You just witnessed the greatest defensive performance in Super Bowl history: Here’s how the Patriots did it

Brady and Belichick won their 6th super bowl with the New Eng­land Patri­ots thanks in part to the defense.
Sun­day, Jan. 14, 2007 (AP Photo/Chris Park)

At the end of a dour Super Bowl in Atlanta only a moth­er could love, it real­ly shouldn’t have been a sur­prise that Bill Belichick was the one stand­ing tri­umphant.

Last year, Tom Brady pro­duced what was arguably the great­est sin­gle per­for­mance in Super Bowl his­to­ry, only for Belichick’s defense to get run over by Eagles back­up Nick Foles. On Sun­day, with Brady strug­gling en route to his worst pass­ing per­for­mance in a title game, Belichick’s defense saved the day. The Patri­ots deliv­ered Belichick’s mas­ter­piece in their 13–3 win over the Rams.

What we saw from the Patri­ots on Sun­day night was the best defen­sive per­for­mance we have ever seen in a Super Bowl.

I don’t say that as hyper­bole. To start, the only oth­er time a team has allowed just three points in the Super Bowl was when the Cow­boys defeat­ed the Dol­phins 24–3 in 1971. Those Dol­phins scored 22.5 points per game dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, while Sean McVay’s Rams were up at 32.9 points per con­test. The Pats allowed the Rams just 9.1 per­cent of their scor­ing aver­age, the best mark in Super Bowl his­to­ry:

You might argue that we’re reward­ing the Patri­ots for not allow­ing a late garbage-time score, as was the case when the 1985 Pats scored a touch­down in the fourth quar­ter to short­en Chicago’s lead to 44–10 in Super Bowl XX. That’s true. The oth­er side of the coin, though, is that the Patri­ots’ defense couldn’t sim­ply pin its ears back and rush the quar­ter­back all game. They weren’t up against Steve Gro­gan.

They had to come up with stops dri­ve after dri­ve to win against the Rams, who were the sec­ond-best offense in the sec­ond-high­est scor­ing sea­son in NFL his­to­ry. Scor­ing 13 points against the Rams, as the Patri­ots did Sun­day, would have earned a team a 1–17 record against the Rams in the 2018 sea­son. The only time Los Ange­les failed to hit 13 points was when the Bears held them to six in Week 14, but Chica­go was the much-cel­e­brat­ed best defense in foot­ball. The Patri­ots ranked 16th in defen­sive DVOA and had just allowed 31 points in the sec­ond half to the Chiefs in the AFC Cham­pi­onship Game.

McVay, who admit­ted after the game that he “sim­ply got out­coached,” nev­er found a solu­tion. His offense slow­ly suf­fo­cat­ed through­out the game. The same Rams team that bragged about its phys­i­cal­i­ty after run­ning all over the Cow­boys in the divi­sion­al round pro­duced just two first downs on 18 rush­ing attempts. Jared Goff and the Los Ange­les pass­ing attack aver­aged just 4.7 yards per drop­back, with an unsung Patri­ots pass rush sack­ing Goff four times and knock­ing him down on 12 occa­sions. An offense that made it to the red zone a league-high 80 times dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son failed to make it inside the Patri­ots’ 20-yard line even once Sun­day.

To me, it topped the two most famous Belichick game plans of all time. The 2001 Great­est Show on Turf Rams man­aged to score 17 points and rack up 26 first downs on the Patri­ots, who won Super Bowl XXXVI thanks to big plays. Ty Law took an errant Kurt Warn­er throw to the house for a pick-six. The Pats recov­ered a Ricky Proehl fum­ble at mid­field and scored their lone offen­sive touch­down before half­time. Jeff Wilkins missed a 52-yard field goal in the first half, and the Rams had five dri­ves that went to or past the 50-yard line that result­ed in zero points. This defen­sive per­for­mance was more con­sis­tent­ly dom­i­nant.

Belichick’s game plan as the Giants’ defen­sive coor­di­na­tor against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV resides in the Hall of Fame, but again, this show­ing should join it. Belichick sac­ri­ficed his run defense to sti­fle Jim Kel­ly, and Thur­man Thomas sub­se­quent­ly ran for 135 yards and a touch­down. The Bills still man­aged to get into posi­tion for a 47-yard field goal that would have won the game, only for Scott Nor­wood to push his kick wide in a 20–19 nail­biter.

