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The Bill Belichick-Sean McVay chess match could be the best part of Super Bowl LIII

Let’s dive into what we might see on Sunday

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-Opening Night Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl LIII will bring together two of the NFL’s best coaching minds. At just 33 years old and in his second season, Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams has already become the blueprint for what other NFL teams are looking for in a head coach — young, offensive, innovative. On the other sideline, Bill Belichick has already cemented a legacy as one of, if not the best head coach in NFL history. His ability to adapt over both long and short periods of time has made his game plans legendary.

Belichick has a few core philosophies he has kept over his coaching career, one of which is a defensive plan to take away an opponent’s biggest offensive strength. But while the Rams have been one of the league’s best offenses in 2018 — third in yards per drive and points per drive — there’s not one clear strength that stands out. Instead, the Rams succeed because everything on offense works so well together. Pre-snap motions create passing lanes, a wide receiver-heavy personnel package keeps boxes light for the running game, and there might not be a better team in its use of play-action and misdirection to create big plays. There is not just one thing the Patriots can focus on stopping and that’s part of what makes the upcoming Belichick-McVay chess match so exciting.

To stack or not to stack

Some might think the Patriots would start with the Rams’ run game, which ranked first in DVOA during the regular season. That would involve putting more defenders in the box to slow down the likes of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, but generally offensive personnel influences box counts more than a defensive strategy. Per Sharp Football Stats, Los Angeles used 11 personnel (three wide receivers) on 87 percent of its offensive snaps during the regular season. That led the league by a significant margin, with the No. 2 team at 78 percent. The constant threat of the pass stops defenses from loading an extra man into the box to defend the run. Per Next Gen Stats, Gurley ran into a box with eight or more defenders on just 8.2 percent of his rushing attempts during the regular season, the third fewest of any running back with at least 85 carries.

New England’s defense didn’t show much to the contrary in 2018. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots faced 199 rushing attempts from 11 personnel during the regular season and defended just 12 of those (six percent) with eight or more men in the box. On 92 rushing attempts against 12 personnel (two tight ends), the Patriots had eight or more in the box 25 times (27.2 percent). Given one of Belichick’s most famous game plans from Super Bowl XXV involved allowing the opponent to run in order to focus on a high powered passing attack, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots concede those light boxes to the Rams — especially given what the Rams’ run game looked like against New Orleans — in order to challenge the Rams to beat them through the air.

Strength on strength

Belichick’s most widely known defensive strategy against a team with a clear top No. 1 receiver is to routinely put their No. 2 corner on that player with safety help over the top while the No. 1 corner is responsible for shutting down the No. 2 receiver. New England has the No. 1 shutdown corner to pull this off in Stephon Gilmore, who per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders was second among 85 qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass and first in success rate during the 2018 season. Gilmore has also been so good this year, New England has occasionally passed on that plan and allowed the top corner to shadow the opposing team’s best receiver.

The problem there is the Rams don’t really have a receiver group worth deploying that strategy. Per Pro Football Focus, only three teams used shadow coverage in games against the Rams during the regular season and even those teams disagreed on who Los Angeles’s top target was. In Week 4, the Minnesota Vikings kept cornerback Xavier Rhodes on Brandin Cooks and in Week 16, the Arizona Cardinals did the same with Patrick Peterson — though the Cardinals did not use Peterson to shadow any Rams receiver during their first meeting in Week 2. The Lions were the other team to use a specific cornerback matchup, but they kept their top defender, Darius Slay, on Robert Woods in Week 13.

While Cooks can be the deep threat and Woods more of a possession receiver in the Rams offense, those roles can be switched and the production was almost identical between the two during the regular season. Woods was targeted more often (130 to 117), but was barely ahead of Cooks in receptions (86 to 80), yards (1,219 to 1,204), and touchdowns (6 to 5). Even advanced metrics rated them closely with Cooks ranked 10th among wide receivers in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (a counting stat) and 12th in DVOA (efficiency) and Woods ranked 11th in DYAR and 16th in DVOA.

That interchangeability between receivers is part of what has made the Rams’ offense so dangerous while the personnel doesn’t really change at all. It’s also a testament to McVay’s scheme that the offense can be so productive by changing pre-snap looks and formations while the team uses the same personnel on almost every play. The splits and alignment of those receivers add another layer to the offense that makes it hard to defend.

During the regular season, the coverage the Rams saw most often was Cover 3 — a typical zone scheme where the two outside cornerbacks and a deep safety are responsible for splitting the field into thirds. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Rams averaged 8.5 Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A, yards per attempt adjusted for touchdowns and interceptions) against Cover 3 during the regular season. New England used that coverage as their second-most used scheme but allowed 9.1 AY/A, which makes it unlikely that will be a coverage the Patriots go to during the Super Bowl.

