Thursday Night Preview: Patriots at Rams

There are only four games left in the 2020 NFL season, which means the playoffs are right around the corner. Thursday’s game features two teams that have pulled off their fair share of big victories. It’s a matchup of two defenses that have been on fire over the past month. The Rams are the current NFC West leaders and are looking to prove they are a team to be reckoned with. The Patriots, meanwhile, have won four of their past five games to boost themselves back into the thick of things in the AFC. Here are the keys to the game for both of these teams:

Keys to the game for the New England Patriots:

1. Utilize the 1-2 punch of Damien Harris and Sony Michel

Through the past two games, the passing game hasn’t been a huge point of emphasis for the Patriots, as Cam Newton has averaged 76.5 yards per game through the air in that span. In fact, the Patriots are 2-1 in games when Newton has less than 100 passing yards and 0-2 in games when Newton has over 300 yards passing. The Patriots’ formula for success on offense has been to run the ball with Newton and their plethora of unique backs. With Sony Michel now in his third game back from injury, the Patriots should continue to use him more, especially after how the Chargers were able to shut down James White. Damien Harris has been the lead back for a while now and that shouldn’t change. However, Michel is still a shifty back who has shown a better use of vision in 2020 and appears capable of taking on the Rex Burkhead role. With the Los Angeles Rams having one of the better rush defenses in the league—the Rams are currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt with 3.6 and third in rushing yards per game with 93.1—the Patriots will have to do a good job of utilizing Harris and Michel so that they don’t have to rely on Newton’s arm and create different looks for L.A. to defend in the run game while controlling the tempo of the game.

2. Get after Jared Goff

The Patriots have not been one of the better teams in creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2020. Currently, New England is 26th in sacks with 18 and 30th in QB hits with 52. This has been a huge reason for the Patriots’ secondary getting exposed in certain games. This was not the case against the Chargers in Week 13, as New England sacked Justin Herbert three times and hit Herbert 11 times. Now, this could have merely been an anomaly because of how poorly the Chargers’ offensive line has played, but the Patriots must be able to get after Jared Goff if they want to continue to play well defensively. The Rams’ offensive line has been very good this season as it has only given up 16 sacks on the year, but there have been some games where the pressure by opposing front sevens has been too much for Goff. The two games where this trend was the most apparent were against the Dolphins and the second meeting with the 49ers. Both of these teams forced Goff into multiple turnovers due to the pressure they sent and even scored touchdowns off of these turnovers. In Week 12, the Niners were able to get a pick-6 due to the fact that Goff did not handle the pressure that was being sent at him. Look for New England to rely on a similar formula to Super LIII in order to force Goff into more mistakes to give the offense better field position.

3. Continue to get N’Keal Harry targets in the red zone

One thing that has been apparent for New England this season is that the red-zone offense has been relatively predictable at times, especially when the Patriots get inside the 5-yard line. Even though most teams are unable to stop Newton from sneaking the ball in, the Patriots may have a harder time with QB runs against a defensive line of this caliber. Although the Patriots mostly did their damage on special teams and on defense against the Chargers in Week 13, there was still one play that should be a key for the Patriots in this one. This was a touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry in the red zone. Harry has not panned out like most people thought he would in his young career, but he has shown flashes of being a good target in the red zone. With the Rams most likely keying on Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd, Harry should continue to see more targets in this one due to his 6-3 frame. Both of Harry’s touchdowns this season have come near the goal line, so it would not be surprising in the least if he gets more looks there if the QB designed runs aren’t working.

Keys to the game for the Los Angeles Rams:

1. Be active on the defensive line

Los Angeles has one of the best defensive lines this year, headlined by perennial All-Pro Aaron Donald. One thing that is going to be a major key for Los Angeles to disrupt the Patriots’ momentum on offense is to bat balls down at the line of scrimmage. Newton leads the league in batted balls, and the Patriots overall have 17 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. In fact, Newton has had multiple passes picked off due to the fact that defensive lines were able to bat some of his passes in the air to teammates. New England hasn’t been a world-beater on offense, but it has played relatively turnover-free football recently with the exception of the Cardinals game. The Patriots’ strong suit is clearly not the passing game, as they average 191.4 passing yards per game, which is 30th in the league. If the Patriots get down early, they will have to rely on a shaky passing game, which is where the Rams will have to make sure they get up to bat some of Newton’s passes down. Newton has only thrown two interceptions since throwing three against San Francisco in Week 7, and the Rams will have to make sure they force the Patriots into more turnovers that will make it even harder for them to score.

2. Take away Jakobi Meyers and Damien Harris

Even though Julian Edelman, Sony Michel and others have not produced as expected for the Patriots’ offense, Jakobi Meyers and Damien Harris have stepped up in a big way. These two players have become integral to the Patriots’ success on offense with the aforementioned players out with injuries. With Meyers, the Patriots have another go-to receiver in the slot with whom they can run trick plays like they did with Edelman. Meyers has cooled off the past few weeks, but it is still important that the Rams force other players to step up instead of allowing Newton to make some easy first-down completions to Meyers. The even bigger cog to take down on the Patriots’ offense is second-year running back Damien Harris. Since Harris first started in Week 4, he has rushed for 641 yards and 2 touchdowns on 5.1 yards per attempt. He has been one of the reasons for New England being able to win some of these ugly games, as he allows the Patriots to control the tempo with his aggressive runs. The Rams cannot allow Harris to get going, as most of the Patriots’ offense comes from being able to run the ball. If the Rams can shut down Harris early, this will force the Patriots into more of a passing approach, which has not worked in their favor. The Patriots have not shown they can go toe-to-toe in the passing game with teams this season, so the Rams need to ensure that the run game is non-existent for New England.

3. Establish the tight ends

After having a big finish to the 2019 campaign, many people were excited about Tyler Higbee becoming one of the better tight ends in the NFC coming into this season. He has not had the season that most people thought he would, but now is the time for Higbee, along with Gerald Everett, to expose an inexperienced linebacking corps for the Patriots. Against the Texans in Week 11, the Patriots got torched by Houston’s tight ends to the tune of 9 receptions for 134 yards. Jordan Akins was particularly effective against the Patriots as he compiled 5 receptions for 83 yards. Higbee and Everett are two interesting tight ends, as they bring different skill sets that make them dangerous. Higbee is more of a traditional, bruising tight end while Everett is a guy the Rams can line up in the slot and expose smaller defensive backs with. Either way, with Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson most likely covering the Rams’ primary receivers like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds, etc., the way to beating the Patriots could be by exposing players like Kyle Dugger, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall in pass coverage. Higbee and Everett have combined for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns on 66 receptions. Look for the tight ends to be a key part of what the Rams want to do, especially if the Patriots take Kupp and Woods out of the equation.

Sources: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference

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