At the end of a dour Super Bowl in Atlanta only a mother could love, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that Bill Belichick was the one standing triumphant.
Last year, Tom Brady produced what was arguably the greatest single performance in Super Bowl history, only for Belichick’s defense to get run over by Eagles backup Nick Foles. On Sunday, with Brady struggling en route to his worst passing performance in a title game, Belichick’s defense saved the day. The Patriots delivered Belichick’s masterpiece in their 13-3 win over the Rams.
What we saw from the Patriots on Sunday night was the best defensive performance we have ever seen in a Super Bowl.
I don’t say that as hyperbole. To start, the only other time a team has allowed just three points in the Super Bowl was when the Cowboys defeated the Dolphins 24-3 in 1971. Those Dolphins scored 22.5 points per game during the regular season, while Sean McVay’s Rams were up at 32.9 points per contest. The Pats allowed the Rams just 9.1 percent of their scoring average, the best mark in Super Bowl history:
You might argue that we’re rewarding the Patriots for not allowing a late garbage-time score, as was the case when the 1985 Pats scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to shorten Chicago’s lead to 44-10 in Super Bowl XX. That’s true. The other side of the coin, though, is that the Patriots’ defense couldn’t simply pin its ears back and rush the quarterback all game. They weren’t up against Steve Grogan.
They had to come up with stops drive after drive to win against the Rams, who were the second-best offense in the second-highest scoring season in NFL history. Scoring 13 points against the Rams, as the Patriots did Sunday, would have earned a team a 1-17 record against the Rams in the 2018 season. The only time Los Angeles failed to hit 13 points was when the Bears held them to six in Week 14, but Chicago was the much-celebrated best defense in football. The Patriots ranked 16th in defensive DVOA and had just allowed 31 points in the second half to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
McVay, who admitted after the game that he “simply got outcoached,” never found a solution. His offense slowly suffocated throughout the game. The same Rams team that bragged about its physicality after running all over the Cowboys in the divisional round produced just two first downs on 18 rushing attempts. Jared Goff and the Los Angeles passing attack averaged just 4.7 yards per dropback, with an unsung Patriots pass rush sacking Goff four times and knocking him down on 12 occasions. An offense that made it to the red zone a league-high 80 times during the regular season failed to make it inside the Patriots’ 20-yard line even once Sunday.
To me, it topped the two most famous Belichick game plans of all time. The 2001 Greatest Show on Turf Rams managed to score 17 points and rack up 26 first downs on the Patriots, who won Super Bowl XXXVI thanks to big plays. Ty Law took an errant Kurt Warner throw to the house for a pick-six. The Pats recovered a Ricky Proehl fumble at midfield and scored their lone offensive touchdown before halftime. Jeff Wilkins missed a 52-yard field goal in the first half, and the Rams had five drives that went to or past the 50-yard line that resulted in zero points. This defensive performance was more consistently dominant.
Belichick’s game plan as the Giants’ defensive coordinator against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV resides in the Hall of Fame, but again, this showing should join it. Belichick sacrificed his run defense to stifle Jim Kelly, and Thurman Thomas subsequently ran for 135 yards and a touchdown. The Bills still managed to get into position for a 47-yard field goal that would have won the game, only for Scott Norwood to push his kick wide in a 20-19 nailbiter.
Those performances were legendary, but the win in Super Bowl LIII surpasses them in the pantheon of brilliant defensive game plans from Belichick, with credit also going to defensive coordinator and future Dolphins coach Brian Flores. So, how did the Patriots pull it off?
How Belichick, Flores and Patricia stopped the Rams
You might note that one of the coaches in that subhead isn’t on the Patriots’ payroll anymore. “We had to put together something that would neutralize the running game and their big play-action passes on early downs,” Bill Belichick said to ESPN’s Steve Young after the game. “We felt like if we could make them drive it and earn it, similar to what the Lions did to them,” he added, “… we would have a chance to get them off the field on third down.”
What Belichick said shouldn’t be a surprise. If you read my preview on the game, I suggested that the Patriots were going to focus on stopping the outside zone and taking away play-action, just as Lions head coach (and former Patriots defensive coordinator) Matt Patricia emphasized in Week 13 against the Rams. Goff finished 5-of-9 for 68 yards on play-action passes, with Belichick forcing him to try to win the Super Bowl as a conventional dropback passer.
Where I was surprised, though, was with how the Patriots built their coverages. The Lions played more zone against the Rams than they had in their prior games, particularly by using more quarters (or Cover 4) shells. I figured that the Patriots, who have much better cornerbacks than Detroit, would still rely heavily on man coverage to try to stop the Rams and their endless series of stacks and bunches.
I was wrong. As McVay noted after the game, the Patriots played plenty of zone coverage throughout the game, including quarters looks on early downs. Quarters helped the Patriots keep the intentions and depths of their safeties disguised before the snaps, while simultaneously allowing New England to flood the box with defenders to stop the run. The Pats used what amounted to a 5-1 over front with Patrick Chung as a strongside linebacker to try to penetrate into the backfield against outside zone.
