Ty Law -- Super Bowl XXXVI

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Ty Law and the Patriots’ No. 1 Cornerbacks of the Belichick era + NFL’s newest offensive trend

On Saturday Ty Law became the first — second if you count Randy Moss — member of the New England Patriots’ two decade-long, 21st-century dynasty to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was one of the better presentations of the past few years. He was apart of a fitting class that included the only higher-rated cornerback of the 2000s, Champ Bailey, and the game’s best safety of all-time, Ed Reed. Add in legendary safety Johnny Robinson and this draft class became the first to include four defensive backs, while also adding league architect and historian, Gil Brandt, perhaps the greatest tight end of all-time — with Rob Gronkowski — Tony Gonzalez, rough and tough center Kevin Mawae, and the late, great Broncos owner, Pat Bowlen.

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Law’s ability to shutdown opposing team’s top receiver was matched only by his knack for playing his best in the biggest games. Law played ten seasons in New England, with his prime being from 2001 to 2003, when Law was arguably the best player on a team that won two Super Bowls during that time.

Since then Bill Belichick has shown an affinity for building his defense partly around a true No. 1 cornerback.

This piece will focus on breaking down each of the following shutdown cover men that have donned a Patriots uniform in the last 20 or so years —

Ty Law (1995-2004) 

Asante Samuel (2003-2007) 

Aqib Talib (2012-2013) 

Darrelle Revis (2014) 

Stephon Gilmore (2017-present) 

 

Ty Law

Drafted by Bill Parcells in the 1995 NFL Draft, Law earned a starting role in Week 12 of his rookie season under Parcells and then-Patriots defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. By 1998, Law became one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks under Pete Carroll, earning a First-team All-Pro nod while also leading the league in interceptions.

But it was his play under Belichick from 2001 to 2003 in which his Hall of Fame resume was built upon. Law dominated in key moments — coming away with a Super Bowl XXXVI pick-six off Kurt Warner, and three interceptions versus the NFL’s co-MVP, Peyton Manning, in the 2003 AFC Championship Game.

Law could play both man and zone coverage and was often asked to shadow the opposing team’s best receiver, many times in press coverage situations — examples including Law matched up with Isaac Bruce in Super Bowl XXXVI and Marvin Harrison in the aforementioned 2003 AFC title game.

Usually, Belichick would ask Law to shut down one side of the field, leaving the likes of Otis Smith or Tyrone Poole to cover the other side with help, while cover men such as Terrell Buckley and Asante Samuel working of the slot.

Perhaps more than any other cornerback in NFL history, Law elevated his play in the clutch. Additionally, Law thrived in two different eras, one where physicality and ‘defensive holding’ calls were fewer, and afterword, when former Colts GM Bill Polian pushed for an increased emphasis on holding calls to make things easier for receivers and the passing game in general.

And perhaps one of Law’s greatest achievements came after he was jettisoned from the Patriots in 2005. He led the league in interceptions (10) with the Jets the next season, and even returned an interception for a touchdown versus former teammate Tom Brady. After that, Law signed with the Chiefs for one more soldi season in 2006 before finishing his career with the Broncos.

Law intercepted future Hall of Fame passer Peyton Manning nine times throughout his career, with five of those picks coming in the postseason.

It took three tries and personal letters from Brady and Manning to convince voters to put Law in the Hall of Fame, but it shouldn’t have come to that. Now Law’s place in history will deservedly shine even brighter — as will his place in Patriots lore as the template for one of the most important roles on one of the best sports dynasties in history.

Asante Samuel

Asante Samuel
Asante Samuel celebrates after his pick-six off Peyton Manning in the 2006 AFC title game. (Screenshot: CBS Sports)

Asante Samuel was drafted by New England of the fourth round in the 2003 NFL Draft, and immediately showcased his affinity for pick-sixes in victimizing Vinny Testaverde and the Jets for a game-winner in his second career regular season game.

After New England released Law in 2005, the Patriots relied on Samuel to step into the team’s true No. 1 role after two seasons of productive play as a No. 2/3 CB who played both in the slot and on the perimeter.

Samuel’s prime began in 2006 and lasted until roughly 2010. The final three seasons of that stretch he spent with the Eagles after the Patriots were unable to come to terms with a deal in 2008 after franchising him for the prior season.

In 2006, Samuel burst onto the scene with 10 interceptions, tying Champ Bailey for the league lead. He added two pick-sixes in the postseason, which included a 33-yard run back versus Peyton Manning, who was looking for Marvin Harrison on a long comeback route.

Like Law, Samuel was a big-time player. His seven career postseason interceptions rank second to just Ed Reed (9) this century.

Samuel’s smaller frame (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) than the the other players on this list make him a slightly different defensive chess piece. Although he excelled some in man coverage, Samuel was a much better in zone. In fact, Samuel was the best zone coverage cornerback in football for most to 2006 to 2010.

His phenomenal instincts, quickness and innate toughness for his size made him the perfect December-January cornerback for a team that resides in the northeast.

Samuel was also one of the few players let go by Belichick that thrived for multiple seasons.

Aqib Talib

Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib makes an interception while covering Julio Jones in 2013. (Screenshot: NBC)

After Samuel left in 2008, the Patriots received a somewhat stellar season from former Browns cornerback Leigh Bodden in 2009, and a successful rookie campaign from rookie Devin McCourty in 2010, before he struggled in 2011 and was switched to safety.

So entering 2012, New England was reliant on 7th-round rookie Alfonzo Dennard and nickel back Kyle Arrington to be the team’s top two cornerbacks. Already a few seasons removed from having a true, top-flight cornerback, Belichick realized their defensive struggles over the past few seasons might have been somewhat equated to the absence of an All-Pro caliber cover man.

