Biggest Matchup Advantages in Super Bowl 53: Todd Gurley Has an Elite Offensive Line
Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Todd Gurley
- The Patriots and Rams will face each other in Super Bowl 53 on Sunday, February 3, in Atlanta, GA.
- Ian Hartitz breaks down the biggest matchup advantages that each team has on offense.
Only two teams are left standing after 20 weeks of NFL action. The Rams took advantage of a brutal non-call and defeated the Saints in overtime courtesy of a game-winning 57-yard field goal. The Patriots survived numerous rallies from Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and company to capture a thrilling 37-31 victory thanks to a Rex Burkhead touchdown run on the first drive of overtime.
The Rams and Patriots will face off on February 3 to decide the 2018-19 Super Bowl champion. Let’s break down some of the offensive advantages each team will have.
When the Rams Have the Ball
This L.A. Offensive Line is Historically Good
The Rams have dominated on the ground the entire season. Todd Gurley managed to rack up 1,831 total yards and 21 touchdowns in 14 regular season games, while C.J. Anderson gained at least 120 total yards in each of his first three games with his newest employer.
Both backs have plenty of natural talent and ability, but the Rams offensive line is the key that unlocks the league’s No. 2 scoring offense.
Todd Gurley = amazing
CJ Anderson = apparently still good
Rams offensive line = historically great
Most adjusted line yards per rush since 1996 (when Football Outsiders began tracking):
1. 2018 Rams (5.49) 👀
2. 2018 Saints (5.19)
3. 2002 Broncos (5.13)
4. 2000 Rams (5.09)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 2, 2019
The unit has been excellent in pass protection as well, ranking sixth in adjusted sack rate during the regular season (per Football Outsiders). Quarterback Jared Goff has been under pressure on just 31.4% of his dropbacks this season — the 10th-best mark among the 28 quarterbacks to play at least 10 games (including playoffs).
The only notable weak link on the offensive line is at center.
- LT Andrew Whitworth (ranked No. 4 at his position by PFF)
- LG Rodger Saffold (No. 7)
- C John Sullivan (No. 31)
- RG Austin Blythe (No. 10)
- RT Rob Havenstein (No. 3)
The Patriots’ front seven finished the season as the league’s 26th-ranked unit in adjusted line yards allowed per rush. The pass rush was even worse, as the Pats ranked 30th in adjusted sack rate. Add it all together, and the Rams are positioned to control the line of scrimmage thanks to their elite combination of personnel and scheme.
The Patriots Can’t Cover Receiving Running Backs
Todd Gurley has racked up a position-high nine drops this season, but he’s hardly a liability in the pass game. Overall, Gurley caught at least three passes in 13 of 16 games this season, and he’s even spent 12.4% of his snaps lined up in the slot or out wide.
Head coach Sean McVay will undoubtedly spend some of the next two weeks scheming ways to get Gurley matched up on a linebacker in the passing game. This is a strategy that the Rams have feasted on for the better part of the past two seasons.
The only concern for Gurley is usage. He played a career-low 32 snaps during the Rams’ NFC Championship win over the Saints and ran 15 pass routes compared to 14 for CJA. It’d make sense for the Rams to feature the league’s highest-paid running back in the biggest game of the year, but they’re clearly not afraid to utilize a two-back committee.
The Patriots have enough talent at cornerback to match up with the Rams wide receivers, so Gurley’s ability to exploit mismatches against safeties and linebackers in the passing game will be crucial to finding an edge on offense.
Gurley certainly wouldn’t be the first running back to exploit the Patriots linebackers this season. Overall, seven running backs have managed to catch at least five passes against New England.
- Tarik Cohen: 8 receptions-69 yards-1 TD (13 targets)
- Dalvin Cook: 8-22-0 (10)
- Nyheim Hines: 7-45-0 (9)
- Corey Grant: 6-56-0 (7)
- LeSean McCoy: 6-82-0 (8)
- Kareem Hunt: 5-105-1 (6)
- Damien Williams: 5-66-2 (8)
Key Challenge: Jared Goff Against Man Coverage
The Rams’ best path to victory could involve controlling the ground game, but they’ll still need production from Goff at some point. Plenty of problems can be solved by giving McVay and company two weeks to game plan, although Goff was much more efficient against zone-heavy defenses this season, and no team has run more man coverage than the Patriots (per SIS).
