ATLANTA — Julian Edelman sat facing his locker inside the New England Patriots locker room, pulled on a pair of Jordans and chomped on an unlit cigar that had been aged for 50 years, a gift of gratitude from New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft. The Super Bowl LIII MVP turned toward teammate Matthew Slater and softly captured the conclusion the rest of America had come to.
“I can’t believe they didn’t score a touchdown,” Edelman said to Slater.
The Los Angeles Rams’ offense had been dominant all season, so glorified it made Coach Sean McVay an exemplar of modern football, so envious owners had tripped over themselves trying to hire any coach who lifts weights and uses hair gel. The Rams had scored the second-most yards and gained the second-most yards in during the most offense-crazed season in league history.
Then came the Super Bowl. Then McVay confronted a football savant who had 33 years and five Lombardis on him. Then came a defensive throttling almost without precedent. Then came clarity at the top of football’s coaching hierarchy. Sean McVay may be a genius, but he’s no Bill Belichick.
One of Belichick’s defensive game plans already is on display in the Hall of Fame, from his days as a New York Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV. The one he and defensive play caller Brian Flores designed for the Patriots’ 13-3 throttling of the Rams on Sunday night may soon join it. One year after the Patriots allowed 41 points in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, they yielded the lowest output in a Super Bowl in 49 years.
The Patriots confused Jared Goff, throttled the Rams’ offensive line, shut down their skill players and left McVay without answers. Belichick surprised the Rams by starting in zone defense after playing man-to-man all season. He produced havoc by changing the role of an unheralded defensive back. He unleashed a torrent of different pass rushes despite barely blitzing. He did nothing the Rams expected and everything to specially stifle a high-powered attack.
Belichick made McVay his latest high-profile victim, a fact McVay lamented in both ornate vernacular and plain English. He talked about Belichick’s deployment of “single-high buzz structures” and “quarters principles” in the defensive strategy. And then he admitted what had been plainly obvious during four hours of brutalist football.
“It was a great game plan,” McVay said. “There is no other way to say it but, I got out-coached.”
Super Bowl LIII was a victory for wisdom over phenoms. The Rams were obliterated statistically, gaining just 260 yards, recording 12 first down and punting nine times. The only reason the Rams had a chance in the fourth quarter was the defense of 70-year-old coordinator Wade Phillips, who had Tom Brady off-kilter all night. But one coach dwarfed the others, and it was the one who now has eight Super Bowl rings as either a coach or coordinator.
“Bill’s the best to ever do it,” Patriots secondary coach Josh Boyer said.
The biggest spectacle in American culture staged Belichick’s opus, but it began two weeks ago on a quiet field in Foxborough, Massachusetts. In their first practice after the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game, when other coaches might have rested players after an arduous, emotional game, Belichick put the Patriots in full pads and went full-bore. He added extra drills and additional practice periods. Mistakes were met coaches demanding, “Do it again.” At the end, players toiled through an extra 12 sprints.
“It felt like we were running forever,” Slater said. “It was like, what are we doing here? We knew Bill meant business. We better mean business. We had to play a great opponent. I think it prepared for us for what we needed to do.”
“It was a practice that let us know, hey, look: Just because we won the AFC championship, that don’t mean we’re done here,” defensive end Dietrich Wise said.
Patriots players knew to expect two weeks of intensive study. Belichick does not use a set system. He has a basic set of fundamental tenets, but he alters strategy weekly based on his opponent’s features and flaws.
“We switch every week,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said in the locker room after the game. “We don’t just do something because that’s what we do.”
In the next locker over, his brother Jason, a Patriots cornerback, overheard him and asked, “How about Kansas City vs. this game plan?”
“Totally different,” Devin said.
Belichick unveiled his defensive game plan to his team early during the off week. Belichick and his staff had deduced that the Rams specialized in “man beaters,” Boyer said – tactics meant to defeat man coverage. Their litany of shifts, bunched formations, and frequent jet motion all thrive against man coverage, which is the style the Patriots typically prefer, and what they used extensively in Kansas City.
Against the Rams, though, the Patriots would start the game in zone coverage. The Patriots believed it would limit the effectiveness of how McVay dresses up his simple-yet-deadly scheme, and that it would stagger Goff, a 24-year-old facing Belichick for the first time.
“Our philosophy is always, we’re going to give them something a little bit different,” Boyer said. “Try to get good pressure up the middle and force Goff into some throws deep and try to have it protected deep.”
