five years into his career as a much-hyped franchise quarterback, Ryan had led his team to a 56-22 record with a 90.9 passer rating.  But he was just 1-4 in the playoffs.  Everyone heard the whisper.  Matty Ice (as he is called) is not a big game quarterback.  If there is one misperception that should be laid to rest after this year’s playoff tournament, it should be that.

On the heels of a season where he scorched defenses to the tune of a 117.1 passer rating, Ryan spent the playoffs slicing up opponents like Japanese knives slice through tomatoes on TV.  Up to the point where his 6-yard touchdown toss to Tevin Coleman pushed the Falcon lead to 28-3, Ryan had racked up the defenses of the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots to the combined totals of 65 completions in 89 attempts (73%) for 923 yards (10.37 yards per attempt and 14.2 yards per completion).  Fifty-one of his 65 completions had achieved first downs – including 9 that resulted in touchdowns with no interceptions.  This all adds up to a 139.9 passer rating.  There are a lot of descriptors that could be applied to that performance.  Choking is not one of them.

Against the Packers and the Patriots he completed 7 of 10 deep passes for 171 yards.  His passer rating on throws of more than twenty yards in the two biggest games of his season was 145.8.

Matt Ryan is pretty good (this just in).

Julio Jones

And then there is uber receiver Julio Jones.  The Super Bowl concluded Julio’s sixth season in the NFL.  He has already caught more than 100 passes in a season twice (and has 497 for his young career).  He has also been over 1000 yards four times (twice over 1500 yards) and has averaged 15.3 yards per reception for his career.  Over the last three seasons alone, Julio has caught 323 passes for 4873 yards and 20 touchdowns.  If there is a better receiver and more dangerous weapon out there than Julio, I have yet to see him.

His status in the Falcon offense set up one of the most intriguing matchups of the game.  How would Bill Belichick’s defense deal with Jones.  One of the trademarks of the New England defense is their ability to mostly neutralize their opponent’s most dangerous offensive weapon.  But is it possible to neutralize Jones?  If so, how would they go about it?

As I speculated about this a couple of weeks ago, the concept was exceedingly simple.  They double teamed him with a cornerback and a safety over the top.  I guessed that it would be Malcom Butler, but in the first half the defender on the spot was Ryan Logan.  Eric Rowe got that opportunity later.  Jones wasn’t exactly neutralized, but his four catches for 87 yards were well below the 180 yards he had accounted for against Green Bay.

On the one hand, you could call that “contained.”  On the other hand, remember that Atlanta only ran 46 offensive plays the entire evening and threw only 23 passes.  Had Ryan tossed up the 40 or so passes that he usually does, Julio’s numbers are probably more in line with the Green Bay game.

But even that is not the story.

Behind his 4 for 87 line are three highlight reel catches – a 19-yard over-the-middle catch that he pulled out of the hands of the defender (Logan Ryan), and two sideline catches that were varying degrees of impossible.  Anyone less than Julio Jones finishes the night with one catch for 23 yards.  The New England defense did what they came to do.  They forced Julio to play like the best receiver in football and kept him from hurting them at the key moments of the game.

Devonta Freeman

After surpassing 1000 rushing yards for the second straight season, Freeman dazzled under the bright lights of the Super Bowl.  At just 5-8 and 206 pounds, Freeman will never get the 25-30 carries a game that more durable backs (like Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas) might get.  But on a field littered with offensive talent, Freeman ended the day with the game’s longest run (a 37-yard sprint around left end) and the game’s longest pass reception (a 39-yard sprint with a dump pass into the left flat).  Davonta ended the day with 121 scrimmage yards and showcased his blazing speed and elite cutback ability.

Freeman also committed one of the most telling errors of the night.  It was Freeman in pass protection who was caught by surprise on the Dont’a Hightower blitz that produced the fumble that set the Patriot comeback in full motion.

Robert Alford

In spite of their early success, by the time the Super Bowl ended there wasn’t much cheering for the Atlanta defense.  But one highlight was Alford.  His was the signature defensive play of the night (the 82-yard interception return).  He also recovered a fumble and made 9 tackles on the night.

It was also Alford who was the key to the defensive strategy.  It was Alford who would be asked to cover New England’s top receiver (Julian Edelman) all over the field.  This would prove to be one of the most enjoyable and competitive contests-within-the-contest of the night.

Edelman was targeted 13 times in Super Bowl LI.  On 9 of those targets he was working against Alford in man coverage.  Alford won 5 of the 9 battles.  Edelman turned his 4 catches against Alford into 78 yards – including the pivotal 23-yard impossible catch of a pass that Alford had deflected with just slightly over two minutes left in regulation and New England still down by eight.

Julian caught his third pass of the Super Bowl on the very first play of the second quarter.  He would not catch another until that catch – the much replayed juggling catch of the deflected pass – with 2:28 left in regulation broke a streak of seven straight incompletions on throws in his direction.

