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Why Belichick’s Defense Bewildered McVay, And How To Counter

As Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick has lost to the Rams once way back in 2001. But a few months later he got the ultimate redemption by beating them in the rematch. The rematch just so happened to be Super Bowl XXXVI and he just kept beating them. Six straight losses for the Rams. Of course, the most recent defeat was Super Bowl LIII and it still stings.

In case you need a quick refresher of what went down in 2018, here you go. The Rams offense was scoring almost 33 points per game and averaging 421 yards of offense. Then, BAM, the Patriots held them to a field goal and 260 yards of offense. Total. Jared Goff alone threw for over 260 yards 9 times in 2018! Not many teams have been able to stifle Sean McVay that effectively. 

McVay was the first to admit he was out-coached in the Super Bowl. Which is true. Sometimes McVay will point to himself even if he’s not the one to blame. But not in this case. This one was very much on him. McVay has even said he over-prepared for the Super Bowl, but that isn’t quite accurate.

He actually prepared in the wrong way. He said he watched all the Patriot games from that season and even went back to the previous Super Bowls. But that isn’t how you prepare to beat Belichick because he never does the same thing twice.

He always tailors his game plan to the opponent he’s facing that week. He figures out what that team does best and figures out how to neutralize it, thus forcing the team to play left-handed. 

The Patriots identified the Rams greatest strength to be their “man beaters.” Essentially they are the plays that get their receivers open in man coverage. Bunch formations, jet sweeps, and all the shifts and motion before the snap. Basically, the stuff that makes McVay’s offense hum.

In watching the tape from 2018, Sean McVay must have assumed they would be in man coverage come Super Bowl Sunday. But Belichick didn’t. They ran zone for much of the game and it worked. 

Up front, the Patriots clogged running lanes with a six man front. This effectively ended the running game. They also varied their pass rush combinations, running some that they had never run that season. The Rams o-line was on their heels all game and Goff was feeling the heat. He was under pressure on 38% of his dropbacks. 

That was that. Belichick simply switched from man coverage to zone and the rest fell into place. He also knew that his versatile backfield could handle the switch, which is another thing that makes Belichick one of the best coaches ever. 

So far, this paints a pretty bleak outlook for the Rams. But luckily for the Rams, they aren’t playing the 2018 Patriots. They don’t have nearly as much talent and they are playing inconsistently. That said, they just shut out the Chargers, 45-0.

Even more good news for the Rams is Sean McVay is a better coach than he was in 2018. What the Super Bowl exposed about McVay’s game plan is he was a bit of a one-trick pony. He almost only ran 11 personnel. 89% of plays were run in 11. This season, he has started to fold in more 12 personnel, which accounts for 24% of plays. That’s up from 8% in 2018. Getting the tight ends in on the action has paid off. Tyler Higbee already has four touchdowns, a career-high for him.

The Patriots give up a higher percentage of successful plays when facing 12. 52% of plays result in a positive outcome for the opposing offense, versus only 44% of 11 personnel plays. The heavier set of 12 will also keep some pressure off Goff. And New England gets pressure on QBs. This season they pressure on 27.2% of dropbacks. That’s second in the league. They generate the pressure without having to sell out on blitzes. They only blitz on 24.3% of snaps, which is ninth least. 

This new approach has created a more well rounded and versatile offense. A huge change from 2018 is how the Rams are running the ball. Keeping all three backs in heavy rotation keeps defenses guessing and the Patriots are bad against the run. They are 28th in run defense DVOA. The 49ers and the Bills used the run most effectively against them. They put up 197 and 190 yards respectively. 

It’s not a shock that San Francisco piled it on, but the Bills are 23rd in rushing DVOA. In recent weeks, McVay has been more pass-heavy than he had been early on in the year. Look for McVay to go back to a ground heavy attack including a few jets sweeps with Robert Woods

Lastly, they will have Cooper Kupp on the field, which wasn’t the case in 2018. Once again he has been Goff’s favorite target. He has been targeted 105 times in 12 games and he leads the team in receiving yards and catches. McVay should take full advantage of Kupp on the field for this game as he has in past games.

Kupp could be what New England identifies as who they need to take away, but McVay should test this secondary’s speed and execution. They have had teams pass for big yards on them too. 

McVay essentially just has to take a page from Belichick’s playbook and use his versatile team to badger the Pats into defeat. 

Ryan Anderson

Author Ryan Anderson

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