Third of a five-part series looking at team strategy for Super Bowl LIII. Part 3: What will the Rams do about stopping Tom Brady’s top passing outlet, New England Patriots running back James White?
He had as many receptions in the regular season as Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill and caught the same number of touchdowns as Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster.
No New England Patriot was targeted more in 2018 than James White, who is listed as a running back but only because the NFL doesn’t have a position known as catching back.
“The route tree for him coming out of the backfield is pretty much just like a regular wide receiver,” Rams safety John Johnson said. “He can run every route. He’s someone we really have to be aware of.”
White caught 87 passes this season, the third-highest total in the league among running backs. He rushed only 94 times, which ranked 51st overall, the total eclipsed even by quarterbacks Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans.
To be absolutely clear, White is a much greater threat when Tom Brady drops to pass, the back’s potential to impact games as a receiver one of the factors that could ultimately determine this Super Bowl.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Just two years ago in Super Bowl LI, White had 14 receptions for 110 yards. He scored three touchdowns and a two-point conversion to help New England overcome a 28-3 deficit and beat Atlanta in overtime 34-28.
“They love to create mismatches with him, and it’s easy to see why,” Rams linebacker Mark Barron said. “He’s great at what he does. But, if we execute and stay disciplined, I feel like we’ll be fine.”
Barron and Johnson are two of the primary options to cover White on Sunday, along with linebacker Cory Littleton.
When the Rams blitz, Johnson likely will be on White, an assignment that’s particularly difficult from the back of the defense given Brady’s ability to release the ball quickly.
As this season has progressed, the Rams have increasingly employed a zone in defending against the pass. To counter such a strategy, Brady would look for White on short routes and Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski in the seams.
In last year’s Super Bowl, Philadelphia often used safety Malcolm Jenkins on White, and the results were impressive. White finished with only two catches for 21 yards as the Eagles won.
Of course, Brady still threw for 505 yards, but White was removed as a deciding factor.
That’s just one of the difficulties in defending New England, the Patriots having a variety of reliable weapons, even if none of them is especially nightmarish for the opposition.
Before the divisional round, Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was asked about the importance of limiting White in the overall scheme of combating New England.
“Well,” he answered, “I think our No. 1 objective is to somehow keep the points down.”
Bradley then watched the Patriots open a 35-7 lead by halftime on a day when White finished with a record-tying 15 catches for 97 yards.
For the Rams, White represents a challenge with which they are familiar. In the NFC title game against New Orleans, they had to deal with Alvin Kamara, who proved to be a tough cover.
He finished with 11 catches for 96 yards but did not find the end zone. In Week 9 against the Rams — a 45-35 Saints victory — Kamara had only 34 yards receiving but was more productive on the ground and scored three times.
A few of the Rams also likened White to Chicago’s Tarik Cohen, another accomplished receiver out of the backfield. In Week 14, the Rams limited Cohen to four receptions for 20 yards.
“We’ve done it before,” Johnson said. “We’ve slowed these kinds of guys down. So it’s all about being aware of them and executing against them.”
That was part of Bradley’s plan too, and the Chargers are still trying to sort out what went wrong.