Head Coach Dan Quinn and his Coordinators, Kyle Shanahan and Richard Smith

Not only did the Falcons play the game with fearless abandon, but the game plan was exceedingly well conceived and crisply executed.

Offensively, riding the hot quarterback was the easy part.  New England played a little bit of zone against Ryan, and watched him complete 7 of 8 passes for 93 yards.  Mostly they played man and saw Matty rip them to the tune of 10 of 14 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns.  The passer rating for Ryan when throwing against New England’s man coverage was 153.3.  Of course, the Patriots also accumulated 4 of their 5 sacks when in man coverage – 3 of them with the aid of their frequent blitzes.  Nine of Ryan’s 28 drop-backs featured Patriots blitzes.

In addition to the hot passing hand, Atlanta found unexpected success running on the perimeter.  They rarely challenged Alan Branch and the other big boys in the middle of the line.  Of their 18 running plays, only two were designed to go inside the tackles – and those two runs lost two yards.  But the perimeter attack featured several quick pitches and some better than expected blocking by the wide receivers sealing the edge.  Notable in this effort was Mohamed Sanu, who mixed it up pretty well with the big boys.

New England – whether by design or not – was singularly unable to diffuse the big play nature of the Atlanta offense.  As opposed to New England’s grinding offense, the Falcons averaged 7.5 yards per offensive play.  Six of their 46 plays broke for at least 20 yards.  Atlanta’s scoring drives took 1:53 (71 yards in 5 plays), 1:49 (62 yards in 5 plays), and 4:14 (82 yards in 8 plays).

New England triumphed, though, because its defense never allowed Atlanta anything sustained.  The Falcons ended Super Bowl LI just 1 for 8 on third down (Ryan’s second-quarter, 19-yard touchdown pass to Hooper came on a third-and-nine play.  Ryan was just 1 of 4 on third down with his other four passing attempts ending in sacks.  Of all the necessary pieces of the Patriot comeback, perhaps this uncanny success on third down was the most improbable.

About the Falcon Play-Calling

Why didn’t Atlanta run more in the second half?  Nine first-half running plays (out of 19 total plays) earned them 86 yards and a touchdown.  Of their 27 second half plays, only 9 of them were runs.  Especially as New England was mounting their comeback, you would think the Falcons would see the benefit of controlling the game with the run.  There were, I think, two probable influences.

First, when they did run the effectiveness of the attack dried up.  Of their 9 second half running plays, only 3 gained more than three yards.  Three other runners were tackled for losses.

Second, when your offense doesn’t see the field for over an hour (which happened to Atlanta as the second quarter ran into halftime), you can’t have your MVP quarterback hand off three times and punt.  If you have Matt Ryan in your backfield with thirty minutes to win the Super Bowl, you have to put the ball in his hands.  And blocking for him would be a good idea, too.

Really, if you only have 46 offensive snaps, you just don’t have enough plays to run your offense.  I’m sure there were a lot of things Atlanta wanted to get back to, but never had that chance.

The Defensive Challenge

On the defensive side, the game belonged to the linemen – especially the ageless Dwight Freeney and the surprising Grady Jarrett (who matched his season sack total of 3 in the Super Bowl).  For two and a half quarters, the unheralded Falcon defense frustrated the high-flying Patriot offense.  They snuffed out the Patriot running game and hang with the Patriots in man coverage long enough to let the pass rush disrupt Tom Brady.

Their speed and aggressiveness took away the Patriot screen game (Brady’s five screen passes gained a total of 3 yards).  They also consistently dropped defenders into the short middle area that Brady loves to exploit.  Against the Steelers, Brady was 8 for 11 for 91 yards throwing into the short middle.  He was only 11 of 16 for 98 yards and an interception in that same area in Super Bowl LI.

At the point where Atlanta led 28-3, Brady had completed just 17 of 29 passes (58.6%) for 182 yards (6.28 per attempt and 10.7 per completion) with no touchdowns (to his own team, anyway) and one big interception.  His passer rating at that point was just 62.7.

The problem with the Atlanta game-plan, though, was that it was unsustainable.  As the Falcon defense remained on the field for a soul-sapping 99 snaps (including penalties and two-point conversions), the pass rush slowed and came to an almost complete halt.  As his time in the pocket increased, Brady’s comfort level and confidence both rose.  He completed 26 of his last 33 passes (78.8%) for 284 yards (8.61 per attempt, but still just 10.9 per completion) and the two touchdowns.  He closed with a 122.7 passer rating during the comeback.

Along the way, the Patriots exploited quite a few matchups.  Jalen Collins was a particular target.  With 14 targets, Collins was the most thrown at defender in the Super Bowl.  Those 14 throws resulted in 12 completions for 116 yards and both touchdowns.  But Collins was at least as much a liability in zone coverage as he was in man.  In man coverage, Brady completed 5 of 7 against Jalen for 58 yards.  In zone, Brady was 7-for-7 against Collins for another 58 yards and both touchdowns.

