The scoring-filled 2018 NFL season came to an ugly end in a defense-dominated Super Bowl, won by the New England Patriots in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, 13-3.
The Los Angeles Rams, owner of one of the league’s most explosive offenses all season long, had no answer for the Patriots’ defense, but were still in position to pull off the victory late in the fourth quarter due to the standout play of their own defense.
How did the Patriots do it? In started with Coach Bill Belichick turning Super Bowl 53 into “turn back the clock night,” by using a defensive scheme from the 1980s, and proving that even in the greatest offensive season in NFL history, defenses can win championships.
Here are the four biggest takeaways from New England’s sixth Super Bowl title:
1. Bill Belichick once again proved he is a genius of defensive coaching
Belichick used what could be called a version of the Buddy Ryan 4-6 defense, designed to work against the modern-day three-receiver offense. It featured four defensive linemen and added safety Patrick Chung (before he left with a broken arm) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy at the edges of the line of scrimmage. Donta Hightower was essentially the lone linebacker, leaving four defensive backs to cover the receivers.
Ryan, the legendary Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, used the 4-6 scheme to keep extra defenders close to the line of scrimmage, allowing to blitz on occasion and be in position to stop the run. Belichick similarly tried to use his extra defenders to stop the Rams’ running game.
Since Coach Sean McVay arrived in L.A., his offense has revolved around running back Todd Gurley, the utilization of jet sweeps and motion to confuse linebackers, and the play-action passing game. Belichick clearly made stopping the run a priority, and expanded upon the plan of his protege Matt Patricia, now the head coach of the Lions, whose Detroit defense did a great job of defending the edges to limit Gurley and the running game. The Patriots sealed the edge on Sunday, holding the Rams to just 62 yards rushing on 18 carries. The running backs were ineffective in the passing game as well, catching just three passes for 11 yards.
That put the game in the hands of Goff, who was confused by defensive looks where it appeared New England was blitzing, even though in most cases it wasn’t.
The result was that an expected high-scoring affair turned into a punt-off. The Rams’ Johnny Hekker had eight consecutive punts after eight failed series to start the game.
“I got out-coached tonight,” McVay said after the game.
2. The Rams’ were able to stay in the game because of a great game plan from Wade Phillips
McVay’s defensive coordinator had a more impressive coaching performance, as Phillips put together an effective defensive scheme to mostly limit Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense.
The Rams stuck to what they’d done most of the season by playing mostly zone coverage, although Phillips did mix in a few man-to-man coverages. But the zone looks limited New England’s ability to make big plays. Brady finished with 21 completions on 35 attempts, for 262 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
L.A.’s defense was also very effective on third downs, limiting the Patriots to three third-down conversions on 13 attempts. That was the biggest factor in New England only scoring 13 points, including just three through three quarters.
“Yeah, it was tough,” Brady said. “We just couldn’t make the big play. We just couldn’t stay on the field on third down. We just knew we had a whole half to go. Defense set the tone. … They held them and we broke through in the fourth quarter.”
Most thought this would be a high-scoring Super Bowl, but both Belichick and Phillips reminded everyone of how great defensive coaching can keep points off the scoreboard. The result was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history.
3. Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski made the big plays when the Patriots needed them
All season long we’ve heard about the lack of weapons on the Patriots’ offense, particularly at outside receiver. But the two constants over the last several years — Edelman and Gronkowski — came up big and helped lead the Patriots to victory.
Edelman caught 10 passes on 12 targets for 141 yards, and his ability to keep the chains moving allowed the Patriots to win the time-of-possession battle. The Rams had no answer for him, as he consistently got open against different looks from the Rams’ secondary. He took home the Super Bowl MVP award, and cemented his status as one of the greatest postseason receivers ever.
Asked if he knew he would have a performance like that, Edelman said: “I wasn’t focused on that. I was just trying to go out and have a good week of practice and do my job. Sometimes, the cookie crumbles that way.”
Gronkowski had been more effective with his blocking than his receiving of late, playing a key role in New England’s power running game in playoff wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. But he was again a difference-maker as a pass-catcher in the Super Bowl, hauling in six catches for 87 yards, including a 29-yarder that set up rookie Sony Michel’s go-ahead touchdown run.
“Tom Brady threw it to me and I had to make a play,” Gronk said. “We stuck to our plan and came out victorious. Unbelievable. This is surreal. Another celebration. This is amazing.”
Michel played a key role in his own right, recording 94 yards on 18 carries. He gives the Patriots a power back presence that they’ve had in previous years with Corey Dillon and LeGarrette Blount, and figures to be a key part of the team’s offense in the future.
4. This was a painful loss, but the Rams will be back
Late-season losses to the Bears and Eagles were eye-opening for the Rams, but Super Bowl 53 was unlike anything this young team had experienced in terms of frustration on the offensive side of the ball. It was also exacerbated by the continuing mystery surrounding Gurley, who insisted after the game that he was healthy but was once again limited as he split time with C.J. Anderson, rushing for just 35 yards on 10 carries. He had one catch for minus-1 yard.
Gurley was the Rams’ best offensive player all season long, and without him providing an effective running game, Goff was completely thrown off. The third-year quarterback finished with 19 of 38 passing for 229 yards and an interception, which he threw when facing pressure late in the fourth quarter and effectively sealed the team’s loss. Goff also missed a crucial opportunity to put the team ahead when wide receiver Brandin Cooks broke free in the end zone for what looked like it would be a touchdown, but Goff noticed him too late and Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty was able to break up the pass.
Clearly, the future is bright for Goff and Gurley, and combined with one of the best three-receiver units in the league — remember, Cooper Kupp would have made a big difference in this game had he not been injured — the Rams should remain one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses under McVay’s direction for years to come. With those key pieces in place, along with the two-time defending defensive player of the year in Aaron Donald, there are lots of reasons for optimism in L.A.
But winning a Super Bowl as a first-time quarterback is tough. Goff learned that Sunday night.