While a lot of talk this week has been about the “rematch” between the Patriots and Eagles, the fact remains that Super Bowl 39 is a distant memory compared to this match-up. These two teams are obviously very different from how they were 14 years ago, when they last met. And with the Patriots walking in as favorites to win on Sunday, the Eagles have proven in these playoffs that they are a team that is very dangerous even without their starting quarterback. With that in mind, let’s break down how exactly the Eagles can leave Sunday night with the Lombardi Trophy in their possession.
Continue to generate scoreless drives/turnovers on defense
It’s hard to dispute that the Eagles defense was a big reason (if not the biggest) for their success not only in the regular season but also in the playoffs. And if you look further at the Eagles’ defensive accomplishments, you notice a trend. According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles were second (Jaguars, 23.9%) in the NFL with 27.1% of their drives on defense ending with an offensive score while also being fourth in drives ending in an offensive turnover (15.4%).
Opposing teams not only seemingly struggled to score on the Eagles (18.4 points per game allowed, fourth in NFL) but keep the ball as well. The Eagles were fourth in the NFL with 31 takeaways, 19 of them (tied for fourth most) being interceptions. Their defense stifled opposing offenses with its mix of strong pass and run defense throughout the season and even in the playoffs, as evidenced by their 38-7 win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship.
The Patriots come into this game with yet another strong offense, arguably the Eagles biggest challenge for their defense. New England was first this season in drives ending with an offensive score (49.4%) and second in drives ending with an offensive turnover (6.9%). The Patriots make their most out of every offensive drive and will look to continue that impressive trend in the Super Bowl. If the Eagles want to disrupt New England’s offense, they will need to limit the amount of scoring drives the Patriots have, which very few teams have been able to do. But this Eagles defense may be the best group for the job.
Utilize your running backs in passing game
A trend we saw all throughout the season when it came to the Patriots defense is that while they were one of the best scoring defenses (fifth in the league, 18.5 points per game), they had trouble limiting how much yardage they gave up (366 total yards per game, fourth worst in the league). When breaking that stat down further, it shows that the Patriots particularly struggled against running backs in the pass game. They gave up 844 receiving yards to running backs during the regular season, second most in the league.
During the course of the season, the Patriots gave up at least 50 yards receiving to six different running backs in a game (Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, D’Onta Foreman, Matt Forte, Kenyan Drake & LeSean McCoy). The Eagles didn’t get too much production out of their running backs in the passing game (496 yards, four touchdowns) but do have some weapons.
Corey Clement has been a pleasant surprise for the Eagles this season as an undrafted rookie (444 yards and six touchdowns from scrimmage). In the receiving game (albeit a small sample size), Clement averaged 12.3 yards per reception, scored two touchdowns and had three receptions of 20+ yards on only ten receptions. Also, Jay Ajayi had 34 total receptions this season, scoring one touchdown and gaining eight first downs as a receiver. And in the playoffs (two games), both have combined for 12 receptions, 109 yards and six first downs (50% of their receptions resulting in a first down).
The Patriots struggled at times during the regular season and postseason at containing the edge and being able to keep up with receivers out of the backfield as their linebackers is a glaring weakness without Dont’a Hightower. This vulnerability of the Patriots defense is one the Eagles would be wise to exploit to move the ball down the field effectively and generate success on offense.
Limit big pass plays on defense
As mentioned above, the Patriots offense is one of the best in the league. One facet of this offense that may be different than in year’s past is their ability to stretch the field and make big plays. With the offseason acquisitions of Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett, a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan’s success of a deep threat, Brady and this offense has not been afraid to take more shots down the field. And while this team still has plenty of elements of their infamous “dink and dunk” offense, their identity mutated this season.
As a team, the Patriots were second in the NFL with 63 plays of more than 20+ yards and were tied for ninth with 10 plays of 40+ yards. Cooks set career highs with 18 plays of 20+ yards and seven 40+ yard performances while Brady was second in the NFL with 62 plays of 20+ and eighth with 10 plays of 40+. What may not have been a focus for this offense has now become one of their biggest strengths and it is what has led Brady to another MVP season at 40 years old.
For the Eagles, this was a strength for their defense in 2017. They gave up 40 passing plays of 20+ yards and 10 of 40+ yards, good for fifth (tied) and ninth (tied), respectively. Their secondary has played much better than expected this season thanks to strong seasons from Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Ronald Darby. But they will have their hands full with big-time playmakers like Cooks and Gronkowski in as main targets for the Patriots passing offense. But if the Eagles can defend well against deep shots down the field by Brady and limit yards allowed after the catch, it will go a long way in giving this Patriots offense fits.
Keep Nick Foles protected
While protecting your quarterback from getting sacked often is usually a prerequisite to win a game, it is that much more important in this game. Foles has played terrific in the postseason with 598 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 77.8% completion percentage in his two games during these playoffs. What’s even more impressive about Foles’ high level of play is that (according to Pro Football Focus) he has a passer rating of 147.9 and an adjusted completion percentage of 84.6% on passes where he is under pressure (16), which ranks first amongst all quarterbacks with at least 10 pressures in the postseason.
So even under pressure from an opposing team’s defense (in this case, the Falcons and Vikings), Foles has played lights out. He has only been sacked once in each of his playoff appearances this postseason and played nearly flawless overall, which is even more impressive considering he is actually the Eagles back-up quarterback. But the Patriots defense have been on fire this postseason when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback with an astounding 11 sacks between their two games against the Titans and Jaguars.
Considering both Tennessee (tied for 13th) & Jacksonville (tied for third) were top-15 in sacks allowed this season in the league, that makes the Patriots performance that much more impressive. And with the Patriots beating the Titans by 21 points in a game where they sacked quarterback Marcus Mariota eight times, it’s easy to see the correlation between how much success the team has as a whole when they are able to get after the quarterback.
So, it’ll be important for Nick Foles to be off the ground as much as possible against a suddenly dangerous pass rush attack from the Patriots. And to borrow a line from the Patriots, as long as the offensive line of the Eagles “bends but doesn’t break”, they’ll have a much better chance of getting another brilliant performance from Foles on Sunday.