Super Bowl LIII Preview
by Aaron Schatz and Scott Kacsmar
New England last played the Rams in 2016, a forgettable 26-10 victory when Jeff Fisher was still the head coach and we were just learning how horrific the rookie season would be for No. 1 pick Jared Goff. What a difference a couple of years can make. Enter the young, innovative mind of Sean McVay, and just like that the Rams were in the playoffs and Goff looked like a functional quarterback. McVay engineered one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NFL history, and the Rams (15-3) have only gotten better in his second season.
While the rest of the NFL searches for the next McVay, the Patriots (13-5) are content with the one and only Bill Belichick. This will be his 12th Super Bowl and the ninth as head coach of the Patriots. New England is the first team to get back to the Super Bowl after losing it since Buffalo lost four in a row in 1990-93. There's an undeniable advantage in experience for the Patriots here, but that did not matter last year when the upstart Eagles beat them 41-33 in Super Bowl LII, a game with the most combined yardage (1,151) in NFL history. We should be in store for more offensive fireworks this time as that game seems to have paved the way for big-time football in 2018. There have already been 10 games between playoff teams where both teams scored at least 30 points, matching the league's total from 2015 to 2017. Seven of those games involved the Rams or Patriots.
McVay's Rams scored 527 points, good for 11th in NFL history. A win here would make them the highest-scoring NFL team to ever win a championship, barely edging out the 1999 Rams (526 points). Aside from that miserable showing in Chicago in Week 14, the Rams produced at least 23 points and 339 yards of offense in their other 17 games this season. In case that doesn't sound overly impressive, consider that the 2013 Broncos (17) and 2016 Falcons (17) are the only other teams to have more than 15 such games in a season (playoffs included). The offensive line was brilliant in a playoff win against Dallas. A week later, the team erased a 13-0 deficit in New Orleans for a 26-23 overtime win after some major officiating controversy. Meanwhile, the Patriots still finished the season as the NFL's fourth-highest scoring team and are hot in the playoffs, scoring 78 points against the Chargers and Chiefs. Both teams come in quite healthy too, so there is no "will he or won't he play?" drama to follow this year.
Despite the fact that both teams needed road overtime wins to knock off the No.1 seeds, it's not a surprise to see them in this matchup. In Football Outsiders Almanac 2018, we had the Patriots (10.5) and Rams (9.5) projected with the most mean wins in each conference. They also had the second-highest odds in each conference of winning the Super Bowl. While the Patriots have had a stranglehold over the AFC under Belichick and Tom Brady, the Rams were the aggressive dealmakers in the offseason with their quarterback still on his rookie deal. They signed Ndamukong Suh in free agency and traded for Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Brandin Cooks. That's a lot of high-end talent to go along with Goff, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Donald, a trio of players who were in the MVP conversation this year until Patrick Mahomes blew everyone away.
The popular belief is the 33-year-old McVay is the Most Valuable Person in Los Angeles, and there is no better stage for him to prove it than a Super Bowl against Belichick and the Patriots. Rarely has a second-year coach ever reached mass appeal as McVay has. His looks are photogenic and his memory is photographic. McVay's ability to recall the details of every play from his career is quickly becoming the stuff of legends. However, even something as simple as naming the defensive starters for Chicago or having a "get back coach" gets him attention these days. That can happen when the bar was set so low by his predecessor, Fisher, who no doubt would be preparing for both Dannys (Woodhead and Amendola) if he were facing the Patriots this week. Analytics Twitter approves of McVay for his league-high use of play-action passing, and Film Study Twitter appreciates his creative ways of using 11 personnel almost every snap. Simply knowing McVay seemed to be the No.1 prerequisite for teams looking to fill the many coaching vacancies around the league this past month, and that was even before the wunderkind won a playoff game.
The pressure will certainly be on McVay to deliver something special with the extra week to prepare, and that should mean something beyond just another fake punt pass by Johnny Hekker. Doug Pederson received a lot of credit for the way he aggressively attacked the Patriots in last year's Super Bowl, including the Philly Special call on fourth down before halftime. Despite that Philadelphia loss, Belichick's Patriots are still 16-1 in playoff games against new opponents as opposed to 13-9 in rematches. McVay has been inconsistently aggressive this postseason, and the timeout management has been an issue throughout the season. McVay's decision to kick a game-tying field goal from the 1-yard line last week almost cost the Rams dearly, as did a bubble screen on third down in overtime that put the game on Greg Zuerlein to make a 57-yard field goal. Those are the kind of moves that would have sunk a Marty Schottenheimer in the playoffs, but Zuerlein delivered for his coach. McVay will have to be better than that in Super Bowl LIII, because a lot of the matchups do favor the Patriots.
