This Super Bowl preview includes a lot of in-depth statistics, analytics and attempts to make the game more predictable. I packed it with a ton of information that can help you form an opinion about how this game could play out. It’ll be broken up into two sections with each part analyzing one offense against the opposing defense. A key is included at the bottom with definitions to all metrics cited.
Opening Spread/Total: Pick/58
Current Spread/Total: Patriots -2.5/56.5
Patriots Implied Team Total: 29.5
Rams Implied Team Total: 27
If you want to read about when the Rams have the ball click Here
When the Patriots have the ball
Tom Brady continues to blaze a trail into the uncharted territory of NFL success past the age of 40. The Patriots rank 7th in rushing success rate (51%), 3rd in passing success rate (52%) and are No. 5 in overall offensive efficiency. They are even better on early downs (1st and 2nd), ranking 6th in rushing success rate (50%) and 2nd in passing success rate (57%). This is made even more impressive by the fact they faced the 10th hardest schedule of opposing defenses, including the 10th hardest schedule of opposing pass defenses and 13th hardest schedule of opposing rush defenses. Producing top-10 numbers against a tougher than average schedule is no small feat.
A lot of their production was bolstered by an incredibly strong offensive line that ranks No. 1 in Football Outsider’s adjusted sack rate (3.8%), and No. 3 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards (5.03). If you aren’t a fan of rate stats, the Patriots allowed the 3rd fewest sacks (21) and were able to keep Tom Terrific up and kicking for the whole season. Diving into the Patriots No. 3 ranking in adjusted line yards, they specifically succeeded (ranked No. 1 ) in another metric called “Stuffed Yards,” which represents how frequently a runner was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Interestingly enough, the Patriots rank just 29th in power rush rank or in other words, their ability to convert runs on 3rd and 4th downs with two yards or less to go.
Not only was strong offensive line play a catalyst for RB Sony Michel’s emergence this season but it also helped Tom Brady continue his reign of dominance. According to Pro Football Focus (Minimum 100 dropbacks), when under pressure Tom Brady has a 71.7 passer rating ( 20th) and a 46.5% completion rate which ranks 31st behind players like Brock Osweiler, Ryan Tannehill, Joe Flacco, and Blake Bortles. Compare this to Tom Brady’s 72% completion rate and 103.7 passer rating in a clean pocket and it’s understandable why strong offensive line play is absolutely necessary for his success. Brady’s ranking of 17th (completion percentage) and 18th (passer rating) in a clean pocket aren’t overly impressive, but getting him under pressure turns him into a significantly worse passer.
Rather than try and overextend whatever limitations exist for Brady, the Patriots have specifically focused on handing the ball off to their first-round pick Sony Michel in the playoffs. This was largely gameplan-specific against the league-worst Chiefs run defense (32nd in rush defense efficiency). The Chargers don’t have a terrible run defense (21st rush success rate allowed), but their pass defense (8th in success rate allowed), is significantly better, creating a run-funnel of sorts.
It isn’t a secret that Bill Belichick will game plan to relentlessly attack an opponent’s weakness. Including the playoffs, the Patriots matched up against six opponents who rank in the bottom half of run defense efficiency. In those games, Sony Michel averaged 22 carries for 95 yards (4.29) YPC) and a touchdown. He rushed for over 100 yards in 4-of-6 games and the only game he had less than 20 carries was in the Patriots Week 17, 38-3 demolition of the Jets. If we exclude that game, he averages 23.8 carries for 104 yards (4.38 YPC). In the other nine games, he only exceeded 100 yards twice and 20 carries once, averaging just 14.33 carries and 66.8 yards. This is notable because the Rams rank 28th in rush defense efficiency despite playing against the 7th easiest schedule of opposing run offenses. They have been torched by nearly all offenses who are top-10 in both rushing and overall offensive efficiency:
Barring the rematch against the Saints (statistically produces lower-scoring outings due to familiarity), the Rams were extremely susceptible on the ground and allowed a 50% success rate or worse in 5-of-6 games. The Rams defense isn’t just allowing opposing teams to be efficient but also rank 25th in explosive rush rate (percent of rushes to go for 10+ yards) allowed. They have been better the last two games (2.3 yards per carry allowed) but have also sold out against the run when the play-calling was predictable. The Rams specifically did a good job of disguising blitzes by bringing up a safety or by blitzing a corner at the last second. Take this play for example against the Saints. They are showing just 6 defenders in the box at the beginning of the play. Right before Brees snaps the ball, the safety comes in, and the whole defensive line shifts. This causes chaos for the Saints normally strong offensive line and creates a two-yard loss. Creative defensive play-calling and flawless execution is a must if the Rams want to stop the Patriots running attack.
