Football Outsiders is looking at the keys to beating both of the teams in the Super Bowl and they started off by breaking down the New England Patriots because they punched their ticket first. They wanted to look at the four worst games by the Patriots in 2017 according to DVOA to see if there were any trends that the Philadelphia Eagles might be able to exploit.
According to Football Outsiders (FO), the Patriots offense definitely dipped, but wasn’t bad by any measure, and the special teams unit was still one of the best in the league. It was the defense that fell apart for New England and in these four games the Patriots posted what would have been the league-worst rating against both the pass and the run.
“The Eagles have a very strong defense, but it’s not realistic to expect them to shut the Patriots offense down,” FO’s Vincent Verhei reasons. “Instead, their best chance to win could be to overwhelm New England’s defense and turn the game into a shootout.”
Verhei notes that in these four games, the Patriots were actually weaker up the middle than to the outside against both the pass and the run and that opposing quarterbacks were able to pick apart the defense by throwing to any and all wide receivers or running backs, indicating that Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement could be key if the Eagles upset the Patriots.
My initial reaction is that these games aren’t really imitable by the Eagles against the Patriots. New England’s defense was the worst in the NFL over the first quarter of the season, but they’ve been a fringe top-10 unit since week 5, so whatever the Chiefs and Texans exploited will no longer be available.
When three of the Patriots four weakest games took place in the first five weeks of the season, there’s probably very little that an opponent can draw and incorporate into their game plan. Dont’a Hightower was injured in the season opener, leaving a hole at the linebacker position, and Cassius Marsh was a big part of filling that void.
Stephon Gilmore and Lawrence Guy are entirely different players at this stage of the season, Alan Branch is no longer the top defensive tackle in the rotation (if he even makes the gameday roster), and Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler have a season’s worth of experience.
There are definitely some issues that the Patriots have on defense and I would expect the Eagles running backs to test the edges, but this is an entirely different Patriots defense than the ones taken to the cleaners by the Chiefs, Texans, and Buccaneers (remember that the Bucs missed three field goals and finished the game in the Patriots red zone with a chance to win) and the other teams over the first half of the season.
As for the offense, the Patriots three worst days came against the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Dolphins and that, again, is not unreasonable and is unlikely to be replicated. The Chiefs benefit from the Patriots playing their first game of the season with Julian Edelman, so Tom Brady had to build his rapport with new weapons Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee, Phillip Dorsett, and Rex Burkhead on the fly.
Sure, he had Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, James White, and Dion Lewis, but Eric Berry was an All Pro erasing Gronkowski in his first game back from back surgery, while Amendola and White collected a successful 168 yards on the day. Hogan was erased.
Brady and the offense now have a full season of experience to draw from that they didn’t have against the Chiefs- and remember that New England actually led 27-21 at the start of the fourth quarter. The Super Bowl Patriots are simply a different team.
As for the Patriots offenses that stunk against the Buccaneers and Dolphins, neither game featured Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan was a mere injured decoy against the Dolphins, and James White outsnapped Dion Lewis in both outings. None of these points should hold true in the Super Bowl.
What can be taken from these games, though, is how these teams disrupted Brady and the weapons he was playing alongside. The Buccaneers pressured Brady on 40% of his dropbacks and the Dolphins affected Brady on 36% of his dropbacks (according to Pro Football Focus), which rank among the highest pressure rates against the Patriots all year and join the Los Angeles Chargers (almost 50% pressure rate) as the outings with the three lowest point totals of the season.
The Eagles have a fantastic pass rush and they will have to affect Brady all evening if they are going to disrupt the Patriots march towards another championship. There isn’t much Philadelphia can take from the Patriots performances over the first five weeks of the season, but pressuring Brady is always the blueprint to success.