QR Bonus: Keys to Beating New England
by Vincent Verhei
Last week, we looked at the worst games that Los Angeles played this year, searching for weaknesses that might cost the Rams a Lombardi Trophy. Today, we're going to do the same for L.A.'s Super Bowl opponents, the New England Patriots.
By DVOA, New England's worst games this season were:
- Week 2: Jacksonville Jaguars 31, New England Patriots 20. Blake Bortles throws three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes as the Jaguars lead 21-3 at halftime. (Bortles would not throw for three touchdowns in a single game for the rest of the season.) Keelan Cole is Jacksonville's top receiver with seven catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. The Jaguars convert 10-of-14 third-down plays. Due in part to the early deficit, the Patriots only run for 82 yards on 24 carries. Tom Brady gains just 234 yards on 35 passes, but adds a pair of second-half touchdowns with no interceptions.
- Week 3: Detroit Lions 26, New England Patriots 10. The Patriots again fall behind early, trailing 13-3 at halftime. And again, that limits what they can do on the ground, as they finish with 89 yards on 19 carries. The Lions, meanwhile, play keepaway, converting 7-of-14 third downs and rushing for 159 yards on 33 carries. Tom Brady throws for only 133 yards on 26 passes; his average of 5.1 yards per throw was his worst of the year, and he adds an interception and two sacks.
- Week 10: Tennessee Titans 34, New England Patriots 10. Marcus Mariota throws two touchdowns in the first 10 minutes and the Titans take a 24-10 lead into halftime. The Patriots gain only 40 yards on 19 carries. Brady throws 41 passes, but gains only 254 yards and fails to throw for a touchdown; he has no interceptions, but is sacked three times. The Titans passing offense is explosive, averaging better than 10 yards per throw (including a 21-yard gain on a Darius Jennings pass to Mariota). But since they were playing with the lead for virtually the entire game, they were able grind things out on the ground, running 36 times for 150 yards.
- Week 14: Miami Dolphins 34, New England Patriots 33. A weird game that bears little resemblance to New England's other poor outings. The Patriots did not fall behind early; this was a back-and-forth affair with ten lead changes, with neither team ever ahead by more than five points. So New England had a chance to run 30 times … but they only gained 77 yards on those plays. Their production came from Brady, who had a season-high 358 yards on 43 passes. He added three touchdowns without an interception, though he was sacked twice. Meanwhile, New England's pass defense produced a lot of big plays with four sacks, but gave up even more, as Ryan Tannehill finished with 265 yards on only 19 passes, an average of 14.0 (!) yards per throw. The Patriots managed only a pair of field goals on four second-half possessions, but it still looked like they were going to win … until the most amazing (if ultimately meaningless) touchdown of 2018 happened.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 9, 2018
A few notable trends jump out from these contests. First of all, for a playoff team, The Patriots' bad games were really bad. New England's DVOA in these four outings ranged from a high of -32.1% to a low of -58.6%, with an average of -46.2% that would have been the worst in the league over a full season. No other playoff team had four games with a DVOA of -30.0% or worse; the Rams, Chiefs, Chargers, and Texans had a total of zero. If the bad version of the Patriots shows up in the Super Bowl, the Rams will win by multiple touchdowns. That said, as championship-level strategies go, "let's sit back and wait for the Patriots to implode" is about as foolishly optimistic as you can get, so let's take a closer look at what Los Angeles can do to force the issue.
It's notable that all of these games were on the road; the Patriots were a very different team away from Foxborough this year. That's especially true of their defense, which was second-best at home, but second-worst on the road. Their -10.0% DVOA against Kansas City last week was the New England defense's best road game of the season, and they still blew three fourth-quarter leads. The Super Bowl won't be a home game for the Rams, but they should have plenty of opportunities to score points.
In three of these games, New England was effectively knocked out early. Even in the Dolphins loss, they trailed at the end of the first quarter, albeit only by a single point after Stephen Gostkowski missed a PAT. But that still tells the simplest tale of the 2018 New England Patriots: beat them early, or don't beat them at all. Including the playoffs, the Patriots were a perfect 11-0 when leading at the end of the first quarter; when they were tied or trailing 15 minutes into the game, they finished 2-5. Obviously, it's better to be ahead than behind -- teams that were ahead after the first quarter went 156-50 this season, winning more than three-quarters of their games -- but New England was particularly adept at making those early leads stick, and surprisingly unable to play catch-up.
Shockingly, the Patriots were just 25th in offensive DVOA this season when trailing by eight or more points. Including sacks, Brady averaged only 5.2 yards per dropback when down by two scores; the running game wasn't much better, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. This was on 168 total plays, so it wasn't a tiny sample -- however, those 168 plays were limited entirely to those losses to the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans. When Patriots trailed by smaller deficits -- tied, or down by one to seven points -- they were third in offensive DVOA.
All in all, Brady was hardly disastrous in New England's bad games -- he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and averaged less than 7 yards per toss, but threw eight touchdowns with only one interception. On the ground, however, the Patriots were neutralized. They averaged only 72.0 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Their average rush offense DVOA was -26.9%, which would have been the worst in the league over a full season; their average pass offense DVOA was 7.2%, which would have been in the middle of the pack. Shutting down the ground game and forcing Tom Brady to throw isn't the first tactic that springs to mind when facing New England, but it has been most effective against the Patriots this year.
As for New England's defense, when they were bad, they were fall-on-your-face awful. Their DVOA in these games would have been worst against the run, against the pass, and overall over the course of the season. They allowed 5.3 rushing yards per carry and 150.5 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks completed nearly 70 percent of their passes for 9.2 yards per throw with 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Keep in mind, those numbers were put up by Blake Bortles, Matthew Stafford, Marcus Mariota, and Ryan Tannehill. The Patriots were especially putrid on first down, giving up 374 yards on 64 carries (a 5.8-yard average) while opponents completed 37 of 51 passes for 628 yards (73 percent completion rate, 12.3 yards per throw) with seven touchdowns, no interceptions, and only three sacks.
Between New England's struggles in first quarters and on first downs, Sean McVay's opening script will be crucial in this game. Passes of all distances were effective against the Patriots. Short passes were completed 75 percent of the time with an average gain of 8.5 yards, while deep passes were less reliable (52 percent completion rate) but more explosive (13.4 yards per pass), as you would expect. If there was a specifically weak area of New England's defense, it came on throws to the offense's left, which were completed 77 percent of the time for 10.7 yards per play, including 7.1 yards after the catch per completion. Passes to the right or middle were completed more than 10 percent less often, for 2 full fewer yards per play. The Rams, as you might expect, used multiple receivers to attack all areas of the field. Seven different players (including Cooper Kupp, who is out for the year) had 15 or more targets on throws to the offense's left for L.A.; the best of them was Brandin Cooks, who caught 73 percent of his targets for 14.4 yards per catch.
But those are just details. The big picture is this: the Rams will need to take an early lead in this game. That will help to keep New England's offense one-dimensional, while at the same time letting L.A. play with versatility. That in turn will let give the Rams a chance to beat the Patriots with their own weapon: ball control. The Patriots only converted 18 of 52 third downs in their bad games, while their opponents went 23-of-47, converting nearly half the time.
Pay attention to the coin toss, expect the Rams to receive if they can, and hold on tight -- the game could be decided long before Maroon 5 even takes the field.