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Super Bowl 52: How the Patriots have had success against Jim Schwartz’s defenses

New England has faced off against Bill Belichick’s acolyte before- and they have a strong track record of success.

New England Patriots v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz have a relationship that spans the past three decades.

Back in 1993, Belichick gave Schwartz his first NFL job as a personnel scout with the Cleveland Browns where Schwartz infamously ate Belichick’s turkey sandwich in the office refrigerator. Belichick liked Schwartz enough not to fire him and considers him “probably the smartest guy” on his coaching tree.

Belichick even tried to hire Schwartz to his first Patriots staff as a linebackers coach in 2000 (he settled for Rob Ryan and Pepper Johnson), but Jeff Fisher blocked the hire and promoted Schwartz to defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans in 2001.

Schwartz has been a defensive coordinator or head coach ever since, leading the Titans from 2001-08, the Detroit Lions from 2009-13, the Buffalo Bills in 2014, and the Eagles over the past two seasons.

Schwartz is known for for his “wide nine” defensive front that sets the defensive ends out wide and creates a straighter path to pressure on the quarterback, but is susceptible to big running plays up the middle and puts more pressure on the linebackers to cover the extra space on the line of scrimmage. He backs that up with a cover one or cover three scheme in the secondary, which also puts stress on the linebackers to get the necessary depth on their zones in cover three or to cover running backs to the outside in cover one.

In other words, there’s a lot of pressure on linebackers Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks to both be aggressive in stopping the run and also to drop back into their coverage responsibilities, which means that the play action pass should be a staple in New England’s offensive game plan.

But teams haven’t been able to crack Schwartz’ defense with any consistency in 2017 as they rank fourth in points allowed, yards allowed, and takeaways, third in run defense DVOA, and seventh in pass defense DVOA.

They have fantastic depth on the defensive line with Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Beau Allen, and Destiny Vaeao rotating all game to stay fresh in the fourth quarter and creating constant pressure.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins is the Eagles version of Patriots versatile safety Patrick Chung as he’s their best nickel defensive back and he also plays strong safety and linebacker. His flexibility allows the defense to transition between various schemes without changing personnel. Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, Rodney McLeod, and Corey Graham are also very solid talents in their own rights.

This is possibly the most talented defense of Schwartz’s career, rivaled only by the Cortland Finnegan- and Albert Haynesworth-led (hey, don’t laugh!) Titans defenses of 2007 and 2008 and the fantastic 2014 Bills defense that ranked second in defensive DVOA.

But that Patriots found success against that Bills team in 2014, winning 37-22, and they’ve had some success against Schwartz’s defense since he was first named the Titans defensive coordinator in 2001. The Patriots have played Schwartz seven times, although only six really count because New England rested their starters against Schwartz in the 2014 season finale.

Schwartz’s Titans defeated the 2002 Patriots 24-7 thanks to a pick-six thrown by Tom Brady and 238 rushing yards from Tennessee. Brady only threw for 134 passing yards, more than half (73) went to Troy Brown. Antowain Smith did gain 72 yards from scrimmage, setting up the stage for the future.

That was the last time a Schwartz-defense managed to beat New England in a game that mattered.

The 2003 Patriots went 2-0 against the Titans, including a victory in the divisional round of the playoffs, with a combined score of 55-44. Antowain Smith gained 173 yards and 2 touchdowns in those games, while Mike Cloud and Kevin Faulk chipped in 126 yards 2 touchdowns of their own. Deion Branch, Troy Brown, and Christian Fauria combined for 228 yards and a touchdown, but it was clear that the Patriots wanted to do their damage on the ground.

The 2006 Patriots defeated the Titans 40-23, with a special garbage time touchdown pass between Vinny Testaverde and Troy Brown extending the lead in the final minutes. Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney combined for 195 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Reche Caldwell added 134 yards and a touchdown.

The 2010 Patriots defeated the Lions 45-24 as Tom Brady took to the air for 341 passing yards, 4 touchdowns, and a perfect passer rating of 158.3 against a weak Lions secondary. This game was actually tied 24-24 in the fourth quarter so it was much closer than the final score indicates.

Deion Branch had 3 catches for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns, Wes Welker had 8 catches for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns, and Rob Gronkowski added 5 catches for 65 yards in his rookie season. Still, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns, so it wasn’t like they were removed from the game plan.

And finally, the 2014 Patriots dispatched the Bills 37-22 as Brady again threw for 4 touchdowns in addition to 361 yards. The Patriots had no success with their running backs this game- Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Vereen combined for 46 yards, including a terrible 37 yards on 21 carries for a 1.76 YPC rate- but Julian Edelman had 101 yards on the day, Brandon LaFell added 97 yards and 2 touchdowns, Rob Gronkowski had 94 receiving yards.

There hasn’t been a single path that the Patriots have followed to defeat Schwartz. Just as important to victory, if not even more so, is avoiding turnovers. In the five Patriots victories, they won the turnover margin handily, forcing 10 takeaways and only committing a single turnover. In the Titans 2002 victory, Tennessee won the turnover battle 2-to-1.

While the wide nine generally is weak to runs up the middle, Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan are pretty fantastic defensive tackles that could change the game plan. And while playing cover one in the secondary generally leaves the linebackers susceptible to covering running backs, maybe Malcolm Jenkins takes on that role and forces the Patriots to throw in a different direction.

The only real consistency in how the Patriots have defeated Schwartz’s defense is in avoiding their strengths and attacking their weaknesses. That sounds overly simple, and it is, but New England avoided the Bills and Lions defensive lines to test their much weaker secondaries and based on the strength of the Eagles defensive line, I would expect the Patriots to follow that game plan again.

The Patriots should take to the air against the Philadelphia secondary and to challenge the linebackers in coverage of running backs Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White. There will be some rushing attempts, even if they’re not fruitful, in order to set up the play action pass that always seems to work against Schwartz’s aggressive defenses.

There will be favorable match-ups if Rob Gronkowski can play because the Eagles don’t have an Eric Berry capable of covering him one-on-one. There will be open zones for Danny Amendola against the cover three, and deep shots for Brandin Cooks against the cover one and through the play action, and who knows- maybe Lewis will be able to run up the middle against this Eagles defense.

But everything points to this being a game of multiple offensive adjustments by the Patriots as they test the water and see what is working against this stout Jim Schwartz-led Eagles defense and hopefully Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels can stay one step ahead during Super Bowl Sunday.