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Which Rams Playmaker Will Bill Belichick Try to Take Away?

The answer isn’t so simple—L.A.’s offensive flexibility could neutralize Belichick’s most tried-and-true defensive tactic. But this being the Patriots, they won’t show up to the Super Bowl unprepared.

Elias Stein/Getty Images

One hallmark strategy that Bill Belichick has leaned on over the years is to focus on neutralizing an opponent’s star skill player—their top receiver, their most dynamic tight end, or their most explosive running back—and force that squad’s other players to step up. There’s just one question hanging over that strategy for the Patriots when they face the Rams on Sunday: Who even is L.A.’s best offensive player?

The Rams boast an incredibly balanced skill group across the board, with two de facto no. 1 receivers in Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, a do-it-all utility pass catcher in Josh Reynolds, and a pair of versatile tight ends in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. But there’s not a true go-to guy in that group. Even All-Pro running back Todd Gurley is a part-time player of late, splitting reps with a resurgent C.J. Anderson. If the Rams can win with Gurley standing on the sideline for half the game—as they did in the championship round against the Saints—it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to be in Belichick’s crosshairs.

This is the beauty of the Rams’ juggernaut offense: Los Angeles doesn’t rely on one star player to carry the group. It’s a talent-packed unit, yes, but its real strength is that it’s also one of the league’s most flexible. With so much interchangeability built into Sean McVay’s scheme—just about any player in that group can play multiple roles—it’s tough for any defense to focus on taking away just one thing. More than just about any offense in the league, the Rams look capable of countering Belichick’s mad-scientist scheming—and that could be the difference for L.A. in Super Bowl LIII.

In the Patriots’ 37-31 win over the Chiefs in the championship round, it was an easy decision to build their defensive game plan around the league’s most uniquely explosive player, Tyreek Hill. They doubled the first-team All-Pro receiver on almost every play, limiting him to just one catch on three targets. That opened things up a bit for Kansas City’s other offensive players, sure, but with Hill mostly taken out of the Chiefs’ downfield passing attack, K.C. just didn’t have anyone else capable of stepping in to replicate that game-changing home run speed, and Patrick Mahomes II and Co. failed to score in the entire first half. There just aren’t many players on earth with Hill’s explosiveness as a downfield pass catcher.

The Rams don’t have any receivers that can match Hill’s playmaking talent, but what they do have is some much-needed redundancy in the roles each pass catcher or running back plays. “It’s helpful when you’re balanced like we are,” Shane Waldron, L.A.’s passing game coordinator, told me this week. “If a team wants to try to take something away, generally we’ll be able to find it elsewhere.”

L.A.’s offense has some similarities to New England’s offense in that it’s capable of being an offensive chameleon. If a defense loads up to stop Gurley, Anderson, and the run game, quarterback Jared Goff has proved he can carry the team with his arm. We saw that in New Orleans in the championship round: The Saints stifled the Rams’ ground game, holding them to just 77 yards and 3.0 yards per carry, but Goff stepped up in the second half with some big-time throws in crunch time. And if a team is too focused on stopping the pass, dropping players back into coverage to try to match up, the Rams have little problem simply pounding them into dust with a smashmouth run game. In its divisional round win over the Cowboys, L.A. ran the ball an astonishing 48 times, racking up 273 yards and three scores on the ground.

There’s another level of redundancy within each phase, too. In the run game, Gurley and Anderson have differing styles—Gurley’s a slasher with home run–hitting speed, while Anderson’s more of a downfield tackle-breaker—a combination that gives the Rams the ability to mix run concepts and keep defenses on their heels. Both players are capable of being a sustaining lead back who can handle 30-plus carries in a game.

In the passing attack, it’s a similar story: If a defense were to key in on Cooks, Woods would be right there to pick up the slack; if they tried to lock down Woods, both Cooks and Reynolds could take over his role. And regardless of which player an opponent is trying to take away, the Rams have trained all of their receivers to line up anywhere on the field and execute the schematic concepts they lean so heavily upon. All three can play outside, and each has plenty of experience playing from the slot. In L.A.’s two playoff wins, over the Cowboys and Saints, both Cooks and Reynolds lined up inside on about a third of their routes, and Woods was there 58 percent of the time. “When you have smart receivers that can line up at all the different spots, you can move them around,” said Waldron. “All three guys can run all three levels of the routes and line up in multiple spots.”