One thing is for sure: the winner of this game will be a worthy champion for the 2018 season. Despite losing five road games to non-playoff teams, the Patriots are 6-0 against playoff teams and can finish 5-0 against the top five teams in DVOA with a Super Bowl win. The Rams also tied New England with a league-high six wins against playoff teams, and have already knocked off the Chargers, Chiefs, and Saints this season.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
Los Angeles Rams vs. New England Patriots
|DVOA||23.7% (2)||14.2% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||23.8% (4)||24.0% (3)|
|Rams on Offense|
|LAR OFF||NE DEF|
|DVOA||24.6% (2)||0.4% (16)|
|WEI DVOA||17.8% (3)||-2.5% (12)|
|PASS||32.1% (5)||5.1% (14)|
|RUSH||22.1% (1)||-7.0% (19)|
|Patriots on Offense|
|LAR DEF||NE OFF|
|DVOA||0.8% (19)||14.5% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||-3.6% (10)||17.7% (4)|
|PASS||0.2% (9)||32.9% (4)|
|RUSH||1.5% (28)||2.5% (9)|
|DVOA||-0.2% (17)||0.1% (16)|
|WEI DVOA||2.4% (14)||3.9% (9)|
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Much like the Eagles with Nick Foles a year ago, the Rams have to trust Jared Goff to have a big game against the Patriots. Naturally, there is skepticism over him doing so, because there has always been skepticism of Goff during his NFL career. We couldn't write a 2016 stat study that didn't show how frighteningly bad his rookie season was. While he improved so much statistically in 2017, a lot of the credit went to McVay for an offense that was built heavily on YAC and easier throws to the slot. Goff took things to another level in 2018, but there was still that ugly three-game stretch after the bye where he averaged 5.6 yards per attempt and threw one touchdown to six interceptions.
Overall, Goff's numbers have dropped substantially since the Rams' bye week. Anecdotally, the decline is tied to the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp, although Goff was fine in the first game without Kupp (Week 11, the big Monday Night game against Kansas City). It's since the bye week that he has struggled:
|Jared Goff Stats by Week, 2018|
Despite Goff's decline over the past two months, there are reasons to believe that the Rams won't turtle into a run-run-pass plan similar to the one that doomed the Seahawks against Dallas this postseason. In big games against the likes of the Chiefs, Eagles and Saints, McVay was not afraid to put the ball in Goff's hands early and often. The Rams were able to outscore the Chiefs and Saints without more than 70 yards of rushing support. Goff is more than a game manager. He's led five game-winning drives this season and the Rams are No. 1 in DVOA in late and close situations (second half, score within eight points). Goff had arguably the best passing performance of 2018 in Week 4 against the Vikings when he completed 26-of-33 passes for 465 yards and five touchdowns. That's just one stellar game, but during Goff's career, the Rams are 14-2 and average 35.4 points per game in the 16 games (equivalent to a full season) where Goff threw for his most yardage. So when Goff piles up numbers, the Rams also light up the scoreboard and win a lot of games. That's what you want to see from a No. 1 overall pick, and his draft pedigree is why he wouldn't even be the most unexpected quarterback to have a great game against the Patriots in a Super Bowl. Foles (2017 Eagles) and Jake Delhomme (2003 Panthers) have already done that.
While the pressure of the Super Bowl can affect players mentally, we're going to focus on the physical pressure that could plague Goff in this game. For as well as the Patriots have protected Brady in the playoffs, the defense has been just as impressive at creating havoc. Philip Rivers (45.3 percent) and Patrick Mahomes (44.4 percent) had two of the three highest pressure rates the Patriots have produced all season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Patriots were ninth in blitz rate (28.8 percent) in the regular season, according to Sports Info Solutions. The Rams should provide better pass protection than the Chargers and Chiefs were capable of giving their quarterbacks. Goff led the league with 1,111 passing yards (9.4 yards per attempt) against five-man rushes, so the Patriots will have to choose their spots in this matchup.
Goff does have a tendency to hold the ball long. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Goff's average time before pass is 2.96 seconds, the fourth-longest mark in 2018. He's held the ball for an average of at least 2.8 seconds in 15 of the 18 games, and his lowest game was 2.69 seconds (the 30-23 loss vs. Philadelphia). This season, quarterbacks holding the ball for an average of at least 2.8 seconds are 0-10 against the Patriots compared to 5-3 when holding the ball a shorter amount of time. Did we just crack the secret sauce there? Probably not. The Patriots have won a lot of games over the years regardless of this statistic, and Goff is 17-4 under McVay when he holds the ball at least 2.8 seconds.