Those per­for­mances were leg­endary, but the win in Super Bowl LIII sur­pass­es them in the pan­theon of bril­liant defen­sive game plans from Belichick, with cred­it also going to defen­sive coor­di­na­tor and future Dol­phins coach Bri­an Flo­res. So, how did the Patri­ots pull it off?

How Belichick, Flores and Patricia stopped the Rams

You might note that one of the coach­es in that sub­head isn’t on the Patri­ots’ pay­roll any­more. “We had to put togeth­er some­thing that would neu­tral­ize the run­ning game and their big play-action pass­es on ear­ly downs,” Bill Belichick said to ESPN’s Steve Young after the game. “We felt like if we could make them dri­ve it and earn it, sim­i­lar to what the Lions did to them,” he added, “… we would have a chance to get them off the field on third down.”

What Belichick said shouldn’t be a sur­prise. If you read my pre­view on the game, I sug­gest­ed that the Patri­ots were going to focus on stop­ping the out­side zone and tak­ing away play-action, just as Lions head coach (and for­mer Patri­ots defen­sive coor­di­na­tor) Matt Patri­cia empha­sized in Week 13 against the Rams. Goff fin­ished 5-of-9 for 68 yards on play-action pass­es, with Belichick forc­ing him to try to win the Super Bowl as a con­ven­tion­al drop­back pass­er.

Where I was sur­prised, though, was with how the Patri­ots built their cov­er­ages. The Lions played more zone against the Rams than they had in their pri­or games, par­tic­u­lar­ly by using more quar­ters (or Cov­er 4) shells. I fig­ured that the Patri­ots, who have much bet­ter cor­ner­backs than Detroit, would still rely heav­i­ly on man cov­er­age to try to stop the Rams and their end­less series of stacks and bunch­es.

I was wrong. As McVay not­ed after the game, the Patri­ots played plen­ty of zone cov­er­age through­out the game, includ­ing quar­ters looks on ear­ly downs. Quar­ters helped the Patri­ots keep the inten­tions and depths of their safeties dis­guised before the snaps, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly allow­ing New Eng­land to flood the box with defend­ers to stop the run. The Pats used what amount­ed to a 5–1 over front with Patrick Chung as a strong­side line­backer to try to pen­e­trate into the back­field against out­side zone.

Things got more com­pli­cat­ed when Chung went down with an arm injury in the third quar­ter, which cost the Patri­ots both a vet­er­an com­mu­ni­ca­tor and a ver­sa­tile start­ing safe­ty. Duron Har­mon took Chung’s place, and the Patri­ots sub­se­quent­ly were forced to play more con­ser­v­a­tive cov­er­age con­cepts. When they did play man, the Pats again sur­prised by gen­er­al­ly stick­ing Stephon Gilmore one-on-one against Brandin Cooks, with Robert Woods dou­bled by Jonathan Jones and a safe­ty.

On third down, the Patri­ots tor­ment­ed Goff and McVay with stunts and twists to throw off their pass block­ing while pre­vent­ing Goff, McVay and cen­ter John Sul­li­van from diag­nos­ing where pres­sure was going to come from before the snap. Teams that load up on twists often strug­gle to keep con­tain or leave an obvi­ous run­ning lane open for the oppos­ing quar­ter­back, but the Patri­ots did an excel­lent job of get­ting pres­sure against the inte­ri­or of the Rams’ line (par­tic­u­lar­ly guard Austin Blythe) while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly clos­ing down Goff when he boot­legged out of the pock­et. Goff was 2-of-3 pass­ing for 2 yards and two sacks when he wag­gled to the side­lines.

Over­all, the Patri­ots were wild­ly pro­duc­tive when they threw extra defen­sive backs on the field. Accord­ing to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Pats post­ed a 45 per­cent suc­cess rate on defense with four or five defen­sive backs on the field. Their dime pack­age, though, had a dom­i­nant game. On 20 snaps, the Pats racked up three sacks and held Goff to a dis­mal line: 6-of-16 for 60 yards and an inter­cep­tion. Fif­teen of those 20 snaps were regard­ed as suc­cess­ful plays for the Patri­ots’ defense in terms of keep­ing the Rams from get­ting on sched­ule, good for a 75 per­cent suc­cess rate.

