The cliché goes, and as everybody knows, the NFL is a passing league.
And the odds are good the most valuable player in the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams will be one of the quarterbacks.
Yet the running game will be fascinating to watch and a pivotal factor in Sunday’s championship game.
The Rams’ defense ranks 32nd in the league in yards per rush allowed at 5.07 a carry, and 23rd in yards per game allowed.
Here come the Patriots, who have been barreling through defenses this season with their mismatch-nightmare personnel grouping – 21 personnel. That’s two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers. Old school.
New England ranked second in the NFL by using two-back sets 29 percent of their offensive snaps this season, according to Sharp Football. The Pats have used it 44 percent in games without now-suspended receiver Josh Gordon. The league average is under 10 percent. The Patriots just gouged Kansas City for 176 rushing yards in the AFC Championship game. They steamrolled the Chargers for 155 yards in their divisional-playoff rout.
The 21 personnel grouping works great for the Patriots because they’re so versatile. If defenses insist on respecting the pass (a reasonable strategy against Tom Brady), then the Pats have the best blocking tight end in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski to join power fullback James Develin in bringing the run-game hammer.
“I think the fullback position has always kind of got the moniker that it’s a dying breed, that it’s kind of on its way out,” Develin said this week in Atlanta. “But I think football is such a matchup game and things work so cyclically. As defenses get smaller and try to stop the passing attack, it kind of leaves them susceptible, too, with lighter, faster guys on the field, for a power running game.”
But the Pats pass at least 50 percent of the time out of two backs. If the defense opts to keep three linebackers on the field or bring a safety as the eighth man near the line of scrimmage, the Pats have running backs James White or Rex Burkhead as the receiving mismatch. Line up White outside and the Pats’ 21 personnel grouping operates like a three-receiver set. White ranked third among NFL running backs in catches this year with 87.
Plus, Gronkowski remains a difficult matchup at tight end in the passing game.
So it will be interesting to see how the Rams handle the Pats’ 21 personnel set. The Rams usually go “regular” against 21, putting third linebacker Ebenezer Ekuban on the field.
The Rams’ two linebackers who play every down – Mark Barron and Cory Littlejohn – are undersized. Barron is listed at 230 pounds (but he’s likely closer to 220). Littlejohn allegedly is 228. Neither Littlejohn or Ekuban are good matchups in coverage against Gronkowski.
Furthermore, once the run game gets going even a little, it sets up Brady’s run fakes. Brady ran play-action pass 28.4 percent of the time this season, sixth most in the league according to ESPN, and he had the fifth best passer rating when using play action (118.5), according to ESPN.
Only one team that ranked 32nd in yards-per-rush allowed won the Super Bowl. That was the Colts in 2006, but their ranking was misleading. Once stud safety Bob Sanders got back to health for Indy’s late-season run that season, the Colts were a lot better than 32nd.
On the other side of the ball, run defense is a worry for the Patriots, too.
Everything the Rams do on offense is set up by their great outside zone running game. That makes quarterback Jared Goff’s play-action passing and screen game work.
Goff ran play action 34.6 percent of the time, second most in the league, according to ESPN. (Only Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson ran it more).
It will be critical for the Pats to set the edge to keep the Rams’ runners from getting outside.
New England ranked 11th rushing yards allowed and 22nd in yards per rush allowed.
Philadelphia gashed the Pats’ run defense in last year’s Super Bowl. The Eagles rushed for 164 yards and 6.1 yards a carry in their 41-33 victory.
The Rams ran for 139 yards a game this season, third best in the NFL. They likely will need that much to outscore Brady & Co.
I don’t expect Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to blitz much. Phillips wasn’t a big blitzer in Buffalo, for good reason. He had Bruce Smith. In recent years, he has blitzed a lot. His defenses ranked fourth in blitz rate in 2015 and 2016 and sixth in 2017, according to Football Outsiders. In Denver (’15 and ’16), Phillips had little to fear because he had great cornerbacks. Yet when Denver beat the Pats in the 2015 AFC Final, Phillips relied on his front four, blitzing Brady only 10 of 61 pass plays (16 percent). This year, the Rams have blitzed 26 percent of the time. Brady was the least blitzed quarterback in the league this year (19 percent), according to Pro Football Focus.
Stat for the road
The top three teams in the NFL this year in “explosive plays” were: Kansas City (106), L.A. Chargers (96) and the Rams (94). Explosive plays, as defined by ESPN’s NFL Matchup Show, are runs of 15 or more yards and passes of 20 or more yards.
The Patriots will have to survive all three teams in the playoffs to win the Super Bowl. The Pats allowed seven explosive plays to the Chiefs and four (three in garbage time) to the Chargers.