While the Rams have generally struggled against the run, they rank 14th in pass defense efficiency and 5th in passing success rate allowed (44%). They also played the majority of the season without CB Aqib Talib. Their defense has legitimate splits with and without Talib, but a lot of that is impacted by their strength of schedule during that time. With Talib, they played just 2-of-10 offenses ranked inside the top-10 in passing efficiency and when he didn’t, 4-of-8 games came against opponents inside the top-10. It’s tough to draw any conclusions about his impact when the schedule is so lopsided.
Their pass defense is solid in terms of efficiency but was decimated by big plays, ranking 29th in explosive pass rate allowed (percent of passes to go 20+ yards). The Patriots aren’t exactly stacked with exciting receiving options but still rank 10th in explosive pass rate on the season. When they aren’t throwing deep, RB James White has been one of their go-to options this season underneath. The Rams have actually been very good against pass-catching running backs in terms of success rate allowed (42%, No. 5), yards per attempt (4.7, No. 3), and total yards to the position (477, T-No. 3) but allowed 11/96/0 to Alvin Kamara last week. Kamara is an elite receiving back but James White has great pass-catching chops as well and could perform similarly if the Rams come out with a defensive game plan like last week.
The Rams’ defense can be further exposed by play-action, specifically on passes between 15-25 yards. There are a few factors behind this statement, so let’s start with the offense. Brady benefits from play action with a 3.9 percent boost to his completion rate and a 2.2-yard boost to his yards per attempt. Using Airyards.com, we see that Brady is above average at completing passes on balls thrown between 3-to-25 yards in the air. He is significantly above average on passes thrown 10-20 yards in the air.
Now let’s compare this to the Rams defense, who are fairly stout at defending passes until teams target receivers 15+ yards downfield.
They allow 8.8 yards per attempt to opposing wideouts (27th) and 8.3 yards per attempt to opposing tight ends (25th). This bodes well for both Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski, who lead the Patriots with a 12.7 average depth of target. Hogan has been more efficient with those targets and is significantly above average at catching passes thrown 15+ yards downfield this season.
The Patriots probably don’t want to just throw the ball downfield all the time but should be very successful when they do.
As far as personnel goes, there are some clear deficiencies in the Rams defense. They’ve faced 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRS), 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WRS), or 21 (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) personnel on 92% of their defensive snaps this season and their success against those packages are as follows:
The Patriots should focus on running out of 11 and 21 personnel while mixing in a lot of play-action passes in 21. Currently, the Patriots most-used formations when rushing are 11 (40%) and 21 (38%). When passing, the Patriots throw at the 9th fewest rate out of 11 personnel (68%) and 2nd highest rate out of 21 (20%) personnel. So even if Bill Belichick isn’t focused on these specific personnel advantages, they will still have a distinct advantage by playing how they have been.
As the Patriots are likely to play 11 or 21 personnel and have 2-3 receivers on the field at a time, we can expect the Rams to trot out Aqib Talib (90% LCB) and Marcus Peters (57% RCB) on the outside with Nickell Robey-Coleman (92% slot) in the slot. Using TheQuantEdge.com’s WR/CB matchup tool, Julian Edelman will likely match up against Nickell Robey-Coleman in 3-WR sets and has been successful against nearly all types of coverage, especially man (75% catch rate). This is where Robey-Coleman has struggled the most, allowing a 109.3 passer rating.
