The Philadelphia Eagles have harsh words for the New England Patriots defense, according to Sports Illustrated. The Eagles plastered the Patriots defenders for a whopping 538 yards, the most in the Bill Belichick era, and converted 12 of 18 third or fourth downs, punting just once, en route to winning 41-33.
Color Stoutland’s guys unsurprised. After all, they had two full weeks to prepare for Belichick & Co. The final exam might as well have been taken with open notes. Says Kelce, “Everybody asks, Were you nervous? I wasn’t that nervous. We knew their strengths; we had a good feeling for how they were going to play everything. It felt like it was going to be one of those games where we go out there and dominate these dudes.”
[...] The big men have earned the right to beef. Kelce slips in a sly shot at New England over dinner: “The last defense we had seen was Minnesota’s, and we were like, ‘These dudes have got some players.’ Then we see [the Patriots] and we’re like, ‘These dudes have got some . . . coaches.’”
Dang, those are some harsh words that are entirely fair, based on the shellacking in the Super Bowl.
The defeat didn’t necessarily reveal anything we didn’t already know- Kelce knew how the Patriots were going to play, too- but the outcome really emphasized a potential need for the New England defense to evolve.
New England’s defense under Matt Patricia is rooted in statistics, with the idea that the Patriots would prevent big plays and try to force long drives because offenses struggle to lead long, extended drives for an entire game.
Over the past decade, only two offenses have managed to exceed a 50% conversion rate on third down over the course of the regular season (2008 Colts: 50.25%; 2011 Saints: 56.73%). So if the Patriots can force the best offenses to try and convert two or three third downs on every drive, then even the very best offenses will be able to extend the drive a mere 18.3%-to-32.2% of the time.
The core of this success is the idea that teams will try to run their own offense against the Patriots and that often involves taking big shots down the field or relying on their running game. If the Patriots can get a stop or two on defense and Tom Brady can score a couple times, then the whole complexion of the game changes and the Patriots defense can settle in against the pass as teams will have to throw to catch up.
And this strategy clearly works against most teams as the Patriots defense ranked inside the top ten in every year under his leadership.
But this strategy falls apart when the other team decides to not run their own offense and instead take everything that the Patriots defense is giving them. When the Patriots are busy trying to prevent the big pass, they are willing to allow some short-yardage completions underneath.
And when Nick Foles and the Eagles offense are content to take those short-yardage passes- and complete more than 70% of their passes shorter than 15 yards down the field- then of course the Patriots defense will fail to get off the field. And when the Eagles have the lead, they can continue to run ball, effectively eliminating both advantages that are baked into the New England defensive game plan.
Don’t be surprised if more teams try to copy the Eagles offensive plan- which is similar to what Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs deploy in their difficult games against New England. It’s successful and a perfect counter to the Patriots defense under Patricia. It’s up to Belichick and Brian Flores to come up with a new style of defense that can counter the high-percentage, efficiency offenses.
A bigger concern is with the Eagles complete lack of respect for anyone on the Patriots defense. Defensive strategies can change, but they require players to execute them. If no one fears the players, then is the defense simply a complement to the offense and unable to win games on their own?
The Patriots spent their offseason upgrading at some positions on defense and returning players from injury at others. They’ve swapped out six players on their Super Bowl defense- well, five if you are still scratching your head at why Malcolm Butler didn’t play at all- and it’s not difficult to call their replacements an upgrade.
On the defensive line, Alan Branch and Ricky Jean-Francois are out and replaced by Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn, while Vincent Valentine and Derek Rivers return from injury. Branch and Francois were replacement-level players, so consider this a big upgrade.
At linebacker, the Patriots moved on from old veterans David Harris and James Harrison and have both Dont’a Hightower and Harvey Langi returning from injury. The Patriots also spent two draft picks on Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam. The return of Hightower alone is a massive upgrade, but the retention of Marquis Flowers in free agency shouldn’t be overlooked.
Defensive back saw the greatest changes with Butler in Tennessee and Johnson Bademosi in Houston. The return of Nate Ebner, Jonathan Jones, and Cyrus Jones should provide some combination of replacement for Bademosi’s special teams ability, while Jason McCourty and second rounder Duke Dawson will vie to replace Butler on defense. Add in uber-athlete Keion Crossen and camp star J.C. Jackson, along with a host of practice squad players like Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz and there will be someone that steps up.
So the defensive front seven improved, but the secondary will have to prove they can replace Butler. Who are the stars on the Patriots defense? Who are the players that opposing teams have to fear and watch out for on every play?
Hopefully Trey Flowers can take another jump in Brain Flores’ more aggressive defense, and maybe Hightower can remain healthy all year. Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty are aces in the secondary, too, but there needs to be a Logan Ryan-type complement to Gilmore in a cornerback that can defend in the slot. There are options and opportunities for stars to emerge and shine. Who will they be?