One of the main reasons Goff holds the ball longer is because the Rams have the highest usage rate of play-action passing (34 percent according to Sports Info Solutions), and play-action passes take longer to develop. It's an important element of McVay's offense as the Rams averaged 9.0 yards per play with play-action, the third-best mark in the NFL. The Patriots' defense only ranked 17th in yards per play allowed (7.8) to play-action, but also faced the third-lowest rate of usage for it (18 percent). The Rams can't afford to live on play-action in this matchup, but Goff did use it 20 times in Super Bowl 52.5 against the Chiefs, the highest total in a game in the last four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Without play-action, the Rams still average 7.1 yards per play, good for seventh in the league.
If Goff gets protection, then the coverage matchups should be very interesting. The Patriots played the highest rate (57 percent) of man coverage in 2018, according to Sports Info Solutions. Goff actually averaged the highest yards per attempt (9.26) against man coverage of any quarterback with at least 50 attempts this season. He's also thrown 16 touchdowns to two interceptions against man coverage compared to nine touchdowns and nine interceptions against zone coverage. (Most quarterbacks will throw more touchdowns against man coverage because there's more man coverage in the red zone, but Goff's rank among quarterbacks in touchdown percentage also improves significantly.) The Chiefs hit some big plays on the Patriots using pick plays in the AFC Championship Game, so McVay will want to dial up his best plays to beat man coverage for this matchup.
The excellent numbers this season against man coverage should bode well for Goff, but we'll see what happens if the Patriots are successful in jamming the receivers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Belichick employ some old game plans in how he handled the 2001 Rams and 2003 Colts by getting physical with the receivers to throw off the timing of plays. Goff is mobile enough to buy himself some time, but he's not going to be as excellent in improvising big plays as Mahomes was. However, this is where NFL's Next Gen Stats can help. In 2016, Goff threw into tight windows (defender within 1 yard of target) a league-high 25.9 percent of the time. Under McVay, Goff's rates have dipped to 14.3 percent in 2017 (fifth lowest) and 13.2 percent in 2018 (eighth lowest). McVay's offensive design will usually get receivers open with separation.
As far as his arsenal, Goff has wide receivers Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, who finished with very similar stats this season both in production and advanced metrics. Cooks is a better deep threat and the former Patriot could very well see double teams while New England's stud cornerback Stephon Gilmore handles Woods. The Patriots finished second in DVOA against deep passes, but 21st against short passes. This is definitely a matchup where the Rams will miss slot receiver Cooper Kupp, who tore his ACL in November. Obviously the Rams have continued to win high-scoring games without Kupp, but his DVOA (23.8%) was a lot higher than replacement Josh Reynolds' DVOA (1.9%). The Rams don't look for a lot of receiving production from their tight ends (Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee), and the Patriots were eighth in DVOA against the position. However, Everett could be valuable for one big play, as he's done a few times this year. New England is 22nd in DVOA against receiving backs, and that is an area where Todd Gurley can be helpful if his hands are no longer in the stone state they were in New Orleans last time out.
We haven't written much about Gurley here, but his stock has fallen with injury and the way the offense has performed with C.J. Anderson, who was signed off the street in mid-December. Of course, if you know advanced stats, then you know that Gurley's success is heavily related to the Rams' scheme and offensive line rather than anything Gurley does himself. The Rams set the all-time record in adjusted line yards this season, and also led the league in second-level yards per carry (gains 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage). In part because the Rams used almost exclusively 11 personnel, Gurley faced eight or more in the box just 8.2 percent of the time, the third-lowest figure in the league. Out of the top 40 backs in touches, Gurley's broken tackle rate of 13.3 percent ranked 27th.
The Patriots ranked 19th in run defense DVOA in the regular season. Things have improved in the playoffs, sort of; they have allowed just 2.73 yards per carry last two games, but still a 45 percent success rate (compared to a 43 percent success rate in the regular season). The main difference is that they haven't allowed any runs over 10 yards in the postseason. The Rams should be able to run right up the gut on the Patriots, as they led the league in ALY up the middle while the Patriots defense was 27th in ALY up the middle (26th overall).
According to Sports Info Solutions charting, the Rams' favorite running play is Outside Zone, and that's a play the Patriots defense had a mixed record against this season. They allowed just 4.0 yards per carry, below the NFL average of 4.4 yards, but they also allowed a 45 percent success rate on outside zone runs, when the NFL average was just 40 percent.
