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Keys to the Game presented by Carmax: Pats look to slow down Rams again

2020-KTTG-PDC-wk14-rams

Fresh off of a total team win over the Chargers, the Patriots wrap up their Los Angeles road trip and final non-division game of the season as they take on the Rams on Thursday Night Football. New England's playoff hopes have them in must-win territory and this one holds the opportunity to get back to a winning record before wrapping the season up with three-straight division games.

The last time these two teams met was in Super Bowl 53, when the Patriots smothered another Rams super offense, holding Sean McVay and Jared Goff to just three points. Can this 2020 Patriots produce a similar effort with many new faces?

Defensively, the Rams provide one of the Patriots' toughest tests to date, they're near the top of the league in pretty much every statistical category. The could mean big trouble for a Patriots passing offense that has thrown for under 200 yards the last two weeks, combined.

What do the Patriots need to do to get back over .500 and keep their playoff dreams alive? Here are the Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!

D-line on the line

Brian Flores and the Patriots defense had an excellent gameplan for Super Bowl 53 and it's easy to see the impact that methodology has had against the Rams ever since. This season, Flores' Dolphins and Joe Judge's Giants have held the Rams to two of their three lowest offensive outputs this season.

The key? Stacking the defensive line with multiple down linemen and playing zone behind them, while trying to muddy Goff's reads. The Patriots have different pieces now, but with Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart and Deatrich Wise, they have a good base to execute a similar plan.

Their ability to two-gap can take away a lot of what the Rams want to do, especially on the ground, where blocking double teams signal where the back should go. The Pats front can make those reads tough to discern and that's the first key to fall.

The Rams offense can be sporadic and if they can't get the big plays, they can struggle to finish drives even when they've had success between the 20-yard lines. Despite being third in yards, they're just 17th in points.

The drop off in production between manageable yardage and long yardage is also striking. They're Top-10 on each down if it's short or middle distance to go, but close to the bottom of the league when it's long yardage.

It will all start up front for the Patriots, with the d-line needing to dominate and behind them, Ja'Whaun Bentley must continue his upward trajectory. Stop the run, put them in long yardage situations and force Goff into mistakes and incompletions.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Los Angeles Rams.

Take new steps on offense

It's hard to expect the Patriots offense to suddenly turn into something they're not, but the help they've gotten in the last two wins could fall apart at any point and they must make strides in the final quarter of the season to keep the wins coming. Takeaways and big special teams plays have been huge factors the last two weeks, but they might not be enough against a stifling Rams defense.

To be sure, the attack is dependent on Damien Harris but could an expanded role for Sony Michel give them an even more balanced rushing attack? Michel had a nice catch last week and could find himself in Rex Burkhead's balanced role instead of making him a rotational piece for Harris. With three backs excelling in their individual roles it could make an excellent Patriots rushing attack even better.

But this is the best defense the Patriots have seen this season, making it one of the greatest tests of how the 2020 Patriots are composed and have been winning games. If New England can't get going on the ground, what can they go to?

Deal with Donald

Of course, the biggest problem for the offense is probably defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The Pats cannot allow Donald to destroy their gameplan, putting them in long yardage situations, where he and his Rams pass rushers can cause havoc.

The Patriots wins this season have followed a very specific script, dependent on winning on defense and special teams, with plays that help give the offense a needed boost. The offense might need their biggest boost to date against Donald and his disruptive teammates.

Last week, the Patriots had a good plan for Joey Bosa, but as an edge player, Bosa is easier to target than Donald, who is usually inside. That puts the biggest focus on perhaps the Patriots best offensive strength – Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. That threesome was excellent against Donald in Super Bowl 53, but having that same kind of performance will be difficult to replicate.

The 2018 Patriots offense still had plenty of trouble moving the ball and getting points against the Rams defense, coming through with a couple key plays down the stretch that made the difference. They'll need a similar kind of clutch performance in 2020 and every yard will be at a premium.

Special Teams, more please

Just a few short days after taking advantage of the Chargers 32nd-ranked special teams, the Patriots will try to do the same against the Rams 28th-ranked special teams. As we've seen this season, for the Pats to be clicking on all cylinders, they need significant contributions from the third phase.

That doesn't mean it has to be two touchdowns like it was last weekend, but field position, making all the kicks and getting every extra yard of hidden yardage they can, is vital to their hopes of victory.

The Rams biggest weakness on special teams has been their field goal and extra point operation. If the Pats can keep it close, leaving points on the board could have a big impact on the final result. High red zone stops could translate to missed opportunities for Los Angeles.

Cam Achord and the coaching staff had some special plans for the Chargers, exploiting their weaknesses with a targeted approach that included in-game adjustments. They'll need a similar kind of plan with equal execution this week.

Prediction:

While there would seem to be a blueprint for how to slow down the Rams offensive attack and there's reason to believe a peaking Patriots defense can execute it, they'll have little margin for error, especially if they give up any big scoring plays.

Offensively is where the Patriots biggest questions reside. Can they move the ball and score points on this defense? Will Josh McDaniels have enough creativity left in his bag of tricks to manufacture the kind of points it's going to take? Once again it's obvious what has to happen and what absolutely cannot.

Still feeling the juice from the 45-0 win over the Chargers, the Patriots should roll that energy right into Thursday night, pulling off their hardest-fought win of the season.

Patriots 19, Rams 17

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