On paper, there aren’t many reasons to think the Patriots will have any trouble with the Rams, this Sunday’s visitors to Gillette Stadium.
The Rams enter this week’s game as losers of six of their last seven games. They are toothless on offense, ranked 32nd in points (15.5 per game), scoring one or fewer touchdown in seven of 11 games.
Their rookie quarterback, Jared Goff, is averaging 174 passing yards in his two games. Star running back Todd Gurley has been running into a brick wall all season, averaging a paltry 3.2 yards per carry, the second-worst average among the 28 NFL running backs with at least 100 carries this year (behind Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon, 3.0).
The defense just allowed a whopping 555 yards and seven touchdowns in a humiliating 49-21 loss to the Saints this past Sunday.
And Bill Belichick has a good history against Rams coach Jeff Fisher — a 5-2 record (Belichick with the Browns and Patriots, Fisher with the Oilers/Titans and Rams). The two most recent Belichick-Fisher matchups resulted in a 45-7 Patriots win over the Rams in 2012, and a 59-0 Patriots win over the Titans in 2009.
But don’t tell any of that to Belichick.
“They’re explosive,” he said Tuesday. “They have explosive players, they have a very talented roster, one of the more talented rosters we’ve seen, a lot of really good players. The combination of the talent and the number of things that they do, and as a team we don’t know very well, it will be a big challenge for us this week.”
And we see where Belichick is coming from. The Rams have 11 former first-round picks, including former Patriots first-round pick Dominique Easley. We’ll see if Goff, the No. 1 overall draft pick this past April, pans out, but Gurley and Tavon Austin are legitimately explosive players, and Kenny Britt a solid possession receiver.
On defense, the Rams have six former first-round picks in the front seven, headlined by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, widely considered one of the best two or three defenders in the league. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is aggressive and attacking, and the Rams’ defense has the potential to wreck a game in a hurry.
To get a better feel for the Rams, we watched the tape of their loss to the Saints on Sunday:
Coordinator: Rob Boras
Key skill players: QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, WR Kenny Britt, WR Tavon Austin, TE Lance Kendricks.
Personnel notes: The Rams are relatively healthy on offense. The one injury is to guard/tackle Rodger Saffold, who left the Saints game with a hand injury. Saffold is usually the left guard, but was playing left tackle in place of Greg Robinson, who was a healthy scratch. Second-year pro Jamon Brown started at left guard last week. Goff took over for Case Keenum two weeks ago after Keenum compiled a 4-5 record.
What to expect: A lot of Gurley. Playing a rookie quarterback in Goff and facing an explosive offense in the Patriots, the Rams will try to play keepaway as much as possible. The Rams had 12 real drives against the Saints — excluding the one drive they started inside the Saints’ 10 after a turnover — and gave Gurley the ball on the first play eight times, in an attempt to put Goff in manageable down-and-distance situations.
Gurley hasn’t had a great season running the ball, but it’s not his fault — defenses have been stacking the box all season and daring the Rams to throw. Gurley’s stats are pedestrian – 641 rushing yards, four touchdowns, and the 3.2 average — but he’s a dangerous runner, as well as receiver.
He has 30 catches for 241 yards, and had a nice 31-yard catch-and-run on a swing pass on the first play against the Saints.
The Rams also have a big, powerful offensive line. Every starter is between 6 feet 4 inches and 6-7, and four of the five starters weigh at least 319 pounds.
Assume the Patriots will sell out to stop the run, as well. This should be an active game for Dont’a Hightower, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Elandon Roberts, the Patriots’ fastest linebacker, has a more prominent role after playing just four snaps last week.
The Patriots only have two games worth of NFL tape on Goff — the loss to the Saints, and a 14-10 loss to the Dolphins two weeks ago. Goff struggled against Miami, throwing for just 134 yards and no touchdowns, but had a better performance against the Saints, throwing for 214 yards and three touchdowns.
Like any rookie, he had his good moments and his bad.
Goff showed really nice touch on a 24-yard post corner touchdown to Austin, dropping it in nicely behind the defense.
Goff showed horrible accuracy on an 18-yard deep curl to Britt, who had plenty of separation on the defense.
But Goff came right back on the next play and dropped a dime in to Kendricks for 24 yards.