Enter, Aqib Talib.

Big (6-foot-1, 209 pounds) and physical, Talib was a bully in press man coverage against receivers and tight ends of all sizes.

At one point during a road win versus the Falcons in 2013, Talib successfully defended Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzales in the red zone.

Coming over during the midway point of the 2012 season, Talib instantly helped a Patriots defensive backfield turn a corner from one of the league’s worst units to a somewhat respectable group.

It’s not surprise that New England’s defense crumbled in the 2012 and 2013 AFC Championship Games after Talib left both contests with injuries.

In Talib, Belichick had a chess piece that was able to take away any opposition’s best playmaker, making it easier for New England’s other defensive backs to key on other team’s No. 2 and 3 targets.

Talib entered free agency in 2015 and signed a lucrative deal with the Broncos, forming perhaps the best cornerback duo of the decade with slot defender Chris Harris Jr. Talib also faced the Patriots as the Rams’ No. 2 CB in Super Bowl LIII this past February.

But as we travel back — New England had someone in mind to replace Talib for the 2014 season. One of the best cornerbacks of all-time.

Darrelle Revis

Darrelle Revis - Super Bowl XLIX
Darrelle Revis lines up versus Doug Baldwin in Super Bowl XLIX (Screenshot: NFL Films)

From 2009 to 2012, Revis was unquestionably the best cornerback in the NFL. In fact, his stretch of seasons is some of the best cornerback play in NFL history.

‘Revis Island’ is what his side of the field was dubbed. Revis is perhaps the best man coverage cornerback in NFL history, and also excelled in Cover 3 zones.

Even after being traded to Tampa Bay in 2013, Revis quietly adapted to the Buccaneers’ ‘Tampa 2′ scheme, and remained one fo the league’s better defenders.

So after Talib left for the Broncos, Belichick was in need of a stalwart at cornerback. Like when the Patriots admitted their lack of receivers in 2007 — where they acquired Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth — Belichick signed Revis and Seahawks’ cornerback Brandon Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) in the 2014 offseason, in hopes of bolstering an important position.

Like Law, Revis was from Alquippa, Pennsylvania, and wore No. 24. Adittionally, Revis would finish his career playing for the Jets, Patriots and Chiefs, thr

After struggling the first few weeks, Revis than re-ascended to becoming the top cornerback in the NFL, helping the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick let Revis shadow opposing team’s best receiver, or stuck Revis on an opposing team’s No. 2 pass catcher, while keying on a bigger No. 1 target with Browner and a safety over top in a double coverage.

Down the stretch, Revis was one of the Patriots’ three best players — along with Brady and Rob Gronkowski — on one of the best teams of the past decade.

But Revis commanded a big deal the next offseason, and returned to the Jets, the team that drafted him. He had one more season at an elite level.

Although Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan combined for a formidable duo in the place of Revis and Browner the next two seasons, New England was without a true shutdown cornerback. They’d have to go to free agency once more.

Stephon Gilmore

Stephon Gilmore - Super Bowl LIII
Gilmore makes the game-clinching interception in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

With tension surrounding a potential long-term deal for fan favorite, Malcolm Butler, the Patriots instead chose to pay Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract in free agency. Butler’s big deal never came.

Gilmore was successful in Buffalo, but now, he’s unquestionably the best cornerback in the league heading into the 2019 season.

It didn’t begin like that in New England for Gilmore, though. Gilmore is the best press man cover cornerback in the league, but often finds himself out of place in zone coverage. Gilmore struggled out the gate trying to play in zone coverage before the Patriots shifted to more man coverage down the stretch of the 2017 season.

It was then when Gilmore tourney flourished. With big plays like his skying knockdown of a Blake Bortles pass in the 2017 AFC title game, and the game-sealing interception in Super Bowl LIII, Gilmore has shown shades of Law in a Patriot uniform in the postseason.

It helps that he also dons jersey No. 24.

“He’s the best corner in football right now” Law said of Gilmore to the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian.

“He’s really confident, and he’s taken his game to the next level. He’s first-team All-Pro. I think he’s going to continue to do that this year. He’ll be ready to roll.”

The two have developed a close friendship, and spent a lot of time together on Robert Kraft’s annual trip to Israel this summer.

“We talk regularly during the season, get together when we can, and we’re going to continue to do so,” Law said. “Any way I can help him, I’ll offer advice.”

Law may be one of a few cornerbacks that have ever played the game that can offer Gillmore advice, since it seems like he doesn’t need it. Belichick is currently creating an ensemble of defensive backs of all different sizes and skills, but it’s Gilmore that makes things a lot easier. With No. 24 on the field, Belichick can use him to take away an opponent’s top-notch pass catcher with ease.

With Gilmore’s recent level of play and upward curve, could he be destined for eternal greatness in Canton, Ohio?

Gilmore was one of a few Patriots present at Law’s induction ceremony over the weekend and afterword the two shared an exchange while posing for a picture by Law’s bust.

“Guess what?” Law said pointing at Gilmore, “Next up, in a couple years, I’ll be standing here next to Stephon Gilmore’s bust…real deal. I promise you that.”

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NFL’s latest offensive trend?

Could the NFL’s latest trend on offense be lying in the weeds as a soon-to-be revisited approach?

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and NFL data analyst Warren Sharp spoke on the subject via Twitter over the weekend, as Jeremiah says he’s sensed a trend of team’s using more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE — 2 WR) over his tour of training camps.