Things got more complicated when Chung went down with an arm injury in the third quarter, which cost the Patriots both a veteran communicator and a versatile starting safety. Duron Harmon took Chung’s place, and the Patriots subsequently were forced to play more conservative coverage concepts. When they did play man, the Pats again surprised by generally sticking Stephon Gilmore one-on-one against Brandin Cooks, with Robert Woods doubled by Jonathan Jones and a safety.
On third down, the Patriots tormented Goff and McVay with stunts and twists to throw off their pass blocking while preventing Goff, McVay and center John Sullivan from diagnosing where pressure was going to come from before the snap. Teams that load up on twists often struggle to keep contain or leave an obvious running lane open for the opposing quarterback, but the Patriots did an excellent job of getting pressure against the interior of the Rams’ line (particularly guard Austin Blythe) while simultaneously closing down Goff when he bootlegged out of the pocket. Goff was 2-of-3 passing for 2 yards and two sacks when he waggled to the sidelines.
Overall, the Patriots were wildly productive when they threw extra defensive backs on the field. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Pats posted a 45 percent success rate on defense with four or five defensive backs on the field. Their dime package, though, had a dominant game. On 20 snaps, the Pats racked up three sacks and held Goff to a dismal line: 6-of-16 for 60 yards and an interception. Fifteen of those 20 snaps were regarded as successful plays for the Patriots’ defense in terms of keeping the Rams from getting on schedule, good for a 75 percent success rate.
McVay took the blame after the loss for not adapting or adjusting his playcalling, and you can certainly wonder whether the Rams should have tried different things. It seems like they could have used late motion before the snap to try to take advantage of a static Patriots defense and thrown bubble screens to try to gain a numbers advantage and/or force the Pats out of quarters. The Falcons, who shared some similarities under Kyle Shanahan to these Rams in terms of their outside zone emphasis, had success running the crack toss against the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and the Rams could have used that to set up screens.
At some point, the Rams might have been better off force-feeding Todd Gurley II; they ran the ball just once on 20 snaps against the Pats’ dime personnel grouping, which New England was comfortable running on first-and-10 and third-and-2. The Rams went with 11 personnel on more than 78 percent of their dropbacks, but for the second week in a row, they were more effective getting a second tight end on the field with 12 personnel. The Rams posted a 40 percent success rate with their traditional three-wideout set, but that jumped to 54 percent with Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee on the field.
The Rams eventually got some offense going in the third quarter. Goff made two great throws, including a picture-perfect 18-yard pass to Woods on third-and-7, to get into field goal range. The Rams got their one big chance of the game when the Patriots badly blew a coverage and left Cooks wide open running up the seam on a Yankee concept, only for Goff to belatedly recognize his good fortune and give Jason McCourty, who played every snap on Sunday, enough time to find work and knock away the pass.
A beautiful Pats pass rush subsequently limited the Rams to a field goal when Hightower got inside Blythe for a sack. It was a critical play, given that Goff wasn’t able to find a wide-open C.J. Anderson for a checkdown that would have moved the chains:
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) February 4, 2019
The Rams had to punt on their next drive after a questionable holding call on Sullivan wiped out a 13-yard Gurley run, but after the Patriots scored a touchdown, the Rams drove down the field with a screen to Cooks and a pick play that freed up Reynolds to convert third-and-9 over the middle. On the next play, Goff dropped a perfect ball over Gilmore for what could have been a touchdown pass to Cooks, only for Harmon to jar the ball loose with a hit.
On the next play, Flores dared Goff to do it again by sending a six-man blitz against six Rams blockers with Hightower as an underneath robber and the four defensive backs in quarters behind. A panicked Goff rushed his dropback and made another throw toward Cooks, but while Goff’s pass needed to be deep and toward the sideline to give Cooks a chance, his throw was badly short and amounted to a fair catch for Gilmore.
— NFL (@NFL) February 4, 2019
It’s worth noting that Belichick and Flores didn’t pull this off with a bunch of superstars in their prime outside of Gilmore, who had an inconsistent game before his interception. Hightower, Trey Flowers and Devin McCourty are homegrown talents, but Belichick the executive has also found useful talent on the cheap. Jason McCourty was acquired for a swap of sixth- and seventh-round picks when the Browns were about to cut him. Kyle Van Noy, who had a monster game with a sack and three knockdowns, was the product of a nearly identical swap with the Lions. Jones and J.C. Jackson were undrafted free agents. There was no Lawrence Taylor or Ty Law on the field for the Pats. No matter. This was the signature defensive performance from the greatest defensive coach in the history of football.
Of course, the guy on the opposite sideline nearly had his own signature performance. Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips dialed up a brilliant game plan, as Aaron Donald & Co. flummoxed Brady for most of the game. The nonexistent folks who supposedly were counting out Brady throughout the season nearly got to raise their straw hands in the air and celebrate their victory, only for the Rams’ pass rush to finally tire just as Josh McDaniels found a way to unlock the defense.
As Tony Romo described on the CBS broadcast, Phillips did an excellent job of building his coverages to show man coverage to Brady before the snap before playing like zone afterward, or vice versa. It’s difficult to confuse Brady at age 41, but he was absolutely flummoxed on a number of snaps. One trick came on the interception that ended the opening drive, when Brady read man coverage before the snap, then found out just as he threw that the Rams were in zone and playing a form of trap coverage, with Aqib Talib over the top and Nickell Robey-Coleman underneath. The slot corner broke outside on the throw to Chris Hogan and tipped away the ball, with Cory Littleton catching the tip for an interception.
