Brandin Cooks was so wide open on a third-quarter pass from Jared Goff on Sunday night that New England coach Bill Belichick said the Rams receiver was “standing there fair-catching the ball in the end zone.”
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty flew in from the back side, lunged at Cooks and jammed his hand into the receiver’s left biceps hard enough to jar the ball loose and prevent a 29-yard touchdown.
“You can’t count those McCourtys out,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said, referring to Jason and his twin brother, New England safety Devin McCourty. “They’re damn fast.”
Two plays after Jason McCourty’s pass breakup, linebacker Dont’a Hightower sacked Goff for a loss of nine yards on third down.
Instead of taking a lead on the pass to Cooks, the Rams settled for Greg Zuerlein’s 53-yard field goal and a 3-3 tie.
“It was a team effort,” Belichick said. “There is not one guy that can stop the Rams. They have too many good players, too many explosive guys, and they’re too well-coached.
“We played the run competitively. I felt we rushed the passer competitively. I thought we covered competitively. We didn’t give up big plays, which they hit on everybody.”
The Patriots sacked Goff four times for a loss of 31 yards, hit him seven other times and broke up eight of his passes.
They had seven tackles for loss.
And they came up with a huge play in the fourth quarter when cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted a Goff pass at the Patriots four-yard line with 4 minutes 17 seconds left to preserve a 10-3 lead.
New England blitzed on 50% of its defensive plays and pressured Goff 14 times.
The Patriots sent six rushers on Gilmore’s interception, with Duron Harmon’s safety blitz forcing Goff into a quicker release.
“Our defensive line put some great pressure on the quarterback,” Gilmore said. “I knew once they get down near the goal line, they like to take shots. I was able to get zone vision on it, and I knew he was going to chuck it up, and I made a great play.”
Harmon is usually an extra defensive back in nickel and dime packages, but he played most of the second half in place of Patriots starting safety Patrick Chung, who suffered a serious right-arm injury when he hurled his body into Gurley while making a tackle early in the third quarter.
The arm of Chung, the team’s second-leading tackler and a veteran whom teammates consider the heart and soul of the defense, was placed in an air cast, and he later returned to the sideline with his arm in a sling.
“Patrick is one of the warriors on our team,” Gilmore said. “He laid it all on the line. You watch that play, he came in full speed. When you see a guy like that coming in and putting his body on the line not caring, you want to fight more for your teammates. We responded well.”
In Harmon, the Patriots had the right player to fill Chung’s void.
“Duron is the closer,” Jason McCourty said. “This guy has made so many huge plays, not only this season, but his whole career.
“When he goes in, no one bats an eye. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, Duron’s in the game.’ This guy has played so much meaningful football. He’s not new to this. He stepped right into the moment.”