Collins also gave up 3 of the 5 catches that Patriot receiver Malcom Mitchell made in the fourth quarter alone.  Mitchell’s 63 fourth-quarter receiving yards were the most by any of the receivers from either in team in any quarter of the Super Bowl.

Other Issues

There were two other man-to-man matchups that the Patriots returned to with great frequency.  One was Danny Amendola working against Brian Poole.  Seven times Brady threw to Amendola with Poole working against him.  Danny caught five of those passes for 62 yards and 4 first downs.

The Falcons biggest matchup problem, though, wasn’t with any of the wide receivers.  In the middle of the comeback was running back James White.  Mostly, James drew the attention of middle linebacker Deion Jones.  Of his game-high 16 targets in Super Bowl LI, 8 came while covered by Jones in man coverage.  He caught 6 of those for 46 yards and caught 2 more against Jones in zone coverage for another 20 yards.

After watching Pittsburgh’s zone defenses struggle against the Patriot offense, Atlanta decided to rely on man coverages.  Of Brady’s 67 drop-backs, he saw some form of man coverage 44 times.  Brady completed 28 of 42 throws (with two sacks) for 355 yards.  All of his big passes came against man coverages.  When Atlanta dropped into zones, Tom completed 15 of 20 (75%) but for only 111 yards (5.55 per attempt and 7.4 per completion).

Would Atlanta have won the Super Bowl if they had run the ball more and played more zone defenses?  It’s impossible to say for sure, but my gut feeling is that I don’t think they would.  I don’t believe that hanging on and hoping the clock runs out wins this kind of game against this team.  Atlanta could have iced the game at any number of points in the second half.  They just needed to make one more play.

How to Make a 25-Point Comeback

One last remarkable aspect of this comeback was the Patriot approach.  For 23 of their 93 plays, New England trailed by more than 20 points.  Trailing by 20 points in the Super Bowl is a big deal.  But the Patriots showed admirable restraint, calling 6 runs among those 23 plays and only throwing two deep passes (both incomplete).  During this stretch, Brady nursed his team back into contention.  He completed 11 of 15 passes (73.3%) for just 97 yards (only 8.82 yards per completion).  But Atlanta did not sack him during any of those attempts. Those passes included a short touchdown toss to White.  His passer rating during the plays when he trailed by 20 points was 112.4.

Throughout the long, impossible road back from a 25-point deficit, the Patriots resisted the urge to get ahead of themselves.  Instead of the eye-catching, 30-yard up-field passing that Atlanta featured, New England played within themselves and ground down the young Falcon defense.

Emotion is a two-edged sword in the NFL.  Atlanta left the tunnel wound up almost to the snapping point.  They fell on the Patriots with an energy and passion that took New England by complete surprise.  But emotion is like a sugar rush.  There is almost always a crash at the end of it.

Maybe the single most impressive aspect of the Patriot comeback was the discipline of it.  It wasn’t at all unemotional.  But it was a clinical – almost surgical – exposure of the Falcon defense.  In a way, the comeback was an act of faith.  It was the response of a team that believed completely in its process.

It was the response of a team that didn’t believe it could be beaten.

The NFL GameBook for Super Bowl LI is here, and the Football reference Summary is here.

What’s Next?

With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror and baseball still a few months away (yes I know pitchers and catchers are reporting already), it’s time for me to take a short vacation.  After 189 posts and many hundreds of thousands of words since last April, I intend to take a few weeks of to re-charge for the long season ahead.  Look for my posting again in early March as we start preparing for the 2017 campaign.

See you then.

Plaudits for the Houston Pass Defense

As they went into the game as 16-point underdogs, no one was too surprised that Houston was brushed aside (34-16) in New England last Saturday night.  In the aftermath, not too many accolades came Houston’s way – even though they went into the half trailing by only four points and stayed within one score of the mighty Patriots until there were just 12 minutes and 16 seconds left in the game.

In the eye of the storm was Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose predictable struggles hamstrung the offense.  Inside the game, though, was a much more interesting story – the story of the NFL’s number one defense (Houston’s) against the high-powered New England offense.  As Houston surrendered 34 points, one might assume that the New England offense dominated Houston’s top-ranked defensive squad.

That was pretty much the story of their Week 3 matchup.  In an overwhelming 27-0 victory, the Patriots (behind third string QB Jacoby Brissett) bludgeoned the Texans for 185 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.  Yes, New England only had two drives that went for more than 50 yards – but this was their third string quarterback, after all.  The Patriots were able to run the ball even though Houston knew they wanted to run.  The Patriots also fashioned touchdowns out of two fumbles they recovered deep in Houston territory and added a third TD on a drive that started on the Houston 47 after the Texans were forced to punt from deep within their own territory.  The first game was over early.