During the first half, Brady simply didn’t look comfortable with the pressure or looks he saw, especially on third downs. The Pats ran the ball on third-and-8 to set up Stephen Gostkowski‘s missed field goal. Brady threw away a third-and-5 pass under pressure from Donald. Early checkdowns to Gronkowski and James White didn’t give those receivers much of a chance of turning upfield for a first down. Cordarrelle Patterson came up a yard short of the sticks on third-and-10, and when the Pats went for it on fourth-and-1, excellent coverage from the Rams forced Brady to try to hit an impossible window to a diving Gronk.
The one thing the Patriots did have working in the first half was Julian Edelman. My preview identified covering the slot as the biggest point of weakness for the Rams before the game, and for much of this contest, it ended up as their only point of weakness. The Rams surprisingly started the game with Talib traveling across the formation and into the slot to cover Edelman, but Edelman eventually just went over to Talib’s side of the field and tortured him out of a reduced split. In the first half, Brady was 7-of-8 for 93 yards on throws to Edelman (with the one incompletion essentially an uncatchable throwaway) and 8-of-17 for 67 yards throwing to everyone else.
The Rams eventually started moving Marcus Peters around the formation to try to cover Edelman, and while he got away with a couple of holding or illegal contact calls, it was a better solution than Talib. The Pats tried to target Peters’ propensity for jumping routes with fades and his struggles tackling by isolating him in space, but the former Chiefs star generally held his own on deeper throws. With Donald & Co. getting steady pressure on Brady, the Patriots had six drives in the first half break into Los Angeles’ side of the field with only three points to show for it.
The play that won the Super Bowl … three times in a row
The eventual breakthrough for the Patriots came with another concept I wrote about extensively in my preview: using James Develin to dictate mismatches in the slot against Los Angeles’ base defense. The Pats came out in their 21 personnel (2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE) with Edelman in the slot on the first play of the game and got a 13-yard run out of Sony Michel for a first down, but the run defense that swallowed up the Cowboys and Saints showed up and bullied the Patriots at the line of scrimmage for most of this one.
The game-winning drive, though, required McDaniels to get even heavier. He dialed up a creative play-action look to start the drive out of 21 personnel, with Gronkowski blocking for a moment before turning upfield on a wheel route past a leveraged Samson Ebukam for a first down.
The Pats then brought in Dwayne Allen and ran three consecutive plays out of 22 personnel, with two backs and two tight ends on the field. On each of the plays, they split out wide Develin and a halfback (either Michel or Rex Burkhead), where they were covered by Peters and Talib, L.A.’s two best cover corners. That left Gronkowski, Allen and Edelman matched up on the interior against linebackers and safeties and allowed the Patriots to run one of their favorite plays.
Hoss Y-Juke has been a staple of the Patriots going back through the early days of this dynasty, so it’s not exactly a secret that Phillips wouldn’t have been prepared to see. You can see a breakdown of Hoss Y-Juke here, but it’s remarkably simple. The “Hoss” call means you’re getting hitch routes from the outside receivers, while the slot receivers run seam routes. Y-Juke calls for the third receiver from the outside, who is almost always Edelman, to run an option route against an overmatched linebacker.
The Patriots ran Hoss Y-Juke three times in a row. The Rams stayed in their base defense all three times, and the Patriots ripped them apart. On the first of the three plays, with Edelman matched up in the slot against Littleton, he ran the juke route for 13 yards and a first down.
Brady to Edelman, 13 yards pic.twitter.com/cdO6Fw1KGA
— SIXtriots (@ftbeard_17) February 4, 2019
The Patriots came back to the line and motioned out Burkhead before throwing him a hitch against Peters for 7 yards. On the third snap, the Rams must have known what was coming, but it didn’t matter. They tried to disguise where their five-man pressure was coming from by sending Littleton toward Gronk in coverage at the snap, but Brady lofted in a perfect pass for a 29-yard catch. One play later, Michel plunged in for the only touchdown of the game.
It takes a unique set of circumstances for Hoss Y-Juke to thrive, but it’s the perfect play for the Patriots. You need running backs who are viable threats to catch the ball. You need tight ends with the athleticism to stretch the field vertically and make plays out of the slot. You also need a quarterback capable of making a smart decision quickly out of an empty backfield.
I’m surprised the Patriots didn’t motion Develin out wide more frequently. One first-half snap with him split out yielded a rep for Edelman in the slot against Ebukam and an easy completion, although two other short throws were quickly closed down or dropped. The Patriots did rack up 67 yards on 15 rushing attempts out of 21 personnel before the fourth quarter, so the running game with Develin in had been competent. It’s possible that the Patriots didn’t think Brady would have enough time to make his reads and get the ball out in an empty set before the Rams’ pass rush tired, and indeed, Donald & Co. didn’t deter the Pats from running Hoss Y-Juke three times in a row.
After the Gilmore interception, the Pats took over with 4:17 left and a chance to seal the game. The Rams had a reputation during the season for indiscipline within their run defense in an attempt to make plays, and while they were structurally sound for the vast majority of the Super Bowl, they finally cracked.
