By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Sunday-Thursday NFL short week provides among the most unique challenges in professional football. In an age where the game has become so meticulous and detail oriented, much of the preparation has to be condensed as a typical week is crammed into three days.
In these situations, raw talent and the ability to change things on the fly are valuable assets. The Patriots and Rams both bring those to the table, meaning Thursday night’s game can turn into a real chess match.
Which players will elevate their games to match the moment? And which coach will have the upper hand? Which players that played a key role in Super Bowl LIII will be called on again when the Patriots face the Rams on Thursday night? Let’s get into all of that with this week’s key matchups.
When New England has the ball: Joe Thuney/David Andrews/Shaq Mason vs. Aaron Donald
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the Patriots have to be able to run the ball to have a chance to win. They’ve been able to do so more often than not over the last month, but now they’ll face one of the best defensive lines in football, led by former Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
“He’s very quick, he’s very explosive and he’s instinctive. He’s just a good football player,” Belichick said of Donald on Wednesday. “He recognizes things quickly and is able to quickly take advantage of leverage opportunities that are created in line and can quickly get to them.”
Usually, teams scheme away from dominant defensive lineman. Belichick says with Donald, that’s not possible.
“He’ll wreck a game and there’s no play that he’s not a factor on. He’s right in the middle of the defense. You can’t really get away from him on any run or pass play. You’ve got to deal with him blocking on every play. He’s definitely a major factor in the game.”
Just like in Super Bowl LIII, it will be up to the Patriots core interior offensive linemen to make Donald a negligible factor in this game. Can they repeat their effort from that game, when Donald had no tackles for losses and just one QB hit?
“I’m different than I was in 2018. He’s different than he was in 2018,” Patriots center David Andrews said on Tuesday. Expect both sides to adjust to each other early. Whoever figures out the other first should have a sizable advantage.
Is there anything the Patriots can do, aside from having elite interior offensive linemen, so slow Donald down? They can borrow from their playbook against the Chargers.
Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense set out right away to get Joey Bosa and the Chargers’ pass rush on their heels, calling a screen on the first play of the game. They continued to rely on screens through the game, as well as draws and delayed handoffs. Expect plenty more of that on Thursday night.
When Los Angeles has the ball: Stephon Gilmore vs. Robert Woods
This should be a fun matchup between two guys who know each other well. Gilmore was the Buffalo Bills’ first round pick in 2012, with Robert Woods joining the team a year later as a second round pick in 2013 (behind EJ Manuel). From 2013-2016, it’s safe to assume they had their fair share of battles in practice.
The two have only met once since leaving the Bills, in Super Bowl LIII. However, Gilmore spent most of that game covering another former teammate in Brandin Cooks.
With Brandin Cooks now in Houston, it’s likely the two will finally face off on Thursday. Gilmore is coming in off a run against some of the top wide receivers in the league, including DeAndre Hopkins and Keenan Allen. Meanwhile Woods is playing his best ball of the season, and has at least seven catches and 80 yards in each of his last three games.
As he’s done in recent weeks, will Gilmore be able to neutralize the opponents top passing target and force them into a more one-dimensional look? If he does, the Patriots defense could be in for another dominant performance.
Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Sean McVay
It’s impossible to discuss this game without mentioning the coaching matchup. Belichick is Belichick, a defensive-minded six-time Super Bowl champion and the best to ever do it. McVay on the other hand is considered one of, if not the best young coaches in the game and an offensive revolutionary.
However, McVay’s offense seems to have hit a relative snag in 2020. They rank third in the league in yards, but have had trouble converting those yards into points, where they rank 17th. That’s a substantial drop – they ranked 11th in scoring last season. Turnovers aren’t helping the case, the Rams have 20 giveaways this year, 6th in the NFL.
It will be up to Bill Belichick’s defense, which ranks 11th in the NFL with 18 takeaways this year, to capitalize on the Rams mistakes.
In their first meeting in Super Bowl LIII, it was coaching decisions in key moments of the game that made a huge difference. Will Belichick have the upperhand again? Or will McVay prove he’s ready to compete with the best of the best?
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.