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Super Bowl LIII Preview: The Passing Defenses

Super Bowl LIII Preview: The Passing Defenses
Davis Mattek January 30, 2019 6:19PM EDT

Analyzing The Pass Defenses In Super Bowl LIII

Earlier in Super Bowl Week LIII here at NFL365, we went over the passing offenses for the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots. When serious statistical analysts project outcomes of NFL football games, passing games end up mattering much more than any other aspect. Offenses have a majority of control in what happens on the final scoreboard but they are not playing against cardboard cutouts.

If the Los Angeles Rams are able to generate pressure on Tom Brady in a way that no other teams have been able to in the playoffs so far, they should significantly increase their odds of winning the Super Bowl. Conversely, if the Patriots corners are able to track the Rams wide receivers as they do their Jet Motion and bunch formations, they will force Jared Goff to beat them with tight window throws. By analyzing the pass rushes and secondaries of these two teams, we can gain more insights into what might win Super Bowl LIII.

Pass Rush

Neither the Los Angeles Rams nor the New England Patriots had a stellar Adjusted Sack Rate during the 2018 NFL regular season. The Rams ranked 19th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate during the regular season and the Patriots ranked 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Sacks are not the end of all pass rushing measures but they generally give a good indication of how often a team is able to disturb the opponent from getting their passes off in time.

The Rams, in particular, are quite interesting due to how they rush the passer. EDGE rushers, players who line up wide on the right or left of the defensive formation and whose sole job it is to put pressure on the QB, are some of the most valuable players in the NFL. Yet the Rams do not have even one above-average EDGE rusher. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the Rams by far in QB Hits with 41 and Ndamukong Suh is second on the team with 19. Their EDGE player with the highest amount of QB hits was Samson Ebukam with only six! To put that in context, six QB Hits is tied for 151st among all defensive players. The Patriots alone have five players with more than 10 QB Hits. What makes the Rams pass rush so unique is that almost all of their pressure comes from the interior rather than exterior. That makes them different to block than almost all other NFL teams, but it does also make them easier to block. It is more simple for a running back or fullback to wait for interior pressure where a player is coming at them slowly than it is to block an EDGE rusher with a full head of steam.

Despite having a more balanced pass rush, the Patriots recorded fewer sacks than the Rams did. The Rams had the third highest pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus while the Patriots ranked 24th in pass rush grade. Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers are good defensive players but they simply are not on the level that Aaron Donald and Suh are. Despite the Patriots allowing fewer Yards Per Play on defense than the Rams, the edge in pass rush clearly has to go to the Rams.

If Donald and Suh are making Joe Thuney and David Andrews look like turnstiles during this game, then Tom Brady is going to be forced to move more than he is comfortable with and that would swing the eventual outcome.

Advantage: Los Angeles Rams

Secondary

Neither the Patriots nor the Rams pass defenses during the 2018 regular season were the best possible units. They both gave up middling Yards Per Passing Play (6.2 for the Patriots, 6.6 for the Rams) but both units feature some of the best players at their position. Stephon Gilmore had the second best coverage grade of any player in the NFL for the Patriots. Nickell Robey-Coleman had the 16th best coverage grade of any defensive back for the Rams and Aqib Talib, while healthy, has allowed only 25 receptions in coverage on 500 defensive snaps. Individual performances often end up mattering on a stage as massive as the Super Bowl. If Gilmore stays glued to Robert Woods and doesn’t allow him to separate in the second level, the Rams offense is going to get pressurized closer to the line of scrimmage and their big plays will be limited or low percentage looks.

The issue that all teams have when playing against the Patriots is that Belichick and Josh McDaniels are so good about making it a game of scheme and not just individual talent. By peppering Julian Edelman and James White with short and intermediate targets, the Patriots are able to take the best teams’ opposing defenders out of the play. Aqib Talib might only be targeted five times in this game while linebackers Cory Littleton and Mark Barron might be in coverage on 30 or more snaps.

Maybe the most interesting question about this game is what wide receiver Stephon Gilmore will shadow. Gilmore, as previously mentioned, was one of the most impactful defensive players in the NFL this season. If he were to miss this game, I actually think the line would move, which is a high compliment to any non-QB. As of right now, Pro Football Focus is not projecting a shadow matchup but I think it makes the most sense for the Patriots to deploy him on Robert Woods. Brandin Cooks is probably just a little too quick for him and that likely plays into the Rams hands.

The biggest question surrounding this game is Marcus Peters. No starting defensive player on either team has quite as bad of a Pro Football Focus grade as Peters. The Rams generally do a good job of getting Peters away from the opposing team’s best WR now that they have Aqib Talib back, but in a battle of Chris Hogan vs Peters, I give a pretty significant edge to Hogan.

While the Rams have the two strongest weapons in Robey-Coleman and Talib, the weakness of Marcus Peters compared to the obvious strength of Stephon Gilmore tilts this to the Patriots.

Advantage: New England Patriots

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