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What the Patriots defense has to do to beat the Eagles: New England needs to focus on Zach Ertz, the running game

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Related: Asking Bleeding Green Nation: Patriots shouldn’t ‘waste their time running the ball’

Philadelphia Eagles v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The last time the New England Patriots played against the Philadelphia Eagles, their defense had one of the worst outings of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach: not only did Philadelphia gain 538 yards of offense and convert 10 of 16 third downs as well as both of its fourth down attempts, the team also put 41 points on the board en route to helping the Eagles win their first ever Super Bowl.

A lot has changed since then, however, and the Patriots’ defense has been transformed into the league’s best over the last two years (one that did help bring another championship to New England just one year after the fiasco against the Eagles): gone are coordinator Matt Patricia and most of the defensive position coaches from the 2017 season, while only nine of the 24 defenders on the 53-man roster that day are still with the club.

Some things have not changed since the 2017 season, however, and the Patriots defense needs to be aware of their potential impact on Sunday’s game in Philadelphia — at least according to Brandon Lee Gowton, managing editor at Bleeding Green Nation. He was asked earlier this week about which player New England should try to take away in the upcoming game, and his answer was a throwback to the Super Bowl.

“I think the Patriots will try to take away the man who beat them for the game-winning touchdown on February 4, 2018 — Zach Ertz,” said Brandon. “Ertz is the most reliable option in the Eagles’ passing attack; he’s basically Carson Wentz’s best friend both on and off the field. If [Alshon] Jeffery isn’t able to play, the Pats should just have Stephon Gilmore shadow Ertz and force the Eagles to try throwing to their woeful wide receivers.”

“This will trigger any BGN readers reading this exchange but look at how awful these numbers are,” continued Brandon:

The Eagles’ passing game runs mainly through the tight end position, with Ertz leading the team in both receptions (46) and receiving yards (527) and ranking second with a pair of touchdown catches on his name. Limiting the 29-year-old’s production — with number one cornerback Stephon Gilmore a leading candidate to be used in this capacity, at least on a rotational basis — has to be a key for the Patriots’ defense.

However, slowing down Philadelphia’s offense extends far beyond what Ertz and fellow tight end Dallas Goedert bring to the table: “The Eagles’ best bet of beating the Patriots is using the ‘recipe’ they’ve used the past two weeks that features running the ball and controlling the clock. It’s not ideal that they’ve had to come this ‘establish the run’ offense but that’s just where they are right now, “said Brandon. “If the Pats are able to neuter the Eagles’ run game, well, I don’t see Philly being able to score much on Sunday. “

Stopping the run has, of course, been an issue for New England’s otherwise stellar defense this season. Just go back to the last game the Patriots played: the Baltimore Ravens were able to control the tempo and pace of the contest for most of their 37-20 victory, by taking advantage of the Patriots’ two-gap scheme and defensive aggressiveness. On Sunday, a repeat performance by the run defense could field disastrous results yet again.

“Rookie running back Miles Sanders is the player to watch on offense,” said Brandon when talking about Philadelphia’s most productive offensive player. “The Eagles sorely lack explosive play-makers, especially with DeSean Jackson out. Sanders has been the Eagles’ best bet when it comes to creating a big play. The 2019 second-round pick has accounted for the Eagles’ longest play from scrimmage in five out of the team’s last seven games.”

“Sanders has done damage both as a pass-catcher (13.9 yards per reception) and a home-run running threat (see: 65-yard rushing touchdown in Buffalo). The Patriots should know from Super Bowl LII that the Eagles’ offensive line is a very good unit that can open up holes for Sanders to exploit,” he continued when speaking about the versatile back that has registered 641 yards from scrimmage over his team’s first nine games of the season.

Sanders, who was picked in the second round of this year’s draft, may be the most productive offensive skill position player Philadelphia has on its roster at the moment but the team’s attack itself still runs through the quarterback position — one that is being led by former first-round draft selection Carson Wentz, as opposed to the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl 52, Nick Foles.

Wentz has been quite solid this year after ending back-to-back seasons on injured reserve, something Brandon also pointed out: “I’d start by arguing that Wentz — PFF’s sixth highest graded quarterback thus far — is having a better season than his traditional stats might indicate. If Wentz doesn’t have two game-winning touchdowns dropped earlier this season, the Eagles could be 7-2 right now and the conversation surrounding him could be much different.”

“Patriots fans should know that Wentz is more mobile than Nick Foles,” Brandon continued. “This isn’t to suggest he’s often going to take off running but he will find ways to avoid sacks and extend plays. Wentz has really good arm strength and not totally unlike a certain Patriots quarterback he’s been lauded for his ability to diagnose defenses prior to the snap. In that vein, Wentz’s decision-making has been pretty good to this point.”

“He’s only thrown four picks through nine starts,” he added. “Two interceptions came in the first half of a Week 2 game where DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Dallas Goedert all inexplicably got hurt in pregame warmups. So, the Eagles basically had to scrap their gameplan on incredibly short notice and that understandably impacted Wentz. The other two picks were forced throws during garbage time situations.”

“Wentz’s wont to hold on to the ball can come back to bite him when it comes to taking sacks. His accuracy could also afford to improve, especially after seeing him leave a number of plays on the field during the Eagles’ most recent game against the Bears,” Brandon said. “You may have heard that staying healthy has been a big issue for Wentz but — knock on wood — that hasn’t been the case this year.”

“And now I probably just jinxed it. Apologies in advance, Carson.”

The 26-year-old certainly has been a steady presence a Philadelphia offense that is now being coordinated by Mike Groh, who took over for now-Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich after the Super Bowl. Under Groh, the Eagles’ offense has had its ups and downs so far this season and currently ranks as the 13th most productive when measured by points scored per game (24.1).

What’s the reason for this comparatively mediocre ranking? According to Brandon, the Eagles’ reliance on their quarterback plays a role in this: “Wentz seems pretty important to the Eagles’ success when you consider they haven’t stood a chance to win during his worst games of the season. If he’s not great, it’s not like the team is going to carry him to victory in spite of a bad performance.”