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Super Bowl 52 Patriots vs Eagles: Constructing a defensive game plan vs Philadelphia

If the Patriots bet against Nick Foles, they can shut down this offense

Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Earlier this week I wrote a breakdown of the Patriots offense and its mismatches against the Eagles defense. This week I break down the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive scheme and what I believe to be the best way to combat it.

A breakdown of Philadelphia’s offensive scheme

What the hell is a RPO?

In the past few weeks you’ve probably heard the term “RPO” and it’s been beaten to death. What exactly is an RPO?

An RPO is short for run/pass option, a new age variant of the read option that took the league by storm back in the height of the RGIII and Kaepernick eras. The quarterback in an RPO has 3 options: hand the ball off to the running back at the mesh point, pull the ball out of the running back’s hand at the mesh point and keep the ball on a run play, or pull the ball out at the mesh point and throw a quick pass to the outside. Almost all of the time it’s either a WR screen to the outside, a slant/fade, or a TE seam.

The purpose of the RPO is to misdirect a defense. That play action freezes defenders and forces them to stay disciplined. If the defensive end crashes on the running back, the quarterback takes it outside for a big gain. If the defensive end pauses, then the ball goes to the RB who picks up an easy 5 up the middle. If the defensive end pauses and the linebackers and slot defenders run blitz in order to get more bodies to the ball, a pass to the outside or to the vacated seam area is lethal.

Here’s an example of a successful RPO against the Broncos from back in week 9. Talib falls asleep on the run action and Alshon Jeffery has an easy touchdown.

The first thing that jumps out to me is that there most definitely illegal lineman down field. Linemen are not allowed to be more than 1 yard down field on passing plays and Jason Kelce is clearly 2 yards downfield. However this is never going to be called unless it’s egregiously bad and the guy is nearing 5 yards downfield. It’s the same scenario with all of the pick plays the Patriots run against man coverage: if it’s close to 1 yard it’s not going to be called. And it shouldn’t be.

This is an illegal man downfield. It is almost never called.

Although RPOs are thought of as a offense for quarterbacks that are more mobile like Carson Wentz, the Eagles have actually used it more frequently with Nick Foles and he’s had considerable success. According to PFF, Foles is 15/16 on pass plays out of the RPO this season and averaging over 7 yards per pass on those throws. It’s a throwback to the offense he ran with Chip Kelly back in 2013.

In order to combat the RPO, I think the Patriots should play a pretty much exclusively a 6 man front unless it’s an obvious passing situation or the Eagles stack/bunch their wide receivers. It’s a classic 4-3 with both outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage at the snap. This would also help combat Philadelphia’s potent zone-blocking scheme. More on that in a bit.

By playing the outside linebackers on the edge, the Patriots can scheme it so that the unblocked “mesh” player, the guy that Nick Foles is reading, is a more mobile linebacker, not a defensive end like Trey Flowers. While doing this, the Patriots still have four strong defensive linemen in the interior of the front to stop runs up the middle. Stopping the option is all about athleticism, which the Patriots do not have at the linebacker position. But they can still try their hardest to ensure that the outside guy has the athleticism to contain Nick Foles and cover the flat option on the bootleg as well.

A 6 man front against 11 formation

On the snap, both LBs contain or drop into shallow zones while Chung, the SS, basically performs the job of an inside linebacker lined up shaded towards Ertz. Van Noy, the stronger and more experienced edge defender, would be the strong side SAM linebacker. Marquise Flowers, who has been covering RBs lately, lines up as the WILL linebacker and has the running back. Playing this formation does have risks. By playing 7 in the box to stop the run and neuter the option, you’re leaving a lot of responsibility on the secondary, who would be playing either strict man defense with cover 1 over the top or a zone with outside leverage. But I don’t believe that it is an issue, and I’ll discuss that in the next section.

A 6 man front against 12 formation.