Goff led an impressive two-minute drill against the Saints, driving 79 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first half. But he simply couldn’t keep pace with Drew Brees. While Goff can make some great throws, we rarely saw him come off his primary receiver. When forced to read the coverage, Goff stood like a statue in the pocket, and got sacked and stripped by Sheldon Rankins.
Goff’s top target so far has been Britt, the eight-year veteran, who has 788 yards and four touchdowns this season. Britt has good size at 6-3, 223 pounds, runs mostly curls and comebacks, and has caught 10 of 17 passes from Goff for 95 yards and a touchdown.
And Kendricks, a smaller tight end at 6-3, has been Goff’s other security blanket. He’s caught 8 of 14 passes from Goff for 89 yards and a touchdown.
Austin, a 5-8 dynamo, is always a threat on end-arounds, bubble screens, and gadget plays, but has only been targeted six times in Goff’s two games (five catches, 66 yards and a touchdown).
The Patriots should let Malcolm Butler cover Britt 1-on-1, and use the rest of their defense to slow Gurley, Kendricks, and Austin. Safety Patrick Chung could be a key piece in covering all three of those players, and Logan Ryan should have a busy day with Austin, as well.
Coordinator: Gregg Williams
Key skill players: DT Aaron Donald, DE Robert Quinn, LB Alec Ogletree, LB Mark Barron, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Lamarcus Joyner.
Personnel notes: The Rams don’t have any significant injuries or lineup changes on defense.
What to expect: One thing is certain: Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offensive linemen will be busy communicating and trying to identify the proper blocking assignments.
Williams has been an NFL defensive coordinator since 1997, and has one of the most aggressive, active, and varied defenses the Patriots will see all season. The Rams are tied for 12th in the NFL in points allowed (21.5 per game) and ninth in total defense (339.8 yards per game), and thrive off pre-snap movement, post-snap rotations, and disguised blitzes.
“It’s tough for us to simulate that in practice,” Belichick said. “If you’re just a little bit late on it, then you’re looking at sacks, negative runs, strip sacks, turnovers, all of those things. As I said, it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
The problem is, the defense doesn’t work if the players don’t tackle. The Saints rushed for 209 yards, and we noticed several missed tackles – on Mark Ingram’s 10-yard touchdown run, for example, T.J. McDonald overran the play, Maurice Alexander slipped and fell, and Ogletree flat-out whiffed on the tackle.
But the Rams will try to get after Brady. They brought a six-man blitz against Brees on the first snap of the game, and a seven-man blitz on third and 14 later in the game. The Rams commonly blitz their cornerbacks and safeties. Patriots running back Dion Lewis, who excels in blitz pickup, will probably have a big role.
The Rams have an impressive list of players on defense – Quinn, Ogletree, Johnson (who received the franchise tag last offseason), defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and Barron, the former safety whom has been converted into a fast, undersized linebacker.
But the player who demands more attention than anyone is Donald, the Rams’ 2014 first-round pick who has earned a Pro Bowl nod in both of his seasons, was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 and was first-team All-Pro in 2015.
Undersized for a defensive tackle at 6-1 and 285 pounds, Donald can wreck a game in a hurry.
He abused Saints right guard Jahri Evans, swimming past him to stuff Tim Hightower for a 5-yard loss.
Then Donald powered through left guard Andrus Peat and nearly decapitated Brees in the second quarter, causing a fumble that the Rams recovered inside the 10-yard line.
“There’s not really a lot of weakness in his game,” Belichick said.
Donald has six sacks and two forced fumbles this year, and leads the NFL with 24 quarterback hits and 15 tackles for loss. He’ll be a handful for Patriots guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and expect a lot of pulls and wham blocks from the Patriots to attack Donald sideways and keep him off balance.
The Rams rotate their defensive linemen to keep them fresh — they had eight defensive linemen play at least 32 snaps against the Saints — and Donald only played 49 of 74 snaps. But it keeps him fresh throughout the game.
Easley played 32 snaps against the Saints in a reserve role and has 2½ sacks this year, two of which came against the Dolphins two weeks ago.
Expect the Patriots to use a lot of quick passes to catch the Rams in their aggressiveness — running back screens, bubble screens and quick slants. And expect the Patriots to test the Rams’ tackling abilities with LeGarrette Blount, who could be in line for a heavy workload.