ATLANTA — Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy took one last victory lap on Sunday night.
“Like I’ve been saying all week — we don’t got stars, we got elite football players,” Van Noy said after the Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. “Some of you counted us out and we’re here again as a champion, and it feels good.”
The Patriots’ defensive dominance Sunday night took most of the nation by surprise. This defense is mostly the same group of players that got shredded by the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl loss.
But anyone who has been paying attention to the Patriots’ season knows that they have shown signs of dominance for the past three months.
“When we put our mind to it, when we put 11 guys together, we’re tough to beat,” safety Devin McCourty said. “And if you give us two weeks, we’re going to play some good defense.”
The Patriots were the third-stingiest defense in the NFL in the second half of the season, allowing 17.5 points per game. They stifled the Chargers in the divisional round. They shutout the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship game.
And they held the Rams, the No. 2 scoring offense at 32.9 points per game, to just 3 points, tied for the lowest output by a team in Super Bowl history.
“We’ve got a special group,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “We’d rather have all the 99 guys on Madden and all that other [stuff], but we’re a good team. We work together, we’re smart, we know what we need to do and we play well together, and we did that tonight.”
The Patriots are about to lose defensive playcaller Brian Flores, who is set to be named the Miami Dolphins’ head coach on Monday. But the longtime Patriots assistant — he joined the Patriots as a scouting assistant in 2004, and only became a playcaller in 2018 — called one of the best games in Super Bowl history on Sunday.
Flores kept Rams quarterback Jared Goff off balance all night. The Patriots blitzed on 50 percent of Goff’s 38 pass attempts, per NFL Next Gen Stats, holding him to just 229 passing yards, an interception, and 3 points. They ran a lot of twists and stunts with their defensive linemen and linebackers. And they played a lot more zone coverage than the Rams were anticipating.
“They played a ton of man all year, and this game they played a little more zone, which was different from what they’ve done all season,” said Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth. “Probably was flipped, all of the percentages in the other direction from the season.”
The end result was a confused Goff, whose 57.9 passer rating was his second-lowest all season, and a dejected Sean McVay, whose team was held under 23 points for just the second time this season.
“I think that’s something they do well, is they’re able to mix it up well and keep us guessing,” Goff said of the Patriots’ defense. “Especially early on. We were completely guessing.”
“I’m pretty numb right now,” McVay said. “There is no other way to say it, but I got out-coached.”
The Patriots got consistent pressure on Goff thanks to frequent and creative blitzes. Hightower had two big sacks, and three quarterback hits. Van Noy had a big third-down sack that pushed the Rams back 14 yards and ruined any threat of a field goal. Most of the Patriots’ pressure came right up the middle.
“I could tell that us getting pressure inside, no quarterback likes that,” Hightower said. “We were able to get there often.Sometimes it might have been late, but tap him on his shoulder, let him know we’re there.”
And Flores used everyone to attack Goff. Speedy slot cornerback Jonathan Jones had a sack. And on Stephon Gilmore’s crucial interception late in the fourth quarter, it was safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon getting pressure on Goff with a six-man blitz, and no safety help on the back end.
“We were aggressive all night, baby,” Van Noy said.
“We talked about it all week, giving them zone, not giving them man-to-man like they expected,” McCourty said. “Big moment of the game, ‘Flo’ calls an all-out blitz, Goff tried to get rid of it, Steph squeezed it, made a great play.”
Gilmore’s interception on the 4-yard line came with 4:24 left, and ended the Rams’ best chance at a game-tying touchdown.
“I just knew I couldn’t drop it,” he said. “I seen it the whole time. I knew he was going to chuck it up. It was probably one of the easiest picks I had all year.”
The Patriots’ defense had shown signs of improvement throughout the season. The pass rush improved, the run defense shored up, and the secondary mixed and matched their coverages.
It all came together Sunday night in Super Bowl LIII. And for a change, it was the Patriots’ defense leading the way to a championship.
“We’ve done so many different things this year and I think that goes a lot to guys studying and coaches coming up with things,” McCourty said. “There hasn’t a better mesh of coaching and playing than I’ve ever had. This year has been unbelievable.”