Of course, Gurley and Anderson aren't the only players who can carry the ball on running plays. We know that the Rams like to use a lot of motion in general and a lot of jet sweep motion in particular, and sometimes you're going to hand the ball off on those jet sweeps. The Rams led the NFL with 35 carries by wide receivers (with an asterisk; I'm removing the games Cordarrelle Patterson played halfback for the Patriots) plus another two by tight end Gerald Everett. They averaged 7.4 yards with 44.6% DVOA. They've added another six wide receiver runs in the playoffs for 36 yards. (Yes, technically a couple of these plays might be screen passes determined to be backwards laterals, but they're mostly end arounds and jet sweeps.) Whether it was random variation or something about the Patriots' defensive scheme, Patriots opponents did not hand the ball to wide receivers this year. The Patriots faced just seven runs by wideouts all season for a total loss of nine yards, with no run going more than three yards.
You may have seen Warren Sharp tweet about the fact that the Patriots, since Week 11, are the worst defense in the league against runs from 11 personnel. Obviously, that's a terrible weakness to have against the Rams. But is this a real weakness, or just sample size? What's strange about this statistic is that the Patriots defense was the exact opposite before Week 11. (These stats remove scrambles; success rate is from the offense's point of view.)
|Patriots Run D vs. 11 Personnel|
Is there some personnel change that might have occurred in Week 12 that changed the way the Patriots defended runs from 11 personnel? Nose tackle Danny Shelton barely played in Week 12 and didn't play at all in Weeks 13-15, but that's about it. And if there was some personnel change that created this trend against 11 personnel... why is the trend of run defense against 12 personnel the reverse? This is actually an important split to check for the Patriots defense because the Rams have used a lot more 12 personnel ever since bringing Anderson aboard in Week 16.
|Patriots Run D vs. 12 Personnel|
Combine all the weeks, and the Patriots run defense against both 11 and 12 personnel is about where its overall run defense numbers are: a little below average. Their numbers against passes from these personnel groups are a bit better.
Against pass plays from 11 personnel, the Patriots allowed 5.8 net yards per pass (eighth) and a 41 percent success rate (seventh). Against pass plays from 12 personnel, the Patriots allowed 7.7 net yards per pass (17th) but only allowed a 44 percent success rate (fourth).
Now that we've recited all these personnel splits, we have to tell you that we're not sure how much they matter. The teams that the Patriots faced this year use 11 personnel much differently from how the Rams use that personnel. Most of the time, 11 personnel means a spread-out set with the quarterback in shotgun. Not for the Rams. Based on SIS charting data, the Rams ran 561 plays this year with 11 personnel and the quarterback under center. No other team ran more than 200 such plays! The Patriots themselves were No. 2 at 199 plays. And the New England defense faced only 81 of these plays during the season, a fairly small sample size; only three defenses faced 11 personnel with the quarterback under center less. (Ironically, the defense that faced this setup the least was... the Los Angeles Rams.) Combining runs and passes, the Patriots allowed 4.9 yards per play to 11 personnel with the quarterback under center (seventh) but also allowed a 49 percent success rate (19th). They had a better success rate against passes than runs -- but again, that's only 33 passes and 48 runs.
In looking at the down and play type splits, the Rams are a top five offense in DVOA in every area except for one: 17th in passes on third/fourth downs. One issue there was that only seven quarterbacks had a higher interception rate on third down than Goff (3.5 percent). You might assume third-and-long is the main culprit there, but the Rams were actually fourth in DVOA in long situations. However, the Patriots defense also excelled in these situations.
|Rams Offense and Patriots Defense on Third/Fourth Downs, 2018|
|Team||3rd-Short (1-2)||Rank||3rd-Mid (3-6)||Rank||3rd-Long (7+)||Rank|
Goff's conversion rate and sack rate were better than average, but the Rams need to be more aggressive than running bubble screens in those situations. On the season, Goff has thrown a pass behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-long 17 times, and the Rams have two first downs to show for it. Overall on third down with at least 7 yards to go, Goff's conversion rate on negative-ALEX passes is 14.7 percent compared to 54.2 percent (excluding a Hail Mary interception) when he attacks beyond the sticks. In terms of general screen passes (all downs), the Patriots were above average on defense, never allowing a gain longer than 25 yards. The Rams averaged a league-high 8.4 yards per screen pass, but were only 21st in success rate on those plays.