Of course, team’s already employ this grouping fairly regularly, but no team has used it seemingly as it’s base approach. At least not since the 2010 to 2012 Patriots flourished with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez playing the majority of the team’s snaps.

When using this personnel it’s best to used two different types of tight ends. At the beginning of the decade, New England had that in Gronk and Hernandez. Gronk is basically an all-around tight end who could block, but also act as a big wide receiver who could spread out wide or in the slot.

Hernandez was one of the most unique offensive players to ever play because he could line up all over — including as an H-back, wing back, slot receiver, out wide and in the backfield. What he lacked in pass blocking, he made up for it in quickness, strength, hands and after-the-catch ability. His versatility made him a mismatch versus but defensive backs and linebackers.

Later in 2016, the Patriots attempted to pair two ‘Y’ tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The Patriots averaged  33.4 points per game and a produced a 4-1 record with Brady and the twin towers before Gronkowski was lost for the season. That combination was rare as the Patriots held the best tight end in the NFL, along with a top-5 tight end of the same mold.

No team in the NFL has anything close to that at the moment, so teams switching to ’12’ personnel more regularly will be look to use two different sets of tight ends if they can.

Looking back to Sharp’s quote tweet of Jeremiah posted above, Sharp explains that the Eagles are currently the best team in this grouping. It’s no surprise they have two different set of tight ends capable of performing different tasks.

Zach Ertz is the third best tight end in football after only George Kittle and Travis Kelce. He plays much smaller and more fluid than his frame (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) suggests, and that’s clearly a compliment. Ertz is the Eagles’ No. 1 passing option in a star-studded offense that includes Alshon Jeffrey and now DeSean Jackson. Ertz is not the most dominant blocker, but is always a passing threat, no matter where he lines up — which could be as an H-back or in the slot.

Dallas Goedert.. The team’s second-round pick in 2018, is more of a traditional tight end who can block, as well as be a dominant red zone threat in the future. His size (6-foot-5, 256 pounds) is almost identical to Ertz, which makes it ironic that they are such different molds of the same position. Goedert’s athleticism is top-notch and he’ll only improve in the coming years. With Ertz at the helm, the Eagles can use him off the line while Goedert lines up as a traditional tight end. Despite not being the best blocker, the Eagles may still use their ‘Ace’ formation often. That’s where both Ertz and Goedert line up at traditional tight end at opposite sides of the offensive line.

The Eagles began to showcase a glimpse of what this offense can become last season. The Athletic’s Ryan Sasaki wrote a masterful ‘All-22’ piece on the subject early last season, breaking it all down.

With the re-addition of DeSean Jackson, and the addition of Jordan Howard for a power-running game that would welcome two tight end sets regularly for extra blocking, the Eagles are perfectly alined to have their base package look like this:

QB — Carson Wentz

RB — Jordan Howard 

LT — Jason Peters

LG — Isaac Seumalo 

C — Jason Kelce

RG — Brandon Brooks

RT — Lane Johnson 

TE (H-back/Slot) — Zach Ertz 

TE — Dallas Goedert 

WR (X) — Alshon Jeffrey 

WR (Z) — DeSean Jackson 

Additionally, the Eagles can leaver in their two tight ends and the bigger Jeffrey (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) while pairing him with second-round rookie JJ Arcega-Whiteside, a 6-foot-4, power forward-type threat to form an unstoppable red zone offense.

On paper, that looks to be perhaps the NFL’s most potent offensive package, in terms of talent relative to their role. Are the Eagles brewing up something this big on offense?

Brady’s latest contract

Alas, Brady’s sixth extension has been finalized on a week in which he not only turned 42 years old, but visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the way to join practices with the Lions in Michigan, that began today.

Still the best player in the NFL at age 42, Brady’s situation is unprecedented. He’s expressed multiple times that he would like to play until age 45, and this deal locks him up until the age of 44, meaning this may not be his last deal with New England.

To shed more light on the subject, NFL Network’s Mike Giardi expressed Brady wasn’t fighting for a long-term deal. Good news is the deal is masked as a year-to-year type move with a chance for both sides to move out and renegotiate going forward. In fact, since the deal includes a ‘no franchise tag’ clause, it essentially ends after the league year, voiding the final two years of the deal. So like Drew Brees, Brady will make $23 million in 2019 and then become a free agent (technically) for the first time in his career in March 2020. Although it likely won’t come to that. If Brady is to continue playing — which is likely — him and the Patriots will most likely come to terms before the 2020 league year.

 

To sum up the important details from the deal:

-Brady will likely receive a new, similar ‘masked’ year-to-year contract in roughly six months to keep him in New England for 2020.

-Brady will now make $23 million in 2019, as opposed to the $15 million he was scheduled to make.

-The extension now opens up enough cap space for the Patriots to afford Washington left tackle Trent Williams, or make additional moves with the extra room.

Going forward, deals for both Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers and possibly Aaron Rodgers (in a few years) will be fascinating to monitor considering their play into later ages. Their cases are unprecedented.

A tribute to Don Banks

I was shocked to learn that Don Banks, one of my favorite NFL writers, passed away in his sleep in a hotel in Canton, Ohio on Sunday Morning. Just 56 years old, Banks was in Canton to cover the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction as part of his brand new gig of covering the NFL on a national scale for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Prior to this, Don spent 17 years at Sports Illustrated, where I grew up reading and admiring his work. He then moved over to Patriots.com and the The Athletic Boston, two of my favorite mediums for NFL content. His ‘Snap Judgements’ column was a must-read for me after an NFL Sunday, as well as his ‘Cover 2’ podcast with comedian Nick Stevens (‘Fitzy’) discussing all things Patriots and the NFL.

