Mike Freeman’s 10-Point Stance: Expect the Unexpected from Belichick in SB 53
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 13: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on following the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on January 13, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Bill Belichick plays a different game than most in the Super Bowl, why there is likely to be more than one GOAT on the field in Atlanta and why the NFL doesn’t really care about the missed call in the NFC title game. All that and more in the latest 10-Point Stance.

   

1. The grand master

Bill Belichick has fooled, tricked, cajoled, outthought and outschemed opposing coaches for decades. If there is one certainty we can expect from Super Bowl LIII, it is that Belichick will do it again, and throw something at the Rams they didn’t see coming.

This is Belichick’s trademark quality, as much who he is as the curmudgeon he appears to be on camera. It doesn’t always work, but he always tries.

The NFL’s preeminent cat-and-mouse planner now faces his latest test, butting heads with the league’s newest cat-and-mouse expert in Rams coach Sean McVay. They are both so good at this that it will be hard to know where the cat ends and the mouse begins.

To understand how Belichick might approach this latest challenge, you must look at his past.

It begins in 1991 with the Giants’ Super Bowl XXV win over Buffalo. It’s difficult to put into words how much almost everyone believed quarterback Jim Kelly’s team was unstoppable. The Bills offense had four Hall of Famers: Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and receivers James Lofton and Andre Reed.

Belichick, then the Giants defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells, had a highly unusual thought. Most teams focused on stopping Thomas, thinking he was the key part of the Buffalo engine. So Belichick conjured a plan to goad the Bills into running. By letting Thomas get his yards, the Buffalo passing attack would be minimized. The Giants played the entire game with two down linemen, and whenever a Bills receiver caught a pass, they were physically punished.

Uncredited/Associated Press

To this day, to me, it remains the single greatest game plan ever devised during the Super Bowl era.

Belichick sprung another trap against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. He again utilized extra defensive backs against Kurt Warner and his Greatest Show on Turf offense, a unit that led the league in scoring with 503 points that season. That time, though, Belichick mixed his coverages relentlessly, never allowing the Rams to know what he was doing. The Patriots won, 20-17.

The game plan was so dominant, and so surprising to the Rams, that to this day, Rams players believe Belichick somehow cheated. Spoiler alert: He didn’t.

Belichick unveiled his latest twist in the AFC title game against the Chiefs. The Patriots blitzed Patrick Mahomes constantly up the middle, forcing him to scramble, and throw on the run. While Mahomes is excellent at doing that, Belichick figured it was better to force him to throw on the move rather than let him operate from the pocket. He was right. The Chiefs were shut out in the first half for the first time all season.

Belichick is far from perfect. He’s lost some huge games, including two Super Bowls to the Giants, and he was a good Seattle play call away from losing a third.

The key, however, is in almost all his big games (and there are other examples), Belichick tries to confound his opponent, sometimes by seemingly playing to its strength. But most of the time, the odds work out in New England’s favor.

The main point, win or lose, is that the Rams can expect him to try something.

This has a multipronged effect on opponents. In preparing for Belichick, you must account for not just what you’re doing but also for what you think he’s going to do.

I know that you know that I know…

Against Belichick, there’s always a switch or trick you never saw coming.

It’s what chess masters do.

And no one is better at it than Belichick.

   

2. What awaits the Rams?

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Jared Goff #16 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates after defeating the New Orleans Saints  in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Los Angeles Rams

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

My guess, based on what some assistant coaches I’ve spoken to are saying, is that the Pats will throw myriad coverages and looks at quarterback Jared Goff in the Super Bowl.

This isn’t groundbreaking. A lot of teams have tried that with Goff, but none of those teams have been Belichick in the Super Bowl. That’s why there is a belief Goff and the Rams will face a scheme they haven’t seen before, much as Kelly did with the Bills and Warner did with the Rams. What that may look like, we don’t know. It’s somewhere in the mind of Belichick.

And if you believe there’s nothing new Belichick can devise, well, you don’t know Belichick.

   

3. What awaits the Patriots?

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Ndamukong Suh #93 of the Los Angeles Rams sacks Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bach

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Difficult as the task is that awaits the Rams, one assistant coach I spoke with felt the L.A. defense was one of the best suited to face Tom Brady.

Why?

Tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh can put pressure on Brady up the middle. While no quarterback likes that kind of pressure, it particularly bothers Brady. It helps to disturb a remarkably quick release. Brady can get rid of the ball much easier against pressure from the outside.

With Donald and Suh, and one other player, rushing Brady, the Rams would then flood the secondary with defensive backs, leaving the Pats with little time and few good options. Donald and Suh are so good at beating double-teams, they’d only need minimal help on the line. Or, at least, that’s the logic.

The tactic may make sense, but it won’t be easy. Brady has thrown 90 passes in the postseason and hasn’t been sacked once.

   

4. A game for GOATs?

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Brady isn’t the only GOAT who’ll take the field in a couple of weeks in Atlanta. A few people in the league tell me Rams defensive end Aaron Donald is already better than Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and approaching Reggie White territory as the best defensive lineman of all time. And these aren’t sources who live only in the moment.

