Breakout Live breaks down the key positional matchups heading into Super Bowl 53. Next up: Defense and special teams.
Los Angeles Rams
Some franchises can go a decade and not be as active as the Rams were this off-season on the defensive side of the ball. The Rams flurry of activity started in February when they traded for equal parts talent, equal parts trouble in Chiefs defensive back, Marcus Peters.
February proved to be just an hors d’oeuvre as March brought a main course of major comings and goings for the defense. Former Rams 1st round picks Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree were traded away and Aqib Talib was traded for. Free agency would bring former Packers star cornerback Sam Shields back to the league after a near 2-year absence, and the big bombshell, Ndamukong Suh, was added on a 1-year deal to a Rams defensive line that already featured Aaron Donald, who would get a $133 million dollar extension the last day of August.
Rams Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips had to be salivating at the influx of talent, but the Rams defense on the whole was nothing short of a major disappointment in finishing 19th overall in total defense and dead last in yards per carry at 5.1. Aqib Talib would miss 8 games and he and Peters would combine for just 4 interceptions.
As little bang for the buck as the Rams got from Peters and Talib, Aaron Donald gave the Rams their money’s worth with a dominant season that justified the $133 million the Rams gave him in the off-season. Donald led the NFL and set a record for defensive tackles with 20.5 sacks, falling just short of Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5.
Los Angeles only dropped 3 games all season, but the offense was largely responsible for their 13 wins. When tasked with a facing an offense the equal of the their own, the defense gave up 45 at New Orleans and 51 to Kansas City.
On special teams, the Rams featured the best punter in the league at pinning opponents inside the 10 in Johnny Hekker. Hekker also proved to be quite a weapon on the occasional fake punt which Special Teams Coach John Fassel likes to run.
At kicker, perhaps nobody in the NFL has a bigger leg than Greg Zuerlein. The Rams were without his services for 5 games at the beginning of the season but he still converted on 27 of 31 attempts and hit a memorable 57-yarder that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl that may have been good from 70. and kickoff return man JoJo Natson was a Top 5 guy.
Overall, the Rams would finish 9th overall in Rick Gosselin’s 2018 special teams rankings. Beyond Zuerlein’s kick, it was Johnny Hekker’s pass to Sam Shields on a fake punt that swung the momentum after the Rams fell into a 13-0 hole and gave the Rams their first points in the NFC Championship game against the Saints. The defense also played its best game of the season as if it’d been playing possum with its collection of stars that was assembled to bring home a Lombardi.
New England Patriots
Unlike the Rams, the Patriots were low key to their defensive off-season plans, making some minor tweaks and making one bigger move. The Patriots traded for defensive back Jason McCourty and defensive tackle Danny Shelton from the Browns in March and brought defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn over from Atlanta off a career-high 9.5 sack season with the Falcons in 2017.
Gone was defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to Detroit as the Lions head coach, and enter Brian Flores, whose job it was to improve upon the Patriots 29th-overall defensive ranking from last season.
Overall, Flores would improve the Patriots defense to 21st in 2018, sending just one player to the Pro Bowl in defensive back Stephon Gilmore, who finished 2nd in the NFL in passes defensed with 20. The big off-season addition, Adrian Clayborn, had little impact in the sacks department, dropping from his career-high of 9.5 down to 2.5 in his first season in New England.
Although Flores’ unit showed well, tying with the Rams for 3rd overall in interceptions with 18, only the Raiders with their 13 sacks finished with fewer than the Patriots 30. Given the lack of pressure the Patriots generate, 18 interceptions is an incredible number, but the Patriots do play in the AFCE where quarterback play outside of Brady was sub-par.
The Patriots’ special teams units finished tied for 10th in Rick Gosselin’s rankings. Julian Edelman and Cordarrelle Patterson are both top-12 returners with Patterson finishing 4th in kickoff return yards. Stephen Gostkowski is a proven pressure kicker who connected on 27-32 field goals with a long of 52. Punter Ryan Allen is a nondescript middle-of-the-pack punter who isn’t flipping the field for the Patriots or regularly pinning opponents deep.
As for their playoff performance, the Patriots defense played well early against the Chargers, allowing the offense to get out to an insurmountable lead, making them all but unnecessary the remainder of the game. In their 2nd shot at Patrick Mahomes, who lit them up for 40 during the regular season, again they would play well early, but disturbingly allowed 24 4th-quarter points. If not for a fortuitous coin toss, the beleaguered Patriots defense likely would’ve surrendered the winning score and nixed a 3rd straight trip to the show.
Despite the mystique of the Belichick name, it’s the man with 50 years of coaching experience whose unit holds the advantage in SB LIII. Offense may be a young man’s game, but when it comes to defense, it’s the crafty veteran defensive presence of Phillips and Belichick leading on center stage here. Despite all the defensive knowledge that will be on the sidelines for both teams, this still figures to be a high-scoring affair. Both defenses were bottom half in the NFL and each unit has strong areas of weakness facing two of the league’s most brilliant offensive minds in McVay and McDaniels.
However, Wade Phillips’ collection of high-priced stars were assembled for such a time as this. On special teams, the Patriots can’t match the Rams. The kicker/punter combo for Los Angeles is superior and it must be comforting for the Rams to know that every Patriots Super Bowl under Brady comes down to a final drive. This positions the best defensive player in the game, Aaron Donald, to make a play to seal the deal, or for the kicker with the biggest leg, Greg Zuerlein, to send another long one through the uprights to taste Super Bowl bliss.