ATLANTA – The Patriots dynasty is so long in the tooth it’s now been 17 years to the day since Bill Belichick woke up to face down a futuristic Rams offense in the Super Bowl.
Since then, Belichick and cohort Tom Brady have gone from 14-point underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI … to stunning the St. Louis Rams and Mike Martz’s “Greatest Show on Turf” … to winning four more Super Bowls … to reaching a ninth one vs. the Los Angeles Rams and 33-year-old offensive coaching phenom Sean McVay on Sunday in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
On Feb. 3, 2002, Belichick discombobulated one of the greatest rhythm passing attacks in NFL history by focusing on and taking out its Hall of Fame running back, Marshall Faulk. Now, two weeks after negating the league’s most electric player (Tyreek Hill) and containing its Most Valuable Player (Patrick Mahomes) at Kansas City, Belichick now faces McVay and the NFC’s highest-scoring offense.
CBS analyst Tony Romo, a guy becoming known for his consistently accurate football forecasts, predicts this will be one of the best and more intriguing coaching matchups in Super Bowl history.
“You’re going to see real-time adjustments going on in this game on both sides,” said Romo, who will call the game. “This game will start off a certain way, and someone will have an advantage like the Patriots did last week with the Chiefs. But there will be adjustments made.”
The Chiefs fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton because he couldn’t keep up with Belichick and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But McVay and Wade Phillips, the 71-year-old Rams defensive coordinator and mastermind of the Broncos’ 24-10 beatdown of Cam Newton and the high-scoring Panthers in Super Bowl 50, should be worthy adversaries.
What the Patriots ‘D’ should do
The 66-year-old Belichick’s reputation as possibly the greatest defensive mind of the league’s first century is in good standing. But it did take on heavy fire a year ago in Minneapolis, when his offense posted a Super Bowl-record 613 yards and still lost to Philadelphia 41-33.
Now what must he do defensively to avoid going 1-2 in the past three Super Bowls?
First, the Patriots need to keep running back Todd Gurley in his NFC Championship Game slumber by setting the edges as firmly as they normally do. That will discourage the Rams’ beloved outside zone-blocking schemes and avoid a slippery slope to what the Cowboys experienced in giving up 273 yards on 48 carries (5.7) in the conference semifinals.
Second, the Rams mustn’t dictate matchups against man coverage with pre-snap motion and crossing patterns. According to Pro Football Focus, 21 percent of Jared Goff’s passes have targeted man coverage with crossing patterns en route to a 113.8 passer rating, 10 touchdowns and one interception.
“It creates a lot of problems,” said Belichick, whose defense plays man coverage a league-high 55 percent of the time. “One thing about the Rams is everything they do creates problems. Running crossing routes, reverses, misdirection plays that add another gap to the running game that you have to account for.”
The Los Angeles offense also can change its identity. After using three receivers, one tight end and one back a league-high 99.3 percent of the time through 15 games, the Rams have been using two receivers, two tight ends and one back 22 percent of the time since signing bruising back C.J. Anderson in Week 16 following a two-game losing streak.
McVay said the Rams respect Belichick’s ability to identify what he wants to take away and then morph his defensive identity to get the job done.
“You want to make sure you have contingency plans,” he said. “But you also don’t want to chase ghosts.”
What must the Rams defense do?
In rushing for 331 yards and eight touchdowns on 82 carries (4.0), the New England offense been an extension of its defense in playoff victories over the Chargers and Chiefs. That’s how the Patriots gained an early 14-0 lead at Kansas City before turning things over to Brady and his 19 years of experience to close the deal.
“The one thing about Belichick, not only on defense but on offense, is they can run any scheme offensively,” Phillips said. “They run a two-back offense. They run a one-back offense. Zone blocking. Gap schemes. Power schemes. Whams. All kinds of things. They can hit you with basically anything because they can execute it so well. Most teams can’t do that.”
Phillips also has changed his defense’s identity. After allowing a league-worst 5.07 yards per carry during the regular season, the Rams held league rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 carries (2.4) in the divisional round and the vaunted Saints running attack to 48 yards on 21 carries (2.3) in the NFC title game.
The Patriots will be an even sterner test with a finely tuned line, the dominant run blocking of tight end Rob Gronkowski and a three quality backs highlighted by Sony Michel and his playoff-high eight runs of 10 or more yards.
Creating even more headaches for Phillips is how often the Patriots line up with fullback James Develin only to throw out of the two-back set to James White, one of the best postseason pass-catching backs in NFL history.
Throw in the fact Brady hasn’t been close to being sacked in 92 postseason dropbacks and, well, as McVay put it, “That’s a recipe for success.”
The key to a sixth trophy
The Steelers sit atop the NFL with six Super Bowl victories. The Patriots need one to tie. If they win, Brady would move past Charles Haley and become the first player with six Super Bowl victories.
So what’s the key factor in whether that happens? Look no further than Aaron Donald, the two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who will line up right across from Brady.
Brady hates pressure up the middle and lost two Super Bowls to the Giants in large part because of a consistently cluttered pocket. This year, according to NFL.com, Brady has seven touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 118.7 passer rating when facing edge pressure. But when the pressure is up the middle, he has two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 63.1 passer rating.
And here comes Donald, who posted a league-high 20½ sacks and 111 pressures. And he is joined in the front seven by Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler.
“Donald’s a player for all generations,” New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said. “We know we’re going to have to be at our best and work together as much as we ever have to keep this guy under wraps. And Suh. And Fowler. And Brockers. They’re all good.”
The human chess pieces should be fun to watch as Belichick and McVay, kindred coaching spirits born into football families 33 years apart, match wits in a game that could be remembered decades from now as a historic passing of the torch. Or the day two legends named Belichick and Brady weren’t quite ready to be pushed aside by two rising stars named McVay and Goff.