On the second play, Ndamukong Suh fired across the face of a guard to make a play but ran himself out of the action. The Pats briefly doubled Donald, moved him off the ball, and ran right into his gap, with a pulling Joe Thuney kicking out Mark Barron. Marcus Cannon essentially helped block three Rams, as he chipped Donald, blocked Littleton at the second level, and shielded an overly aggressive John Johnson in the process. Michel rode this beautiful blocking for a 26-yard gain.
Three plays later, it was Develin’s turn. The Pats brought in Burkhead and ran directly at Dante Fowler Jr., who tried to stunt inside and was subsequently helped into the trash by Trent Brown. Lamarcus Joyner came down from safety and got into a three-point stance before blitzing into the backfield at the snap, but a motioning Gronkowski dispatched him with ease. The Rams scraped Barron over the top to try to seal the edge, but Develin laid him out at the point of attack. Talib was the unblocked defender, but Burkhead’s cutback and the aftermath of Develin’s ferocious block took the cornerback totally out of the play. The former Bengals backup cut upfield and outran Robey-Coleman before Peters made a touchdown-saving tackle. The 26-yard run put the Patriots in field goal range, and while they failed to convert a subsequent third-and-1, Gostkowski hit a 41-yarder to start the celebrations for a sixth time in New England.
Saints’ Drew Brees — ‘American people need sports right now’
Drew Brees said Wednesday on The Ellen Show that he thinks “the American people need sports right now.” The New Orleans Saints quarterback is also eager to return to the field this fall so he can compete against new NFC South rival Tom Brady.
“Yeah, well the division just got a little bit better, didn’t it?” Brees said with a laugh when asked about Brady signing with the rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “And in addition to that, Teddy Bridgewater — who played so well for us with the Saints last year when I got hurt — he’s now the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. So our division has Teddy Bridgewater, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and myself with the Saints.
“It’s always been a very challenging division, and it just kicked up a notch.”
Brees and his wife Brittany discussed a variety of topics with host Ellen DeGeneres, including home-schooling their four children and their $5 million pledge to help the state of Louisiana get through the coronavirus pandemic.
Brees said he hopes that sports can also return and be part of the recovery process.
“That’s typically something that’s really brought us through a lot of tough situations throughout our country,” Brees said. “I think people have been able to lean on their local sports teams or national teams to just unite them and get their minds off the challenges of daily life or daily struggle.
“We don’t even have that right now, and I think that’s another reason why this is so tough. And obviously we hope that football can be back to normal — or this can be back to normal so that we can play real football.”
Brees talked about the possibility of playing games in empty stadiums, saying he had never thought about the idea of playing without fans before and that it would be “really weird.”
“From Texas high school football, through college in the Big Ten, to games now in the Superdome, you’re used to those loud, electric atmospheres,” Brees said. “And so I think it would be really weird. Maybe you just click in and you’re in the zone.
“But I tell you where the fans really help — is whenever you get hit and knocked down, and you’re wondering what happened. You just listen to the sound of the fans, and they usually tell you whether the ball was complete or not. So that was one big benefit; obviously we miss out on that. But it would be really weird. I hope we’re obviously beyond that, and we can get back to that level of normalcy.”
Best small-college studs ever for all 32 NFL teams
You don’t have to play at a traditional college football power to achieve NFL stardom. Former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton showed us that. San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice showed us, too. So did the other 30 names on our small-school studs list picked by NFL Nation reporters. In fact, you don’t even have to be drafted (see Larry Little, Malcom Butler, Jim Hart and Dave Krieg).
With the 2020 NFL draft coming up on April 23-25 (ABC, ESPN, ESPN app and NFL Network), prospects across the country should keep in mind that it’s not where you start but where you finish. And for many of these players, that was the Hall of Fame.