The NFL writing community mourning over his loss exemplifies how many people loved Don and what type of person he is. I never met him personally but shared a few quick exchanges on Twitter with him, since I admired his work.

Don, you will be missed.

Condolences to you and your family…

Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LIII

Belichick, Patriots halt Rams with defensive masterpiece

With just over eight minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIII, and the score tied, the crowd of fans overwhelming run by Patriots’ backers began their chant.

“Brady! Brady! Brady!”

Tom Brady delivered a 29-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski up the seam, setting up a two-yard, eventual game-winning touchdown by Sony Michel.

Tom Brady - Super Bowl LIII
Tom Brady celebrates the go-ahead score in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

As always, Brady calmly came through in the fourth quarter of football’s biggest stage, helping the Patriots win yet another Super Bowl. But that’s about all he did. In fact, that was the only touchdown scored by any team, the entire game.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Brady said. “We just couldn’t make the big play. We just couldn’t stay on the field on third down. We just knew we had a whole half to go. Defense set the tone. . . . They held them and we broke through in the fourth quarter.”

This game was mostly won by Bill Belichick, Brian Flores and their hungry defense. It was an ode to Patriots teams of the past. Like the one that stopped the Rams of St. Louis in their tracks in Super Bowl XXXVI. But this was more than that. This was an ass-whooping of the umpteenth degree. This was 66-year-old Belichick schooling 33-year-old Rams head coach Sean McVay, and 24-year-old Jared Goff, the quarterback that was taken with the first pick of the 2016 draft.

The tone of the defense was especially set to pristine edge-setting, effective interior pass-rushing, blanketed coverage and a warrior-like attitude from a unit that was counted out more times than once during their trek toward yet another championship.

Few other plays (and players) exemplified the Patriots’ attitude then Patrick Chung’s tenacity in attempting to make a tackle, on a play where he reportedly broke his arm. After a TV timeout where staff tended to Chung, which led to the cart being rolled out, the 10-year veteran corralled his emotions and pulled himself up, to walk to the sideline, on his own volition.

“When you see a guy like that put it all on the line, put his body on the line, not caring, it makes you want to fight more for your teammates,” Stephon Gilmore said.

Chung watched the rest of the game from the sidelines in an arm cast. But even he realized that his teammates were more than capable of picking up the slack, to finish off the wide-eyed Rams.

“I was on the ground crying,” Chung told The Athletic. “They said, ‘Stop crying, bro we got you.’ I heard it. I felt it. I had no doubt in my mind we would be good.”

New England had already confused the Rams with a heavy dose of zone coverage, which contradicted their season’s story, as they ran more man coverage than any other team in the NFL.

Jonathan Jones, a backup cornerback, and special teams player, played 64 of 65 snaps as a safety opposite Devin McCourty, while Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty played every defensive snap as the team’s top two cornerbacks.

New England employed a quarters coverage for most of the game. That’s essentially a Cover 4, with two cornerbacks and two safeties each taking away one-fourth of the field in deep zone coverage.

“We anticipated that we would see some unscouted stuff,” Rams center John Sullivan told Sports Illustrated. “Playing Cover-4 was unscouted. Or it was different from them, let’s put it that way.”

Ironically, it was ex-Patriots defensive coordinator, and current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who successfully slowed down the Rams’ offense with this style in a 30-16 loss to Los Angeles in December.

Belichick saw that and utilized this coverage, while also taking away the Rams’ patented outside zone running scheme by often putting linebackers on the edge of the line of scrimmage, giving the feel of six-man fronts to limit the Rams aggressiveness with their usual rushing style.

Of course, the curious case of Todd Gurley (34 total yards), the NFL’s touchdown leader in the regular season with 21, helped in preventing the Rams usually-explosive offense from doing heavy damage, but the Patriots certainly played their part in limiting him when McVay looked his way.

A front seven that was inconsistent for much of the year was masterful on Sunday, holding the Rams to 62 rushing yards and sacking Goff four times, flustering him to the point where never gained a rhythm.

Trey Flowers had a monster tackle for a loss, Adrian Clayborn consistently applied pressure, Kyle Van Noy added a key third-down sack, and Dont’a Hightower added to his Super Bowl lore.

Famous for his game-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX, and his sack-fumble on Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI, Hightower had his best overall performance in any of his three Super Bowl appearances on Sunday.

He was flying around the field with his pre-2017 speed, using his experience in big games to outsmart Goff, and pummel the Rams’ offensive line and running game.

Clearly missed in last year’s 41-33, Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, Hightower’s two sacks, and near-interception, put him a hair above Gilmore as the team’s best defensive player on the night.

“Whenever you work as hard as we do,” Hightower said, “and you’re as dedicated, and you’ve got guys who come in and work hard and who are willing to sacrifice their time away from their family and their loved ones, who are willing to do whatever each and every week in a hard, demanding place, you expect that. You expect to win whenever you practice, whenever you put that much hard work into the game plans every week.”

As the pass rush got to Goff, the secondary limited the Rams receivers. Former Patriot deep-threat Brandin Cooks, traded to Los Angeles a year ago for a first-round pick, hauled in eight catches for 120 yards, but failed to reel in two of the biggest targets of the game.

Goff looked his way late for a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, that was knocked away by Jason McCourty, after a herculean effort to sprint from his zone assignment to break up the play. Then, in the fourth quarter, Goff’s best throw of the night fell right into Cooks’ hands, but Duron Harmon got a hand in there, which was just enough to stop the play.

