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How the Patriots defense stymied Sean McVay in Super Bowl LIII

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ATLANTA — The NFL plans, Bill Belichick laughs.

The future of football is offense, we’ve all been told for months. NFL scoreboards spent September, October and November like a pinball machine on tilt as innovative coaches and favorable rule changes laid waste to the offensive record books and sent a half-dozen teams scurrying to hire clones of Rams coach Sean McVay.

Then, Sunday night, came Super Bowl LIII, in which Belichick’s New England Patriots throttled McVay’s high-scoring Los Angeles Rams 13-3 to win the lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time. It was Belichick’s sixth Super Bowl title as a head coach to go with the two he won as a defensive coordinator. That it came against McVay and the 11th-highest scoring team in NFL history sent a message that defense isn’t dead after all. And who better to send such a message than the all-time coaching master who was already a defensive mastermind way back when McVay was still in diapers.

The future of football might be offense. It might be defense. It might be robot quarterbacks on hoverboards throwing to genetically engineered four-armed receivers on roller skates. All we know for sure is that, while Belichick is still coaching the Patriots, the future of football is on hold.

“Coach Belichick did an outstanding job,” McVay said when Sunday’s game was over and the number next to his team was still, incomprehensibly, a three. “There really is no other way to put it. I’m pretty numb right now, but definitely, I got outcoached.”

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Tim Hasselbeck’s biggest takeaway from Super Bowl LIII was the defenses, as the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3.

Yeah, you give Belichick two weeks to prepare, he’s generally going to figure it out. He and Brian Flores, the linebackers coach who has been calling New England’s defensive plays this season and is expected to be named head coach of the Miami Dolphins this week, designed a game plan to stymie the Rams’ ground game and flummox quarterback Jared Goff. To hear the Rams tell it, it worked.

“They played six on the line all day, which kind of limited the space to get the runs in there,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “They played an open-field 6-2 almost, but with one guy in the middle — almost a little bit of goal line. And they played a lot more zone than they played all season, so that kind of shook it up a little bit.”

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Bill Belichick breaks down the Patriots’ game plan to stop the Rams’ running game and having Stephon Gilmore shadow Brandin Cooks.

That was the key difference. The Patriots’ defense played more man coverage during the season than any team in the league. But Sunday night, New England was in zone on about 40 percent of its defensive plays. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s a lot more than the Patriots showed in any game film the Rams were able to watch the past two weeks, and it worked.

“When they start running zone, you’ve got to hold it a little bit,” Whitworth said. “And then they end up rushing six guys — all NFL rushers, all guys who can rush in the NFL — somebody’s going to have a mismatch somewhere.”

The results were a bit similar to what happened to Goff and the Rams in their Week 14 loss in Chicago. That night, the Chicago Bears played a bunch of zone concepts and intercepted Goff four times in a 15-6 victory. Until Sunday night, that point total was the Rams’ lowest of the season — by 17.

“They mixed it up,” McVay said of the Patriots’ Super Bowl game plan. “In the early downs, all they ended up playing was some single-high buzz structures and some quarters principles. Then on third down, they had their designers and things like that. It was a great game plan.”

Up front, the Patriots succeeded in their first two playoff games against the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs by running a constant stream of games and stunts to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That was the same Sunday night. The difference was, the zone looks on the back end made Goff more hesitant with his reads, which gave the guys up front even more time to generate the pressure on him. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, Goff faced pressure on 38 percent of his dropbacks and was 3-for-12 with an interception when pressured, tied for the worst completion percentage for any quarterback who threw at least 10 passes under pressure in a Super Bowl.

Overall, Goff completed just 50 percent of his passes in the Super Bowl. He was 3-for-10 on third down, and the Rams failed to convert any of their first eight third-down situations. He was 0-for-5 on passes traveling at least 20 yards downfield, which tied for the highest number of such throws without a completion in any game so far in his three-year career.

“You think at some point you’re going to come out of it, as we have all year,” Goff said. “And we almost did.”

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Jared Goff says he felt great and excited heading into the Super Bowl, but the Patriots’ defense kept the Rams’ offense guessing.

Almost, indeed. The Rams were moving the ball in Patriots territory, down 10-3, with a little more than four minutes left in the game. It was second-and-10 from the New England 27. Goff was in the shotgun. Flores called a zero-blitz (basically, send everybody). Goff saw it and knew he had to unload the ball quickly, to Brandin Cooks, who was sprinting toward the end zone. Goff threw off his back foot. The ball floated.

“My reaction was to try to get a P.I. [pass interference],” Cooks said. “But I couldn’t get the angle to.”

