With the Eagles, expect the unexpected
After defeating Jacksonville on Sunday, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are now 15-0 in the postseason against teams that they didn’t face during the regular season. The Eagles and the Patriots haven’t squared off since 2015, and a lot has changed for the Eagles since then.
Doug Pederson has replaced Chip Kelly as coach, bringing elements of the old Andy Reid West Coast offense back to Philly. Carson Wentz replaced Sam Bradford at quarterback, and now Nick Foles has replaced an injured Wentz. And one of the league’s worst defenses under previous coordinator Bill Davis has become one of the league’s best under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, an old Belichick disciple who has taken the Eagles from 28th to 13th to fourth in points allowed since taking over before the 2016 season.
Wentz’s injury has taken some of the sizzle out of the Super Bowl, but the Eagles are still 4-0 in real games under Foles (excluding Week 17), and averaging 26.5 points with him at the helm.
So what should the Patriots expect from the Eagles? We broke down the coaches’ tape of their 38-7 win Sunday over the Vikings in the NFC Championship game, and picked the brain of longtime Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News beat writer Les Bowen for additional insight:
Coordinator: Frank Reich (second season).
Key skill players: QB Nick Foles, RB Jay Ajayi, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Alshon Jeffery, WR Torrey Smith, WR Nelson Agholor, TE Zach Ertz.
Injuries/personnel notes: Nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters has been out since October with a torn ACL and MCL, replaced by Halapoulivaati Vaitai (“Big V,” for short). RB/KR Darren Sproles has been on IR since September with a torn ACL, replaced by Kenjon Barner.
What to expect: With Wentz down, the Eagles are similar to the Jaguars. They have questionable quarterback play, but talented personnel around him and creative coaches that know how to create space.
That is to say, expect the unexpected.
The Eagles can’t roll a traditional NFL offense with Foles. He’s just not a comfortable pocket passer who can go through multiple progressions. He doesn’t have a strong arm, and he isn’t very accurate when you force him to move off his spot. On one play early in Sunday’s game, Foles had tight end Trey Burton open by about 15 yards, but his throw on the run carried Burton out of bounds.
But the Eagles’ play-callers know how to get creative in the passing game and put Foles in good positions.
The Eagles thrive with the hottest new trend in football, “RPOs”: run-pass option plays. Depending on the defensive look, Foles has the option of handing off to a running back inside, or throwing a quick swing pass to Agholor in space, or throwing a quick slant to Jeffery, or keeping it himself on an option run.
This forces the defense to be disciplined and not overpursue, and if the Eagles get a numbers advantage on any of the four options, the plays can be difficult to stop. Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles thrived with the RPOs in the first half against the Patriots.
Like the Jaguars, the Eagles run the ball a lot (sixth-most rushing attempts this season, and 62 rushes the last two weeks), and frequently use play-action to give Foles a clean pocket and an easy read. The play-action slant to the outside is their bread and butter. They also will run a shotgun sweep one way, then fake the shotgun sweep and bootleg Foles back to the other side.
Agholor has become the team’s gadget player. They use him a lot in presnap motion to get the defense out of sorts, and give him an array of swing passes, bubble screens, and drags over the middle.
Malcolm Butler should have his hands full with Agholor.
Foles doesn’t have a strong arm, but he unleashed a couple of deep shots against the Vikings off of play-action.
Personnel-wise, the Eagles are like the Patriots — they don’t have an alpha, but a lot of contributors. Ajayi is technically the lead running back, but Blount and Corey Clement get their opportunities. We all know Blount’s bruising running style, while Clement is a speedster and Ajayi a combo back.
But even though Blount isn’t a proficient receiver, the Eagles still throw the ball out of RPOs when he’s in the game. Blount averaged 4.4 yards per carry this year, Clement 4.3, and Ajayi 5.8.
The Eagles also have balance in their passing game. Jeffery had 789 yards and nine touchdowns. Ertz had 824 yards and eight touchdowns. Agholor had 768 yards and eight touchdowns.
Their production hasn’t dipped much; Foles is still averaging 249.5 passing yards per game (excluding Week 17), with eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
But the 38-7 win over the Vikings was a little fluky, too. The Eagles scored on a pick-6 that was created when Chris Long hit Case Keenum’s arm as he threw, and the Vikings also fumbled the ball away inside the red zone. The Eagles scored a 53-yard touchdown on a schoolyard type of play when Foles scrambled and Jeffery slipped behind the defense, and also scored on a 41-yard flea-flicker.
Credit the Eagles for executing them, but they can’t count on such plays succeeding vs. the Patriots.
What to expect from the Patriots: A similar game plan from the one they used against Jacksonville.
Staying disciplined against all of the misdirection and play-action will be key. That means setting the edge and protecting the backside by the defensive ends and outside linebackers, and trying to funnel all of the plays into the middle of the defense. The Patriots will bring an extra defender into the box and try to keep Foles in third-and-long situations.