Stephon Gilmore - Super Bowl LIII
Stephon Gilmore’s interception of Goff in the fourth quarter put Super Bowl LIII on ice
(Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

On the very next play, the Patriots sent Harmon on a delayed-blitz. As he came screaming in untouched, Goff panicked, and threw up a jackpot-style pass to the same spot, where Stephon Gilmore, the NFL’s premier shutdown cornerback, was waiting in his quarters coverage.

“I saw it the whole time,” Gilmore said. “I never took my eyes off it. I looked it in. I can’t believe he threw it.”

It’s true. In replays, Gilmore clearly had his eyes on Goff the entire time. His interception came after a vintage game-winning drive by Brady, his sixth in Super Bowls (he’s won every one that way), virtually sealing the game.

Finally coming alive, Brady went 4-for-4 with 67 yards to put the Patriots up 10-3, finding eventual Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) on his zillionth dig route of the game, matched up against Rams linebacker Corey Littleton, who gave up the ensuing deep seam route to Gronk, two plays later.

Rob Gronkowski - Super Bowl LIII
Rob Gronkowski reels in a 29-yard catch on the Patriots game-winning drive in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

After the game, Gronkowski punted away retirement questions, stating that he would take a week or two to decide. Instead, perhaps the greatest tight end ever, fresh off his big fourth quarter, embraced the moment.

“Bill (Belichick) told me he’s partying tonight,” said Gronkowski, who was also seen in a hilarious Instagram video with Brady after the game, seemingly taunting any and all of their detractors to the tune of the outro in Eminem’s Without Me.

New England even finally broke free in the running game late, as James Develin plowed over defenders as a lead-blocking fullback, helping clear lanes for Michel (18 carries, 94 yards) and the Patriots backs in general (154 rushing yards) on a night where the Rams not only took away the outside-the-numbers passing routes, but also usual Super Bowl safety net James White (nine total yards).

But as always, the Patriots adapted. And despite a shaky effort early, Brady found his rhythm late. He was given way too many chances.

Brady was already at or past Michael Jordan’s level of overarching greatness in North American professional team sports. And this season was about Brady, Belichick and the Patriots resilience in the face of more moments of adversity than even they have been accustomed to.

But this game in particular was about something else. It was another masterful Belichick blueprint on the game’s biggest stage. It was Flores’ swan song before heading to Miami to coach the Dolphins. And it was the Patriots’ defense, the group that let the team down in Super Bowl LII last February, emphatically making their mark with one of the great performances as an overall unit in the history of the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LIII Preview

Super Bowl LIII Preview: Brady’s second shot at ring No. 6 comes versus ‘all-in’ Rams

By now the storylines have reached a point of exhaustion. The hate for the Patriots’ self-contrived ‘underdog’ status has been well-documented. The Rams’ aggressive team-building approach and wunderkind head coach, well-profiled.

But this should come as a sigh of relief — here is a FOOTBALL preview of Super Bowl LIII. That’s right — matchups, x-factors and what each team needs to do to be victorious. Enjoy.

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

Despite being anchored by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, the Patriots have transitioned to more of an old-school ground-and-pound offense for a significant portion of the team’s last four victories.

Behind perhaps the league’s best offensive line since December, and the best lead-blocking fullback in pro football in James Develin, rookie workhorse back Sony Michel has rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in New England’s two postseason wins.

Still, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is famous for adopting a chameleon-type approach to attacking defenses. Depending on the opponent, the Patriots may opt for Brady to line up in shotgun and sling the football 50-60 times, or they may opt to bulk up and run over opponents with ’21’ or 12′ personnel.

The Rams were ranked 31st in rush yards per attempt allowed in the regular season (Chiefs were 32nd), but they’ve hunkered down in the postseason. First, they bottled up Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, then stymied the two-back attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing those three to just 93 yards on 37 carries in their two postseason wins.

But what the Rams did fall susceptible to (early on) in their thrilling overtime win over the Saints, is the halfback running out into the flats.

Targeted 13 times, Kamara reeled in 11 passes for 96 yards, often in the flats with Rams linebacker Corey Littleton trailing in coverage.

This bodes well for James White, who is the Patriots’ X-factor on offense this Sunday. 

Expect White to haul in anywhere from 10 to 15 passes running shallow flat, angle and option routes matched up against Rams linebackers.

With an excellent cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, Brady will have trouble throwing outside the numbers to the likes of Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.

But with just Hogan, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field most of the time for New England, expect Talib to get his share of duties against Gronk in man coverage, even lined up as a traditional tight end.

Brady will shy away from Talib and Peters mostly, looking for White, Rex Burkhead and you guessed it….Julian Edelman lined up against Rams slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Robey-Coleman walked back his ‘taken-out-of-context’ comments referring to Brady’s old age, which is good, because TB12 has had his fair share of success targeting him from his days as a member of the Buffalo Bills. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 130.6 passer rating when targeting Robey-Coleman, which is good for his third highest against any defender in the he has targeted at least 20 times.

So it’s understandable that Brady and Edelman, perhaps the best QB-to-slot receiver tandems of all-time, would have their way with the Rams’ CB3.

But in a season-defining game such as this, look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to have various plans in slowing down the Patriots’ passing game. With age catching up to Gronkowski, it’s possible Phillips places Talib on Edelman, but Talib will turn 33 years old 10 days after Sunday’s game, meaning he’s not quite the player he once was. Still a solid man-coverage cornerback, Talib would be up for the challenge, with the press coverage skills to slow down Edelman at times, but Edelman is not your average 32-year-old receiver. His affinity for clutch play and relentless grit, combined with his quickness and rapport with Brady, actually make him one of the league’s hardest receivers to cover, certainly at this time of the year.