Said Goff: “I knew they were bringing cover-zero blitz there, and I tried to hit Brandin on a go-ball. But [Patriots cornerback Stephon] Gilmore was too far off for me to make that decision. It was a bad decision.”

Gilmore knew what he had to do.

“All I was thinking was, ‘Don’t drop it’,” Gilmore said. “We knew when they get near the end zone they like to take shots. Our defensive line put great pressure on him, he chucked it up, and I was able to make a play.”

By the time Goff and the Rams got the ball back, they were down by 10 with 1:12 left and it was basically over. The real shame of it was, for the Rams, that their own defense was so good. If you’d told McVay and Goff on Sunday morning that the Rams’ defense would hold the Patriots to 13 points, they’d have put the champagne on ice before they took the field.

“They were tough on defense,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “They definitely had a good game plan and made us work for everything. There wasn’t anything.”

Brady got them with one good touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, which was all he needed because of the way his own defense played. The Patriots’ 13 points were the fewest ever scored by a winning team in the Super Bowl. Oddly, their 10-point margin of victory was their largest in a Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick era.

“Team defense,” Belichick said. “There is not one guy that can stop the Rams. They have too many good players and they’re too well coached. We played the run competitively, we rushed the passer competitively, we covered competitively, and we didn’t give up big plays, which they hit on everybody.”

It was a brilliant defensive game by a brilliant defensive coach at the end of a season defined by offense. Belichick has made it clear time and again that he’s willing to cut against the grain, strategically, if that’s what it takes to win a game, and Sunday night might have been his macro masterpiece in that arena. While the rest of the league was trying to figure out how to top McVay and all of these high-flying offenses, Belichick decided the better idea was to figure out how to stop them.

“It’s a cliché saying, but I think it’s ultimately true — defense wins championships,” Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “Their defense outplayed us.”

That was, quite clearly, the story of Super Bowl LIII. Yes, Belichick tied Curly Lambeau and George Halas for the most NFL titles by a coach. Yes, Brady broke a tie with Charles Haley and became the first player to win six Super Bowl rings. Yes, the Patriots tied the Steelers for the most Super Bowls titles.

But all of this happened because the Patriots, as they almost always do when confronted with a puzzle, came up with a way to solve it that no one saw coming. Defense isn’t dead after all, and Belichick delivered that message in front of the largest audience possible by using defense to load the latest Infinity Stone into his gleaming gauntlet.

The game might be changing, and at some point it might undergo the tectonic change the Rams’ 54-51 Week 11 Monday Night victory over the Chiefs was supposed to have heralded. But neither of those teams mustered a single first-half point against Belichick’s Patriots in his past two games. He beat them both, and reminded us all that the NFL is going to have a hard time changing as long as he’s up there grinding out game plans in Foxborough.

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Dolphins sign former Colts WR Chester Rogers to one-year deal

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The Miami Dolphins have signed former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Chester Rogers to a one-year contract, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Rogers’ signing follows the decisions by Dolphins wide receivers Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson last week to opt out of the 2020 season.

Rogers, 26, spent the majority of his four seasons with the Colts as a punt return specialist, though he had a breakout year as a receiver in 2018, when he caught a career-high 53 passes for 485 yards and two touchdowns.

He suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Tennessee Titans in Week 13 of the 2019 season, finishing with 16 catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns.

Rogers, an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State, averaged 9.2 yards on 60 punt returns with the Colts. Overall, Rogers has 111 receptions for 1,221 yards and five touchdowns in his career.

The Dolphins also signed wide receiver Ricardo Louis on Saturday. Louis, who has not played since 2017 with the Cleveland Browns due to injuries, had been released by Dolphins last month.

ESPN’s Mike Wells and Cameron Wolfe contributed to this report.

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Short-handed at CB, Giants plan to sign Ross Cockrell

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The Giants are planning to sign CB Ross Cockrell, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Short-handed at the CB position with DeAndre Baker facing armed robbery charges and Sam Beal having opted out, the Giants desperately needed reinforcements and went with a somewhat familiar face in Cockrell.

The Record (N.J.) was first to report the Giants’ plans to sign Cockrell, who played for the team in 2017.

Cockrell played in Carolina last season alongside James Bradberry, also now with the Giants. He has started 43 career games for the Giants, Panthers and Steelers.

The Giants also plan to sign OL Jackson Dennis, a undrafted free agent out of Holy Cross, according to a source. He spent time with the Arizona Cardinals earlier this year.

Signings have been a process in recent days since players have to pass COVID-19 tests and physicals before deals can be completed.