McVay took the blame after the loss for not adapt­ing or adjust­ing his play­call­ing, and you can cer­tain­ly won­der whether the Rams should have tried dif­fer­ent things. It seems like they could have used late motion before the snap to try to take advan­tage of a sta­t­ic Patri­ots defense and thrown bub­ble screens to try to gain a num­bers advan­tage and/or force the Pats out of quar­ters. The Fal­cons, who shared some sim­i­lar­i­ties under Kyle Shana­han to these Rams in terms of their out­side zone empha­sis, had suc­cess run­ning the crack toss against the Patri­ots in the Super Bowl, and the Rams could have used that to set up screens.

At some point, the Rams might have been bet­ter off force-feed­ing Todd Gur­ley II; they ran the ball just once on 20 snaps against the Pats’ dime per­son­nel group­ing, which New Eng­land was com­fort­able run­ning on first-and-10 and third-and-2. The Rams went with 11 per­son­nel on more than 78 per­cent of their drop­backs, but for the sec­ond week in a row, they were more effec­tive get­ting a sec­ond tight end on the field with 12 per­son­nel. The Rams post­ed a 40 per­cent suc­cess rate with their tra­di­tion­al three-wide­out set, but that jumped to 54 per­cent with Ger­ald Everett and Tyler Hig­bee on the field.

The Rams even­tu­al­ly got some offense going in the third quar­ter. Goff made two great throws, includ­ing a pic­ture-per­fect 18-yard pass to Woods on third-and-7, to get into field goal range. The Rams got their one big chance of the game when the Patri­ots bad­ly blew a cov­er­age and left Cooks wide open run­ning up the seam on a Yan­kee con­cept, only for Goff to belat­ed­ly rec­og­nize his good for­tune and give Jason McCour­ty, who played every snap on Sun­day, enough time to find work and knock away the pass.

A beau­ti­ful Pats pass rush sub­se­quent­ly lim­it­ed the Rams to a field goal when High­tow­er got inside Blythe for a sack. It was a crit­i­cal play, giv­en that Goff wasn’t able to find a wide-open C.J. Ander­son for a check­down that would have moved the chains: The Rams had to punt on their next dri­ve after a ques­tion­able hold­ing call on Sul­li­van wiped out a 13-yard Gur­ley run, but after the Patri­ots scored a touch­down, the Rams drove down the field with a screen to Cooks and a pick play that freed up Reynolds to con­vert third-and-9 over the mid­dle. On the next play, Goff dropped a per­fect ball over Gilmore for what could have been a touch­down pass to Cooks, only for Har­mon to jar the ball loose with a hit.

On the next play, Flo­res dared Goff to do it again by send­ing a six-man blitz against six Rams block­ers with High­tow­er as an under­neath rob­ber and the four defen­sive backs in quar­ters behind. A pan­icked Goff rushed his drop­back and made anoth­er throw toward Cooks, but while Goff’s pass need­ed to be deep and toward the side­line to give Cooks a chance, his throw was bad­ly short and amount­ed to a fair catch for Gilmore.

It’s worth not­ing that Belichick and Flo­res didn’t pull this off with a bunch of super­stars in their prime out­side of Gilmore, who had an incon­sis­tent game before his inter­cep­tion. High­tow­er, Trey Flow­ers and Devin McCour­ty are home­grown tal­ents, but Belichick the exec­u­tive has also found use­ful tal­ent on the cheap. Jason McCour­ty was acquired for a swap of sixth- and sev­enth-round picks when the Browns were about to cut him. Kyle Van Noy, who had a mon­ster game with a sack and three knock­downs, was the prod­uct of a near­ly iden­ti­cal swap with the Lions. Jones and J.C. Jack­son were undraft­ed free agents. There was no Lawrence Tay­lor or Ty Law on the field for the Pats. No mat­ter. This was the sig­na­ture defen­sive per­for­mance from the great­est defen­sive coach in the his­to­ry of foot­ball.

Julian Edelman to the rescue

Of course, the guy on the oppo­site side­line near­ly had his own sig­na­ture per­for­mance. Rams defen­sive coor­di­na­tor Wade Phillips dialed up a bril­liant game plan, as Aaron Don­ald & Co. flum­moxed Brady for most of the game. The nonex­is­tent folks who sup­pos­ed­ly were count­ing out Brady through­out the sea­son near­ly got to raise their straw hands in the air and cel­e­brate their vic­to­ry, only for the Rams’ pass rush to final­ly tire just as Josh McDaniels found a way to unlock the defense.

