I don't usually repost articles, but when I do, they usually involve some sort of ferocity.
This time, in my second NFL-related post this month, it's about the Los Angeles Rams' record-breaking defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Earlier this morning, The Ringer published this fantastic feature article on this coming Sunday's Super Bowl, focusing on legendary Patriots quarterback Tom Brady versus the only strategy that ever seems to stop him in the Super Bowl: relentless pass rush. The Giants in 2008, the Giants again in 2012 and then the Eagles in 2018* used their elite defensive lines to game-winning effect.
Brady vs. Rivers. Brady vs. Mahomes. Brady vs. Goff. None of them ever happened.
Unlike in basketball or hockey, football's offensive players never (or rarely**) see the field at the same time. This is truest of quarterbacks, who are generally ill-suited to pass coverage or tackling. The important rivalries are between the players who look into each others' eyes.
Tom Brady is playing in his ninth Super Bowl. Aaron Donald's 20.5 sacks this season is a single season record for a defensive tackle.
Here's one of the more pointed observations from the Ringer article above: (extensive statistical analysis excised)
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.
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.
It's the Patriots versus the Rams, just like in 2002. Will the Patriots capture an NFL record sixth Super Bowl? Or will Brady end up chatting with Stephen Colbert again?
I have the Rams, but we'll see.
Good on The Ringer for mixing hard analysis with accessible writing here, and for focusing on the one-on-one matchups that actually occur on the field.
*All years given are when the Super Bowl was actually played, not when the regular season was played.
**Occasionally, a wide receiver or tight end will be pressed into pass coverage, or a defensive back will catch a pass on offence, or a defensive lineman will play tight end. Here's a fun example from yesterday's Pro Bowl: Jalen Ramsey for the receiving touchdown!
***This is without mentioning midseason pickup Dante Fowler or stalwart Michael Brockers. After a rocky start in Jacksonville. Fowler is perhaps now best known for his devastating hit on Drew Brees in this season's NFC Championship game that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl. The Rams have the best defensive line in football.