Andre Reed, wide receiver
College: Kutztown University
Years with team: 1985-99
This one’s easy. The Hall of Fame receiver played 15 seasons for the Bills, who drafted him in the fourth round out of tiny Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. He made seven straight Pro Bowls from 1988 to 1994, which also included four straight trips to the Super Bowl. His most notable moment as a Bill is likely a three-touchdown performance (all in the second half) to help Buffalo overcome a 32-point deficit in its AFC wild-card victory over the Houston Oilers in 1992. Reed ranks in the top 20 all time in career receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and receptions and is the Bills’ career leader in each category. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Larry Little, guard
Years with team:1969-80
The Dolphins acquired Little via a trade with San Diego in 1969 after he spent his first two seasons with the Chargers. Little was a 1967 undrafted free agent who immediately became a Pro Bowl player and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983. Little was one of the key cogs for the Dolphins’ offense, paving the way for running backs such as Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. Little was also an important member of the 1972 and 1973 Super Bowl champion Dolphins. Little was named first-team All-Pro for five consecutive seasons from 1971 to 1975 and landed on the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade team. Little forged a path from unheralded, undrafted player from the SWAC to one of the best to ever don a Dolphins uniform. — Cameron Wolfe
Malcolm Butler, cornerback
College: West Alabama
Years with team: 2014-17
Signed as an undrafted free agent, Butler was the 90th player on the 90-man roster at the time. The ultimate long shot. And while he attended West Alabama, he also earned a “degree” from “Popeye’s State,” as he was working at Popeye’s for a stretch of time as he navigated some obstacles in his life and in his college career. All Butler went on to do with the Patriots was make arguably the single greatest play in Super Bowl history to help beat the Seahawks in dramatic fashion in Super Bowl XLIX. Tom Brady, who gave Butler his MVP truck, said it best: “Thank God for Malcolm Butler.” — Mike Reiss
Wayne Chrebet, wide receiver
Years with team: 1995-2005
He’s one of the best small-school stories in the history of the sport. He signed as an undrafted free agent out of Hofstra University, the Long Island school that housed the Jets’ year-round facility at the time. Chrebet was such a long shot (10th receiver on a 10-man depth chart) that he was stopped at the security gate on the first day of training camp because the guard thought he was an autograph-seeking fan. Undersized but deceptively strong and quick, he redefined the slot receiver position. He inspired players such as Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom refer to Chrebet as “The Godfather” of slot receivers. His career was cut short because of concussions, but he finished with 580 catches, 7,365 yards and 41 touchdowns. — Rich Cimini
Joe Flacco, quarterback
Years with team: 2008-18
In the 2008 draft, owner Steve Bisciotti wanted the Ravens to trade up to get Matt Ryan, but team officials persuaded him the better move was trading back to No. 18, where they got a strong-armed passer from Delaware. Flacco stopped the Ravens’ quarterback carousel (15 starting quarterbacks in the franchise’s first 12 seasons) and built a legacy defined by postseason success. He led Baltimore to 10 playoff victories during his 11 seasons (only Tom Brady delivered more in this span). He guided the Ravens to three AFC Championship Games. And, in 2012, he carried the franchise to a Super Bowl title by going on a run matched only by Joe Montana, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. — Jamison Hensley
Ken Riley, cornerback
College: Florida A&M
Years with team: 1969-83
Riley seamlessly made the transition to cornerback after spending his college days as Florida A&M’s starting quarterback. He menaced NFL passers during his 15-year career and tallied 65 total interceptions, good for fifth all time and easily a franchise record that will be nearly impossible to break. His name isn’t as notable as that of former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson, another small-school product with Hall of Fame numbers, but he deserves some love for an unheralded career. — Ben Baby
Leroy Kelly, running back
College: Morgan State
Years with team: 1964-73
The Browns drafted Kelly out of Morgan State in the eighth round of the 1964 draft. Playing behind the legendary Jim Brown, Kelly immediately became an NFL champion in his first season. When Brown retired two years later, Kelly became an All-Pro in his first season as the starter, then won rushing titles the next two years. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994. — Jake Trotter
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback
College: Miami (Ohio)
Years with team: 2004-present
Taken with the No. 11 pick in the 2004 draft, Roethlisberger entered his rookie season as the No. 3 quarterback on the team. But he got on the field earlier than planned when Tommy Maddox suffered an injury in Week 2 and backup Charlie Batch was already sidelined (knee). A week later, Roethlisberger got his first start and led the Steelers to a 13-3 win against the Dolphins. He never relinquished the starting job, making 216 starts in 16 seasons in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger has played in three Super Bowls with two wins and has been selected to the Pro Bowl six times. After an injury-shortened 2019 season, Roethlisberger, 38, is eyeing a comeback in 2020 with a surgically repaired elbow and has expressed confidence he’ll be at full strength when the season starts. — Brooke Pryor
Jacoby Jones, wide receiver
College: Lane College
Years with team: 2007-11
Since the Texans are a relatively new franchise, there isn’t a long list of candidates to choose from. The pick is Jones, who was drafted by Houston in the third round of the 2007 draft out of Lane College. Jones spent five seasons in Houston, contributing at receiver and as a returner. His best season with the Texans came in 2010, when he caught 51 passes for 562 yards and three touchdowns. — Sarah Barshop
Robert Mathis, defensive end
College: Alabama A&M
Years with team: 2003-16