As Tony Romo described on the CBS broad­cast, Phillips did an excel­lent job of build­ing his cov­er­ages to show man cov­er­age to Brady before the snap before play­ing like zone after­ward, or vice ver­sa. It’s dif­fi­cult to con­fuse Brady at age 41, but he was absolute­ly flum­moxed on a num­ber of snaps. One trick came on the inter­cep­tion that end­ed the open­ing dri­ve, when Brady read man cov­er­age before the snap, then found out just as he threw that the Rams were in zone and play­ing a form of trap cov­er­age, with Aqib Tal­ib over the top and Nick­ell Robey-Cole­man under­neath. The slot cor­ner broke out­side on the throw to Chris Hogan and tipped away the ball, with Cory Lit­tle­ton catch­ing the tip for an inter­cep­tion.

Dur­ing the first half, Brady sim­ply didn’t look com­fort­able with the pres­sure or looks he saw, espe­cial­ly on third downs. The Pats ran the ball on third-and-8 to set up Stephen Gostkows­ki’s missed field goal. Brady threw away a third-and-5 pass under pres­sure from Don­ald. Ear­ly check­downs to Gronkows­ki and James White didn’t give those receivers much of a chance of turn­ing upfield for a first down. Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son came up a yard short of the sticks on third-and-10, and when the Pats went for it on fourth-and-1, excel­lent cov­er­age from the Rams forced Brady to try to hit an impos­si­ble win­dow to a div­ing Gronk.

The one thing the Patri­ots did have work­ing in the first half was Julian Edel­man. My pre­view iden­ti­fied cov­er­ing the slot as the biggest point of weak­ness for the Rams before the game, and for much of this con­test, it end­ed up as their only point of weak­ness. The Rams sur­pris­ing­ly start­ed the game with Tal­ib trav­el­ing across the for­ma­tion and into the slot to cov­er Edel­man, but Edel­man even­tu­al­ly just went over to Talib’s side of the field and tor­tured him out of a reduced split. In the first half, Brady was 7-of-8 for 93 yards on throws to Edel­man (with the one incom­ple­tion essen­tial­ly an uncatch­able throw­away) and 8-of-17 for 67 yards throw­ing to every­one else.

The Rams even­tu­al­ly start­ed mov­ing Mar­cus Peters around the for­ma­tion to try to cov­er Edel­man, and while he got away with a cou­ple of hold­ing or ille­gal con­tact calls, it was a bet­ter solu­tion than Tal­ib. The Pats tried to tar­get Peters’ propen­si­ty for jump­ing routes with fades and his strug­gles tack­ling by iso­lat­ing him in space, but the for­mer Chiefs star gen­er­al­ly held his own on deep­er throws. With Don­ald & Co. get­ting steady pres­sure on Brady, the Patri­ots had six dri­ves in the first half break into Los Ange­les’ side of the field with only three points to show for it.

The play that won the Super Bowl … three times in a row

The even­tu­al break­through for the Patri­ots came with anoth­er con­cept I wrote about exten­sive­ly in my pre­view: using James Develin to dic­tate mis­match­es in the slot against Los Ange­les’ base defense. The Pats came out in their 21 per­son­nel (2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE) with Edel­man in the slot on the first play of the game and got a 13-yard run out of Sony Michel for a first down, but the run defense that swal­lowed up the Cow­boys and Saints showed up and bul­lied the Patri­ots at the line of scrim­mage for most of this one.

The game-win­ning dri­ve, though, required McDaniels to get even heav­ier. He dialed up a cre­ative play-action look to start the dri­ve out of 21 per­son­nel, with Gronkows­ki block­ing for a moment before turn­ing upfield on a wheel route past a lever­aged Sam­son Ebukam for a first down.

The Pats then brought in Dwayne Allen and ran three con­sec­u­tive plays out of 22 per­son­nel, with two backs and two tight ends on the field. On each of the plays, they split out wide Develin and a half­back (either Michel or Rex Burk­head), where they were cov­ered by Peters and Tal­ib, L.A.‘s two best cov­er cor­ners. That left Gronkows­ki, Allen and Edel­man matched up on the inte­ri­or against line­back­ers and safeties and allowed the Patri­ots to run one of their favorite plays.