New England’s most used coverage in 2018 was Cover 1 — man coverage with a single deep safety — where they allowed just 6.3 AY/A on 233 attempts (the league-wide average AY/A on all passes in 2018 was 7.3). Cover 1 was the defense Los Angeles saw the second-most, though the Rams had no problem producing against it — 10.2 AY/A on 136 attempts.

Some of the biggest plays in the NFC Championship Game for the Rams came against the New Orleans Saints in Cover 1, like this 36-yard pass to Cooks late in the second quarter. The Rams stacked their receivers on each side of the field and a vertical stem from Josh Reynolds (83) on the right side of the formation held the deep safety in the middle of the field just long enough for Cooks to get behind the secondary with an open window for a great throw from Jared Goff.

That raises an interesting question for Belichick, whether he’ll stick to his defense’s strength to slow the Rams against their strength or alter his game plan for a bigger advantage.

If the Patriots do change up the coverage against the Rams, it could be for a few plays of Cover 4 or Quarters. New England didn’t use it often during the regular season, but they were incredibly successful on the plays they did. It was also the coverage scheme the Rams struggled the most against.

Quarters is a zone coverage that keeps four defenders deep and it’s a scheme that works well against the Rams because outside defenders can play back and allow all the pre-snap motion to have little effect on the coverage responsibilities, which eliminates things like getting a slot receiver matched up against a linebacker — something the Rams have been successful forcing throughout the season. It can also keep much of the route in front on defenders, which can take away some of the deep shots that turn into big plays.

It’s a strategy the Chicago Bears used against the Rams in Week 14. Chicago used the nature of the coverage to allow their defensive backs to keep their eyes on the quarterback and break on the ball when it was thrown in front of them. The Bears ran the coverage on 12 pass attempts and the Rams completed just six of those for 77 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions — negative-1.1 AY/A — and the Rams were held to six points in the game.

The deployment of Quarters coverage was something the Bears planned specifically for the Rams — they ran the coverage on no more than five snaps in any other game during the regular season per Sports Info Solutions. The plan was even successful enough the Philadelphia Eagles adopted it the following week. Philadelphia ran it against the Rams on 12 snaps for six completions, 77 yards, and an interception (2.9 AY/A) with a sack thrown in. The Eagles only ran the coverage 14 other times total during the regular season.

Throughout the season, the Patriots were a heavy man coverage team, but so were the Bears and Eagles. New England is likely going to want to continue with the coverages they had the most success with during the season, but throwing a few new looks in there knowing the Rams have struggled against a Cover 4 look would fit Belichick’s typical strategy.

Tendency breakers

So much of what has made the Los Angeles offense successful has been the ability to create so many different looks from the same personnel. But during the last few weeks of the season and throughout the playoffs, the Rams have sprinkled in some looks and plays to further disguise their typical tendencies. During the regular season, the Rams used 11 personnel on 88 percent on their plays and ran just 35 percent of the time from that package. The used 12 personnel on nine percent of plays and ran 75 percent of the time with two tight end on the field. In the playoffs, they have used 11 personnel a little less frequently (80 percent of the time and run a little more often (48 percent). The Rams have also upped plays from 12 personnel (15 percent) and they’re running less frequently (67 percent). That opens up things like play action from 12 personnel when opponents figured a run was almost guaranteed. It worked against the Saints in the NFC Championship game.

Another staple of the Rams’ offense is the jet motion from wide receivers to put defenders in conflict. While the Rams used this motion often, rarely was it actually used for a rushing attempt. Part of what made the Chicago strategy of sitting back successful was the defense wasn’t forced to consistently react to the pre-snap motion and if the Rams weren’t going to hand the ball off, the motion wasn’t going to have much of an impact. But after the Eagles game, Los Angeles started to use the action as more than a fake. Per SIS, from Weeks 1-15 the Rams handed the ball off on a jet sweep or end around 25 times for 117 yards (1.7 per game and 7.1 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Over the last two games of the regular season, the Rams used a jet sweep or end around seven times (3.5 per game) for 58 yards (8.3 ypc) and a touchdown. Against the Saints, Josh Reynolds nearly score a touchdown on an end around that featured the jet sweep motion from Robert Woods.

With two weeks to prepare for how to slow down the Los Angeles offense, there is bound to be a new wrinkle or two from the New England defense. McVay knows this and isn’t going to show up to Mercedes-Benz Stadium without a few new wrinkles of his own. How these two units punch and counterpunch throughout the night just might be the most fascinating matchup of Super Bowl LIII.