Ahead of the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars, I wrote that Tom Brady and the Patriots offense were built to exploit the Jaguars defense. A concussion injury to Rob Gronkowski prevented that from coming true, but that didn’t stop the offense from doing enough to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LII.
I’m going to make the same gamble this time around. The Patriots are built perfectly to exploit the biggest weakness in the Philadelphia Eagles pass defense.
Brett Kollmann runs a fantastic weekly show called The Film Room where he analyzes the successes and failures of teams, players, and various football concepts. He’s dedicated a couple videos to the Philadelphia Eagles defense- once after the Seattle Seahawks dismantled them in week 13, and once after the Atlanta Falcons failed to follow the blueprint of success in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Kollmann explained how the Seattle Seahawks used Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham on rub route combinations to produce in the red zone against the Eagles, and the Patriots could use a similar game plan.
“Those rubs are without a doubt the biggest Achilles heel of the Eagles defense,” Kollmann stated.
The rub route is the bread and butter of this Patriots offense and wide receivers Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, and Chris Hogan thrive in these situations, as does tight end Rob Gronkowski.
All four players, and even the running backs, are used in these rub routes when the defense is playing off the line of scrimmage but are in man responsibilities to create the extra separation needed for some nice yards after the catch. As Kollman shows, there’s definite opportunity for delayed rub routes that develop down the field and can spring players like Cooks or Hogan for big gains.
The Patriots like the rub route because it’s a solid counter to press coverage that usually results in New England throwing the deep pass. If the defenders are close to the receiver, offensive players are allowed to pick the defensive back within one yard of the line of scrimmage to get a free release, and that’s why the Eagles often have their defensive backs in off-man coverage.
But while the risk of rub routes declines when the Eagles play off coverage, there’s another vulnerability that rears its head.
“The Giants put on tape multiple times in week 15 just how vulnerable this Eagles secondary was to double moves,” Kollmann added. “They are a very, very aggressive secondary that will plant and drive on anything near them the second the ball is thrown. That’s the biggest reason why they’re in the top four in interceptions this season. But that aggressiveness is also one of their biggest pitfalls because it can lead to getting roasted by double moves.”
If the Eagles play off the receivers, the Patriots will set up the Philadelphia defenders with a lot of comeback or stopping routes to take advantage of the cushion. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will use these plays to set up an eventual double move for Cooks and Hogan to get them open behind the secondary in ways that the Falcons failed to create in the divisional round.
And if the Eagles play close to the receivers, the Patriots will use the rub routes and Danny Amendola, James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkehad and Rob Gronkowski will be able to rack up yards after the catch in the middle of the field.
The Eagles defense is great, but their linebackers and defensive backs are not as talented as the Jaguars players. Jacksonville was able to man up one-on-one against the Patriots players with All Pros like Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and coverage linebackers like Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, and they didn’t have to deal with Rob Gronkowski for half of the game.
The Eagles don’t have that caliber of player to trot out on the field. The Patriots skill players will be much more capable of breaking free of the Eagles defenders than they were against the Jaguars in man coverage. The Jaguars pass coverage was similar to that of the historic 2015 Denver Broncos, while this Eagles coverage is above-average, but by no means legendary.
The Patriots have receivers with the quickness necessary to break free on rub routes and the speed to take advantage of their aggression. They have an offensive coordinator capable of drawing up the perfect game plan and a quarterback that can execute it at a high level.
This Philadelphia defense can be beaten- and the Patriots are the perfect team to do it.