The Patriots added a wrinkle within the wrinkle. Halfway through the first week of preparation, coaches switched Jonathan Jones’s primary role from cornerback to safety. Jones, an undrafted free agent the Patriots out of Auburn in 2016, has toggled between the positions all season, and his versatility is one reason the Patriots value him.
“Whatever coaches need from me, I’m a baller,” Jones said. “I’m a game player.”
“We played him in a new position this whole game,” Boyer said.
All year, Jones had frequently blitzed as either an outside corner or a nickelback. When he crept close to the line, Goff would assume he might blitz. Then he would drop back – not to a corner’s position, but to the center of the field, where he defended a deep quarter of the field. When Goff audibled, Boyer said, the Patriots could change their defensive call simply by moving around Jones.
“Early on,” Goff said, “they were able to keep us completely guessing.”
The Patriots also devised exotic pass rushes from an alignment meant to stifle the run and force Goff to beat them. The Patriots walked up two linebackers to the line of scrimmage, effectively employing a six-man defensive line. The alignment clogged running lanes on early downs. When the Rams passed, the Patriots would vary which defenders rushed and which dropped into coverage, frequently using pass-rush combinations they had never shown.
“Guys who had been rushers all year, different guys were rushing,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
Along with the mixed personnel, the Patriots used a vast array of stunts, with pass rushers crossing and twisting along the line. “You name it, we threw the bus at them,” defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. “We just tried to mix it up and tried to confuse them.”
From the start, the plan worked to perfection. On the Rams’ first third-down play, Clayborn burst inside on a stunt, rushed Goff into a throw and smashed him into the turf. (Clayborn admitted he had actually made a communication mistake with a linebacker on the play and would receive a film study demerit from Belichick.)
The Patriots entered the game prepared to switch back to man. Once they saw how Goff reacted, they realized their idea, and their players’ execution, and unfolded precisely as they hoped.
“There were some changes to it along the way,” Boyer said. “As a staff, we went back every day and said, ‘Is this what we want to do? Is everybody comfortable with this? Is this what we’re going to get?’ When we started with the zone stuff, and we saw it was all the manbeaters schemes, motions and shifts, we were like, ‘This is exactly what we wanted. This is why we wanted it.’ We just kind of stayed with that.”
Throughout the first half, the combination of the zone and Jones’ new role flummoxed Goff. “That was our goal, to try to rattle him,” Clayborn said. The zone prompted Goff to hold the ball longer trying to find an open receiver, and the pass rush punished him. Even though the Patriots blitzed only three or four times, Devin McCourty said, they sacked Goff four times and hurried him another 12.
“In order to be successful, we had to get him frustrated,” defensive end Trey Flowers said.
Belichick’s zone gambit was, in a way, a compliment to McVay. He believed McVay would be able to pinpoint deficiencies in any scheme given two weeks to prepare, so he needed something new. “McVay is like us,” McCourty said. “The Rams are like us.” But switching coverage put the Patriots’ defense a step ahead, and Belichick maintained the edge all night.
“We knew they would make some adjustments in the second half,” McCourty said. “But we were prepared for them.”
Goff led the Rams on their best drive late in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots led, 10-3, taking them to the New England 27 with less than four minutes remaining. Having hardly blitzed all night, Belichick and Flores called for a maximum blitz, leaving Stephon Gilmore alone on the outside against Brandin Cooks. Safety Duron Harmon pressured Goff into an early threw. Goff floated the ball into the end zone. Gilmore had drifted back, reading Goff more than covering Cooks. He leaped and snared the ball at its highest point before Cooks could turn around, all but sealing the game.
“It was an easy pick for me,” Gilmore said. “It was like playing throw-‘em-up in your backyard.”
Patriots coaches can make so many tweaks and adjustments because they have the right players. Flores emphasized execution mattered more than scheme, but what enabled execution was intelligence and versatility. The Patriots’ roster lacks recognizable commodities, but Belichick does not prioritize qualities that equate to fame.
“We don’t have stars,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “We have elite football players.”
It is not easy become an elite football player, especially for Belichick. It means running in full pads in late January, or subjugating ego to learn a new, hybrid position on the eve of the biggest game, or worrying about what Belichick will think about a mistake made on a quarterback hit during a Super Bowl victory.
“Even when we win games, it feels like we lose sometimes,” Gilmore said. “It’s hard.”
But, he added quickly, it is worth it. As the final seconds ticked off, his players dumped Gatorade on Belichick. He smiled, hugged his daughter and felt a euphoric group of players whoosh past him. The Patriots had held the Rams without a touchdown, another crowning moment in an all-time career. The Patriots were champions again, and that was not hard to believe.