The Patriots and their #1 ranked offense are heading to another Super Bowl next Sunday, facing a scrappy and opportunistic Philadelphia defense that is strongest in its front four. Similar to the Jaguars, the Eagles are team that doesn’t blitz very often, relying on its defensive line to bring pressure with four while dropping seven into coverage. However, the Patriots should have favorable matchups if Brady is given enough time to throw.
What can the Patriots learn from the last matchup?
This Philadelphia team has been completely rebuilt since their last meeting in 2015. That Eagles team was an underachieving group coached by Chip Kelly. Gronkowski was inactive due to a knee injury and the Eagles stole a win based on a strong performance from their defense and special teams.
The one thing the Patriots can still be aware of from that matchup is Malcolm Jenkins. Schwartz also brought a couple of his old players from Buffalo to Philly (Nigel Bradham, Corey Graham). More on those two later on.
I cannot stress enough that the Patriots need to always know where Jenkins is on the field. He has lined up everywhere in his career: slot cornerback, strong safety, free safety, dime linebacker, you name it. Historically, Jenkins has been very good against Tom Brady and the Patriots. In their last meeting, he had a 100-yard pick-6 when he was lined up as a slot CB in man coverage against Danny Amendola. And way back to when Jenkins was a member of the New Orleans Saints, he was all over the field in Rob Ryan’s aggressive blitzing defense.
Jenkins also had success lining up as a slot cornerback, sacking Brady twice. Jenkins is an extremely smart player that is an expert at disguising his blitzes. In several of these cases, Brady audibled before the snap to set up protection and despite that, he failed to account for Jenkins off the side.
Now Malcolm Jenkins has lost a little bit of speed at age 30, and he was rumored to be offered as the centerpiece for Brandin Cooks this offseason, but he’s still a very smart and damn good player. Jenkins has been a thorn in Brady’s side since he entered the league and Brady can’t afford to lose track of where he is on the field again.
Matchups the Patriots can exploit
Use their normal gameplan against Jim Schwartz defenses
The Patriots have played several games against Jim Schwartz defenses and as Rich noted, both in the below tweet and this article, they’ve had a lot of success.
Patriots offense vs Jim Schwartz defense (as DC or HC)— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) January 22, 2018
2002: TEN 24; NE 7
2003: NE 38; TEN 30
2003 PO: NE 17; TEN 14
2006: NE 40; TEN 23
2010: NE 45; DET 24
2014: NE 37; BUF 22
2014 BUF 17; NE 9 (Patriots rested starters in finale)
Belichick and Schwartz have a history back to their days in Cleveland so he knows a lot about how he operates, but 2014 was a long time ago. The last time the Patriots played a relevant game against a Jim Schwartz defense, the Italian Stallion Tony Siragusa was still flexing on the sidelines.
Schwartz mixed a lot of man and zone (Cover 1 and 3) in his one year in Buffalo, and he’s carried those concepts to Philadelphia. On the first 3rd down of the game, the Bills ran a zone and Gronkowski picked up a 1st down on the crossing route
On the next 3rd down opportunity for Gronkowski, Aaron Williams has Gronkowski in press-man. Gronk wins easily on the slant route. Gronkowski finished the game with seven catches for 94 yards, winning against both man and zone concepts.
On the next big 3rd down, Schwartz continues to play man defense with his top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, following the number one receiver in Edelman to the slot, and Williams taking Gronk in man coverage on the opposite seam. Gilmore’s familiarity with Schwartz could benefit the Patriots in practice.
Schwartz never made the necessary adjustments and the Patriots ran away with the game after the first half en route to a 37-22 victory. New England ran both man and zone beater concepts throughout the second half. Brady’s final line: 27/37 for 361 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Brady was sacked twice and was hit six times but it didn’t really matter.
Play 12 and 21 personnel more often
Similar to last week’s game plan to keep Paul Pozlusny on the field, the Patriots should utilize the same types of formations in order to keep Patrick Robinson off the field. Robinson is Philadelphia's nickel cornerback and he had a breakout year at the age of 30. A former first rounder that has bounced around the league the last few years, Robinson was graded as the fourth best cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus and he played a nice 69% of defensive snaps this year.
When the Eagles go into base formation with two cornerbacks and three linebackers, most of the time they move Malcolm Jenkins to linebacker. They have mixed in Dannell Ellerbe and Najee Goode but Ellerbe has been injured and Goode has barely played in the postseason (eight snaps). I would even argue that putting Ellerbe or Goode in the game when the Patriots add a tight or fullback would be even worse than losing size by moving Jenkins to linebacker. Goode or a 32-year old Ellerbe coming off of a hamstring injury would be disastrous against play action.
