Predictions are great, but I hate throwing out a set of scores and calling it a day. For those who have heard me on podcasts in the past, I always prefer that we look at the 'why' as being more important than the 'what', especially with the randomness of NFL football. So, here's my analysis of today's contest between the Patriots and Rams.
When the Rams have the ball:
• 11 personnel: On the majority of their plays, the Rams use 3 WRs. Before losing Cooper Kupp earlier in the season, they ran this grouping on over 95 percent of their plays. Obviously, this is a standard NFL formation, but the way the Rams use it is different than most other teams. They typically keep all of the WRs close to the formation- this allows them to 1) run them on crossing-type routes to run pick plays to get them freed up from defenders, and 2) lets them run a WR behind the line of scrimmage for jet action, which results in either a WR handoff or a fake that forces defenders to freeze for a moment, due to the uncertainty. Jared Goff is a timing and rhythm passer who struggles when thrown off script, and this offensive design is what has made him a successful QB the last two years. Also, this personnel grouping is most effective when Todd Gurley is in the backfield and running outside zone plays….
• Outside zone: Gurley has feasted not only by running outside zone, but in the 11 personnel grouping because it has allowed the Rams to have a lethal play-action passing game, forcing defenses to play in their nickel or dime defenses (more defensive backs and fewer run stoppers on the field). Against fewer defenders and running behind an excellent offensive line, Gurley gets not only a ton of chunk runs, but he's able to have mismatches as a receiver out of the backfield, and make no mistake, Gurley isn't just a dump-off artist, he can win by running solid pass routes downfield.
• 12 personnel: When the Rams put two TEs on the field, they run many of the same offensive concepts that they do when they have their typical 11 personnel on the field. However, they can realize a great mismatch in this game when this unit is on the field. It will almost force the Pats to put in their base defense in order to stop the run. One of the wildcards I see in this game is Gerald Everett, as he will see far less defensive attention than Gurley and the WRs, but his athleticism presents a potential mismatch that the Rams can utilize to make some big plays.
• Inside zone: Based on their last few games, C.J. Anderson has been a big factor in the running game while Gurley's been working his way back from a knee injury. However, he doesn't have nearly the speed and agility of Gurley, so they'll run much more inside zone with him in the game. The problem this presents against the Pats is that they won't take the play action as seriously and the defensive backs will get physical with the WRs to keep them off their spots and throw off the timing of play-action for Goff. In addition, the defense will have more confidence putting an extra run stopper in the game to thwart Anderson.
• 3rd downs: Over the season, the Rams have done a great job of staying out of a ton of 3rd and long situations, but when they're in those, they have been one of the worst teams in the league in converting. The main reason is that play-action no longer works and Goff has his greatest asset taken away, and he also sees more pressure in obvious-passing situations, and we begin to see him struggle.
• Playing fast: You may notice that the Rams run their plays quickly- that's by design. Head coach Sean McVay can talk into Goff's headset until 15 seconds remain on the play clock, and the coach often lets Goff know exactly what to expect. By running the play quickly after that, the defense doesn't have much time to disguise their look, and Goff doesn't get confused.
When the Pats are on defense:
• Pass coverage: Over the year, the Patriots are one of the heaviest man-to-man defenses in the league, and to think they'll completely abandon it would be foolish. However, they will use it far less than usual, as they pick their spots. Since the Rams lost Cooper Kupp earlier this year, teams that used a zone (specifically Cover-4), have taken away many of the route combinations that had gotten the Rams' WRs open and limited the passing windows that Goff is accustomed to. Also, look for them to use hybrid coverages that don't easily indicate how they intend to play before the snap, which can add problems to their play-action passing.
• Stopping Gurley: The Pats will cover the basics, and one of those is making sure that defenders set the edge, which should allow them to force Gurley back to the middle and into the teeth of the defense. They should be able to limit him as a runner, but they may not have the personnel to stop him as a receiver. Of course, they'll likely have defenders chip him often to break up the timing and keep him from getting into his pass routes on time.
• 3rd downs: New England should do very well by going to a zone on 3rd downs. They also will have some exotic pass rushes that are likely to get pressure on Goff and keep them from moving the chains on these important plays.
The verdict: The Rams will have sporadic success moving the ball, but look for Goff to be put into too many situations in which he's not comfortable. Their offense won't be the machine they were earlier in the year.
When the Patriots have the ball:
• Heavy personnel: The Patriots will run a lot of 12 and 22 personnel (fullbacks and extra tight ends) so they force the defense to play in their base. With a great offensive line and the additional blockers on the field, they are able to overcome some strong run defenses, but it actually does something else. When facing base defenses, the Pats are masters at throwing the ball from these obvious running looks, which typically gives Brady receivers facing single coverage.
• Limited weapons: Since losing Josh Gordon earlier this year, the Pats lack elite weapons in the passing game, and this does present problems against good defenses. If they find themselves in obvious passing situations, this becomes problematic.
• Quick release: No QB gets rid of the ball as quickly as Brady, but that is often predicated by players like Julian Edelman and James White getting schemed into an advantageous spot quickly.
The Rams on defense:
• Unstoppable force: Since the playoffs began, Ndamukong Suh has stepped up his game, making the interior of the Rams defensive line lethal. Although the Pats have a great rushing attack, with Suh and Aaron Donald playing at their best, an inside rushing attack has little chance to prosper. This duo can also present Brady's kryptonite- interior pressure, and if there are too many obvious-passing downs, this will be a real problem.
• The secondary: The Rams have a very strong secondary, and it's likely that when Rob Gronkowski lines up as a receiver, Aqib Talib will match up with him, and that's a tough spot for Gronk. They'll also likely flood the middle of the field and give help against Brady's security blanket, Julian Edelman. The one weakness is when Marcus Peters has to deal with double moves when playing single coverage- he will be tested on those numerous times.
The verdict: The Pats are unlikely to put together many long drives that require over 10 plays because this defense can take away many of their strengths. However, their wild cards are Hogan (especially when lined up against Peters) and White (when used on more sophisticated pass routes, other than dump offs).
The predicton: We'll have a lower scoring game without many sustained drives and more punts than we've seen in recent Super Bowls. Ultimately, I think the Patriots defense takes more away from the Rams offense than vice versa, and New England scores enough points to pull out a 23-20 victory.