In recent years, the Super Bowl has been home to some incredible matchups, including in 2017 when the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime after being down 28-3 late in the third quarter. And last year, when the Philadelphia Eagles outlasted the Patriots in epic fashion, combining for the second most points in Super Bowl history.
The key to this game, though, is found in the first sentence – matchup. Throughout his legendary coaching career, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has historically taken away the opposing teams' best player on offense. That plan has been replicated, tweaked and continuously evolved going back 34 years, when he first took over as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants in 1985.
His defensive game plan from Super Bowl XXV, when he allowed Thurman Thomas to run for over 100 yards in order to shut down the Buffalo Bills' vaunted passing attack, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, highlighting just how brilliant a defensive mind Belichick is.
In the AFC Championship game, Belichick took away dynamic Kansas City Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, limiting him to just one catch for 42 yards. In the 2018 regular season, Hill, widely regarded as the league's fastest player, caught 87 passes for 1,479 yards and 12 TDs. According to NFL Research, Hill has 13 scoring plays of over 50 yards since coming into the league just 2 years ago, an indicator of just how explosive he is.
The Los Angeles Rams may not have anyone like Hill (few teams do), but given Tony Romo's knack for prognostication as a commentator, we may have an idea of what Belichick's defensive game plan in the Super Bowl will look like.
Towards the end of AFC Divisional Championship game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Romo postulated that the Patriots could employ a similar scheme against the Chiefs that the Giants ran against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, when they let Thomas run wild in an effort to shut down the pass. That did not happen, as the Patriots focused on disrupting the Chiefs' receivers and running backs, putting 8 and 9 defenders near the line of scrimmage before the snap.
But given the Rams are a slightly more diverse offense than the Chiefs, it will be harder to take away any single player. The Rams have used 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) more than any team in the NFL this year, though that has been reduced somewhat since RB C.J. Anderson joined the team, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
The odds are better than average that Belichick may go deep into his bag of tricks to do everything he can to stop the Rams passing attack, which consists of wide receivers Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, Josh Reynolds and tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee.
That percentage rises when there are concerns over whether Rams RB Todd Gurley is truly healthy after he finished the NFC Championship game with a meager four carries for 10 yards and a touchdown, to go with one catch for three yards. Gurley, for his part, has insisted he is healthy and will be ready for Sunday's matchup, telling reporters, "I'm feeling good."
Gurley, along with Anderson, may see a heavy dose of carries on Sunday, with ball security coming into play, especially if the Patriots employ a defensive lineup with 4 or 5 defensive backs. Though he did not fumble in 2018 as a runner (he had one as a receiver), the ex-Georgia runner has a history of putting the ball on the ground, having fumbled 11 times in total throughout his first four years in the league, according to NFL.com. Anderson has better ball security, having fumbled just four times in his 6 years in the league, but Anderson is far less dynamic as a receiver than Gurley is. His career high in receptions is 34, set back in 2014, while Gurley has caught more than 40 balls each season for the past three years, including 59 in 2018.
And this is nothing to say of Belichick's effusive praise for Rams P Johnny Hekker, who he has called a "weapon" on a number of occasions for his ability to throw the ball on fourth down and keep offensive drives alive.
Others have speculated that the plan of attack will be the exact opposite, with the focus being on Gurley and Anderson, while attempting to contain the play action pass.
"The key for the Patriots defense is defending the run when the Rams are in 11-personnel," Evan Lazar wrote for CLNS Media. "The Rams run out of 11-personnel 77 percent of the time (highest rate in NFL) and average 5.2 yards per carry," adding that current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia (the former Patriots defensive coordinator) may have given the team a blueprint on how to stop the potent Rams attack.
The Patriots defensive backs need to hold their assignments in play-action, a play the Rams run far more than anyone else, at 34 percent, according to Football Outsiders, Lazar wrote. When running play action, the Rams are deadly, averaging 9 yards per play, compared to 7.1 yards for all other plays.
During one of his press appearances this week, Belichick commented that the Rams are "very good at [play-action],” adding that they are "good at everything."
ESPN football writer Bill Barnwell has backed this up, writing that Patricia "built his defensive fronts around stopping outside zone and confusing the Rams' blocking scheme."
Eventually, we will find out what Belichick's defensive gameplan is for the Rams and how he intends to stop their vaunted offense in search for a sixth Super Bowl win. But for now, it's fun to speculate and wonder what the mad genius will do.
Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia