It was just a matter of time until the injuries to the New England Patriots linebackers became a part of the opposition's game plan. With star linebacker Dont'a Hightower out, the Philadelphia Eagles made a point of getting the ball into the hands of their shiftier running backs to take advantage of the questionable ability of the New England back-up linebackers.
"Some of the matchups with the linebackers," Eagles head coach Chip Kelly noted after the game as why he used running backs Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner instead of DeMarco Murray. "We felt like it's as big a group of linebackers as you're going to face."
With Jamie Collins still not back in full football shape, Jonathan Freeny struggling to tackle in space, and with Jerod Mayo still not fully contributing on the field, the typically strong interior of the Patriots defense was greatly weakened. Sproles and Barner had field days against this defense, combining for 146 yards on 30 touches.
In a game where the Patriots were all-to-happy to give the Eagles free points, Philadelphia knew they could rely on their running backs to pick up chunks of the field to put the offense in short-yardage situations.
"We just thought we were going to use all three [Eagles running backs] today and we needed all three," Kelly explained. "When you've got [Jamie Collins] and [Rob Ninkovich] and guys, it's as big a linebacker crew as you're going to face, so sometimes those smaller, quicker guys can cause some problems in the matchup."
The success of the Eagles scatbacks can't be attributed to just Freeny or Mayo, but point to an overall issue at the position. Not just for the Patriots, but for bigger linebackers around the league. The Eagles gave the Patriots a taste of their own medicine with their utilization of Sproles clearly reminiscent of how New England deployed Dion Lewis earlier in the year. There were multiple missed tackles and missed opportunities in the open field, and the Patriots are fortunate that few other teams offer a player in the make of Sproles (or Lewis).
This isn't an easy fix moving forward, which is why Lewis was so dangerous in the offense. If the Patriots opt to play a safety, like Patrick Chung, in coverage of Sproles, the Eagles will decide to just run the ball up the middle against the lighter defensive front. If the Patriots use a linebacker, well, we just saw what happened.
The defense as a whole wasn't a big issue, as they limited the Eagles to just 14 points on the day. But this particular match-up drew the attention of the Eagles head coach and is worth monitoring moving forward.