Hoss Y-Juke has been a sta­ple of the Patri­ots going back through the ear­ly days of this dynasty, so it’s not exact­ly a secret that Phillips wouldn’t have been pre­pared to see. You can see a break­down of Hoss Y-Juke here, but it’s remark­ably sim­ple. The “Hoss” call means you’re get­ting hitch routes from the out­side receivers, while the slot receivers run seam routes. Y-Juke calls for the third receiv­er from the out­side, who is almost always Edel­man, to run an option route against an over­matched line­backer.

The Patri­ots ran Hoss Y-Juke three times in a row. The Rams stayed in their base defense all three times, and the Patri­ots ripped them apart. On the first of the three plays, with Edel­man matched up in the slot against Lit­tle­ton, he ran the juke route for 13 yards and a first down.

The Patri­ots came back to the line and motioned out Burk­head before throw­ing him a hitch against Peters for 7 yards. On the third snap, the Rams must have known what was com­ing, but it didn’t mat­ter. They tried to dis­guise where their five-man pres­sure was com­ing from by send­ing Lit­tle­ton toward Gronk in cov­er­age at the snap, but Brady loft­ed in a per­fect pass for a 29-yard catch. One play lat­er, Michel plunged in for the only touch­down of the game.

It takes a unique set of cir­cum­stances for Hoss Y-Juke to thrive, but it’s the per­fect play for the Patri­ots. You need run­ning backs who are viable threats to catch the ball. You need tight ends with the ath­leti­cism to stretch the field ver­ti­cal­ly and make plays out of the slot. You also need a quar­ter­back capa­ble of mak­ing a smart deci­sion quick­ly out of an emp­ty back­field.

I’m sur­prised the Patri­ots didn’t motion Develin out wide more fre­quent­ly. One first-half snap with him split out yield­ed a rep for Edel­man in the slot against Ebukam and an easy com­ple­tion, although two oth­er short throws were quick­ly closed down or dropped. The Patri­ots did rack up 67 yards on 15 rush­ing attempts out of 21 per­son­nel before the fourth quar­ter, so the run­ning game with Develin in had been com­pe­tent. It’s pos­si­ble that the Patri­ots didn’t think Brady would have enough time to make his reads and get the ball out in an emp­ty set before the Rams’ pass rush tired, and indeed, Don­ald & Co. didn’t deter the Pats from run­ning Hoss Y-Juke three times in a row.

After the Gilmore inter­cep­tion, the Pats took over with 4:17 left and a chance to seal the game. The Rams had a rep­u­ta­tion dur­ing the sea­son for indis­ci­pline with­in their run defense in an attempt to make plays, and while they were struc­tural­ly sound for the vast major­i­ty of the Super Bowl, they final­ly cracked.

On the sec­ond play, Ndamukong Suh fired across the face of a guard to make a play but ran him­self out of the action. The Pats briefly dou­bled Don­ald, moved him off the ball, and ran right into his gap, with a pulling Joe Thuney kick­ing out Mark Bar­ronMar­cus Can­non essen­tial­ly helped block three Rams, as he chipped Don­ald, blocked Lit­tle­ton at the sec­ond lev­el, and shield­ed an over­ly aggres­sive John John­son in the process. Michel rode this beau­ti­ful block­ing for a 26-yard gain.

Three plays lat­er, it was Develin’s turn. The Pats brought in Burk­head and ran direct­ly at Dante Fowler Jr., who tried to stunt inside and was sub­se­quent­ly helped into the trash by Trent BrownLamar­cus Joyn­er came down from safe­ty and got into a three-point stance before blitz­ing into the back­field at the snap, but a motion­ing Gronkows­ki dis­patched him with ease. The Rams scraped Bar­ron over the top to try to seal the edge, but Develin laid him out at the point of attack. Tal­ib was the unblocked defend­er, but Burkhead’s cut­back and the after­math of Develin’s fero­cious block took the cor­ner­back total­ly out of the play. The for­mer Ben­gals back­up cut upfield and out­ran Robey-Cole­man before Peters made a touch­down-sav­ing tack­le. The 26-yard run put the Patri­ots in field goal range, and while they failed to con­vert a sub­se­quent third-and-1, Gostkows­ki hit a 41-yarder to start the cel­e­bra­tions for a sixth time in New Eng­land.

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