ATLANTA — Even if nobody else thought so, the New England Patriots defense always knew it was capable of greatness.
After suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII, the defense spent an entire offseason listening to detractors questioning their abilities. With no major offseason additions, the criticism continued into the season, and even after it became clear that the defense had improved, there was still a sense among outside observers that the other shoe was eventually going to drop.
The Patriots heard it all, and after turning in a masterful, championship-winning performance to shut down the high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense in Super Bowl LIII, they made sure everybody knew it.
“A lot of people doubted us,” said All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore. “We stuck together. We got better and better as the season went on. We found our identity and we believed in each other. I would take our defense against anybody.”
“Everybody in that locker room believed in one another and that’s all that mattered,” said defensive end Trey Flowers. “Everybody tried to write us off as a team. We’re old, we don’t have any players — things like that. But when you get it through hard work, when you get it thoroughly, it’s hard to write you off.”
Despite boasting only one Pro Bowl selection, the Patriots defense made up for its perceived lack of talent with an unmatched adaptability. The players were versatile and coachable enough to adopt any style of play needed on a given week, and on Sunday, they stepped up to the plate by perfectly executing a masterful gameplan from coach Bill Belichick and defensive playcaller Brian Flores.
The Patriots’ gameplan hinged on three factors, stopping the run, neutralizing the play-action pass and taking away the Rams’ top weapons downfield. To stop the run, the Patriots utilized a five or six man front, lining up linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy at the line of scrimmage while occasionally mixing in safety Patrick Chung as well. With the extra men at the line, the Patriots could more effectively contain rushes to the outside while opening up one-on-one matchups inside.
Using this strategy, the Patriots held Rams running backs Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson to just 57 yards on 17 carries, good for just 3.3 yards per carry. With the running game out of the picture, the Rams’ play-action withered on the vine as well, forcing quarterback Jared Goff to take matters into his own hands.
This was exactly what the Patriots wanted.
“I think we felt like if we stopped the run and put it into his hands, it played in our advantage,” said Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Goff, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, has made great strides as a quarterback since coach Sean McVay took over last season. But he has largely succeeded thanks to the Rams’ utilization of the run game and play-action, and without being able to rely on either, Goff’s only recourse was to rely on his talented stable of receivers.
But then the Patriots took them away as well.
For much of this season, the Patriots have heavily emphasized man to man coverage. This was the lifeblood of the defense’s successful gameplan against the Kansas City Chiefs. But Sunday, the Patriots went completely the other way and played primarily zone defense, specifically an unusual “quarters” scheme where two safeties and two cornerbacks each patrolled a quarter of the field out deep.
With Stephon Gilmore shadowing Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods facing double teams most of the game, and facing a defense he hadn’t seen on film, Goff cracked. McVay, who normally has a counter for any defense the opposition throws at him, had no response.
“They did a great job. It was a great game plan,” McVay said. “There is no other way to say it, but I got outcoached.”
A year after turning in the most calamitous defensive performance in Super Bowl history, the Patriots stood on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field as champions once again. But where in past years Tom Brady and the offense have shouldered the load — this one belonged to them.
“We still have a bad defense?” cracked Van Noy at the postgame podium. “We have elite football players. We aren’t stars over here. We just show up to work and keep grinding and grinding. It shows. Look at the scoreboard, we’re champs again, baby!”
Mac Cerullo can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.