There was not much offense in the Patriots 13-3 Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams on Sunday afternoon. People on Twitter complained -- show up on Twitter giving out free TVs and people would complain they're not 4K or something -- but the reality is the game was a defensive chess-master performance by both Bill Belichick and Wade Phillips.
For all the struggles of Jared Goff against the approach taken by Belichick and Brian Flores, the latter hired officially by the Dolphins on Monday, it shouldn't be ignored how bad Tom Brady and the Patriots offense played for the majority of this game. New England had many more scoring opportunities but couldn't close out until the fourth quarter.
And oddly enough it required the Patriots to run the exact same play three times in a row in order to put away the Rams.
New England started this drive, their first one to begin in the fourth quarter, at their own 31-yard line with 9:49 left in the fourth quarter and the game tied up at 3-3.
The Patriots lined up in a run formation with Rob Gronkowski lined up tight with the offensive line and had him sell that he was run blocking on Samson Ebukam. He then peeled off the pass rusher and ran a wheel route. Ebukam wasn't able to hang with the big tight end and Tom Brady threw a beautiful ball.
Gronk's fifth catch of the night gave the Pats a first down on their own 49, and that's when Josh McDaniels and Brady uncorked their Madden-like strategy of picking apart the Rams defense with the same play over and over.
With the crowd chanting "BRA-DY! BRA-DY! BRA-DY!" the Pats ran 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ensd) on the field, only in an empty formation. It's a weird matchup -- James Develin and Rex Burkhead were both split out wide -- because the personnel would theoretically indicate you're planning to pound the ball, but the dispersal of said personnel is obviously a passing approach. Dwayne Allen was also out there along with Gronk and Julian Edelman.
Spreading everyone out allowed Edelman to go to work underneath by himself against a linebacker and that's just not going to end well. Edelman, who would eventually win Super Bowl MVP honors for his efforts, caught his 10th pass of the game on an option route with Brady. Corey Littleton never had a chance.
"They're gonna come back to that, I promise you," NFL on CBS analyst Tony Romo said after the play. "They just saw what that looked like."
Romo, as usual, was spot-on. The Pats lined up and ran the exact same play, hitting Burkhead for a quick seven yards to the Rams 31-yard line. The only difference was flipping Burkhead and Develin to different sides of the field.
The usage of the play twice led Romo to opine to Jim Nantz that it could easily be run one more time. The Patriots spotted "a weakness" and they were hellbent on exploiting it.
"Came back with the exact same play, just made it look different, Jim, with motion. Gronk's running a seam, Edelman's in the . middle of the field," Romo explained. "They are going to ride this play. Once they find you have a weakness, it's going to keep coming at you now."
Sure enough, they did just that.
"Same exact play again," Romo noted before the snap. "Edelman over the middle ...?"
That would have made sense, but with Rob Gronkowski seeing single coverage on both of the previous two plays, the Patriots were finally willing to take their shot down the field, knowing how important a touchdown would be in this game. Brady threw down the field to Gronk, a 29-yard catch that was easily Brady's best throw of the game and maybe the most important catch of Gronk's career.
I'm not joking. Gronk was single teamed (despite the photo below, linebacker Corey Littleton was really the only guy in coverage; there is a safety racing over, albeit much too late) on the play, but the coverage was very tight. The big tight end, the all-time leader in touchdowns at the position, did what he's done so many times before, altering his body and making an impossible catch with bodies all around him.
"It's the same play three times in a row, Jim. Edelman over the middle. Gronk on a seam. The ball is perfectly thrown. Littleton can't get there. Gronk lays out. Three plays in a row, the exact same, Jim? And Gisele is happy!"
The Rams might not have even been fooled by this play. Gronk had been running the seam the last two plays. He was drawing single coverage, which likely inspired the Pats to try and take a shot. Getting two straight looks at the Rams' defensive response to this play likely gave Brady an idea what he would see on a shot to Gronk. Gronk switched sides, but he was running the seam route on every play, as noted by Next Gen Stats.
2. How did the Patriots offense break tendency on their TD drive?— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 4, 2019
The @Patriots used 2 RBs on all 5 plays, shifting into empty & running the same play 3 consecutive times [pictured]. Tom Brady tore up the Rams base defense (4/4, 67 yards) to set up Sony Michel's 2-yard TD run. pic.twitter.com/GwDM2n6CCI
Also inspiring Brady's decision? Gronk basically sitting uncovered when Brady snapped the ball.
Littleton had been running across the formation, probably an attempt to disguise whether or not he was coming on a blitz.
He would come back over and run with Gronk, but by the time the Patriots snapped the ball, he was still running towards the tight end.
By the time he releases the ball, Brady has to feel confident he's got Gronk sitting there in a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker. They've played together enough for Brady to also know that if he puts the ball in the right spot, Gronk is the only one who can catch it.
Really, it's hard to emphasize enough what an incredible adjustment that catch required from the big tight end. There's just not many people alive with his size, strength, speed and catching ability. There was less than a yard of separation between Gronk and Littleton when Brady threw the ball and when the ball arrived per Next Gen Stats player tracking.
This absolutely qualifies as an aggressive throw by Brady according to the Next Gen parameters. The Rams didn't blow this, the Patriots just saw a chance to take their shot and took it. Littleton's coverage wasn't bad, Brady just knew where to throw it so only one guy on the field -- Gronk -- could go up and get it.
Gronk reeled the ball in and it set up a Sony Michel plunge from the 2-yard line. That Michel touchdown run was the only play inside the Rams red zone the Patriots ran the entire game.
If you'd told the world before the Super Bowl that the Pats would get a single red zone play on Sunday, there would have been a lot of money on the Rams winning outright.
Instead, it was an option route to Edelman, a quick pass to a running back (Burkhead) and an incredible play by Gronk and a couple of big-time throws by Tom Brady in the most important moment.
Everything about this drive was perfectly Patriots and it won them their sixth Super Bowl.