5 Things To Watch For As The Patriots Go For Their 6th Super Bowl WinPlay
From defensive pressure on Tom Brady to the Rams' running game to Gronk's role: ESPN’s Mike Reiss joined me at the Patriots hotel in downtown Atlanta to talk about the keys to victory for the Patriots and the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
Here are five things to watch for on Sunday night:
1. The Pressure On Tom Brady (Or Not)
Springer: Anybody who's watched teams have success against the Patriots knows that it often comes down to whether or not opposing defenses can successfully pressure Brady. Do the Rams have a defense that can do that?
Reiss: They do and they can do it with just four players, and that's the key because there's different ways to pressure. Sometimes you can blitz, send five, six, sometimes even seven rushers to get pressure. But there's a risk-reward there because if you're going to send extra rushers you’re vulnerable with your coverage down the field. The Rams can get there with just the standard four.
And that's because they have Aaron Donald, one of the best defensive players in the game. Bill Belichick described him as "pretty much unblockable," which is evidenced by his 20.5 quarterback sacks [this season]. They have Ndamukong Suh, another defensive tackle who's very good, [and] Dante Fowler, a defensive end/outside linebacker type who has this dynamic spin move that can create problems and other pass rushers as well. So, they do have that formula that we've seen in the past that has hurt the Patriots.
And the Rams also have defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. A few seasons ago, Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos when the Broncos beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Is there some advantage there? Does he have the Patriots number or, at least, particular insight into how you can beat the Patriots defensively?
Well, he certainly has confidence that he's had a plan that's done it in the past.
That being said I think the advantage is negated by the Patriots, [who] have all that history to go back on and say, "All right, here's where he did well against us. Now we can be prepared for that." Belichick made the point that Phillips, what he's running defensively, is very similar to what he's run throughout the years, even going back to 30 years ago. And so to me, the game within this game in a way, schematically, is does Wade Phillips go so far outside the box and say, "Hmmm. I heard what Bill Belichick said, that I'm the same as I've ever been. Maybe I might throw him a curve ball or two that he's not expecting."
And so that's something I'm going to be watching and that's whether he plays more man coverage versus zone coverage. They've played more zone coverage in the second half of the season and they've been better with that. The Patriots usually do pretty well again zone coverage especially when Brady has time to throw.
2. The Rams’ Running Game And The Comfort Level Of QB Jared Goff
The key on offense for the Rams: Make the game easier for Goff. So, the running game with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson has to get going. They have a very good offensive line, underrated, that's played together pretty much all season. So that's a key on offense for them: running game.
Can Jared Goff pull it off?
Well, he can he can pull it off because one thing I would say: If the Patriots don't play their game, they could lose to anyone. When they play their game, which we've seen the last couple of week, they can beat anyone. I think they're going to play their game because that's what we've sort of seen them building up toward, playing their best football when it matters the most.
3. Don’t Forget About Patriots Running Back James White (And Don’t Expect Sony Michel To Look Like A Rookie)
Is there a player that you think is a little bit under the radar at this point who’s going to have a big impact in Sunday's game?
I would start with James White. I think about the way the Rams play defense and they're very good with their pass rush. Getting the ball out quickly for Brady is probably going to be important, and the way to do that is to get your running backs involved in the passing game. We remember White is very good in that area of the game. He’s sort of their passing back and he's also clutch. And so the idea that he could have a very big game in the Super Bowl makes a lot of sense.
But maybe the running back everybody is thinking about is Michel, who had 100-plus rushing yards in the two playoff games so far this postseason. He is a rookie, though. Do you anticipate Michel having a big game, or do you expect him to have a little bit of those first-time jitters?
One of the things about Sony that's been interesting this year is the moment has never seemed too big for him and part of that's probably a result of him playing his college football at Georgia, which is big time college football. He played in the Rose Bowl last year. Now, he's in the Super Bowl. Pretty good back-to-back bowl for Sony. So, I don't think it will be too big for him.
The one question I would have is the Rams defensive line is big and they're tough to move. And so I just don't know if the Patriots will be able to do that traditional sort of power running game that they've been doing with Sony. They might be and that would be great because the Rams were vulnerable to that in the regular season. But they've turned it around in the playoffs. So, I'm curious which Rams defense is going to show up here in the Super Bowl. I wouldn't be surprised if it’s either one, actually.