Even though the score of the re-match was decisive, the struggle between the Patriot offense and the Texan defense was a lot more even than might be suspected.  Houston’s special teams allowed one touchdown (Dion Lewis’ 98-yard kickoff return).  Houston’s offense gave up another after an Osweiler interception was returned to the Texan’s 6-yard line.  The Texan defense was only scratched for two touchdown drives that started in the New England side of the field, and one of those required a 30-yard pass-interference penalty against rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye on a pass that Chris Hogan might not have caught up to.

At game’s end, New England had been held to 98 rushing yards (and 3.6 yards a carry).  More impressively, Tom Brady and the passing game finished just 18 for 38 (just 47.4%) for 287 yards.  His 2 touchdown passes were off-set by two interceptions (matching the total number of interceptions he had thrown all year).  Tom ended the game with a passer rating of only 68.6.  It was just the second time in 13 games this season that Brady’s passer rating ended below 89 (Denver had held him to a 68.2 figure earlier).

Did the Texans give the NFL a blueprint on how to defend the New England passing game?  Sort of.  But it’s not the kind of game plan that any team can necessarily employ.  Looking at the teams that are left in the playoffs, I’m not sure that there is a whole lot of Houston’s game plan that will translate to either Pittsburgh, Atlanta or Green Bay.  Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel lines his defense up in many confusing looks – causing more than his share of identification problems.  (Brady’s second interception came on a play where ten of the eleven Houston defenders were in man coverage, but outside linebacker Benardrick McKinney sat in a zone in the middle of the field and batted Brady’s pass in the air.) But the principles of the Houston plan were pretty basic.  Pressure up the middle and tight man coverage.

Six years ago in the Divisional Round, Rex Ryan – then the coach of the NY Jets – knocked off Brady and the Patriots 28-21 by pressuring him up the middle.  At that time, it was something of a revelation.  Tom was sacked 5 times that evening and rushed relentlessly.  Brady can usually sidestep pressure that comes from outside his pocket, but when the pocket collapses from the inside and Tom is forced to scramble he becomes much more mortal.

In last Saturday’s game, Brady got plenty of inside heat and threw a great many balls away while scrambling out of trouble.  Houston got significant pressure from budding stars Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but the unsung star of this game was a lightly regarded backup tackle taken in the sixth round of the 2015 draft – Christian Covington.  Covington had only one sack all year and has just three in his 31-game NFL career.  Listed generously at 295 pounds, he looked something like a Borg cube as he repeatedly menaced New England in this game.  Not someone you would generally think is all that quick, Covington consistently beat rookie left guard Joe Thuney to the inside.  He didn’t register any sacks, but his persistent collapsing of the pocket forced Brady out of his comfort zone.

None of this is a news flash.  Most fans who have followed Brady’s career know about his issues with inside pressures and I’m pretty sure Pittsburgh noted the struggles of the rookie guard.  At this point, I almost expect to see James Harrison frequently line up inside over this guard.  What Houston was able to do, though, that other teams can’t necessarily do is put consistent pressure on Brady without blitzing frequently.  Blitzing Brady carries with it its own set of risks.

But “A-gap” pressure is only half the formula.  What made it work so well for Houston was the coverage in the secondary.  Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Bouye, and even Kareem Jackson (who did get picked on a little) did what few secondaries are able to do.  They hung with New England’s super quick receivers both vertically and horizontally the entire game.  Even on those occasions when his offensive line gave him ample time, Brady’s receivers frequently struggled getting separation.  Even linebacker McKinney also held up very well in man coverage against patriot tight end Martellus Bennett (who caught one pass for four yards).

As strategies go, there was some hit-and-miss to this.  When his receivers did get some separation, Brady usually turned it into a big play.  With his 18 completions accounting for 287 yards, Tom averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per completion and finished with six pass plays of at least 20 yards and another 19-yard touchdown pass to James White (beating McKinney, who had less success covering the backs).

But, because they challenged every pass and held the running game mostly in check, Brady had difficulty sustaining the offense.

And this is the part that I don’t see any of the other teams still in the playoffs able to execute.  The Steelers, Falcons and Packers are predominant zone teams and much less skilled at man coverage.  While guys like Julian Edelman can find easy seams in zone schemes, Brady will always have a quick outlet.

With three games left in the NFL season, the Patriots remain the NFL’s most daunting challenge.  In addition to a defense that just does not surrender points and a dangerous running game spearheaded by battering ram LeGarrette Blount, all-everything quarterback Tom Brady has a collection of super-quick receivers who are exceedingly adept at finding the open spaces in most zones.  How Pittsburgh attempts to slow this offense will be one of the most intriguing matchups of the Championship Round.