This Sunday will mark the ninth Super Bowl that New England head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will compete in. Heading into this game, matchups will be key in order for either team to have success. From a positional perspective, I believe these teams match up well in terms of countering each other’s strengths. In other words, where the Rams have a strong defensive line, New England has a strong offensive line. As I evaluated players on both teams, I assessed a checkmark to the team who I believe has the advantage at that certain position.
Quarterback: Check mark, Patriots.
Tom Brady has without a doubt showed his age this season. Not only did he have an average statistical season, but he missed throws that we are all used to seeing him make. However, Brady, as well as the Patriots as a whole, look to have finally turned the corner. This postseason, Brady and the Patriots have looked like a much better team. Brady’s elevated play is a huge reason why, he looks focused and precise this postseason and has made laser throws against both the Chargers and Chiefs. While Rams quarterback Jared Goff has had an amazing season, there is no doubt that Brady has the edge with experience in big games and in clutch moments.
Offensive Line: Check mark, Patriots.
New England has had a great offensive line all season ranking fourth overall in the league by Pro Football Focus. They have continued their strong regular season performance this postseason and left tackle Trent Brown ranks second among all postseason tackles. In addition, so far this postseason, the Patriots’ offensive line has neutralized the pass rush duos of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa of the Chargers as well as Dee Ford and Justin Houston of the Chiefs. Both sets of pass rushers were held to zero sacks and there is no doubt that this Patriots’ offensive line is battle tested. Going into this Sunday, New England’s offensive line will need to be at the top of their game as they prepare to face Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Despite New England getting the check mark in this category, the Rams are not far behind. Pro Football Focus ranked Los Angeles as the sixth overall offensive line unit in 2018 and star left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been the highest graded tackle so far this postseason.
Wide Receivers: Check mark, Rams.
New England’s receivers have struggled all season and while they have seemingly found their stride a bit this postseason, they still are nowhere close to the Rams from a talent perspective. The Rams top two receivers, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, both eclipsed 1,200 receiving yards this season while all of New England’s receivers fell short of 1,000 yards. I am not saying that the Patriots’ passing game is ineffective, but rather pointing out just how much more explosive the Rams’ passing game is.
Tight End: Check mark, Patriots.
Although starting tight end Rob Gronkowski has seen a heavy decline in his level of play this season, he still blows the Rams tight ends out of the water. The Rams do not have any star tight ends but rather two young players, Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, who are both used in the offense. Higbee and Everett this season combined for 612 receiving yards while Gronk alone had 682 receiving yards this season. In addition to superior stats, Gronk has proven this postseason to be a very, very good blocker. While Gronk has always been a good blocking tight end, this postseason he has been borderline as good as some tackles in the league. Gronk’s blocking has become an interval part of the Patriots’ running game, allowing them to be creative with their blocking schemes. Despite Gronk’s recent decline, he is still capable of making big plays in key moments as he proved in the AFC Championship game and I believe he still is capable of having a few big games before his retirement.
Running Backs: Check mark, Patriots.
The Rams have one of the best running backs in the league in Todd Gurley. From a talent perspective, Gurley is a rare weapon that can affect the game in many ways. He has an amazing combination of speed and power along with an ability to catch passes and impact the game from different positions. However, this postseason, Gurley has had some injury issues and was benched in the NFC Championship game in favor of CJ Anderson. Whether or not Gurley plays extensively Sunday is a concern, but even if he does play, I believe the Patriots’ can bottle up the back. Historically, New England struggles most with shiftier backs, Gurley does not fit that mold. Combine that fact with Gurley’s benching and injury, the Patriots’ backfield gives me more confidence.
New England has no “best in the league” running back, but they do have two very good options in their backfield. Rookie running back Sony Michel, has proved himself to be a very good in between the tackles runner and has rushed for 242 yards along with 5 touchdowns in the past two playoff games. Veteran runner James White is a phenomenal receiving back and this is how New England uses him. In the past two playoff games, White recorded 19 receptions out of the backfield that went for 146 total yards. White has become a huge piece of the Patriots’ offense and it seems New England is at their best when White is catching balls out of the backfield for short gains.
