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Tom Brady vs. Aaron Donald Is the Must-See Matchup in the Super Bowl

The Patriots-Rams matchup is a football nerd’s dream. How the NFL’s smartest quarterback contends with its most dominant pass rusher will be the game’s most significant story line.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There will be a lot of bad takes in the buildup to the Super Bowl, the worst of which will be the one that promises to tell you how to stop Tom Brady. The short retort to this is that if there were a reliable schematic way to beat Brady, then he wouldn’t be playing in his ninth Super Bowl, which is more than any other NFL franchise in history. The book on Brady is that he’s susceptible to pressure and doesn’t like defenders in his face. This makes him no different from any quarterback who has ever thrown a pass in an NFL game. No players perform better while getting clobbered than they do while standing upright with time to throw.

Some schemes work better than others against Brady—rushing four players and dropping seven into coverage has proved to make him look mortal, but it requires an elite pass rush, which is the ideal goal for any NFL defense. So the blueprint for stopping Brady is the same as it is for stopping any offense that’s ever played, including the Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent, the Los Angeles Rams. The Bears generated an effective four-man rush this season against Jared Goff. The Eagles, Giants, and Broncos have had similar success against Brady in recent years. The Chargers, however, in their divisional round loss to the Patriots, attempted a simple four-man rush with good players and got embarrassed.

If a take boils down to “have good players and schemes if you want a chance to beat the Patriots,” then congratulations, we’ve wasted everyone’s time. Go deeper into this matchup, however, and it becomes a football nerd’s dream: two teams that are built to beat each other. Here are the games within the game you need to pay attention to while watching Super Bowl LIII:

Tom Brady vs. Aaron Donald

The Rams need to get to Brady, but it needs to be the right type of pressure. Brady’s passer rating is 118.7 when he gets pressured from the edge, but it’s a positively mortal 63.1 when it comes through the interior. The Rams lead the NFL in interior pressure rate, while the Patriots have one of the best offensive lines in football, which kept Brady clean nearly 85 percent of the time against a good Kansas City pass rush in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots adapt to the latest trends better than any other team. This season, they’ve ridden the quick-passing game, the use of which has accelerated leaguewide as defensive lines have gotten faster and offensive lines have gotten worse. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady averages 2.42 seconds on each pass attempt, fourth-fastest in the NFL. He throws 55 percent of his passes within 2.5 seconds of the snap, and is the only player with a QB rating over 100 while doing so. Last season, he got rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds on 49 percent of his throws. According to airyards.com, he’s decreased the distance his passes travel in the air from 9.1 yards last season to 8.2 yards this season. His QB rating this year dips 10 points, to 91.4, when he takes 2.5 seconds or more to throw.

Now comes Donald, who, according to Pro Football Focus, had 106 pressures and a 26 percent win rate on his matchups, both the best in the NFL by a wide margin. “Donald can do things that no other defensive tackle in NFL history has been capable of,” PFF’s Austin Gayle wrote; namely, get to a quarterback even when the offensive scheme dictates he shouldn’t be able to. Donald is nearly unblockable on certain plays. When the Bears single-teamed him in Week 14, rather than try to block him, they got rid of the ball in 1.5 seconds on average. Amazingly, Donald has the effect of making his teammate, Ndamukong Suh, a three-time first-team All-Pro, a side note.

Last summer, I wrote about the rise of the “two-second” offense and how to defend it. I focused on the Eagles, who were better last season than any other team at quickly generating pass rush, as evidenced by Brandon Graham’s strip-sack of Brady to seal Philadelphia’s Super Bowl win over the Patriots. It is one of the defining schematic changes in the league right now, and it will once again help decide the result of the Super Bowl.

The Battle for Easy Throws

Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner made an interesting point last week:

The checkdown has been used to criticize any number of players: A quick Google search reveals Alex Smith, Trent Edwards, and Eli Manning are among those who’ve been given the moniker “Captain Checkdown.” In Brady’s case, it should be taken as a compliment. His use of the checkdown is the reason Patriots running back James White tied the record for most receptions in a playoff game this year, and why he’s the only player in history to have two playoff games with 14 receptions.

Brady’s not afraid to take easy yardage with easy throws. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have spent well over a decade capitalizing on them. What’s interesting about this matchup is how much their opponent has followed suit. Goff leads the NFL in wide-open throws inside the 10-yard line, something we saw plenty of last week in the NFC championship game:

There are massive differences between these two teams stylistically. The Rams have run almost 90 percent of their plays with three or more receivers, the highest rate in the NFL, per Field Yates, and is something the Patriots rarely do. Conversely, the Patriots are second in the NFL in plays run with two or more running backs, something the Rams do less than 1 percent of the time. But the commonality between them is how they make things easy for their quarterbacks. For example, they’re the most effective play-action teams in the NFL by a wide margin.

These teams have figured out how to take advantage of easy yardage on offense, but the hard part now is how they’ll prevent it. There’s probably a joke about how the Rams will stop it: uncalled, intentional pass interference, maybe. Presumably, the refs will be watching for that this time, but there’s still plenty of room for physical play to disrupt easy throws, which is a strategy both teams might employ:

There’s also the matter of defensive matchups. WEEI’s Ryan Hannable wrote that “it’s worth wondering if the Rams will break their tendencies on defense and change things up against the Patriots. Nickell Robey-Coleman played in the slot 86 percent of the time, while Aqib Talib lined up on the left 93 percent of the time this season. Julian Edelman likely would have a field day one-on-one with Robey-Coleman inside, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the Rams change things up, especially with two weeks to prepare.”

How the Rams defend White, Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski will go a long way in deciding how easy Brady’s throws will be. If the Patriots want to get physical, that, too, could limit easy throws for Goff. We’ll see if the refs throw any flags this week.

Bill Belichick vs. Wade Phillips

Belichick doesn’t get impressed easily, but when he does, he’s really impressed. He loves Larry Fitzgerald. He loves Rams punter Johnny Hekker. And he loves when defensive coaches don’t have to change their system. He praised Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips last week for how few changes he’s made over the decades. “The system has lasted,” Belichick said. “I mean, really, this is part of his dad’s system that he’s developed and adapted and developed there. I mean, I have a ton of respect for what he’s done and how he’s done it over every different kind of offense you can see.” Belichick’s comments reminded me of how often he has praised longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for the same thing. “His system has certainly withstood the test of time,” Belichick said last year. Belichick has admitted that he’s made many changes to his defenses over the years—a fact that’s plain to anyone with eyes. He went to a 4-3 in 2011 because he didn’t feel like he could teach the nuances of a 3-4 with limited time at training camp after a lockout. He’s switched between the two defenses in the past simply because of the price of acquiring a nose tackle. He changes his defense all the time in ways big and small. Phillips doesn’t, which makes it easier to project how the Rams defense will play against Brady. Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the Broncos three years ago, which was the last time Brady and the Patriots scored under 20 points in a playoff game. He took the most hits of his playoff career in that game and had his second-worst QB rating. The significant difference now is how much better Brady’s offensive line is.

At the Senior Bowl last week, I talked to a general manager about Brady’s weaknesses. He joked that there are coaches who understand Brady’s weaknesses and can game plan effectively against him. The problem is that all of those coaches are on the Patriots staff. We get to see on Sunday whether we can add Wade Phillips to this list.