On Sunday in Super Bowl LIII the New England Patriots defense suffocated the powerful offense of the Los Angeles Rams on their way to the sixth Super Bowl title for the franchise in the past 18 seasons. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been as dominant over the past couple of decades as an duo in NFL history, and it was Belichick who once again drew up a plan to bring one of the highest powered offenses in NFL history to a grinding halt.
But the blueprint Belichick used is nothing new. He used a gameplan not dissimilar from the gameplans that other defenses have used to stifle how powered offenses. The Patriots put pressure on the quarterback and eliminated Todd Gurley as a threat in the passing game, and without his safety outlet at his disposal, Jared Goff crumbled.
How crucial is Gurley catching the ball out of the backfield to the Rams offense? In the two seasons since Sean McVay took over as head coach, the Rams have gone 26-10. However, of those 36 games the team has played during that timeframe, Gurley has played in 33 of the games. Of those 33 game, Gurley has had at least 25 yards receiving in 23 of those games, and the Rams are 19-4 when he crosses that extremely low threshold. In the games where Gurley does not have at least 25 yards receiving Los Angeles is just 5-5.
Does this mean that Gurley is in fact the key to the Rams offense, and that running backs actually matter? No, not at all. Gurley not getting catches and yards is indicative of a different issue with the Rams offense. Specifically, the offense McVay uses is based on stressing a defense by putting five guys into the pattern and finding the open man. When a running back in that offense is not accumulating receiving yards in that offense, it is typically a side effect of the fact that the defense is bringing pressure and the running back is forced to help out in pass protection.
There was a significant amount of discussion about this topic in the build up to the Super Bowl, as the thought was the Belichick could use blitzing to prevent Gurley from becoming a receiving threat. Belichick had done this successfully the first time these two teams met in the Super Bowl following the 2001 season, as Marshall Faulk started the game with two receptions for 25 yards in the first ten minutes, but then wouldn’t catch another pass until the final play of the third quarter.
By eliminating one of the primary outlets for the quarterback when pressured, the Patriots defense forced quarterbacks to go to their fallback plans when pressured. Kurt Warner did a far better job than Jared Goff, who looked like a deer in headlights for most of the night. He he was constantly on the run and his passes off target as a result of the pressure he routinely faced. After taking just 34 sacks and 84 hits in the previous 18 games, the Pats lived in the pocket and hit Goff 12 times while recording 4 sacks.
In short, they put pressure on Goff and Goff couldn’t handle it, and it’s not all that different from the way the 2001 Patriots slowed down Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf, how the 2007 New York Giants battered and beat Brady in Super Bowl XLII or how the Seattle Seahawks shut down the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. In short, if you want to stop a high powered, prolific offense, it takes a pass rush that can create pressure and harass and harangue the quarterback.
Eleven years ago yesterday Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan showed that an unstoppable pass rush could slow down even the most the highly prolific offenses in the wake of the post 2004 rules changes, and the game Sunday changed nothing. The Patriots got pressure early by stunting and exploiting the weak points on the Rams line - center John Sullivan and first year starter Austin Blythe at right guard - and once they had shown pressure up the middle, that altered Goff’s pocket mechanics. For that, I’ll let right tackle Mitchell Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs explain.
Another upside to the Pats interior twists and pressure: QB can’t step up, and they start setting deeper and drifting back, which exposes the Ts and allows the DEs to get there— Mitchell Schwartz (@MitchSchwartz71) February 4, 2019
There could not be a more perfect segue into the series we will be going through this week on offensive line protection and how the quarterback plays a major role in how often they are pressured. However, that’s getting ahead of ourselves, because the moral of story from Super Bowl LIII is that defenses have to be able to get to the quarterback in order to slow down high powered offenses.
Thus, while Pete Carroll may have been at home enjoying the defensive struggle, the biggest smiles were likely on the faces of Frank Clark and his agent. With the propagation and spread of aggressive offenses, the ability to get to the quarterback is a premium skill that teams must pay for if they want to have a chance to slow down those top offenses.
And now is Frank Clark’s opportunity to write himself a blank check as the legal tampering period starts just five weeks from Monday.