Defensive Line: Check mark, Rams.
The Rams have nothing short of a dominant defensive line. Lead by all pro defensive end and generational talent, Aaron Donald. Donald is nothing short of a game wrecker and tallied 20.5 sacks this season. Rams defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, uses Donald in a very versatile role. In addition to lining up at a traditional defensive end spot, Donald also has the ability to play on the interior of the line and create several match up issues. However, Donald’s dominance alone did not land the Rams as the third best defensive line in the league. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is also a huge issue for opposing offenses. Suh has a reputation as a quitter as well as a dirty player. While those seem to be facts, Suh is an absolute monster when he gives his full effort and intensity. There is no doubt in my mind that the Super Bowl stage will bring out Suh’s full effort and the Patriots will certainly need to scheme around him.
Linebackers: Check mark, Rams.
Both the Rams and Patriots have uniquely different linebacker talent and ultimately I favored the Rams linebackers due to a personal preference. All of New England’s linebackers are built to stop the opponents running game and they are pretty good at it. However, where they excel in stopping the run and blitzing, they heavily lack in pass coverage. Every linebacker on the Patriots roster is a complete liability in man coverage against tight ends or running backs out of the backfield. This has proven to be extremely problematic in recent history, especially in last season’s Super Bowl where Eagles running back Corey Clement recorded four receptions for 100 yards and one touchdown.
The Rams linebackers are far better in coverage, but lack dominance in stopping the run. In fact, the Rams starting inside backer, Mark Barron, is a former safety and weighs just 215 pounds. The Rams get the check mark in this category because in today’s NFL, passing dominates the game and I put a higher value on backers being able to cover rather than stop the run, especially considering how good the Rams’ defensive line is.
Secondary: Check mark, Rams.
This was perhaps the most difficult position evaluation I made. I chose to favor the Rams in this category over the Patriots due to the Rams’ depth at corner and better safety play. There is no doubt that Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the best corner in this game. Gilmore has been a stud all season and was ranked number one in the league by Pro Football Focus. However, behind Gilmore on the depth chart is Jason McCourty and J.C Jackson. McCourty has been okay this season and I believe he has been a tad overrated. J.C Jackson has shown some promise late this season but he is still a rookie and struggled with penalties in the AFC Championship game. New England has a good veteran core at Safety highlighted by Devin McCourty. McCourty is by far the best safety on New England’s roster but over the past two seasons he has lost a step or two due to age. Nevertheless, McCourty is still more than capable of being a factor in games. The Patriots’ second safety, Patrick Chung, has struggled this season. Chung has never been amazing in zone coverage and has always been better defending the run as well as playing man on tight ends. Unfortunately, this season Chung has dealt with a notable shoulder injury. That injury combined with his older age has resulted in a mediocre season highlighted by struggles in man coverage.
The Rams have no one at cornerback who is on the same level as Gilmore. However, what they do have is three good, starting level NFL cornerbacks. Both Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters are household secondary names. While both players have slipped a bit, they are still good corners that are capable of making big plays. Possibly the most interesting corner on the Rams’ roster is Nickell Robey Coleman. Coleman is a very good slot corner who has played at a high level this season. It will be interesting to see how he matches up against the Patriots’ offensive scheme as we all know that New England relies on their slot receivers. In addition to their depth at corner, the Rams have very good safeties. Star safety John Johnson is an absolute stud at the position and has been the rock this season for a Rams secondary that has struggled with injuries. Johnson is capable of changing the game with big plays and with his coverage ability. The Rams’ second safety is Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner is an undersized safety measuring at just 5’8” 195 pounds. Despite his size, Joyner is still one of the better safeties in the game. While his size effects his ability with stopping the run, he has strong speed and excellent agility that leads to quality coverage play.
Many of these position evaluations are extremely close and some were simply based on what player type I would personally rather have over the other. Two examples of this are, a check mark to the Rams’ linebackers due to personal preference for coverage linebackers. Also, a check mark to the Patriots at running back due to their depth over having just one star back. Sunday’s game will be a match up of scheme and how each team decides to use their strengths to cover up their weaknesses.