One other thing to watch for when the Rams have the ball: there shouldn't be many penalties. The Rams were the least-penalized offense in the NFL this year, and only two teams had fewer penalties than the Patriots on defense.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Rams (50.1 percent) had the percentage of plays with positive EPA of any offense in the last seven seasons. This has been a superb offense even if recent play from Goff and Gurley leaves you feeling skeptical of how great they'll be on Sunday night. For what it's worth, in 34 games together McVay and Goff have only had two games where they weren't at least within one score with possession in the fourth quarter.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
As you may have heard, the Patriots have become a much more run-heavy offense over their last four games. If we look only at the first half of games, including the playoffs, the Patriots ran on 40.9 percent of plays, which ranks 16th in the NFL. (The Rams ran on 39.4 percent, 18th.) But since Week 16, that number is 48.1 percent, which would have ranked second behind Seattle during the regular season. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the loss of Josh Gordon taking away one of Brady's downfield weapons. Another is that the change is a function of the teams they were playing. There were only six teams during the regular season which gave up more efficiency (defined by a higher DVOA) to runs than to passes. Two of them were among the Patriots last four opponents, Buffalo and Kansas City. But another one of the six teams was the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams allowed just 2.44 yards per carry (-39.1% DVOA) in their first two playoff games. But there's no reason to believe this is a trend rather than just two good games. In the two previous games, the Rams had allowed 6.10 yards per carry (3.1% DVOA). Our old friend Doug Farrar noted in a tweet that the Rams are getting a lot of their big run stops with stacked boxes, but they don't seem to be using those stacked boxes more than usual. Based on ESPN Stats & Info charting, the Rams averaged 6.26 men in the box during the regular season and then 6.25 men in the box in their first two playoff games.
On the surface, there are some similarities between these two running games even though they depend on very different types of plays. Both teams still run a lot from more conventional quarterback under-center formations, ranking 1-2 in total running plays with the quarterback under center. The Rams set a record for adjusted line yards on offense, but the Patriots finished third this season. And like Todd Gurley, the Patriots running backs are surprisingly low in broken tackles. Even lower, in fact. Both Sony Michel (10.6 percent) and James White (7.7 percent) had broken tackle rates in the bottom five of the top 40 backs in touches. And when we flip things around, both defenses were below-average against the run, though the Rams were worse than the Patriots.
The Patriots were strongest running up the middle but also finished sixth in ALY on runs around left end. The Rams' defense was strongest (i.e. league average) against runs up the middle but worst against runs around left end. The Patriots' most common play call for runs was "Lead," which they ran more than any team in the league. It makes sense given how much they use a fullback (only San Francisco used 21 personnel more often). The Patriots averaged 4.3 yards per carry on these plays with a 45 percent success rate. The Rams were below-average against this play (4.6 yards, 47 percent offensive success), but the league averages aren't that high to begin with (3.8, 37 percent) and it's a small sample size of just 34 plays. Still, five of those 34 runs did go for double-digit yardage. The Patriots also ran "Power" more often than any other offense; the Rams only faced this 20 times all year but just four of those runs were successful.
The Patriots' best time to run is second down, not first down. The Patriots ranked fourth in run DVOA on second down, compared to 16th on first down and 14th on third and fourth down. The Rams defense was 29th against the run on second down. On the other hand, a problem for the Patriots is running when they absolutely need a yard or two. The Pats were a surprisingly low 58 percent (29th) converting short-yardage runs in 2018, though the Rams defense ranked 21st allowing 68 percent conversion on these runs.
Even if you remove the two games where Cordarrelle Patterson played halfback, the Patriots were second in the league in runs by wide receivers, with 7.5 yards per carry and 55.9% DVOA. The Rams defense faced wide receiver runs even less often than the Patriots defense: only four of them, which was the lowest figure in the league. They allowed 47 yards on these runs, but again, it's a super small sample size here. The jet sweep possibility doesn't just come from Patterson; Julian Edelman had five carries this year with four first downs and 66 yards.
Speaking of Edelman: as Vincent Verhei pointed out in a Quick Reads special, the Rams gave up some huge games to opposing No. 1 receivers this year. But they didn't necessarily give up huge games to opposing No. 1 receivers who resembled Julian Edelman: opponent's top targets who play largely from the slot. In four games, Larry Fitzgerald and Doug Baldwin averaged only 3.8 catches for 30.3 yards. Keenan Allen, another No. 1 who is more of a possession reciver, caught just 3 of 7 targets for 44 yards back in Week 3. This is an issue of scheme, not of any one cornerback; according to SIS charting, 10 different Rams defenders were in coverage for at least one pass against these three receivers.
The Rams are very unlikely to change their usual setup: Marcus Peters on the offensive left, Aqib Talib on the offensive right, and Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot. Almost no defense balanced man and zone coverage like the Rams, according to SIS charting, so it's worth looking at the pass coverage stats both for individual players and by side.
