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Super Bowl 52 – Patriots vs. Eagles: New England will have to watch out for another running back wearing No. 30

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Undrafted Eagles rookie Corey Clement is easy to overlook, until he isn’t.

NFC Championship - Minnesota Vikings v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It’s easier to prepare for what’s been seen. Up until the 2018 AFC Championship Game, Corey Grant wasn’t often.

Behind Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon and, at times, Chris Ivory, the 2015 undrafted free agent out of Auburn had touched the ball on offense in just seven of his last 18 appearances for the Jacksonville Jaguars. But in the first half that afternoon at Gillette Stadium, Grant went on to reel in as many passes – three – for more receiving yards – 59 – than he had all campaign.

It was a revelation that had New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia telling his players, as captured by NFL Films, “Got to be alert now if Grant’s in the game, all right? This guy’s not in there to run the ball. It’s going to be some sort of bull----.” It had Patriots safety and captain Devin McCourty telling his teammates, “No. 30 is in the game at back.”

For good reason.

Perhaps another No. 30 named Corey will go on to draw similar attention Sunday night in Minneapolis.

Corey Clement isn’t Corey Grant. He’s an inch shorter, 17 pounds heavier, and three years younger. He’s less of a lesser-known; a back who racked up over 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns from scrimmage at Wisconsin only a year ago. But the undrafted rookie could soon present a similar element of surprise to New England’s defense even so.

While LeGarrette Blount has rushed for a touchdown in both of Philadelphia’s playoff games to this point, and while Jay Ajayi has led the backfield in rushing in both, Clement has been the third wheel. And an effective one at that in the absence of Darren Sproles, both in pass protection and particularly when he isn’t.

Clement averaged 4.3 yards per carry during the regular season, gaining 321 yards on the ground with two carries picking up over 20. He added another three gains of 20-plus yards as a receiver, catching 10 passes for 123. He logged six touchdowns in all.

Clement hasn’t scored another since the playoffs began. Excluding a flea-flicker, the 5-foot-10, 220-pounder has garnered the football from quarterback Nick Foles nine times through Philadelphia’s wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.

But it hasn’t taken much volume for Clement to provide a change of pace. Head coach Doug Pederson’s Eagles have made a concerted effort to get his skillset into space.

Clement’s opportunities have come primarily on shotgun flares to the flats, with a blitz-pickup-selling screen, a draw, and a toss off the right tackle also mixed in.

CLEMENT’S PLAYOFF TOUCHES

  • Second-and-4: catch in left flat, seven yards
  • Second-and-14: catch in left flat, 11 yards
  • Third-and-3: catch in left flat, four yards
  • First-and-10: catch off screen to right, seven yards
  • Third-and-3: catch in right flat, two yards
  • First-and-5: run up middle, five yards
  • Third-and-6: catch in left flat, eight yards
  • First-and-10: toss off right end, 14 yards
  • Third-and-4: draw up middle, six yards

The results are hard to argue with. Fleet feet and some missed tackles have followed.

Four of Clement’s nine postseason touches have come on third down. Six of nine have given way to first downs. And almost of all of them have gotten linebackers – like Vikings three-time Pro Bowler Anthony Barr – stretched out into open-field tackling situations.

Sound familiar?

The Patriots can’t be surprised if that resurfaces in Super Bowl LII.

It’s more likely a matter of when than if.

After biting on misdirecting run-pass options that sent one Corey into daylight two weeks ago, it’d make sense for Philadelphia to deploy another in similar fashion. Defensive end Trey Flowers figures to be aware of that by now. So do linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, and the secondary likes of Patrick Chung and McCourty.

The Patriots can bet on Blount and Ajayi handling the bulk of the workload Sunday because they will. As for Clement, it’s a little tougher to project.

It’s the here-and-there, chain-moving cameos that make him a problem. It’s the bunched, overpursuing fronts that give him matchups. It’s the fact New England has seen as little of him as he has of them.

So when No. 30 checks in, expect a voice from the sidelines or the huddle to say as much.

Clement’s the type that you forget about, until you don’t.