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Super Bowl 52 Patriots vs Eagles: Philadelphia's best defense could be its offense

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The Eagles’ defense is great, but they’ll need help from their offense to beat Tom Brady

NFL: Super Bowl LII Opening Night Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Eagles finished in the top ten in nearly every defensive statistic. They finished 5th in overall DVOA, 7th in pass DVOA, and 3rd against the run. They finished 4th in takeaways and 4th in points allowed per game.

The Eagles also finished the regular season ranked 9th in passer rating against, allowing an average passer rating of 79.5. But the Eagles performance has varied considerably, especially against top-tier quarterbacks. The Eagles faced four quarterbacks in the regular season who finished in the top 10 in passer rating:

The average rating of 112.3 is well above the Eagles’ season average, and their opportunistic defense failed to generate any interceptions. The Eagles’ red zone defense, not particularly strong to begin with (16th in RZ TD%), struggled mightily in the four games above, allowing 10 touchdowns on 12 attempts. The Eagles were especially vulnerable in the underneath areas in the four games. On passes traveling 15 yards or less, Philadelphia allowed 7.8 yards per attempt on a completion percentage of 72% for a passer rating of 118, per Sharp Football Stats.

Of course, Case Keenum finished 7th in passer rating and was thoroughly dominated by the Eagles after a first possession touchdown. But Keenum is no Tom Brady, and he’s arguably worse than any of the QB’s listed above. The Eagles’ aggressive scheme paid dividends against most teams they played but fell flat against top-tier quarterbacks. Those swings help explain why Philadelphia finished 31st in defensive variance, per Football Outsiders.

So, does this mean Tom Brady will shred the Eagles’ defense? Not necessarily. Philadelphia’s defense is a deep, talented unit. They will put pressure on Brady and come away with a few sacks. But Philadelphia’s poor performance against top QB’s indicates the defense isn’t perfect. Unless the Patriots fall apart in the red zone or commit uncharacteristic turnovers, New England’s offense has the firepower to put up points. To keep the Patriots off the scoreboard, Philadelphia’s offense will need to give it’s defense significant help.

The Jacksonville Jaguars were in control for the majority of the AFC Championship. Heading into the game, the matchup that dominated headlines was New England’s offense vs. Jacksonville’s defense. But it was the Jaguars’ offense that stole the show. Jacksonville chewed up the clock by converting third downs. Through the first three quarters, Jacksonville had the ball for nearly 30 out of 45 minutes.

The Patriots’ offense wasn’t great, but wasn’t necessarily terrible, either. Brady was still completing 70% of his passes and the offense had no turnovers. But Jacksonville’s offense simply didn’t give up the ball and was effective in the red zone. That combination limited New England’s ability to make adjustments and prevented the Patriots offense from playing with the lead. It’s no surprise that New England eventually found ways to score against Jacksonville’s defense, but if the Jaguars offense had been able to convert a few more third downs, they likely would have won. Jacksonville averaged 7.7 plays per drive through their first 8 drives, resulting in 20 points. They averaged only 4.2 plays on their final 4 drives, scoring no points while watching the Patriots score 2 touchdowns.

Philadelphia’s offense is superior to Jacksonville, even with Nick Foles at quarterback. That is especially true with the NFC Championship version of Nick Foles. The Eagles have the ability to control the clock and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines but must execute consistently to do that.

The Jaguars did an excellent job of avoiding third and long situations during the first 3 quarters. In fact, Jacksonville often avoided third downs entirely, picking up 14 first downs on first or second down. When they did face third downs, their average yards to go was just 6 yards, a manageable number.

Coincidently, Philadelphia wasn’t especially good on early downs in 2017. They finished just 17th in average yards gained on first or second down. That’s not necessarily a problem against the Patriots, who finished dead last in average yards allowed on first or second down. Early downs will be a classic weakness vs. weakness and will likely be a battle settled by matchups.

Philadelphia might have struggled on early downs, but they thrived on third downs, finishing 3rd in the NFL. They struggled after Wentz was injured, but something clicked in the playoffs for Foles. Against the Falcons and Vikings, Foles completed 83% of his passes with 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions for a QB rating of 155.8. That’s ridiculous.

Philadelphia has a golden opportunity to control the clock by converting third downs against New England; the Patriots finished just 21st in third-down defense. But as bad as they’ve been throughout the year, they likely won’t have the type of breakdowns that led to the Vikings’ demise. I’d be shocked if Alshon Jeffrey is left wide open behind the coverage on 3rd and 8.

The Eagles have the talent to expose New England’s lack of speed/talent at linebacker, but the Patriots will likely be focused on preventing the horizontal throws that killed them against Jacksonville. They’ll also likely game plan around slowing down Zach Ertz, who led the team receiving this year. New England will likely force Foles to go through his progressions and beat them with throws at WR’s against man coverage. There will be weak spots in the Patriots’ defense, it’s just a question of whether Nick Foles can make the throws.

If the Eagles are able to consistently move the ball, it is imperative they capitalize in the red zone. Controlling the clock is great, but field goals won’t beat the Patriots. Part of the reason why Jacksonville nearly won was because they turned two red zone trips into touchdowns in the 1st half. Under Wentz, the Eagles were 2nd in red zone DVOA, which is good. However, under Foles, the red zone offense has played at a level that would have ranked 21st in the regular season, per Football Outsiders. The one area where New England’s defense has been consistent throughout the season is the red zone, finishing 4th in TD%. The Eagles will likely get a few chances in the red zone. If the Eagles win, their red zone conversion percentage will likely be above 66%.

The Eagles defense is one of the league’s best, but their performance against top-tier quarterbacks is worrisome if you’re an Eagles fan. Philadelphia will need true complimentary football to beat New England. The Eagles’ offense can give a huge boost to their defense by converting third downs and controlling the clock. Philadelphia’s success on offense will likely depend on Nick Foles throwing accurate passes to receivers on third downs and converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns. If the Eagles struggle to do either early in the game, the Philadelphia defense will have a hard time overcoming New England’s offense.