Super Bowl LIII will be hyped as boy wonder Sean McVay against legendary genius Bill Belichick. And though McVay, who turned 33 on Thursday, deserves every bit of praise for leading the Rams to the Super Bowl in just two seasons as head coach, the team’s journey was helped by Wade Phillips and a defensive scheme that has held up for more than 30 years.
Belichick, the Patriots’ head coach, reminded everyone of that during a press conference Thursday.
“I’ve certainly changed a lot in the last 30 years schematically, but Wade really hasn’t,” Belichick said. “You have to give him credit for that. The system has lasted. It’s part of his dad’s system that he’s adapted and developed. I have a ton of respect for what he’s done and how he’s doing it against any offense you might see.”
No one is going to confuse the Rams defense with that of the 1985 Bears. The NFC West champions were ranked 19th in total defense during the regular season after ranking 23rd against the run and 14th against the pass. Where they excelled was in creating turnovers, 30 of them to rank third in the league. They also have a knack for making key stops.
“What they do in their system, they do it well,” Belichick said. “They have a lot of confidence in what they do, which they should. He’s been successful doing it for a long time.”
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The 71-year-old Phillips, who is the son of legendary NFL coach Bum Phillips, has been known for getting the most out of his talent, and making superstars out of players like Broncos linebacker Von Miller and defensive tackle Aaron Donald with these Rams.
Donald is a game-wrecker, having posted 20.5 sacks and 41 quarterback hits during the regular season.
Phillips has had his defense play more zone coverages since the second half of the season. But the Rams aren’t afraid to get physical when it counts, as the Saints found out during the NFC Championship last Sunday in the Superdome.
“The scheme is the same,” Belichick said. “Wade does a great job of utilizing his personnel and putting his players in position to be productive and make plays. When he had Von Miller, he didn’t change what he did. It’s just the volume and the percentages shifted to accentuate a player like that whether it’s Aaron Donald or whoever it happens to be.”
The Rams held the high-powered Saints to just 290 total yards, including 48 rushing, after the Saints had rolled for 420 total yards in the divisional playoff game against the Eagles. The Rams’ defensive effort in New Orleans was largely lost in the controversy over the officiating, but wasn’t lost on Belichick. He gave most of the credit to Phillips.
“Certainly, there’s an element of game-planning and how he plans for one team or another, but it’s within the system he has,” Belichick said. “I don’t think he’s out drawing up a lot of new defenses. He has a menu and he selects the one that fits best against his opponents and the situations that come up during that game.”
It sounds like Belichick knows what to expect, but doesn’t know what to expect when the two teams meet for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“I don’t think we’re going to see three new fronts and three new coverages in this game that he hasn’t run in the last 30 years,” Belichick said. “I just don’t think that’s going to happen. If it does, we’ll adjust to it.”
Phillips is chasing his second Super Bowl ring after serving as the defensive coordinator when the Broncos beat the Panthers in February 2016, two weeks after beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
“He’s been successful everywhere he has been,” Belichick said. “I remember dealing with it when I was in Cleveland. To his credit there’s not many of us who can have a system can last that long.”
Put it this way: Phillips’ defense has lasted as long as McVay has been alive.