Against 12 formation with Trey Burton or Brent Celek, a formation the Eagles played 23% of the time in the regular season, Patrick Chung is the inside linebacker in the diagram. McCourty plays strong safety and Harmon is the new free safety. Once again, the Patriots have a 6 man front that ensures that a defensive end isn’t the unblocked mesh defender while still having adequate back end coverage.

A 6 man front against 13 formation

Against 13 formation with Celek and Burton, a formation the Eagles played 11% of the time, the Patriots insert Elandon Roberts at MLB with Chung and McCourty as the safeties.

And that’s basically it in terms of formations for the Eagles. The Eagles played 11, 12, or 13 formation for a whopping 98% of offensive snaps this season, with the other 2% of snaps being either goal line or Hail Mary snaps.

Zone blocking scheme

The Eagles run a zone blocking scheme, which is exactly what it sounds like. Unlike the Patriots’ power running scheme, the Eagles’ O-Linemen block an area and rely on athleticism, not strength. A zone blocking scheme relies on combo blocks and double teams to get to the 2nd level.

This is an example of a zone run up the middle. It’s technically a split zone.

The above picture is an example of how a zone run can work to perfection. The Eagles’ double team both defensive tackles and their best blocking TE in Celek blocks the left defensive end. What makes this play a split-zone is the action of #71, Jason Peters. Instead of blocking the defensive end, he immediately goes to the 2nd level to take on the linebacker. The 2nd TE, Zach Ertz picks him up from across the formation instead. After executing the double teams, one of the linemen falls off and takes on the linebacker at the next level. The blocks are well executed and as a result, a huge hole materializes.

Full play link: play starts at 2:02

The next play is an example of an outside zone run. It’s the Redskins executing the play, but the concepts remain. The backside zone blockers either single block or cut block while the rest of the blockers double team the defensive linemen with combo blocks.

Full play link: play starts at 1:46

This kind of blocking system is a nightmare for the Patriots given their condition at linebacker. It would be another story if they had Hightower and McClellin back there but all of the Patriots linebackers are terrible matchups for a zone blocking scheme: relatively unathletic laterally with shaky gap discipline.

Playing a 6 man front will not allow the Eagles to run the combo blocks that have made their running game so formidable this year. By having 6 on the line of scrimmage, the Eagles literally don’t have enough lineman to execute double teams without leaving guys unblocked. Essentially the Patriots are fighting the athleticism and finesse of the Eagles’ O-Line with pure power and strength of numbers at the point of attack.

Patriots fans always say that our offensive line is undersized, especially at LG and C with Thuney and Andrews, but the Eagles are next level undersized. 4 out of their 5 starting linemen are undersized for their position (LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai 315 lbs, LG Stefen Wisniewski 295 lbs, C Jason Kelce 282 lbs, RT Lane Johnson 303 lbs) with the lone exception being 343 lb behemoth Brandon Brooks at right guard. If these undersized linemen are forced to run block the likes of Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean-Francois and Lawrence Guy 1 on 1, that’s an advantage for the Patriots’ defensive line.

Matching up in the secondary

Now based on the gameplan I’ve suggested so far, you’d think that the Patriots would be poised to stuff the run and win handily. But it’s not that simple and in order for the Patriots to play that aggressive of a defense, it puts a whole lot of responsibility on the secondary. With 6 on the LOS and Chung in the box, the Patriots are forced into pure man to man and Cover 1 looks that are susceptible to the deep ball and yards after the catch. Winning the CB vs WR matchups is a must.

Eric Rowe vs Alshon Jeffery

I was almost tempted to think that the Patriots should put Malcom Butler out there and let him feed off the energy he had from the fight that they had back in preseason 2016, but that’s overthinking it. Based on Belichick’s trends, he is likely to put the biggest cornerback on the tall #1 receiver, with some help behind him. Rowe was trusted with Julio Jones last year and he is a good matchup for Jeffery, who had a somewhat disappointing season, catching less than 50% of his targets for only 789 yards. When Rowe comes off the field in base, I expect Stephon Gilmore to guard Jeffery.