Jared Goff vs. defenses that run zone at a top-12 rate (9 games):
4.8% TD rate
Goff vs. top-12 man defenses (5 games):
4.2% TD Rate
Game logs vs. man-heavy defenses:
DEN: 201 yards-0 TD-1 INT
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 21, 2019
Robert Woods (8.3 targets per game) has worked ahead of Brandin Cooks (7.2) and Josh Reynolds (5.8) in 10 games without Cooper Kupp (knee, injured reserve). Cooks offers the most big-play ability of the group, but he seems likely to be defended with safety help over the top.
Woods is positioned for the most success against a Patriots defense that yielded the fourth-most fantasy points per game to slot receivers during the regulars season.
When the Patriots Have the Ball
Nobody Can Stop Playoff Tom
Death, taxes, Tom Brady balling out in the postseason. Things weren’t always easy this season, but TB12 has continued to take his game to another level when it matters most.
Tom Brady in his last 10 playoff games
348 yards-1 TD-2 INT (37 points)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 21, 2019
The offense’s latest path to success has featured plenty of short-and-efficient passes to Brady’s favorite receiver and running back, as they’ve been forced to revamp their system since losing wide receivers Josh Gordon (suspension) in Week 15.
- Julian Edelman (39 targets in four games without Gordon)
- James White (32)
- Chris Hogan (23)
- Rob Gronkowski (17)
- Phillip Dorsett (12)
- Rex Burkhead (12)
Dorsett in particular has stepped up recently with a touchdown in three consecutive games. His raw speed (4.33-second 40-yard dash) could be weaponized against a Rams defense that allowed the third-highest explosive pass play rate in the league this season.
The Rams played their best pass defense of the year against the Saints, as quarterback Drew Brees completed 26 of 40 passes (65%) for 249 yards (6.2 Y/A) with two touchdowns and one interception. Cornerback Aqib Talib’s return has certainly helped during the stretch run, but the secondary still hasn’t been an overly dominant group for most of the season.
Keep Feeding Sony Michel
The Rams defense has been significantly better against the pass (No. 9 in DVOA) than the run (No. 28). But this hasn’t been because of poor play from interior game-wreckers Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Rather, the Rams have struggled to slow down runs on the perimeter.
Rams d-line rank (21st overall) in adjusted line yards allowed per rush by direction vs. Patriots o-line (3rd)
Left end: Rams (25) Pats (6)
Left tackle: Rams (21) Pats (16)
Mid/guard: Rams (13) Pats (2)
Right tackle: Rams (14) Pats (1)
Right End: Rams (18) Pats (15)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 21, 2019
The Patriots managed to get each of Sony Michel (29 touches), Rex Burkhead (16) and James White (10) double-digit touches against the Chiefs, and they are poised once again to utilize a committee backfield in the Super Bowl. Still, Michel’s early-down workload is cemented at this point, as he’s averaged 19.5 carries per game since the Patriots’ Week 11 bye.
Running back Alvin Kamara (11-96-0 receiving) proved that the Rams’ fourth-ranked defense in DVOA against receiving running backs isn’t impervious. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots embrace their ultra-versatile backfield more than ever in an attempt to exploit the Rams on the outside and in the underneath areas of the field.
Key Challenge: Patriots Receivers vs. Rams Secondary
Talib’s aforementioned return could make life tough for any receivers on the right side of the field, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ double team-heavy game plan helped limit wide receiver Michael Thomas to a pedestrian 36 scoreless yards on seven targets. Slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman plays bigger than his size (5-foot-7 and 169 pounds): He earned PFF’s No. 5 overall grade among 199 qualified cornerbacks this season.
Still, Marcus Peters (PFF’s No. 100-ranked cornerback) has been a consistent liability. The Rams’ decision to leave Peters on the left side of the field can be taken advantage of by both Chris Hogan and Dorsett, who will need to win their respective one-on-one battles with wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski likely to draw plenty of attention.
The Patriots haven’t found a consistent outside receiver all season. They’re certainly capable of winning without a huge day from Dorsett or Hogan, but failure to establish a downfield passing game could be costly against the Rams’ strong pass rush.