If Jenkins moves to linebacker, Corey Graham replaces him at safety, a guy the Patriots should be plenty familiar with. Graham played for the Ravens from 2012-13 at the height of their postseason rivalry and then played in Buffalo from 2014-16. He’s 32, but he still has a little left in the tank.
The additional benefit from having that kind of a formation is that running the ball will be much easier. In those scenarios, the Patriots would be adding a big blocking tight end in Dwayne Allen or a bruising fullback in James Develin while the opponent would add the 185 lbs Graham to the field and Jenkins at 200 would play linebacker. That’s a clear advantage for running the ball, even against an Eagles defense that was number three against the rush according to DVOA.
As noted by Rich in his article about Schwartz’s defense, the Philadelphia defensive ends play a wide 9 alignment, meaning that they play well outside the tackles’ outside shoulder. This kind of formation is heaven for guy like Chris Long who loves to get after the quarterback, but it can lead to opportunities running the ball in that direction. This is reflected by the Eagles’ defensive directional success chart.
This chart makes a lot of sense based on where the Eagles play their front four players. They start Brandon Graham at left defensive end and Fletcher Cox at left defensive tackle. Graham and especially Cox both do a great job at stopping the run. But the right side of the Eagles defensive line is where there are some flaws. Chris Long, Vinny Curry and Timmy Jernigan are the most common front four players that play on the right side. That is where the Patriots should attack when running the ball against the Eagles’ base defense. Line Gronk up next to the Patriots’ best run blocker in Solder, and have Mason be a lead blocker when he pulls from his right guard position. Textbook power running against a light base defense.
Utilize tight end screens
The Eagles’ wide 9 defensive ends should scare the Patriots. On one side, you have Cameron Fleming, 3rd string right tackle, matched up against Brandon Graham, a premier edge defender. And on the other side, you have Chris Long and Vinny Curry, pure speed rushers that Nate Solder is the weakest against. The Patriots will need to give the tackles some help at times, with both running backs and tight ends.
One way to take advantage of the aggressive alignment and speed is through outside screens. If the Patriots commit to leaving a tight end in to help block enough, the defense can become exposed to screens. For example: Allen chips a tackle, lets the guy go by him, and then sits down at the line of scrimmage for the pass. All of a sudden Allen has a bunch of open space with the tackle as his lead blocker.
Isolate Nigel Bradham in coverage
Former Buffalo Bill Nigel Bradham has improved his game in Philadelphia, but remains a guy that can be exploited in space. Bradham is not a quick twitch athlete and the Patriots exploited that trait for years by forcing him into matchups with 3rd down backs and mobile tight ends. Dion Lewis vs. Bradham was a mismatch in 2015 and it still is today.
Make Jalen Mills defend the deep pass.
Jalen Mills, a seventh round pick out of DBU in 2016, was thrust into a starting role from his first NFL game. Mills had some severe rookie struggles and was graded as the worst cornerback in the NFL according to PFF, but he has proved some doubters wrong this season. However, Mills still has some bad habits and he’s still picked on the most in the Eagles secondary. This year against the Giants, he was targeted 21 (!) times and gave up two touchdowns to Odell Beckham Jr. He’s a very aggressive cornerback that’s still susceptible to double moves.
Mills has good size at 6’0 but he lacks straight line speed (4.61 40-yard dash). The Eagles will try to avoid the Mills vs Cooks matchup like the plague, but if it’s a zone, they will have to allow it in certain scenarios. Mills is an emotional guy that can unravel if he gets beat a couple times. In many games I saw last year, Mills would start playing very soft coverage after getting burned deep and allow everything underneath. As Cooks showed last week against A.J. Bouye, he’ll take those yards. But if Mills is allowed to break up a pass or two early on, he might play off that energy for the rest of the game. Target him, but be smart.
Pretty self explanatory. Gronkowski will be a nightmare no matter who’s guarding him next Sunday. Based on Jim Schwartz’s tendencies to guard Gronk with exclusively safety Aaron Williams and not a linebacker when he coached in Buffalo, I would think that Gronk will get Malcolm Jenkins (with additional help at times) when they go into man coverage. This would a first time matchup for both of them: Gronkowski missed both the Saints game in 2013 and the Eagles game in 2015 with injuries.
Philadelphia’s defense was very well balanced, but they were relatively weak against tight ends, 17th according to DVOA. Their loss of Jordan Hicks early in the season, their best coverage linebacker, hurts. In both the passing game and as a run blocker, Gronkowski should have a mismatch.
The key to the Eagles defensive game plan is to get pressure on Tom Brady in two seconds or less. Short of that, I believe that Brady will be able to move the ball against this defense with ease. He has extensive experience and success against the man and zone concepts that Schwartz plays. In the next few days I’ll be breaking down the Patriot’s defensive game plan, and my final score prediction.
Patriots offensive prediction: 31 points