First, by individual players. Peters had a slightly below average success rate this year (49 percent, 56th among qualifying corners) but what was really bad was his tendency for getting burned deep (9.7 yards per pass, 80th). Peters allowed completions on seven plays with 20 or more air yards; only six cornerbacks allowed more such plays. Talib's raw charting stats aren't fabulous, but they are better than the stats for Peters: 8.4 yards per pass, 52 percent success rate. And Peters was targeted three times as often in twice as many games. The really impressive cornerback in the individual charting stats is Robey-Coleman, who allowed just 4.4 yards per pass with a 67 percent success rate. But Robey-Coleman didn't spend much time covering any of those previously noted "No. 1 inside receivers" -- he had two targets covering Fitzgerald and none covering Baldwin or Allen. And he gave up two touchdowns on drag routes against Kansas City, which seems like a good way to get Edelman the ball.
The difference between Peters and Talib becomes clearer when we look at passing by sides. For the season, the Rams ranked 24th on passes to the offensive left but second on passes to the offensive right. There's a massive split in that DVOA on passes to the right depending on whether Talib was in the lineup. But it's interesting to see that there's also a similar split in DVOA on passes to the left, an argument for the idea that having Talib healthy helps the entire defense by letting the Rams focus attention to the other side of the field:
|L.A. Rams Defense, Offensive Left vs. Offensive Right, 2018|
|Weeks 1-3 (with Talib)||-19.7%||6.7||70%||-79.3%||4.1||62%|
|Weeks 4-13 (without Talib)||18.3%||9.4||70%||-11.3%||7.6||66%|
|Weeks 14-17 (with Talib)||-12.9%||6.5||68%||-59.0%||6.5||66%|
(Talib played less than half the snaps in his first game back Week 13, so we've included that in with the games he did not play.)
The Rams ranked 22nd in DVOA against deep passes (16+ air yards) and sixth against short passes (up to 15 air yards). Though it may seem like Brady's deep-throw strength has fallen with age, he still attempted plenty of deep passes this year and did well on them. In the regular season, 17.8 percent of Patriots passes were deep, only slightly below the NFL average of 18.9 percent, and Brady had 71.3% pass DVOA on these throws, higher than the NFL quarterback average of 51.7%. However, the Patriots' rate of passing deep has dropped since the departure of their best deep threat, Gordon. In the last four games, only 14.8 percent of the Patriots' passes have gone over 15 yards in the air, with 55.9% DVOA.
More interesting may be the split in the Rams' short coverage DVOA by direction. As strong as the split was between left and right, the defense against passes in the middle of the field was even worse. The Rams were No. 2 against passes to the short right, 21st against the short left, and 27th against the short middle. Brady should be able to take full advantage of this, right? Actually, Brady's 35.1% DVOA on short middle passes was almost exactly the NFL average, and surprisingly, his frequency of throwing to the short middle of the field is also close to the league average. Brady is most likely to use the short left of the field, where only Indianapolis threw more passes during the regular season.
A lot of those short left passes are to James White, and we'll see if the Patriots are as active as usual throwing to White and other running backs in this game. The Rams ranked fourth in DVOA on passes to running backs and allowed just 28.3 yards per game compared to a league average of 43.5. With 96 yards two weeks ago, Alvin Kamara was the first running back with 50 receiving yards against the Rams since Oakland's Jalen Richard way back in Week 1.
There's also the question of covering Rob Gronkowski. The Rams were efficient against tight ends but also gave up huge totals. The Rams were fifth in DVOA against tight ends. They were fifth in catch rate allowed (only 62 percent) and tied for the league lead with eight interceptions on passes intended for tight ends. But after adjusting for opponent, they also ranked No. 3 in tight end passes faced per game and No. 4 in total yardage given up to tight ends. Again, this was against a real mix of defenders, and a lot of zone coverage. (19 of 27 completions the Rams allowed to Zach Ertz, George Kittle, or Travis Kelce came against zone coverage.)
Speaking of tight ends, one thing we saw a lot less from the Patriots in 2018 was plays with 12 personnel. In some recent seasons, the Patriots led the league in two-tight end sets. This year, as noted earlier, there's been a lot more of the standard 21 personnel with James Develin at fullback. Here's a look at the Patriots offense by personnel grouping:
|Patriots Offense by Personnel, 2018|
|Personnel||Pct Plays||Yd/Play||Suc Rate|
What does the Rams defense look like against the Patriots' top two personnel packages? Well, it turns out that the Patriots weren't the worst run defense this year against 11 personnel. The Rams were. But against 21 personnel, the Rams' weakness was against the pass, which is interesting considering that they allowed so few passes to running backs during the season.
|Patriots Offense and Rams Defense by Personnel, 2018|
Like the Rams, the Patriots use a lot of play-action and are very successful with it. The Patriots ranked fourth with play-action on 29 percent of pass plays and led the NFL with 9.9 net yards per pass on these plays, compared to just 6.3 net yards per pass (21st) on other passes. And the Rams gave up 8.8 net yards per pass on play-action this year, the second-worst figure in the league ahead of only Green Bay.