In that case, the Rams might opt for more zone coverage, but knowing Brady decimates teams that play soft zone coverage as their primary defense (see: Brady vs. Steelers), Phillips will have to disguise his looks to full Brady, ultimately mixing in well-designed blitzes at the proper times to fool the GOAT.

But that can prove risky, with quick outlets such as White and Burkhead (who also can be utilized in running draws) available as quick-passing targets for Brady.

Which means the Rams’ blueprint success doesn’t necessarily rely on perfect coverage, but instead being the old adage of pressuring the quarterback, which works on any passer, not just Brady.

Yet, it’s a very specific type of pressure that will slow down this Patriots offense, and the Rams have the perfect players to do so.

Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. are capable on the edge, but Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon should be able to slow them down. And even if they don’t at times, Brady’s all-time pocket presence is perhaps his best tangible attribute, meaning stepping up and around edge pressure is something he can and will do.

Instead, it’s the interior where the Rams will need to excel.

Luckily for Los Angeles, they sport the greatest interior rushing threat — and eventually, maybe greatest defensive tackle ever— in Aaron Donald.

With a league-high 20.5 sacks and 41 knockdowns, Donald is primed for to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday.

The behemoth has the ability to wreck any team’s game plan, but the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been stout. From left guard to right, Joe Thuney, David Andrews (center) and Shaq Mason have brutalized defenses in the run game, and along with tackles Brown and Cannon, they have kept Brady upright the entire postseason thus far. Zero sacks allowed by this group. The only other time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback went unscathed for no sacks in a postseason run was Brady in the 2003 Patriots’ path to glory.

With the ability to double-team Donald, the Patriots will limit him SOME, but expect Donald to have at least three or more clean pressures on Brady from the interior, due to his sheer dominance.

But if New England can limit Donald with a double team, the Rams’ success, and possibly chances of winning, may lie with their X-factor on defense, Ndamukong Suh.

Once a dominant interior player on his own with the Lions, Suh is not quite the same player, but is still formidable enough to take over a game if need be. Although not indicative of the effectiveness of an interior rusher, Suh has just 4.5 sacks this season, meaning he could do better as a rusher, which is part of the reason the Rams snagged Fowler from the Jaguars midseason, to generate more pressure.

But matched up solo against Thuney or Mason, Suh may be a game-wrecker for the Patriots in both the pass and the run game, if he steps up for the challenge.

But this is a tough matchup for the Rams. The Patriots will likely employ a mix of everything, which includes things like Burkhead running routes from the slot, and Cordarrelle Patterson acting as an ‘athlete’ by lining up in the backfield, and taking his fair share of end-arounds.

But ultimately, the Patriots want to control the tempo, and the clock, by pounding Michel behind their stout offensive line, lead-blocking extraordinaire Develin and monster-blocking by Gronk and Dwayne Allen. If they can break the Rams that way, then the play-action will come, and the Rams will likely falter, no matter what they do on offense. But if Donald and Suh can generate consistent interior pressure, against both the run and the pass, a la the 2007 and 2011 Giants, then the Rams may have their recipe for success.

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

The Rams have fond success under wunderkind, offensive-minded Sean McVay, a 33-year-old head coach that has used futuristic concepts to riddle opposing defenses.

Running McVay’s offense is 24-year-old Jared Goff, a third-year quarterback (and former No. 1 overall pick) who has vastly improved since his NFL debut.

The Rams heavily employ ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and often use these pieces in a bunch formation, with three receivers playing tightly within each other, and close to their offensive line. There, McVay relies upon Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best backs, on outside zones, while also utilizing Gurley as a receiver, and as a decoy, in play-action passes where the team’s bunch formations makes it hard to decipher routes, and where their receivers are going.

But because many of the Rams’ passing plays are long-developing, with routes such as deep-comebacks to Brandin Cooks, Goff holds onto the ball longer, giving a much-improved Patriots pass rush, led by Trey Flowers, a chance pressure Goff, as they did Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots front seven in general had a rough go for much of the regular season, but they’ve allowed just 60 yards on 22 carries in their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. And while December-acquisition, and postseason hero C.J. Anderson had a successful outing versus the Cowboys, he was held to 2.8 yards per carry versus the Saints, meaning Gurley HAS to get it going in some form, for the Rams to have a chance.

The 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year garnered a putrid 13 yards on five touches, which included a drop-turned interception early on, which helped put the Rams in a 13-0 hole. That can’t happen versus the Patriots.

Gurley looked discouraged and flustered, but he’s been given another opportunity, and should have a better go-round than his NFC championship game performance.

But Bill Belichick specializes in taking away his opponents’ best offensive weapon. And although Gurley may seem like that guy on paper, the real weapon in this offense is McVay, through Goff. It’s the perfectly-ingrained system. With possession receiver, turned-bonafide-stud WR1 Robert Woods, speedy, deep threat Brandin Cooks and the young, sure-handed Josh Reynolds, the Rams have a nice trio of receivers, even with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp earlier in the season.

Mentioned earlier, the Rams’ Aqib Talib was perhaps the league’s best man coverage cornerback a few seasons ago (think: 2015). That title now belongs to Patriots CB1 Stephon Gilmore. Not only is Gilmore the best man coverage corner, he’s the best cornerback in the league overall right now, period.

Although the Patriots may mix in some zone concepts, they just love to play man coverage, meaning that’s primarily what they’ll start with.

