Pick Six:  Observations from Super Bowl LIII

New England defeated Los Angeles 13-3 in a surprisingly defensive battle at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Super Bowl Sunday. Patriots’ cornerback Jason McCourty arguably made the most impressive play of the game when he smartly broke out of his zone to knock away an end zone pass to receiver Brandin Cooks on a busted coverage play late in the 3rd quarter. Up until that point, the Rams’ eight previous drives had and all ended in punts, with none of those drives going over 23 yards. During that same time period, the Patriots’ had five drives go for over 23 yards, but only had three points on the board thanks to some tenacious Rams’ defense, a Tom Brady interception, a Stephen Gostkowski 46-yard missed field goal, and a failed fourth-and-one attempt from the LA 32 yard line.

Six Comments from Super Bowl LIII

1. Through the first three quarters, Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff struggled mightily, completing just 43% of his passes for 95 yards and getting caught in three sacks. In the final quarter Goff found some rhythm, completing 63% and picking up 134 yards. It’s hard to tell how much those early struggles were due to outstanding defensive play by the Patriots how many were self-inflicted wounds. For example, late in the 1st quarter Goff overlooked a wide open Brandin Cooks in the flat and tried to squeeze a third-down incompletion into a well-covered receiver Robert Woods. Midway in the 2nd, the Rams were fortunate that a 19 yard pass to Woods was called a catch along the left sideline, but Cooks was open 27 yards down field on the same sideline. Late in the 2nd, Jared Goff rolled to his right to avoid pressure, but held onto the ball too long, which allowed linebacker Kyle Van Noy to make up 17 yards of field from his coverage zone and tackle the quarterback 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Early in the 3rd, Stephon Gilmore broke up a third-down pass to Cooks along the left sideline, while receiver Josh Reynolds’ underneath crossing was wide open.

2. Early in the 4th quarter – with the score still 3-3 – it felt like Los Angeles might have New England’s defense on their heels. A holding call against cornerback Stephon Gilmore converted a third-and-11, and then quarterback Jared Goff hit receiver Brandin Cooks on a 16-yard comeback up the left seam. On the following play, Todd Gurley carried 13 yards over left tackle up to New England’s 43 yard line. In perhaps a moment of game turning fortune, the officials threw a flag on center John Sullivan for a hold on defensive tackle Danny Shelton, ultimately derailing Los Angeles’ drive. Earlier in the game, Shelton three times pushed through the Rams’ center-guard gap to contact their running back on or behind the line of scrimmage – including back-to-back plays in the shadow of LA’s goal posts midway through the 3rd.

3. Credit to New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for finally finding a crack in Wade Phillips’ Los Angeles defense midway through the 4th quarter. The Patriots went on a touchdown drive that went 69 yards in five plays with a personal grouping that included two tight ends and two running backs. With the Rams countering with a “heavier” line-up to stop the anticipated runs, the Patriots took to the air. The first play of the drive was probably Tom Brady’s best pass of the day: A perfect lob over linebacker Samson Ebukam’s head for an 18-yard gain to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Three plays later, the Patriots occupied the Rams’ top corners with fullback James Develin and tight end Dwayne Allen aligned to the outside, leaving Rob Gronkowski matched up with linebacker Cory Littleton. Gronkowski ran past Littleton up the left seam and Brady lofted his second perfect pass of the game. The ball arched around Littleton and the big tight end went low to snag the ball down to the Rams’ two yard line.

4. Patriots’ running backs Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White gained 137 yards on the ground, but 52 of those yards were on two long runs on the Patriots’ final drive. Eleven (11) of the trio’s 26 runs were for two or fewer yards, including a third-and-one on New England’s final drive that defensive lineman Dante Fowler shut down for no gain. Fowler was dinged with an illegal use of hands penalty on that drive, but earlier in the game he caught Sony Michel for a tackle behind the line in the 1st quarter. On a third-and-eight in the 1st, the Patriots tried to surprise Los Angeles with a James White run, but Fowler was there to make the tackle short of the sticks. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald were also very active, giving the Patriots’ interior offensive line their stiffest competition of the post season.

5. Super Bowl LIII MVP, Julian Edelman, caught 141 of Tom Brady’s 262 passing yards, and for large stretches of the game seemed to be the only reliable option for their offense. If the Super Bowl MVP voters had decided to honor a defensive player this year, linebacker Dont'a Hightower – who also made key game-winning plays in both Super Bowl 49 and 51 – comes to mind. Immediately after Los Angeles’ fourth down stop of Tom Brady late in the 2nd quarter, Hightower blitzed between left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Rodger Saffold to sack Jared Goff. Late in the 3rd, facing a third-and-seven situation, Hightower – as part of a line stunt with Adam Butler and Kyle Van Noy – pushed past right guard Austin Blythe for his second sack. On the Rams’ first play of the 3rd quarter, Hightower knocked down, and nearly intercepted, a pass intended for Josh Reynolds.

6. When the Patriots were in man coverage, cornerback Stephon Gilmore often shadowed LA’s top receiver, Brandin Cooks (eight catches for 120 yards). Four positive plays from New England’s top cornerback include a terrific open field tackle on Cooks midway through the 2nd; a pass breakup on that aforementioned third-down pass to Cooks in the 3rd; tight coverage on a second-and-22, deep pass to Cooks early in the 4th; and forced a fumble (not recovered) from running back C.J. Anderson early in the 4th. Gilmore was penalized for holding on Cooks once, but he slyly got away with a second hold when he tugged at Cook’s left arm (uncalled) to disrupt an end zone catch late in the 4th. On the very next play, New England blitzed both safeties and Goff threw the ball off balance, allowing Gilmore to intercept the underthrown ball and end the Rams’ last, best chance to tie the game.

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