Mathis, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2003 draft, teamed with Dwight Freeney to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL. Mathis played with a chip on his shoulder because some scouts believed he would struggle at the next level because he went to a small college, was too small and wasn’t quick enough to get to the quarterback in the NFL. That motivation must’ve worked because Mathis is the Colts’ franchise leader in sacks (123) and was named to the Pro Bowl five times. His best season was in 2013, when he had 19.5 sacks. — Mike Wells
Jimmy Smith, wide receiver
College: Jackson State
Years with team: 1995-2005
He was a second-round draft pick by Dallas in 1992 but dealt with a broken leg, appendicitis and an abdominal infection related to the appendicitis in his first two years (zero catches) before being waived. He was out of football in 1994, but Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin gave him a tryout in 1995 and signed him. Smith went on to become the franchise’s career leader in receptions, yards and TD catches. He had nine 1,000-yard seasons, including seven in a row (1996-2002), and made five Pro Bowls. His 12,287 yards receiving ranks 23rd in NFL history and is more than those of Charlie Joyner, Michael Irvin, Lance Alworth or Don Maynard, all of whom are Hall of Famers. — Michael DiRocco
Steve McNair, quarterback
College: Alcorn State
Years with team: 1999-2005
The Houston Oilers selected McNair with the No. 3 pick in the 1995 NFL draft. McNair helped lead Tennessee to a Super Bowl appearance in 1999, the franchise’s first season being known as the Titans. He went on to lead the Titans to three more playoff appearances and was named to three Pro Bowls. McNair’s best season was in 2003, when he led the NFL with a 100.4 passer rating and was named co-MVP with Peyton Manning. — Turron Davenport
Shannon Sharpe, tight end
College: Savannah State
Years with team: 1990-99, 2002-03
The Broncos have had plenty of success with players from smaller programs such as Rod Smith and Billy Thompson, but Sharpe leads the way. The Hall of Famer was selected in the seventh round of the 1990 draft. He arrived as a wide receiver but was switched to tight end by Dan Reeves’ staff. He won three Super Bowl rings — two with the Broncos, one with the Ravens — and was named to eight Pro Bowls. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011. — Jeff Legwold
Emmitt Thomas, cornerback
College: Bishop College
Years with team: 1966-78
The Chiefs have plenty of great candidates here because in their early seasons they brought in many players from historically black colleges and universities, including defensive tackle Buck Buchanan (Grambling), linebacker Willie Lanier (Morgan State) and receiver Otis Taylor (Prairie View). Those schools sent many others to the NFL, though, so the pick here is Thomas, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who went to Bishop College in Dallas. Bishop closed in 1988. — Adam Teicher
Antonio Gates, tight end
College: Kent State
Years with team: 2003-18
The Chargers signed Gates as an undrafted free agent in 2003 from Kent State University, where he did not play football but starred in basketball. In 16 seasons with the Chargers, Gates was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time All-Pro. Gates had an undeniable connection with Philip Rivers, as the duo connected on 90 touchdowns, an NFL record between a quarterback and tight end. Gates’ 116 touchdown receptions is the most by a tight end in NFL history. — Lindsey Thiry
Gene Upshaw, left guard
College: Texas A&M-Kingsville
Years with team: 1967-81
The Raiders drafted Upshaw at No. 17 in the first common NFL-AFL draft in 1967. He started every regular-season game from his rookie year through the start of the 1981 season, a streak of 207 straight. This was a tough call, as the Raiders have other Hall of Famers from small schools such as left tackle Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore), cornerback Willie Brown (Grambling State) and defensive lineman Howie Long (Villanova). Upshaw gets the call, by a smidge, by making seven Pro Bowls, earning five first-team All-Pro selections and being the only player to appear in the Super Bowl in three different decades with the same team. He played in a franchise-record 24 postseason games and is on the NFL 100 All-Time Team. He later ascended to executive director of the NFLPA. — Paul Gutierrez
Larry Allen, guard
College: Sonoma State
Years with team: 1994-2005
This was a difficult decision, especially with Hall of Famers such as Rayfield Wright (Fort Valley State) and Cliff Harris (Ouachita Baptist) around, but Allen is the best offensive lineman in team history and was a 10-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro. He was as dominant as any offensive lineman in the game with his strength and athleticism. He was a second-round pick (No. 46 overall) at a time when there were still some secrets in the draft. He performed well at Sonoma State as well as in the Shrine Game, but teams worried about his small-school background. After his rookie season, Allen started every game he played for the Cowboys and helped them win a Super Bowl. — Todd Archer
Rosey Brown, offensive tackle
College: Morgan State
Years with team: 1953-65
Lots of good choices here, especially with Michael Strahan (Texas Southern) and Phil Simms (Moorehead State) in the mix. But Brown has more Pro Bowl (nine) and All-Pro (six) selections than any Giant not named Lawrence Taylor. Not bad for an offensive tackle selected in the 27th round as the 321st overall pick out of Morgan State. Brown played his entire 13-year career with the Giants, won an NFL championship in 1956 and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. — Jordan Raanan
Wilbert Montgomery, running back
College: Abilene Christian
Years with team: 1977-84
Terrell Owens of Tennessee-Chattanooga is one of the best small-school players of all time, but is he an Eagle? A Niner? A Cowboy? There is no such confusion with Montgomery, who spent eight of his stellar nine years in the NFL rewriting Philadelphia’s record books. A sixth-round pick, Montgomery led the league in all-purpose yards in 1979 with 2,012 en route to his second consecutive Pro Bowl bid. The next season, he created one of the most memorable plays in franchise history, a 42-yard touchdown run against the hated Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game to propel the Eagles to their first Super Bowl. He still holds team records for most 100-yard games in a single season (eight) and career attempts (1,465) and is second in career rushing yards (6,538) behind only LeSean McCoy (6,792). — Tim McManus
Darrell Green, cornerback
College: Texas A&I
Years with team: 1983-2002
