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Super Bowl LIII: New England Patriots Wide Receivers vs. Los Angeles Rams Secondary

Two-back sets, an ancient quarterback and play-action successes bode well for the New England Patriots wide receivers and poorly for the Rams secondary.
Patriots Wide Receivers

“Age has definitely taken a toll.” That’s how Nickell Robey-Coleman decided to describe the 41-year-old quarterback that was a top-10 passer in completions, attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns, first downs gained and plays of 20+ yards. As Robey-Coleman, Marcus PetersAqib Talib and the rest of the Los Angeles Rams secondary prepares to face off against Tom Brady and the everyman squad of New England Patriots wide receivers, they might wish age had taken a toll on the Patriots.

Super Bowl LIII: New England Patriots Wide Receivers vs. Los Angeles Rams Secondary

New England Patriots Offensive Line vs Los Angeles Rams Defensive Line
New England Patriots Defensive Line, Linebackers vs. Los Angeles Rams Offensive Line
Sizing Up the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams Running Backs

Rams Defensive Outlook

Few players were listed on the Rams injury report this week, and only one of them did not participate in Wednesday’s practice. Blake Countess was held out on Wednesday with a foot injury, but Countess has little bearing on the secondary, given that he’s only played six snaps on defense over the Rams last two games.

The Rams have been decent at shutting down true top wide receivers this postseason. In the Divisional Round, the Rams held a reborn Amari Cooper to 65 yards and a score on nine targets, six of which he caught. But despite his seven-catch, 106-yard game against the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card Round, Cooper did not finish out the season well, posting three straight games under 40 yards. Cooper isn’t exactly the picture of a true top receiver.

In the NFC Championship Game, however, the Rams held Michael Thomas to four catches on seven targets and just 36 receiving yards. It was the first time all season that Thomas caught less than 60 percent of his targets.

On the other hand, Michael Gallup tore up the Rams secondary for 119 yards for the Dallas Cowboys and Alvin Kamara caught 11 targets for 96 yards in the NFC Championship.

Exploiting the Rams Weaknesses

Kamara’s production was a result of the ferocity of the Rams pass rush. Aaron Donald is a legitimate contender for league MVP this year, and the pass rush unit has been graded as the second-best in the league. This, as has been the case so often this season, will mean a lot of Julian Edelman and a lot of James White.

Ndamukong Suh has contributed to a very heavy run-stuffing defense this postseason, which should mean very tough sledding for Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. Fortunately, the Rams have been horrible against two-back sets, according to Sharp Football Stats, and Josh McDaniels is very likely prepared to exploit that. The Rams also struggle against play-action, another area where the Patriots excel.

The Rams aren’t afraid to have cornerbacks follow receivers, which means that Edelman is going to get a lot of attention from Peters and Talib. However, Edelman has a knack for getting open across the middle of the field. The mix-and-match running back unit of Michel, White, Burkhead, and James Develin do an excellent job of drawing in opposing linebackers, leaving an exploitable gap in the defense.

Safety First

New England will have to play it safe on third down to keep Jared Goff and company off the field as much as possible. The Patriots are going to dial up a lot of throws into areas where both Brady and his receivers have been consistently successful. That means Phillip Dorsett short on the left side, where he has a 76.4 percent success rate. It means Chris Hogan deep up the left and over the middle. It means Edelman and Rob Gronkowski virtually anywhere short, but especially over the middle and out right.

Few Fast Breaks

One matchup to keep an eye on is John Johnson vs. Gronk. The Rams have used Johnson to cover tight ends a lot this season, and he has fared pretty well. The young safety has allowed a 75.6 percent completion rate in coverage but hasn’t really allowed pass-catchers to get loose or get away from him. His tackling grade was one of the best in the NFL among safeties, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Rams secondary as a whole has been excellent in terms of eliminating missed tackles — Talib missed zero tackles during the regular season and Lamarcus Joyner had similar success to Johnson’s — which means that huge YAC plays will be hard to come by. This is certainly one area where Josh Gordon‘s presence will be sorely missed this week.

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