4. Brandin Cooks And The Familiarity Factor
There are a couple Rams players who have played for the Patriots in recent years. One of those players is wide receiver Cooks. He can present quite a challenge for the Patriots defensive backs. What do you expect to see from Cooks? And is there an advantage to having been on the Patriots?
Cooks is one of the fastest players in the NFL. So, what I expect from him is to run, run fast, and test the Patriots defense down the field. I assume the Patriots will always have a safety over the top of him to not leave themselves vulnerable to the big play, almost like a double coverage situation for him. I don't think it's an advantage for Cooks that he played for the Patriots.
But I think where it can benefit him and his team is sometimes teams are beaten before the first play because of the Patriots mystique. The fact that he has been there and can relay to his teammates, "Hey look, they're just like us. We can't fall victim to that. And let me tell you why. I've been in that locker room. I've been in the huddle with Tom Brady. He's great but we're great, too." And those words have more meaning to the Rams because he was there he experienced it versus someone that hadn't been there saying it.
5. Gronk Being Gronk
What are you expecting from Rob Gronkowski in this game, particularly because he seems to play much better when he's had time to rest his body?
That's a great point. That's the first thing I would say, with one week off, he looks fresh. And of all the things we've heard in the week leading up to the game and we've heard a lot, right, with all the media access, one of the things that stood out to me was Brady saying it was so nice to see Gronkowski dancing, having fun, smiling on Monday night at that first media night availability. And Brady said, "When I see that, it tells me that Rob Gronkowski is feeling good and when he's feeling good the whole team feels that energy from Rob Gronkowski and it's usually something to be very happy about." If you're a Patriots fan so I wouldn't be surprised if Gronkowski has a big game Sunday night.
So, we should expect to see him get tons of yards after each catch carrying two or three defenders, right?
I would say that's the Gronk of old that we haven't seen every week this year. But we've seen flashes of it and it wouldn't surprise me if we see it in the Super Bowl.
Bonus: Post-Game: Retirement Vs. Remain
So speaking of Gronkowski, there's been a lot of talk that this might be his last season, not only with the Patriots but his last season in the NFL. Do you think a Patriots win would change any of his thinking?
I don't. I think his thinking and, just from listening to him all week, is going to be about the physical toll of football, like he talked about how all those hits that you take, whether it's to your thigh, to your head ... they’re like collisions and you just don't always feel great after a game when you take all those hits. And for him, the question is going to be not whether, "I want to come back because we lost," it's more, "Do I want to come back to absorb all that pain that I feel at times for another season?" And I truly believe it's open ended right now.
He's not the only player where there has been retirement rumblings. What about Devin McCourty? He said he may take some time to think about things after the Super Bowl.
Well that one interested me because McCourty has one more year left on his contract and there was no indication that he was even leaning in that direction. But when he was asked on "Opening Night" by Deion Sanders of NFL Network, Sanders said to him, “I heard you were thinking about retiring" and he didn't say, "Well, no, not at all." He sort of said, "Well I don't know about that but I would say that if we win with my twin brother on the same team it would be hard to top that." So, the inference was that, if they win he might consider walking away. A couple of days later, Devin McCourty said "I haven't thought about retiring," sort of backtracking on that. I think it's something we'll have to watch for. Going forward, it wouldn't surprise me on that one if it goes in either direction.
Of course, the big one: Tom Brady. Does a win change any of his thinking?
Did you see that interview on ESPN when he was asked, "What are the chances that this could be your last game?" And he held up his fingers and made it a zero with his hand. It's zero chance that it's his last game, whether they win or lose. He is so determined to play to 45 years old. He said it again this week when he was asked multiple times. And for me there's no reason not to believe him.
And, of course, he has his former teammate, Adam Vinatieri, who just re-signed with the Indianapolis Colts, and he'll be 46 next season. That's ridiculous.
It is. And if you look at this game, I'm glad you mentioned him: Brady if he wins will go into the all-time lead for most victories in a career by any player with 237, breaking a tie with Vinatieri. There you go.