Cooks is a dangerous threat, but his route tree is limited to deep comebacks, drags, slants and flies. He isn’t a uber-precise route-runner, or a receiver who hangs onto balls consistently in traffic.

Woods isn’t as much of a home-run threat as Cooks is, but he’s the better overall receiver, meaning he’ll likely draw Gilmore for most of the game.

The Patriots will likely use a combination of Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Cooks, with safety Duron Harmon moving over from his usual ‘center fielder’ type role to shad overtop Cooks. The guess is the veteran McCourty draws Cooks (with help), while Jackson gets a shot at Reynolds. Because of his likely opportunity in one-on-one coverage, Reynolds is one of two X-factor(s) on the Rams’ offense. 

If Reynolds can beat his man consistently, Goff will be able to find his second and third read, while the Patriots key on more-known targets like Woods, Cooks and Gurley.

But with a much-improved pass rush, the Patriots have been able to get pressure with fronts containing Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, and interior sub-rusher Adam Butler. New England has also sent Kyle Van Noy from the edge with much success in recent weeks, specifically in the first half against Kansas City.

If the Patriots are able to play press man coverage tightly to delay (and knock off) the routes of Rams receivers, New England may make things difficult for Goff. That’s where McVay will have to lean on the ’12’ personel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR) groupings he used in the team’s comeback win over the Saints (16 snaps.)

In that case, the Rams would replace Reynolds with another tight end to pair with Tyler Higbee. That would be the team’s second X-factor on offense, Gerald Everett. 

Everett is a move tight end capable of giving the Patriots fits. He’s nimble and athletic, and can block just well enough to not be a liability in the run game. If the Rams can find some success running Gurley or Anderson here, that will set up Everett matched up agains the likes of Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung. The latter of those four would likely be the best matchup for the Patriots, meaning Chung is the Patriots’ X-factor on defense, providing Belichick with a good piece in man coverage against tight ends from the slot. 

In the run game, Chung can be used in the box and up front as a pseudo-linebacker capable of stopping Gurley and Anderson, while also not surrendering speed and coverage ability to the team’s personnel. This may also include the occasional man coverage assignment on Gurley lined up as a receiver, when motioning out of the backfield.

The Rams have the pieces to make things awfully difficult on the Patriots here, but New England’s experience and recent mojo suggest they’ll have their moments, too.

Prediction

On paper, the Rams are not only vastly more talented, but they seemingly have the pieces and the aggressive approach to take down the Patriots, much like the Eagles did last year.

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Don’t Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

The stage won’t be ‘too big’ for the Rams, but I believe they’ll get caught napping early, as the Patriots get out to a lead behind a fiery Tom Brady, who will look for James White early and often (I mean it…10-15 catches from him, and two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving).

The Rams will figure things out both offensively and defensively in the second half, and like all past Brady-Belichick Super Bowls, this will be close, but nowhere near like the  nail-biters in their past few bouts.

New England will switch up their offensive approach from drive to drive, as they won’t be able to run 45 times against this improved Rams defense, but they’ll have enough success running to set up a few downfield throws by Brady on play-action.

And when the Patriots aren’t running behind Develin and the offensive line, they’ll spread things out and Brady will look to the short and intermediate areas in between the numbers.

The Rams will have some success with Gurley before he’s taken out of the game, leaving Goff alone, looking for his secondary weapons.

Give me Brady, Belichick and these hungry Patriots to complete the full circle of their dynasty that spans over 18 years. They’ll beat the Rams again, for what might be their last Super Bowl together.

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White

Patriots go ‘once more into the fray’ in quest for sixth ring

193 days removed from one of the most painful losses of his career, Tom Brady took the field against the Philadelphia Eagles with something to prove. The contrast in importance from Super Bowl LII and this home preseason tilt can’t be overstated, but for Brady, this was a chance to damper the over-analyzed noise of ‘discord’ between he and Bill Belichick during the offseason, as seen and heard on sports television and sports talk radio.

The GOAT’s performance (19/26, 172 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) was sharp. An A-minus level of quarterbacking against the team that thwarted his attempt at a sixth ring. With WR1 Brandin Cooks, do-everything back Dion Lewis and uber-clutch slot weapon Danny Amendola all gone, Brady will carry a heavier load this season. That’s something he’s done in past years, but as he enters his age-41 campaign, that’s certainly not ideal.

Still, the Patriots possess the ultimate mismatch-creator in tight end Rob Gronkowski, and will welcome back trusty slot receiver Julian Edelman in October after his four-game suspension for who knows what. In September bouts versus the Texans, Jaguars, Lions and Dolphins, Brady will have to rely on Chris Hogan as his WR1 with scatback James White and two former first-round picks Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson to fill the void. Patterson is the ultimate ‘gadget’ weapon capable of creating big gains off screens, reverses and the deep fly. Dorsett is a smaller target with blazing speed a la Brandin Cooks, but not as polished. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely try Dorsett in a variety of roles including in Cooks’ and Edelman’s spot for the first month of the season.

But what will the offense look like in general? McDaniels is known for creating a chameleon-type mentality within the Patriots’ complex offense run by Brady. One game New England might pound the rock in two-tight end sets (with the occasional play-action pass) while another matchup may bring out a spread set for much of the game, asking Brady to beat a top-end defense by throwing 50 or more passes — which he surely can do. It’s been documented many times before, but the Patriots use short passes to RBs and slot receivers as bonafide runs in that scenario. They move players like James Devlin out wide in no-huddle base-switched-to-spread formations and move receivers in motion to identify the coverage, and then Brady assess.