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What constitutes a successful 2020 NFL season for each NFC East team?

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As NFL training camps begin to look more “normal,” with players getting on the field with their teams for the first time on Friday and pads set to come on for the first time on Aug. 17, there seems to be a natural sense of optimism around every team.

Even with the positive thought that every team is undefeated at this point in the season, the NFC East figures to be a two-team race between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Those franchises have won the division in six of the past seven years and should follow the same path in 2020. The New York Giants and Washington Football Team have new head coaches and are at different places when it comes to their roster building compared to their division counterparts.

With that in mind, NFC East reporters John Keim (Washington), Jordan Raanan (Giants), Tim McManus (Eagles) and Todd Archer (Cowboys) take a look at what would constitute a successful 2020 season for each team.


Dallas Cowboys

Simple — get to the playoffs. There have been previous Cowboys’ seasons that have had “Super Bowl or bust” feelings to them, but considering coach Mike McCarthy did not have a traditional offseason to fully implement his program, the expectations should be dialed back. McCarthy’s résumé is better than any new NFL head coach this season. He went to the playoffs nine times with the Green Bay Packers, a conference title four times and won a Super Bowl. The Cowboys have not made it to an NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl since 1995.

There is talent, especially on offense with quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb, and offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. There are questions on defense — pass rush and the ability to take the ball away — but the Cowboys might be able to mask some of those issues with a prolific offense.

The Cowboys had similar talent on offense and questions on defense a year ago and missed the playoffs, leading to the hiring of McCarthy. While some might have Super Bowl thoughts, just getting to the tournament is a more proper expectation. — Archer


New York Giants

The Giants are in the midst of a rebuild, even if that is not what they want to call it, and this is effectively Year 2, but with a new head coach.

Coach Joe Judge made it clear throughout the interview process that this would be a process, so the Giants’ success isn’t going to be dictated solely by wins and losses or by making the playoffs. If the Giants go 7-9 or 8-8 and second-year quarterback Daniel Jones makes strides, it would be a significant step in the right direction. If the defense went from being one of the league’s worst to a middle-of-the-road unit, that would be welcomed, as well.

On paper in the NFC East, there are the Cowboys and Eagles on one level. The Giants and Washington fall well below those two, at least talent-wise. All the Giants need to do in order for the 2020 season to be a success is just be competitive in games. They have the worst record of any team in the NFL over the past three seasons (12-36) and have not beaten the Cowboys or Eagles since late in the 2016 season. The bar isn’t especially high; the Giants just need make progress in an unprecedented and unpredictable 2020 season. — Raanan


Philadelphia Eagles

A division title and a playoff win are what it will take for the Eagles to be considered a success in 2020.

The Eagles feel they have a much-improved roster from the one they fielded in a wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is healthy, Darius Slay was added to the secondary, they beefed up the defensive front with the Javon Hargrave signing, and spent much of their draft capital on speedy wide receivers, led by 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor. The Eagles hope continuity will carry them a long way as the rest of the division breaks in new coaching staffs under the most unique of circumstances.

There are enough questions around the team to resist the most bullish of predictions: Is Andre Dillard ready to take over left tackle? Can they fill the voids left by safety Malcolm Jenkins and guard Brandon Brooks? Can they generate a steady pass rush off the edge?

Fending off the Cowboys to secure a third NFC title in four years would be another feather in the cap of coach Doug Pederson. But the season will not be a success unless quarterback Carson Wentz gets his first playoff victory. His postseason debut was cut short by a concussion last season, and he missed the playoffs the previous two years because of injury. He needs to finish the 2020 campaign on his own terms, and with at least one playoff win under his belt. — McManus


Washington Football Team

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Washington coach Ron Rivera goes in depth on the culture he wants to instill and his surprise when he learned of the Washington Post article detailing sexual harassment by former members of the organization.

This team will prove a success in 2020 if quarterback Dwayne Haskins develops and the defense shows signs of being a top unit, led by rookie end Chase Young. There are other factors, too, that would make it a successful season: how the offensive line performs, for example.

But this season won’t be about the win-loss record as much as it will be about how the team progresses under first-year coach Ron Rivera. They’re not set up for instant success, not in a year when they had no offseason practices and a shortened summer with no preseason games. Washington knows a slow start could be inevitable, but that a strong finish will be necessary.

If Haskins establishes himself, this team can cross one question off its list. If not, Washington could be searching for another QB in the spring. And if the defense, led by the line, performs, then the team knows it has a young group that could be good for a few years. — Keim

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