The play-action pass is meant in part to slow down the pass rush and that brings us to the battle in the trenches, which should be the most decisive part of this game. Do you believe in season-long trends where the Rams have been fantastic, or are the Patriots just peaking at the right time to win a record-tying sixth Super Bowl? According to ESPN's Brian Burke, the Patriots had the highest Pass Block Win Rate of the season in their win over the Chiefs. That's one of the interesting metrics ESPN has for pass blocking, based on the NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking chips. For the season, the Rams (54.6 percent) easily ranked No. 1 in Pass Protection Rate, which is the percentage of dropbacks where the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. The Patriots were solid at No. 11 (50.2 percent). On defense, the Rams (55.2 percent) were also No. 1 in Pass Rush Rate, or the percentage of dropbacks where the defense controlled the line of scrimmage. The Patriots were average at 17th (51.0 percent).
However, the Patriots have done phenomenal work in the postseason both protecting Brady and causing havoc on opposing quarterbacks. If you look at the difference between New England's defensive pass pressure rate and the pressure rate on Brady, then the Patriots had their two best games of the season in the playoffs: Chargers (+33.9 percent) and Chiefs (+33.5 percent). Their average pressure differential in the regular season was only +7.9 percent. While Brady gets rid of the ball quickly -- a big reason why the Patriots were No. 1 in adjusted sack rate as well -- it's not as simple as just that. In Week 16 against Buffalo, Brady's average time to pass was his second-fastest of 2018, but his pressure rate was the highest (40.0 percent) of any game this year as well. He held the ball long against the Jets in Week 17, but his pressure rate was cut in half to 20.6 percent. His time to pass was almost identical in both Kansas City meetings, but his pressure rate was cut in half in the playoff meeting despite being on the road. The Patriots have done an outstanding job of protection, and it doesn't hurt to keep Gronkowski in to chip or hold his block since he hasn't been as involved in the receiving game this season.
The Rams should present a different challenge thanks to their ability to get interior pressure with Aaron Donald (likely Defensive Player of the Year) and Ndamukong Suh. According to Next Gen Stats, the Rams led the NFL in interior pressure rate (16.6 percent), and Brady's passer rating against interior pressure (63.1) was much worse than his rating against edge pressure (118.7). Brady was below average against blitzes this season, but the Rams were only 23rd in blitz rate (19.5 percent), according to Sports Info Solutions. Whether the pressure comes from Donald or the edge, the Rams are going to have to get to Brady to win this game. Sometimes, it only takes one great pressure to turn one of these games. The Eagles got one on Brady in last year's Super Bowl to force a late fumble. The Rams have gotten it this year in the form of hitting Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees in motion to cause crucial interceptions.
Since 2014, the Patriots have gone an impressive 5-2 in comeback opportunities in the playoffs. To close this team out, pressure has to be applied to Tom Brady with the game on the line. As you can see in this table with data from ESPN Stats & Info, only the 2015 Broncos and 2017 Eagles were able to put significant pressure on Brady late in the game to eliminate the Patriots.
|Pressure Rate on Tom Brady in Playoff Comeback Attempts Since 2014|
|Year||Game||Opp||Score Thru Q3||Q1-3 Press%||Q4/OT Press%||Diff||Final|
|2014||DIV||BAL||Tied 28-28||25.0%||22.2%||-2.8%||W 35-31|
|2014||SB||SEA||Trailed 24-14||20.0%||12.5%||-7.5%||W 28-24|
|2015||CCG||at DEN||Trailed 17-12||25.0%||40.0%||15.0%||L 20-18|
|2016||SB||ATL||Trailed 28-9||44.7%||20.0%||-24.7%||W 34-28 (OT)|
|2017||CCG||JAX||Trailed 17-10||22.2%||13.3%||-8.9%||W 24-20|
|2017||SB||PHI||Trailed 29-26||34.8%||43.8%||9.0%||L 41-33|
|2018||CCG||at KC||Led 17-7||8.7%||13.0%||4.3%||W 37-31 (OT)|
Finally, one last weird little split that we discovered from this season. The bigger the lead that the Rams have, the worse their defense gets.