Many call it ‘dinking and dunking’ but what Brady does with timed and small window throws is a thing of beauty. As opposed to consistently looking deep to Cooks, Hogan and Gronkowski like last season, Brady will attack the short and middle spots of the defense before he attacks downfield with what can be described as the ‘jugular.’ This is reserved for when Brady looks downfield on either a play-action pass or unexpected bomb to hit the defense where and when it least expects it. The best example of this is Brady’s deep touchdown pass to Chris Hogan to defeat the Ravens on a Monday Night Football game during the 2016 season:

New England’s team-building philosophy allows them to find obscure or mid-level available targets to fit their system, without having to battle other teams for their services. These players are hired on affordable contracts, or traded for assets with slim value to the franchise. The latest example being Patterson, who may very well enjoy a career year in New England despite being dealt there, along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for a fifth-round pick. That’s practically nothing.

Likewise, the Patriots retained Burkhead on a three-year deal with $5.5 million guaranteed. With the Patriots handling of Michel’s injury and Lewis in Tenneseee, Burkhead may too, have a career year as the presumed feature back to start the season.

But the running back corps should rely on perhaps their best bargain of all, scatback James White. The trusty offensive weapon will be heavily relied on to start the season, and even may lead the team in catches. The player who has scored six touchdowns in his last four postseason games quietly signed a three-year extension last offseason that nets him just $12 million (not guaranteed) through 2020. The Patriots win in this scenario again.

But enough contract talk. Expect the unexpected when it comes to the Patriots attempt to score points on four familiar, stingy defensive foes in September, but after that Brady and company should find their rythmn with a mix of gameplans derived generated to attack opponents’ weaknesses.

In short, as long as Brady is running the show, and Gronkowski and Edelman remain healthy, New England should remain one of the league’s consistent scoring machines in 2018.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Rex Burkhead 

WR — Chris Hogan

WR — Cordarrelle Patterson 

Slot WR — Phillip Dorsett (Edelman will replace Dorsett after his four-game suspension; Dorsett would move back outside)

TE — Rob Gronkowski

LT — Trent Brown 

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

‘Move’ TE — Jacob Hollister

Blocking TE — Dwayne Allen

Gadget — Cordarrelle Patterson (Patterson projected to start in three WR sets Weeks 1-4)

Swing Tackle — LaAdrian Waddle

 

* * * * *

For the Patriots defense, the 2017 season ended just as it began, with the unit being thumped by a more talented offensive unit.. The ominous Week 1 loss to the Chiefs sparked early trouble, but as always the Patriots trekked along with the ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ defense for the rest of the season leading up to Super Bowl LII. Then, the wheels came off.

Now, Brian Flores takes over, filling in for Matt Patricia’s shoes. In two preseason games, Flores has appeared to mix in more exotic blitzes than the conservative preseason. But again, it’s preseason so that means little. The Patriots major hole in 2017 was a lack of a pass rush, and a below-average front seven in general. Players like Eric Lee and Marquis Flowers were thrust into starting roles down the stretch. Both Lee and Flowers were released Saturday, failing to make the 53-man roster. With the return of Dont’a Hightower and the additions of Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton and Derek Rivers, the team should see somewhat of a boost in those categories.

In the secondary, the Patriots again will have the experienced safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, but the group’s most important piece will be CB1 Stephon Gilmore. With a full season in New England under his belt, Gilmore should elevate into a top five cornerback in 2018. Belichick will utilize the former Buffalo Bill as a man-to-man piece with the ability to stymie opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher. Generally, Belichick’s defenses work well with a shutdown CB1 anchoring the backend — think Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis. With the exception of Samuel, who was smaller and excelled in zone coverage, the players on that list are elite, physical man-to-man defenders. Gilmore will be that.

The major question comes at CB2, where Eric Rowe will need to step up and provide solid play in man-to-man situations. Between Gilmore (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) and Rowe (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) the Patriots hope to lock up outside receivers with their lengthy, athletic cornerbacks, with less pressure on Rowe, as he’d be asked to cover the team’s No. 2 WR. In the slot, the Patriots will look to Jonathan Jones or rookie Duke Dawson at some point, but their often-used ‘big nickel’ package may be the most used. The formation employs the aforementioned safety trio with both Harmon and McCourty playing a traditional free-ranging safety position, and Chung playing in the as a nickel back who is able to jam receivers and tight ends who line up in the slot.

With Flores at the helm, the Patriots will still employ a mostly-conservative approach to their defense, as similar to recent years. But expect the young play caller to mix a few exotic blitzes into the mix, without leaving the defense vulnerable to getting beat deep by a running back in the passing game, like Cassius Marsh’s coverage assignment versus Kareem Hunt in last season’s Week 1 loss to the Chiefs.

To sum it all up, the defense should improve.

Week 1 Projected defense:

EDGE — Trey Flowers

Interior — Danny Shelton

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Adrian Clayborn

LB — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore

CB — Eric Rowe

Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon

Situational positions:

Rotational Interior  — Malcom Brown

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

Sub Edge Rusher — Derek Rivers

Sub Edge Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

Slot CB — Duke Dawson Jr. 

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 2 seed)

With the AFC’s (and AFC East’s) failure to keep up with the NFC’s level of emerging talent-heavy teams, only the Patriots, Jaguars and Steelers hold a legitimate chance at making Super Bowl LIII, with the Chargers, Chiefs and Texans being the conference’s sleepers. The Patriots will miss out on the AFC’s No. 1 seed via a Week 2 loss in Jacksonville. But with a season-long worth of meshing, and Edelman back in the mix, the Patriots will defeat the Jaguars on the road in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.