ATLANTA – Given the manner in which the Patriots switch up their game plans each week it can be difficult to predict how the defense will try to match up with the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. In the AFC Championship Game Bill Belichick and the defensive staff used Jonathan Jones (with safety help) to shadow the dangerous Tyreek Hill, and it worked as Hill finished with just one catch for 42 yards.
Jones hadn't been getting as much playing time in recent weeks, so few could have foreseen Jones drawing such an important and difficult assignment. But that won't stop us from trying.
While not quite as dangerous as Kansas City's cadre of weapons, especially with Cooper Kupp out of the lineup, the Rams have some options. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods each topped the 1,000-yard mark and Josh Reynolds did a nice job of replacing Kupp after the latter was lost for the year to a torn ACL.
Cooks and Woods are the guys to focus on. Obviously Patriots fans are quite familiar with Cooks, the burner who enjoyed a solid season in New England a year ago before being dealt in the offseason. He finished with 80 catches for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns while Woods led the club with 86 grabs for 1,219 yards and six scores.
But Cooks is the key due to his explosiveness. He's the big-play threat that generally draws Belichick's attention, and it will be interesting to see if he uses Stephon Gilmore against him, or if he opts for J.C. Jackson (or Jason McCourty) with help on the back end.
Cooks can struggle with physicality at the line but that's asking a lot of a rookie on the big stage. It wouldn't be stunning to see the double go to Cooks and Gilmore take Woods, who is more of a possession receiver and averages a full yard less per catch than Cooks.
In either case, Gilmore has experience playing against both. Gilmore and Woods were teammates for four seasons (2013-16) in Buffalo and the corner worked against Cooks last year in Foxborough.
"I played against Robert Woods in Buffalo," Gilmore said. "He's a great route-runner, great hands, tough guy who can run every route. Brandin Cooks is a smaller guy but strong. He has great speed, works hard and both of those guys are tough to cover."
Woods talked about his former teammate as well, and like Gilmore had plenty of complimentary things to say.
"Great corner, physical corner," Woods began. "Always been elite with his hands and his feet. We had quite a few training camp battles. He was the silent assassin. He doesn't take any plays off and he makes you work for everything. That's how it was in practice and you see it on film when you watch him playing for the Patriots. Looks like the same guy."
While the Rams ability to run the ball with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson will likely be the most important factor, it's not as if Jared Goff and the receivers haven't enjoyed success. Goff tossed 32 touchdown passes and threw for nearly 4,700 yards.
If Gilmore takes Woods it's a battle the Patriots need to win. Goff generally looks to Woods in key situations, and those third downs are obviously the difference in big games.
Another factor to watch is Jackson. The rookie likes to play with a physical edge but has drawn some flags doing so at times – including in Kansas City. Cooks is motivated going against his former team, and he's talked about the disappointment of being forced out of the Super Bowl last year due to a first-half concussion.
"We competed every day. He's tough," Gilmore said of Cooks, while adding the need "to play both of them in much different ways."
Cooks caught 22 passes for 20-plus yards this season, which is the fifth-most in the league.
"I learned a lot during my time with the Patriots," Cooks said. "It was a great season and we won a lot of games. But that was last year and I'm in Los Angeles now. There was no doubt in my mind that I've been blessed to play this game at a high level. I was moved a couple times, but every single time I was moved to a special team. And for a first-round pick."
How the Patriots handle Cooks will be one of the interesting storylines Sunday night.