Jeffery exploded for 2 deep touchdowns against the Vikings which puts the onus on McCourty and Harmon to stay aware. I do not envision the Eagles having similar success against the Patriots, who have now had time to study the tape. Since the Patriots turned around their defense after week 4, they have allowed just 4 passes that traveled over 30 yards in the air to be completed. Gilmore gave up 1 to Martavis Bryant and Butler gave up one to Deonte Thompson, but the other two were Kenyon Drake against Elandon Roberts and Jonathan Jones giving up a long pass to ArDarius Stewart, irrelevant to the game on Sunday.

Malcolm Butler vs Torrey Smith

After a great beginning to his career in Baltimore, Torrey Smith has not continued his success in San Francisco or Philadelphia. Butler isn’t as quick as Smith, but Smith isn’t a good enough route runner to take advantage of the fact. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith was the 84th amongst 93 qualified receivers in making separation, 0.97 yards per route run. In what may be Butler’s last game in New England, he’s more than capable of putting up a great game in one of the most important games of his career, both for his team and financially.

Stephon Gilmore vs Nelson Agholor

This is where my gameplan divulges from several out there, most of which have Butler or Rowe taking Agholor in the slot. But a post earlier this week by fellow Pulpit writer Brian Phillips made me think twice. People forget this, but Gilmore is an exceptional quick twitch athlete for his size. He has more than adequate change of direction speed to stay with slot guys like Agholor.

After being a huge bust for the first two years of his career, Agholor has significantly cut down on his drops and is a serious 3rd down weapon for the Eagles. Despite being #2 WR on the team in terms of snaps played this year, he led Eagles wideouts in receptions, catching over 65% of his targets. He had the highest passer rating when targeted on 3rd down this year, higher than universally beloved Patriot Danny Amendola.

Stephon Gilmore may have not played in the slot much at all in Buffalo, but he has been exposed to all sorts of new situations in his 1st year in New England. Gilmore commented before the year how he believed that defending the slot was easier and he was excited to try new roles. Belichick paid Gilmore 5/65 before the season because he believed that Gilmore could matchup favorably with any WR in the NFL. Now’s the time to prove it by locking down the Eagles most reliable target when trying to move the chains. I think he’ll be up to the task.

Patrick Chung vs Zach Ertz

Chung has been exceptional against tight ends this year, and this is arguably his biggest test: Ertz is one of the biggest targets in the league at 6’5 and has mobility as well. Ertz led the Eagles in receptions despite missing 2 games and he didn’t slow his pace when Carson Wentz was lost for the season. Fun fact: the last time Patrick Chung played a Doug Pederson led offense was the 2015 AFC Divisional Round against Kansas City. Chung was tasked with following Travis Kelce around the field and held Kelce to 5 catches for 13 yards.

There’s no guarantee that he’ll repeat his performance, but Chung has done it before in the playoffs. If the Patriots utilize the heavy 6 man front, they’ll also have a linebacker to jam Ertz right off the line. It should be a fun matchup and it isn’t one that I’m particularly afraid of. If you asked me a few years ago “Would you trust Patrick Chung in man coverage against Zach Ertz in the Super Bowl”, I’d ask you what you were smoking. But in 2018, Chung has rightfully earned his reputation as top tier tight end defender.


I know for sure that I wouldn’t be recommending a 6 man front if Carson Wentz was under center. In the end, a lot of this game falls on the shoulders of Nicholas Edward Foles. He’s looked absolutely awful at times, like the game against Oakland and his finale against Dallas, but he’s capable of showing flashes of that quarterback that once went an entire season with a 27:2 TD to INT ratio. Ultimately he’s a quarterback that you’re not scared of. With the gameplan that I recommended, the Patriots are betting that Nick Foles cannot beat you. And I think that I would take that bet.

Philadelphia score prediction: 23

Final Super Bowl LII score prediction: Patriots 31 Eagles 23