Despite the praise, I’m not sure I am completely on board. When Sapp was in Tampa, he was better than Donald is now. He was better than almost any interior lineman who ever played. Though his career tanked in Oakland, there was a stretch when he was what Donald is now—and then some.

White was in a different stratosphere, but, again, people I respect don’t think Donald is that far behind White.

What Donald has in common with them is a package of skills few players possess: an almost majestic physicality, speed and incredible strength. Sapp was 6’2″ and 300 pounds. White was 6’5″ and 300 pounds. Donald is 6’1″ and 280.

As Belichick himself told reporters Monday: “He’s pretty much unblockable.”

If Donald dominates during the Super Bowl, the talk of where he ranks in history will only increase.

   

5. Road warriors

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Johnny Hekker #6 and Greg Zuerlein #4 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrate after kicking the game winning field goal in overtime against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome o

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Even though the Super Bowl doesn’t count as a road game, it is. That bodes well for the Rams, who have shown they are comfortable playing anywhere. They are a league-best 14-3 on the road over the past two years (regular season and playoffs).

Considering that so many of the team’s stars, like Goff and running back Todd Gurley, are so young, it’s a remarkable record. That ability to play well no matter the venue was on full display in the NFC title game Sunday, when the Rams shook off a 13-0 deficit and adjusted to both the crowd noise and the relentlessness of the Saints to win.

That thick skin is likely to count for something when L.A. faces a franchise as well-prepared as any in the history of the game two weeks from now in Atlanta.

   

6. Mo’ money

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Some staggering data from the site TicketClub.com as you plan to make your Super Bowl ticket purchases:

• The get-in price ranges from $3,492 to $3,996, depending on from where you purchase.

• The most expensive average ticket sold is in the Piedmont Club at midfield of the 200 level. Those have gone for $10,725 so far.

• Most expensive overall listing: $624,750 for a full suite, which is over two times the median price for a home in Georgia, according to the site.

• The average sold ticket price fell by more than $1,000 since Friday—from $4,935 to $3,926 on Monday.

Wait…let’s back up.

Over 600 grand for a suite?

That thing better come with a bridge.

   

7. The art of the ‘get back’ coach

Many teams have a “get back” coach—a person designed to keep players and coaches off the field—but, thanks to this clip from NFL Films (via ESPN), it appears the Rams’ McVay is the first NFL head coach to have his own GBC.

The GBC is actually semi-important. They keep order on the sideline and can prevent a penalty by keeping people from going onto the field of play, or getting too close to a game official.

If there were more GBCs, the world would be a far better place.

   

8. Canada may be on to something

REGINA, SK - JULY 08: CFL referee Tim Kroeker during a timeout in the game between the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on July 8, 2017 in Regina, Canada. (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)

Brent Just/Getty Images

The Canadian Football League gets it correct when it comes to replay. If the NFL had the same rules as the CFL, the disastrous non-call toward the end of the fourth quarter in the Rams-Saints game could have been corrected.

As the Toronto Sun pointed out, the Saints could have challenged the non-call were the game played under CFL rules.

The NFL has always been concerned that adding extra layers of protection like this would make games too long. That hasn’t happened in Canada, where games have gotten shorter, according to Darin Gantt of Pro Football Talk. (CFL coaches, however, are restricted to one replay challenge per game.)

Canadians get this right. In fact, Canadians get almost everything right.

   

9. XFL is off to a good start

XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck

XFL Commissioner Oliver LuckCliff Owen/Associated Press

Who knows if the Vince McMahon-backed XFL will survive in the long term, but it is hiring some damn impressive people.

It started with naming Oliver Luck, father of Andrew, as the commissioner. This past week, Jeffrey Pollack was tapped as chief operating officer. Pollack has a long and highly credible history in sports and comes to the XFL from the Chargers, for whom he was the chief marketing and strategy officer.

This may all be for naught, but if the league operates as well as its executive hiring process has gone so far, it has a chance.

   

10. The bottom line

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

I’ve heard from people within the Saints, and, as you can imagine, the team is still angry over the blatantly blown pass interference non-call that helped keep the Rams alive late in the NFC title game. They have a right to be. It was maybe the worst call ever. It changed both destinies and legacies.

The NFL has been remarkably quiet since the call happened, and there’s a reason why: It doesn’t care.

Let me explain.

The league doesn’t believe that a lack of faith in its officiating will hurt its bottom line. That is highly debatable, but in its defense, the NFL has heard idiots blather on about how the league was in trouble for years. There have been numerous clowns on many sides of the political aisle saying the league was going to die for one reason or another for a while now.

And yet, 53.9 million people watched the CBS broadcast of the AFC Championship Game, as CBS announced in a news release. That’s a staggering number.

As long as owners get those kinds of ratings, controversies like the one that happened in New Orleans will be a minor inconvenience. Few may believe so among the commentator class, but based on what various team officials tell me, owners aren’t losing any sleep over the potential damage of a blown call.

And as long as they believe that, little will change.

        

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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