Although London Fletcher, from Division III John Carroll, played well as he finished his career with Washington, nobody stood out more than Green. He starred at Division II Texas A&I (now A&M-Kingsville) and was the 28th pick in the draft. Green became an immediate starter, then made seven Pro Bowl and four All-Pro teams before earning the biggest honor of them all: the Hall of Fame. He is the oldest defensive back to ever play in the NFL, and he played the most games (295) of any defensive player in history. — John Keim
Walter Payton, running back
College: Jackson State
Years with team: 1975-87
The Bears drafted Payton out of Jackson State in the first round (No. 4) of the 1975 NFL draft. Payton is one of the greatest players in NFL history. The league’s leading career rusher (16,726) at the time of his retirement, Payton was named first-team All-Pro seven times, was voted to nine Pro Bowls and helped Chicago win Super Bowl XX, the only Super Bowl victory in franchise history. Payton was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. — Jeff Dickerson
Dick “Night Train” Lane, defensive back
College: Scottsbluff Junior College
Years with team: 1960-65
This was incredibly difficult — to the point where I had actually chosen Lem Barney (Jackson State) at first before making the switch. Lane edged out Barney with his three first-team All-Pro selections and seven Pro Bowls. His 68 career interceptions for 1,207 yards outdid Barney’s 56 interceptions for 1,077 yards. Barney played his entire career in Detroit; Lane played six seasons with the Lions, picking up two of his All-Pro nods and three of his Pro Bowl berths. Both are in the Hall of Fame: Lane was enshrined in 1974 and Barney in 1992. — Michael Rothstein
Donald Driver, wide receiver
College: Alcorn State
Years with team: 1999-2012
Much of the credit goes to then-Packers area scout Alonzo Highsmith, who saw Driver at Alcorn State. Still, the Packers didn’t make a move on Driver until the seventh round (No. 213 overall) when then-GM Ron Wolf finally made the call on Highsmith’s player. Driver owns the Packers’ records for receptions and receiving yards, among other marks, and has a spot in the team’s Hall of Fame. Of course, it didn’t hurt having Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers as his two quarterbacks, but Driver was a receiver who could do it all. — Rob Demovsky
Randy Moss, wide receiver
Years with team: 1998-2004
By way of Notre Dame and Florida State, the Hall of Fame wide receiver’s collegiate career truly began at Marshall in 1996. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 1997 and was a first-round draft pick by the Vikings in 1998. Moss is one of the greatest wide receivers ever, ranking second on the NFL’s all-time touchdown receptions list with 157, sixth in all-time receiving yards with 15,292 and 10th in all-time receptions with 954. He earned NFL offensive rookie of the year honors, led the league in receiving five times, was a four-time first-team All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler and, as of two years ago, a Hall of Famer. His style of play even made way for a football-centric verb based on his last name.— Courtney Cronin
Claude Humphrey, defensive end
College: Tennessee State
Years with team: 1968-78
The Hall of Famer was the third overall draft pick out of Tennessee State in 1968. He was a first-team All-Pro five times and was selected to six Pro Bowls. Humphrey recorded 122 career sacks. Linebacker Jessie Tuggle (Valdosta State) and wide receiver Roddy White (UAB) are right up there, too.— Vaughn McClure
Sam Mills, middle linebacker
College: Montclair State
Years with team: 1995-97
The Panthers acquired Mills from New Orleans before their first season (1995) because of his familiarity with Dom Capers’ zone-read defense. He made the Pro Bowl in 1996 at the age of 37 and became everything team founder Jerry Richardson wanted the franchise to represent in terms of leadership and toughness. Until last year, Mills was the only player in the Panthers’ Hall of Honor. Mills was undrafted in 1981 and spent time in the USFL before getting a chance in the NFL. He’s been a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame the past few years. The “Keep Pounding” slogan he used in a speech during the team’s Super Bowl run in 2001 while he battled cancer that ultimately took his life in 2005 remains a part of the culture today. — David Newton
Willie Roaf, offensive tackle
College: Louisiana Tech
Years with team: 1993-2001
Tough choice here, since Bloomsburg guard Jahri Evans and Hofstra receiver Marques Colston were cornerstones of the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl team. But Roaf became one of the greatest offensive tackles in NFL history after the Saints drafted him with the eighth overall pick in 1993. Roaf is one of three former Saints in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after making a 11 Pro Bowls and being named either first- or second-team All-Pro nine times with the Saints (1993-2001) and Chiefs (2002-2005). He was a first-team tackle on the All-Decade team of the 1990s and a second-teamer on the all-2000s team. — Mike Triplett
Doug Williams, quarterback
College: Grambling State
Years with team: 1978-82
Most know Williams as the quarterback who was named MVP when the Redskins defeated the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. But Williams was a star before that in Tampa Bay. It took just two seasons for the 17th overall draft pick to lead the Bucs to their first playoff appearance when they reached the 1979 NFC Championship Game. They made the postseason three out of five of Williams’ seasons. But then-owner Hugh Culverhouse did not see Williams’ value — he was the only African-American starting at quarterback and also the lowest paid at the position, making $120,000 a year — and he left for the USFL. But because his contributions to the organization were so significant, he was named to the Buccaneers Ring of Honor in 2015. — Jenna Laine
Jim Hart, quarterback
College: Southern Illinois
Years with team: 1966-83
Hart signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as an undrafted free agent and went on to become the best quarterback in franchise history. He’s the longest-tenured Cardinal of all time, playing 18 seasons for the organization. He also is the franchise record-holder for career passing yards, career touchdown passes, career pass attempts, career pass completions and career interceptions. Although his teams were middling, going 87-87-5, Hart’s career performance made him the best small-school player in franchise history. — Josh Weinfuss
Kurt Warner, quarterback
College: Northern Iowa
Years with team: 1998-2003