|Rams Defense by Current Score, 2018|
|Current Score||Yd/Play||DVOA||DVOA Rk|
|Rams down 9+||3.93||-41.0%||3|
|Rams down 1-8||5.08||-21.1%||4|
|Rams tied or up 1-8||6.23||-0.4%||16|
|Rams up 9+||6.45||14.0%||27|
This is a little odd because you would expect a defense with top pass-rushers such as Donald and Suh to be better, not worse, when playing with a lead. In his Quick Reads special looking at the Patriots' biggest losses, Vincent Verhei noted that the best way to beat the Patriots this year was to put them way behind early and force them to give up on their ground game. But this split suggests it will be tough to do that. And while Tom Brady may have struggled to come back from big deficits against the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans this season, we know that historically he has no problem coming back from large deficits. Just ask the Atlanta Falcons.
As mentioned in the NFC Championship preview,, the Rams' special teams rating looks a lot different without the injury to Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein in Weeks 2-6. If we remove Zuerlein's replacements, the Rams would move up from 17th to ninth in special teams DVOA. Zuerlein has been on the injury report with an injury in his plant foot but is supposed to be fine for the Super Bowl. Johnny Hekker, who was our No. 1 punter of 2016 and No. 3 punter of 2017, had a bit of an off-year, ranking just 11th in gross punt value and 13th in net punt value. JoJo Natson now handles both kickoff and punt returns for the Rams; he was negative on kick return value and positive on punt return value, although all the positive value came in a single game, Week 2 against Arizona.
The Patriots' nearly broke their 23-year string of finishing with above-average special teams DVOA, and the primary culprit was kickoff coverage. The Patriots finished dead last in our net kickoff value metric even though Stephen Gostkowski was above-average in gross kickoff value. After kickoffs, New England opponents started their average drive at the 27.1-yard line, the worst figure in the league. The Patriots had positive value on punts, with Ryan Allen, and kick returns, where Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the best return men in history. Julian Edelman was an average punt returner in the regular season but has been excellent in the playoffs with five different returns of at least nine yards.
Blocked punts aren't included in DVOA because they tend not to be predictive, but it's worth noting that the Patriots had four of them this year and the Rams had three. No other team had more than two.
The Patriots and Rams (25 each) were both near the top of the league in penalties on special teams (including kickoffs, punts, field goals, and extra points).
Four years ago when we previewed Super Bowl XLIX, we mentioned that it was the closest Super Bowl we had ever tracked. Now Super Bowl LIII has surpassed it. Based on the playoff odds simulation equation, which itself is based on weighted DVOA, the Patriots have a 50.1 percent chance to win this game. It would be hard to get this game closer to 50-50.
But when we look at the specific matchups, we lean a little bit in favor of the Patriots. Jared Goff's struggles over the last two months are hard to hide. The Patriots have the best pass defense that the Rams have played in the postseason. And the clearer matchup advantage comes when the Patriots have the ball. The Rams defense has improved over the same recent two months where Goff has declined, but the Rams struggled both against 21 personnel and play-action. They struggled against runs from spread-out, 11-personnel sets. The best game plan for the Patriots may be to go against type: run from their spread sets and pass from their heavier sets.
We also have to address a problematic issue with these coaches: fourth downs. Belichick was once known as the most aggressive coach in the league on fourth downs, but he's gotten more conservative in his old age. However, McVay has seemingly been even more conservative. McVay actually scores better than Belichick in our Aggressiveness Index metric, but that's because of the fourth-and-over-2 situations where McVay calls for a fake from Johnny Hekker. If we look at just fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, McVay is one of the most conservative coaches in the league.
McVay's conservativism on fourth-and-short is exacerbated by the fact that the Rams' strong running game should theoretically make them a better-than-average offense in these situations. Because of this, the EdjSports Game-Winning Chance model scored the Rams with 35 different "High Confidence Errors" during the 2018 regular season. No other offense had more than 26.
The biggest storyline in the AFC Championship Game was whether Patrick Mahomes had overtaken Tom Brady as the AFC's standard-bearer among quarterbacks. Brady wasn't ready to pass the torch to Mahomes on that day. For this week's game, the biggest storyline is whether McVay has overtaken Belichick as the leader among current NFL coaches. Belichick's not ready to pass the torch either; can he bookend this amazing 18-year Patriots run with matching Super Bowl wins over the Rams? Or will McVay have the game plan to beat the all-time master of Super Bowl game plans ... and if the game is close, will he be aggressive and go for the win when it counts?
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here). Unlike other DVOA ranks, WEIGHTED DVOA also incorporates each team's postseason performance.
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. (For the Super Bowl, we also have smaller charts for special teams DVOA.) In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).