Hannable: How Patriots beat Rams in Super Bowl LIII

Ryan Hannable
February 04, 2019 - 4:24 am
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ATLANTA — As the saying goes, defense wins championships.

In the five previous Super Bowl titles, the Patriots offense has received the majority of the credit, and why not? Most recently, the team scored 14 fourth quarter points to stun the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX and then overcame a 28-3 deficit to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

But in Super Bowl LIII, it was all about the defense in the Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams.

And it wasn’t just the Patriots defense allowing three points. It allowing three points to the No. 2 ranked offense in the NFL and a team that scored the 11th-most points in NFL history during the year.

The Rams were forced to punt on their first eight possessions, setting a Super Bowl record for consecutive drives ending with a punt. They totaled only two first downs in the entire first half and never got past the New England 47-yard line. For the game, Los Angeles didn’t run a single play in the red zone and the deepest into Patriots territory it got was the 27-yard line.

De facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores constructed his best gameplan of the year and it was the perfect way for him to go off to Miami to become its next head coach. The defense had Jared Goff rattled all game long with consistent pressure from the defensive line and also outstanding coverage on the backend.

The unit finished with four sacks, including two from Dont’a Hightower, and eight passes defensed, including three by Stephon Gilmore. Goff finished the game 19-for-38 with 229 yards and an interception, but 55 of those yards came on the final drive of the game when the Patriots were already up by 10 points and there was less than a minute on the clock.

The Patriots secondary was also responsible for perhaps the two biggest plays of the entire game.

In the third quarter, Goff had Brandin Cooks wide open in the end zone, but he was a little late and the throw sailed. This allowed Jason McCourty to race over and knock the ball out of his hands, preventing a touchdown. Then, on the drive following Sony Michel’s touchdown, Gilmore picked off Goff at the 5-yard line on an under-thrown ball to basically seal the deal.

"That's what they've been doing all year,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “The secondary has not been talked about, they're the best in the NFL and they showed it tonight again. I'm glad they're my teammates."

Like he’s done for most of the year, Flores was not shy with his play-calling, and it paid off.

"Aggressive,” Van Noy said when asked how the unit played. “What do you think? You watched. We were aggressive all-night baby."

Hightower was perhaps the most aggressive player, as he was all over the field and making a ton of plays. The 28-year-old has a knack for coming up big on the biggest of stages (tackle of Marshawn Lynch, sack of Matt Ryan). The unit also kept the Rams’ third-ranked rushing attack in check, holding them to only 62 yards, which were the second-fewest it had all year. Todd Gurley finished with 35 yards on 10 carries, while C.J. Anderson finished with 22 yards on seven carries. 

And it was a total team effort. 

Whether it was the defensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, linebackers making tackles, or members of the secondary coming up into the box to make plays — everyone was involved.

They even had to overcome some adversity as starting safety Patrick Chung left the game in the third quarter, with what appeared to be a broken arm. He returned to the sideline shortly thereafter to support his teammates while wearing a sling.

Even without one of its leaders and best players, the unit didn’t miss a beat, and it was Duron Harmon who took most of Chung’s snaps.

"It changed a lot. I went from just playing on third down a little bit to being out there in critical situations,” Harmon said. “We always talk about on this team that 'next man up' mentality, and I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to make sure that I played good football in honor of him."

For as much as the defense was doubted all year — following the 1-2 start, or following the back-to-back road losses in Miami and Pittsburgh late in the year — it played its best when it mattered most.

In the three postseason games, it defeated the No. 6 ranked offense (Chargers), No. 1 ranked offense and NFL MVP in Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and then No. 2 ranked offense (Rams). While the biggest names on the roster are mostly on the other side of the ball, the 2018 Patriots should be remembered most by their defense and there was no better performance than Sunday night.

“We aren't stars over here,” said Van Noy. “We just show up to work and keep grinding and grinding. It shows. Look at the scoreboard, we're champs again, baby."

Related: Bill Belichick credits Josh McDaniels for key adjustment in Super Bowl LIII win