Aqib Talib has been extremely stout this season, especially in zone coverage, where he has allowed just a 55 percent catch rate and a 52.7 passer rating overall. On the other hand, Marcus Peters has been a liability this season. Man, press, and press-jam have been his worst coverages in total, allowing a 69 percent catch rate and over a 129.6 passer rating.
Chris Hogan and Philip Dorsett will likely rotate as the outside receivers, both of whom succeed against man coverage. They aren’t as strong against press or press-jam, but Hogan has caught 73 percent of his targets and posted a 119 passer rating against man coverage while Dorsett has an 85 percent catch rate and 117 passer rating against man coverage. Hogan has been a total dud this season from a fantasy perspective after drawing a lot of hype as the Patriots No. 1 wideout but will have a chance to rekindle the love with a strong performance in the Super Bowl.
The Rams best chance at preventing big passing plays will be by pressuring Brady (46.5 completion rate when pressured vs 72% in a clean pocket). Stud DT Aaron Donald will look to spearhead this effort after turning in a dominant season. He ranks No. 1 in total pressures (111), hurries (67), and second in QB hits on the season. This might be a one-man show because the Rams haven’t been great at pressuring the quarterback as a unit and rank just 19th in adjusted sack rate (ASR). Looking at teams similar to the Patriots in adjusted sack rate allowed (No. 1), the Rams have faced three other teams who are top-5 in ASR (don’t allow pressure frequently). The Rams recorded two sacks against the Saints (conference championship), three against the Chiefs, and none against the Saints the first time around. This may sound like a lot but looking at the rate of sacks per drop back, it ends up at a 3.6 percent sack rate. This would rank second worst on the season only in front of the woeful Oakland Raiders. Per Next Gen Stats, Brady conveniently also has posted the 7th quickest time to throw with an average of 2.61 seconds from the time the ball is snapped until he throws it. His quick release has helped him avoid taking a single sack this postseason. Donald will need to have a monster day for the Rams defense to play well.
Handicapping and breaking down games where Bill Belichick’s involved is generally a double-edged sword. We know he is one of smartest coaches in the NFL and in some sense that makes him predictable (ex. running a lot against teams who are bad at defending the run). The issue is that sometimes it’s tough to pinpoint how they will do so, or with whom. I’ll give my best crack at it.
The Patriots team total currently sits right below 30, a very fair projection given the amount of success their offense should have. They will likely begin the game out of 11 and 21 personnel, mixing in a lot of play action with Sony Michel runs. This will likely be extremely successful against the Rams defense which has struggled all season to stop the run and pass out of those formations. The Rams will attempt to disguise blitzes and ways to load the box but against one of the smartest quarterbacks in NFL history and two weeks to prepare, it’s highly unlikely Brady will be surprised by much.
Make sure to stay tuned for part two of my Super Bowl breakdown where I’ll include more bets and my final prediction of the score.
Best Bets When the Patriots have the Ball
Sony Michel Over 17.5 Carries (-110)
Sony Michel Over 76.5 rushing yards (-110)
Rams Under 1.5 Sacks (+140)
Chris Hogan longest completion over 19.5 Yards (+125)
Success Rate: A play is successful when it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down
Adjusted Line Yards: A statistic that attempts to, even to a small extent, separate the ability of a running back from the ability of the offensive line. Adjusted Line Yards begin as a measure of average rushing yards per play by running backs only, adjusted in the following way.
Adjusted Sack Rate: Sack Rate represents sacks divided by pass plays, which include passes, sacks, and aborted snaps. It is a better measure of pass blocking than total sacks because it takes into account how often an offense passes the ball. Adjusted Sack Rate adds adjustments for opponent quality, as well as down and distance (sacks are more common on third down, especially third-and-long).
Explosive pass rate: Percent of pass plays which go for 20+ yards.
Explosive run rate: Percent of run plays which go for 10+ yards.
Connor Allen utilizes analytics and his knowledge of Football to leverage sportsbooks, fantasy leagues, and DFS. He is a Chicago native and you can find more of his work over at http://Rotoworld.com or on twitter @ConnorAllenNFL.