Warner went undrafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994, was cut by the Packers, worked in an Iowa grocery store and played in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe before the Rams signed him in 1998. He was thrust into the starting lineup in 1999, led the Rams to a Super Bowl title and was named the NFL’s MVP. That season sparked the three-year run for the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Warner was named MVP again in 2001, leading the Rams to another Super Bowl appearance. From 1999-2001, Warner passed for 12,612 yards and 98 touchdowns. Warner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. — Lindsey Thiry
Jerry Rice, wide receiver
College: Mississippi Valley State
Years with team: 1985-2000
The 16th overall pick in the 1985 NFL draft, Rice is not only one of the greatest small-school players in league history but also one of the best players in league history regardless of position. In 16 seasons with the Niners, Rice had 1,281 receptions for 19,247 yards and 176 touchdowns, winning three Super Bowls. Rice, who earned 10 first-team All-Pro nods and 13 Pro Bowl selections, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. He still holds NFL records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. — Nick Wagoner
Dave Krieg, quarterback
College: Milton College
Years with team: 1980-91
You know a school is small — was small — when it no longer exists. Krieg joined the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent out of Milton College in 1980, two years before the tiny private school in Milton, Wisconsin closed down. Krieg spent the first 12 of his 19 NFL seasons with the Seahawks and made all three Pro Bowls with Seattle. He ranks second in franchise history in touchdown passes (195) behind Russell Wilson and third in passing attempts, completions and passing yards. According to Pro Football Reference, the only other NFL player to attend Milton College was defensive lineman Dave Kraayeveld, who also played for the Seahawks. — Brady Henderson
Redskins’ optimism stems from front four, likely Chase Young addition – Washington Redskins Blog
The Washington Redskins‘ newcomers on defense didn’t need to search far for optimism. They all pointed in the same direction: to the talented front four. Plus, the newcomers know one more name — Chase Young — could be added to that group via the 2020 NFL draft, boosting their excitement even more.
That is, Young could be added if the Redskins do what most expect and select the Ohio State defensive end with the No. 2 pick later this month. With nearly two weeks before the draft, Young remains the most likely selection for Washington. It’s a choice those who signed with the Redskins this offseason would applaud.
“Hopefully we grab him and bring that pressure,” Redskins safety Sean Davis said. “I hope he can make some noise, put some pressure on the quarterback and make him throw some ducks in the air, make it easy for us on the back end.”
Football Outsiders projects the top draft prospects at key positions:
The Redskins drafting Young would make cornerback Ronald Darby happy, too. The more pressure up front, the easier it is to play on the back end.
“I mean, it can do a lot,” Darby said. “The quicker you can get the ball out of the QB’s hands, the more aggressive you can play as a DB and things like that. If you trust your front to provide that pressure, it allows you to play more aggressive with things and [be] more comfortable.”
Of course, the Redskins could trade the selection, but it would take a massive haul to pry away the No. 2 choice. The Redskins have long liked Young, who finished with 16.5 sacks in 12 games last season. He also had 21 tackles for loss, and ESPN’s draft experts, Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr., consider Young the most talented player in the pool.
But it isn’t just Young. Even before his name entered the conversation, the newest Redskins defensive players were optimistic, thanks to others up front, notably tackles Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis and Daron Payne and ends Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan.
Washington has switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defensive front, allowing players such as Kerrigan and Sweat to focus more on pass rushing. The Redskins also added a defensive-minded coach in Ron Rivera, who in turn hired Jack Del Rio to coordinate the group.
“You look at the front four that these guys have assembled,” said linebacker Thomas Davis, who spent eight years with Rivera in Carolina, “and not only the front four, I kind of look at the top six or eight guys, I feel like, are capable of going out and completely wrecking the game. As a linebacker, you want to play behind guys that are capable of doing that. That allows you to be free. That allows you to make plays.”
The Redskins’ front applied pressure last season, as Washington registered a sack on 8.5% of pass attempts. That was tied for seventh in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But the team was 21st on sacks per pass attempt on third down. Not coincidentally, the Redskins were last in the NFL on third-down conversions.
Opposing quarterbacks posted an NFL-best 119.4 passer rating vs. Washington on third downs. That’s the highest rating allowed by a defense since ESPN Stats & Info started tracking those numbers in 2001.
Poor communication in coverage contributed to those woes. There was also a lack of creativity up front at times, leading to less pressure. The Redskins have several players capable of applying heat: Allen, Ioannidis and Sweat — all aged 26 or younger this season — combined for 21.5 sacks last season. Kerrigan, who missed four games because of injuries in 2019, had 5.5 sacks. However, he had 37 the previous three seasons combined and will be able to rush more than ever while strictly playing end.
The Redskins can add Young to this mix and, they hope, have a defensive turnaround similar to San Francisco’s. In 2018, the 49ers allowed a passer rating of 116.4 on third downs, second worst since 2001 after Washington’s mark. Last season, opposing quarterbacks posted a 77.9 passer rating on third downs. The 49ers were tied for second overall on third-down conversions.
San Francisco added pass-rusher Nick Bosa; the Redskins could be adding Young. Washington’s secondary remains a work in progress; it’ll take more than Young’s presence to improve. But a stronger pass rush could be a turning point.
“When you’re a DB and you’re looking at the front seven, you know how important that is for your success,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “It’s the guys at the front seven that they have up there, that kind of builds to be a part of. Once they called, and my agent talked to me, I couldn’t wait to jump on it.”
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