They say defense wins championships.
That axiom may not apply to the NFL anymore. Both Super Bowl participants had sub-par defenses during the regular season. The LA Rams ranked 19th in total yards allowed. The New England Patriots ranked 21st.
But both teams made the Super Bowl largely because they played excellent defense during the conference championship round two weeks ago. The Patriots held the Kansas City Chiefs’ No. 1-ranked offense to just 290 net yards, and the Rams held the New Orleans Saints’ No. 8-ranked offense to the exact same amount.
The winner of the Super Bowl could be the team that plays better defense Sunday.
To learn more about each defense and what each might plan to do in the Super Bowl, here are insights from someone who has coached defense in the NFL. He requested anonymity.
Sizing up the Patriots defense
“What you’ve seen on tape is not what you’re going to get,” the defensive coach said. “The Patriots are very game-plan specific. They’re so reliant on veterans who are smart, because it’s hard to be great at their scheme. When you change it every week, you really need smart football players.”
In other words, some NFL defensive coordinators present one or two new wrinkles every game, while Patriots head coach Bill Belichick presents nothing but new wrinkles.
“Belichick will mess with all your offensive rules,” the coach explained. “The Patriots defense is going to get you schematically — that’s why sometimes their defense is hit or miss.”
If Belichick’s game plan works in the Super Bowl, the Patriots defense will play well. If his game plan doesn’t work in the Super Bowl, the Patriots defense will get shredded because it lacks top-end talent. It’s scheme dependent.
“The Patriots do a really good job of playing complementary football,” said the coach. “They play just good enough on defense to complement their potent offense. That’s what they do. And they keep it cheap on defense. They get castoffs.”
One castoff is linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The Detroit Lions took him in the second round of the 2014 draft.
In three seasons with the Lions, Van Noy started only seven games. Midway through the 2016 season, the Lions gave up on Van Noy and traded him plus their seventh-round pick in 2017 to the Patriots in exchange for New England’s seventh-round pick in 2017.
A modest pick swap. Now, Van Noy is the Patriots’ starting middle linebacker.
“He’s a really smart football player,” the coach said. “In New England, he’s not doing anything special, but he’s functional. He gets the job done. They’re able to maximize his athletic talent, which they’ve been able to do with a bunch of castoffs over and over again because the Patriots can field a functional defense while still paying the quarterback and the offensive players.”
Meaning the Patriots defense strives merely for functionality, and it is cost-effective for the organization.
“When Tom Brady was first playing, they were loaded on defense,” the coach said. “They had Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law — they had everybody. Now, it’s like, ‘Damn, why’d they trade (edge rusher) Chandler Jones?’ It’s because Brady is making all kinds of money. I imagine if Brady ever retires, you’re going to see a big shift in the way the Patriots allocate their spending.”