That versatility is the lifeblood of the Rams offense. The Rams ran 90 percent of their plays from 11-personnel this season—a three-receiver, one-back, and one-tight-end look—and while they’ve leaned on two-tight-end sets more often in the playoffs, the three-receiver personnel groups continue to make up the foundation of the scheme. Crucially, L.A. can achieve all its goals out of that look, both in the run game and in the passing attack, because each of the players on the field can do so many different jobs. The Rams’ tight ends can run routes, and their receivers can block—as McVay recently noted, the Rams are “running 12 and 21 personnel concepts [heavier looks that would feature two tight ends or two running backs], we’re just doing it out of 11 because we have receivers that are willing to block”―and the Rams’ brilliant play-calling head coach is not afraid to use as many variations and permutations of the same offensive play as he can. Sprinkle in a healthy dose of misdirection, and the defense just never knows what’s coming.

“You don’t know who’s going to block; you don’t know who’s going to get the fly sweep; you don’t know who’s going to be running deep, who’s running short; you don’t know if our quarterback’s going to be running,” Woods told me this week. “There’s just a lot of weapons on our offense. You never know what’s going to come.”

Here’s one example of what he means:

Woods, for one, gets a lot of satisfaction from playing in this relatively balanced, equal-opportunity system. “You’re not only [playing your role in the offense] for your brother, but you’re also getting rewarded; you’re getting your plays as well,” he said. “You’re not only running clear-out routes, you’re not only blocking full time; you’re able to get the ball. You’re excited when you’re making these plays because you feel a part of it.

“You could be blocking a defensive end, and Brandin Cooks is running 60 yards downfield to make a play,” said Woods. “And you know, I contributed to that play. All these things you’re being asked to do, you’re making plays even when you don’t have the ball in your hand.”

Belichick knows that defending all those various permutations will put defense in a bind. “[McVay’s] got four or five things that I would say are pretty specific to their offense,” the Patriots coach said last week. “I won’t say we’ve never seen them before, but I think the way they do them, they blend well together. They sort of merge into each other. … They blend it together in a way that it’s different, but it’s the same, but it’s different. It’s hard for the defense to really differentiate or get in the right spot.”

Making things even more complicated for a defense is that each of the players in the Rams’ variable scheme brings a little bit of his own flavor to every potential permutation. “One of the cool things [about our scheme] is that you get totally different body types, athletic traits, and then you try to maximize them,” said Waldron. “One thing we found, for example, with the jet sweeps is that we were able to incorporate a lot of different guys: Now it’s [Reynolds’s] turn—well, he gets it and he’s that long strider, that smooth athlete, and he has his own style on the jet sweeps.”

That’s similar to a team utilizing a “thunder and lightning” type of running back committee to keep opposing defenders on their heels. Just when a defender thinks he’s got the timing down to tackle one guy, another type of athlete comes in to throw him off.

What sets the Rams apart from other teams, though, isn’t simply a great scheme or their collection of athletes. It’s those players’ ability to consistently execute. “Execution,” replied Reynolds, when asked to name the most important attribute of the Rams offense. “You see a lot of these plays run by other teams in the league, but the execution isn’t as good. So you don’t see it work for them. That’s the kind of stuff we watch; it’s good to see—this is happening because we’re doing it better than they are.”

Ultimately, Belichick can’t simply focus on taking away only one player on the Rams—his defense would get eaten alive by L.A.’s other playmakers. And since this is Belichick, he’ll definitely have something else up his sleeve. When he was asked about the Rams’ heavy use of play-action on a conference call last week, Belichick gave an answer that illustrated the problem with focusing too much on stopping one piece of the Rams’ offensive puzzle. “Yeah, they’re very good at [play-action],” he said. “But again, they’re good at everything. They’re good at running the ball; they’re good at play-actions; they’re good at screens; they’re good on the deep ball; they’re good on the catch-and-run plays. They’re good at everything.”