The Patriots mixed liberally between man and cover-3 against the Jaguars, and I would expect more of the same. Expect Stephon Gilmore to cover Jeffery, Butler on Agholor, Eric Rowe on Smith, and Patrick Chung on Ertz.
The real key will be attacking Foles with the blitz. When the Patriots sat back in the first half, Bortles picked them apart. When they got pressure on Bortles in the second half, he melted. The same with Foles. If you give him time in the pocket, he can set his feet and make the throw. But get him off his spot, and he breaks down rather quickly. The Patriots need to attack him early and often with zone blitzes and get him uncomfortable.
With two weeks to prepare, expect a lot of new wrinkles from the Eagles, especially early in the game. Agholor and speedster Barner might have some gimmick plays early on. Pederson is an aggressive coach, stealing a field goal right before the half against the Vikings.
The Patriots just have to withstand the early barrage, and force Foles to piece together 12-play drives.
Coordinator: Jim Schwartz (second season).
Key players: DT Fletcher Cox, DE Brandon Graham, LB Nigel Bradham, LB Mychal Kendricks, CB Jalen Mills, CB Ronald Darby, SS Malcolm Jenkins, FS Rodney McLeod.
Injury/personnel notes: MLB Jordan Hicks is out for the year with a torn Achilles’, and the Eagles replace him with LB Najee Goode or by playing more nickel defense. No. 4 cornerback Sidney Jones is questionable for the Super Bowl because of a hamstring injury. Safety and special teams captain Chris Maragos is out for the year because of a knee injury.
What to expect: Like the Jaguars, the Eagles usually show their hand before the snap and aren’t very exotic. But they have solid personnel, great team speed, and run their system really well.
The Eagles finished the season fourth in the NFL in points allowed (18.4), fourth in total defense, and fourth in takeaways (31). They had the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense (79.2 yards per game), were sixth in average rush allowed (3.8 yards), and were seventh in average passing yards allowed (5.7 per attempt).
Up front, the Eagles use a four-man line almost exclusively, and the ends like to attack from wide angles.
The Eagles use a seven-man rotation along the line to keep their players fresh, and they can come after you in waves. They were just 15th in sacks (38), and Graham led the team with only 9.5, but they get solid production from Chris Long (5 sacks), Derek Barnett (5), and Vinny Curry (3).
The Eagles also have three stout tackles in Cox (5.5 sacks), Tim Jernigan (2.5), and Beau Allen (1). This is potentially a horrible matchup for the Patriots’ interior offensive line (Shaq Mason got dominated by Marcell Dareus on Sunday). The Eagles blitz occasionally with a linebacker or safety, and know how to create free rushes at the quarterback just by faking a blitz.
In the back end, the Eagles are mostly a cover-3 zone team, playing that same off coverage that Tom Brady chewed up against the Jaguars with underneath throws.
The Eagles do a lot of shifting and rotating before the snap, and try to goad the quarterback into a poor throw by showing one zone look but falling back into another.
Sometimes, all that shifting works against the Eagles, as Kyle Rudolph caught them flat-footed for an easy 25-yard touchdown.
But the Eagles also matched up in man coverage a decent amount against the Vikings, and even pressed them at the line some.
Mills is a physical, scrappy cornerback at 6 feet and 191 pounds, and he could be a good matchup for Brandin Cooks, who often struggles against those types of corners (though Mills was busted for defensive holding five times and pass interference four times this season). But press coverage isn’t a forte for Darby or Patrick Robinson, so it will be interesting to see if the Eagles’ defense changes its approach at all.
Jenkins (two interceptions, a forced fumble and a sack) is an active defender, often taking on the tight ends and playing up in the box in run support. Jenkins probably will be covering Rob Gronkowski, and that should be a great matchup.
The Eagles defense wasn’t nearly as dominant on the road as it was at home. The Eagles allowed 47 more yards per game on the road (332.4 to 285.9). The rush average was a full yard worse on the road (4.3 to 3.3), and all seven rushing touchdowns allowed came on the road.
On pass defense, the Eagles’ yards per attempt were significantly worse (6.06 at home, 6.85 on the road), and the passer rating was 10 points worse (84.6 on the road, 74.2 at home). The Eagles allowed 12.4 points per game at home, and 23.5 points per game on the road.
What to expect from the Patriots: This could be a big game for the Patriots’ no-huddle offense. Don’t let the Eagles substitute their defensive linemen, keep them in the same personnel, and dictate the matchups at the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots were able to get their receivers lined up across from linebackers throughout the game against Jacksonville, and will try to do the same against the Eagles’ zone coverage.
The Patriots might not have much success with the running game. Instead, this is probably a Brady shotgun game, and he’ll use his tight ends and fullbacks to sniff out the man or zone coverage, and then go to work accordingly. Brady should take a few deep shots to Cooks to try to draw pass interference from Mills, but this is going to be a big game for Danny Amendola working the middle and Gronkowski working the seams.
Protecting the football will be key, as the Eagles created only one turnover in their three losses this year. The Patriots are going to have to grind this one out, as they did against the Jaguars.