EAGLES ON OFFENSE
The Eagles offense revolves around the running backs.
Photograph by Michael Ainsworth (AP)
In the playoffs, Philadelphia gets the ball into the hands of a running back 52% of the time (up from 44% in the regular season). Passes to a running back are usually on a quick out route or wheel route into the flat, or a screen pass. Philadelphia runs a lot of the college style “run pass option” offense, which means even passes to receivers and tight ends often come after a run fakes – particularly play action to Jay Ajayi.
Ajayi got 65% of the carries (averaging 3.9 yards per) in the playoffs. The mid-season acquisition from the Miami Dolphins is Philadelphia’s best runner between the tackles. Over the past two games former Patriot LeGarrette Blount received 29% of the carries but contributed only 2.7 yards per. Similar to his time in New England, Blount has been best when running outside the tackles.
Running back Corey Clement has been an afterthought so far in the playoffs, carrying the ball only three times for 25 yards. Clement reminds this observer of the Jaguars’ Corey Grant. Considering the trouble Grant gave New England in the AFC Championship game, it’s worth considering if Clement is showcased more in the Super Bowl.
Center Jason Kelce anchors a highly regarded offensive line
Photograph by Tony Gutierrez (AP)
FootballOutsiders.com calculates that the New England defensive gives up 5.06 yards per opponent rush over the middle, between the guards. That is the worst average in the NFL this year. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots use their three big interior defensive linemen – Malcolm Brown, Adam Butler, and Lawrence Guy – together on the field for any early downs.
Writing on www.sharpfootballanalysis.com, betting handicapper Warren Sharp notes that against “11 personnel” – one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers – with the quarterback in shotgun formation, the Patriots defense is allowing 6.0 yards per carry (the NFL average is 4.6 yards per carry). Coincidentally, Philadelphia runs nearly 60% of their offense out of 11 personnel (third-highest in the league). Warren Sharp concludes that “if the Eagles want a chance to win the Super Bowl, it is in their extreme best interest to run Jay Ajayi MORE than expected in shotgun, from 11 personnel.”
One aspect of the Philadelphia offense that has been missing since Carson Wentz’s injury is the quarterback run on option plays. Wentz averaged five runs a game, for a 4.7 yard average, but quarterback Nick Foles has averaged only one run for less than two yards per contest. If the Patriots aren’t looking for it, could this be the game for the Eagles’ coaches to surprise the defense with some quarterback runs around the end?
Nick Foles has kept Philadelphia's Super Bowl hopes alive after Carson Wentz went down
Photograph by Mitchell Leff (Getty Images)
This observer notes that Nick Foles is not particularly accurate when throwing the ball more than 20 yards down field, however the Eagles have shown that they are not afraid to throw a deep pass on the game’s first series. Foles does throw an accurate ball to the sideline – particularly the right sideline – within about ten yards past the line of scrimmage. When Foles is under pressure, he is more likely to throw a desperation pass toward the right sideline.
Philadelphia’s top pass catchers are Alshon Jeffery (leads the team with 13.8 yards per catch), Nelson Agholor (leads the team with 4.6 yards gained after the catch), tight end Zach Ertz (leading the team with 4.6 receptions per game), and Torrey Smith.
Presumably, New England will match up the 6’ 5” Alshon Jeffery with 6’ 1” Stephon Gilmore. The two are former team mates at the University of South Carolina. Perhaps the 6’ 0” Nelson Agholor will be covered by the scrappy 5’ 11” Malcolm Butler.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots defend the 6’ 5” tight end, who is also the Eagles’ most dependable pass catcher. Will they simply put 5’ 11” safety Patrick Chung man-on-man with Ertz, or perhaps use 6’ 1” cornerback Eric Rowe on apparent passing downs? Fans may recall that a combination of Eric Rowe, and deep safety help, effectively limited Atlanta’s Julio Jones in Super Bowl LI.
Here’s a strange observation of a team that went 13-3 in the regular season: In their two playoff games, the ball seems to be loose quite a lot when in the Eagles’ possession. Not just fumbles, but also a high number of bobbled handoffs, snaps hitting the ground, and kick return catches with a lot of drama.
EAGLES ON DEFENSE
The strength of the Eagles’ defense is a deep and talented defensive line. Of the seven players in the rotation, four are former first round picks and two are second round picks. Former Patriot defensive end, Chris Long, is having a strong post season (three quarterback pressures, two batted passes, and one fumble recovery). Long and the starter at LDE Brandon Graham will be a tough matched up for the Patriots’ right tackle, whether that is LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming.
FootballOutsiders.com calls Philadelphia’s defensive line the NFL’s best against the run. Particularly when an opponent’s offense tries to run against around left end (2nd best in NFL), left tackle (4th best), and between the guards (best in the NFL, allowing only 3.04 yards per run).
Fletcher Cox was voted onto the 2017 AP All-Pro Second Team
Photograph by Mitchell Leff (Getty Images)
Using the same running metrics, the Patriots’ offensive line is graded by FootballOutsiders.com as the strongest in the NFL up the middle (5.08 yards per) and at right tackle (5.36 yards per). The matchup between defensive tackle Fletcher Cox against right guard Shaq Mason is definitely one to watch.
Recently the Eagles have been able to generate good pressure on opposing quarterbacks without frequently blitzing on passing downs. Against the Falcons and Vikings in the playoffs, the Eagles’ defensive line was particularly impressive getting off their blocks to snuff out delayed handoffs (draw plays) to the running back.
For the second game in a row, New England’s running backs will have to contend with a very good tackling linebacker group, led by Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham.
Looking at how Philadelphia might defense running backs James White or Dion Lewis on passing route, we see that in week six they faced Christian McCaffery and the Carolina Panthers. The Eagles played zone defense much of the game, but when they went man they often has linebacker Nigel Bradham manned up on Christian McCaffery down field. Once, on the goal line, Carolina motioned McCaffery into a slot receiver position and linebacker Mychal Kendricks picked him up. Kendricks was swallowed up by a "rub route" and McCaffery had an easy touchdown.
The Eagles’ top cornerbacks are Jalen Mills (#31) and the former Buffalo Bill, Ronald Darby (#41). Darby is a highly regarded player, although this observer notes that in 2016 both Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan got nice gains with “jump ball” receptions over the 5’-11” Darby. Jalen Mills looked tall and aggressive playing against Atlanta and Minnesota in the playoffs.
Jalen Mills is often aligned in the LCB position and rarely "follows" one particular receiver. During the regular season, Mills was good for about one significant breakdown per game because he sometimes bites too soon on the receiver’s first move.
Will Malcolm Jenkins draw the responsibility of covering Gronk one-on-one?
Photograph by Michael Perez (AP)
In what could be a preview of how Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz will guard tight end Rob Gronkowski, in week two the Eagles singled up a safety – often Malcolm Jenkins – on Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. In that early season game Philadelphia played a lot of zone defense, something one wouldn’t expect against New England.
Then there is this consider regarding the coverage of Gronk: Against the LA Rams in game 13, Philadelphia was in a deep zone on third-and-10 and tried to undercut obvious target Cooper Kupp with Free Safety Rodney McLeod. On that play, Kupp got to the outside too quickly for McLeod to be a factor, but a combination of zone-man defense could be employed against Gronkowski or Amendola in "got to have it" moments.