Top mismatches for each team in Super Bowl LII


The matchup for Super Bowl LII was locked-in stone just under two weeks ago with the upstart Philadelphia Eagles set to take on the storied New England Patriots. While both the Patriots and Eagles were the No. 1 teams in their respective conferences and seem to only get better the longer they play in the postseason, neither team offers many holes for the opposition to hammer away at. Yet, by combing through the wealth of data in the Pro Football Focus catalog, we can find a small handful of potential mismatches. If either New England or Philadelphia gets the upper hand in these matchups or underperform expectations, it could be what helps decide which organization hoists the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night. Here's what to watch when each team has the ball.

When the Patriots have the ball

Brandin Cooks vs. Jalen Mills

It's easy to see Brandin Cooks' fingerprints on the Patriots' offense this year. Tom Brady threw deep on 13.8 percent of his passes during the 2017 regular season, which was his highest rate since at least 2006. Cooks slid right into a well-crafted role as the Patriots new vertical threat. He led all wide receivers with 17 receptions on deep targets (20-plus air yards) and totaled 639 yards. Even when Brady and Cooks don't connect down the field, the duo can make the defense pay. Cooks drew a league-high six pass interference flags on deep targets.

Cooks sees the majority of his targets when lined up on the offensive left side of the field but we could see the Patriots use him on the other side of the field in order to exploit Eagles left corner Jalen Mills. He allowed nine touchdowns in coverage this year, more than any other player at the position, while the other two Eagles cornerbacks gave up passer ratings below 60. With Mills as the clear weak link in the Philadelphia secondary, it would only make sense for the always flexible Patriots to craft a game plan around attacking him.

Danny Amendola vs. Patrick Robinson

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski offered up the nickname "Danny Playoff Amendola" for the Patriots top slot receiver in the wake of yet another excellent run. While it loses points for creativity, the name hits home for its accuracy. Brady has a 134.1 passer rating when throwing to Amendola this postseason and the diminutive receiver snagged the game-winning touchdown reception to lift New England over Jacksonville in the AFC championship.

Amendola will face a stiff challenge in recreating his playoff heroics again. The Eagles field one of 2017's best slot defenders in cornerback Patrick Robinson. The veteran reclamation project was a big surprise for the team this season, allowing the second-lowest passer rating (59.1) among slot corners. The Eagles might have just have the mismatch needed to slow down the Patriots' postseason secret weapon.

Tom Brady under pressure

The strength of the Eagles defense this season was their pass rushing group. A deep and diverse group, Philadelphia sends waves of players from their defensive line at opposing quarterbacks to force mistakes and stymie drives. The Eagles led the league this year with 16.9 total pressures per game and had seven players clear 20 pressures on the year. In the Super Bowl, they'll be hunting the best quarterback in the NFL when he's under pressure. Tom Brady posted a 95.5 passer rating under pressure in 2017, the best at the position.

It's as cliche as any note in football, but the key to knocking the Patriots' offense, of course, relies on the defense's ability to rattle Brady without sending extra pass rushers. Brady was under pressure for 43.4 and 46.5 percent of his dropbacks in his two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, whereas none of the five teams he defeated in other years could amass a 40 percent pressure rate against him. The Eagles have the horses to win that race in this rendition. Philadelphia posted a 38.1 percent pressure rate when rushing with just four defenders, the second-highest rate in the league. It could well be this matchup that decides the game.

When the Eagles have the ball

Nelson Agholor vs. Eric Rowe

The Patriots field a solid pair of corners on the outside in Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler, with the former, particularly shining this postseason. However, the Patriots have sprung a leak in their interior coverage over the last several weeks. Opposing passers have dog walked slot corner Eric Rowe up and down the field in the playoffs. Rowe lined up in the slot for 56 snaps combined in the Divisional Round and AFC Championship Game. Quarterbacks threw into his coverage 15 times and he allowed 10 catches, more than any other slot defender in those two weeks.

Rowe will be tasked with covering Eagles slot receiver Nelson Agholor in this game. Agholor ran 413 routes from the slot this season and snagged eight touchdowns from the inside, more than any other receiver. If Rowe can't contain a rejuvenated Agholor in the slot, he could prove to be the Eagles' X-factor on offense.

Nick Foles and RPOs

You've probably heard the three letters RPOs (run-pass option) as often as you've heard NFL during the Philadelphia Eagles' playoff run. Nick Foles' success using this wrinkle drew national attention in their home win over the Atlanta Falcons several weeks ago. Since he took over for an injured Carson Wentz back in Week 13, Foles has completed an outrageous 93.8 percent of his throws without an interception when the Eagles use a run-pass option. That's compared to a 61.5 percent rate and a pair of picks on non-RPO plays.

The Patriots front seven spent most of the 2017 season trying to find itself and was at times the leakiest unit in the league. As such, it's no surprise to see some of these RPOs gave the New England defense trouble at times this year. The Patriots allowed 5.6 yards per play when the opposing team used an RPO, fifth-highest in the NFL.

Backfield X-factors

The genius behind the Eagles' offense constructed by coach Doug Pederson is the way in which they throw multiple layers of concepts at an opponent, able to send diverse play calls in waves. In the NFC Championship Game, Philadelphia came in with an aggressive attacking approach to immediately knock the Vikings' No. 1 defense off balance. If they decide to alter that approach against New England and slow-play the game in order to keep Tom Brady and company off the field, expect Pederson and the offensive staff to center the game around their stable of running backs.

LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi could prove to be the X-factors in this game. Blount, the former Patriots' hammer, has quietly been one of the most difficult backs to bring down this year. He forced a missed tackle on 17 percent of his opportunities during the regular season, the fifth-highest rate among qualifying running backs. Blount's scored in each of the Eagles' two playoff games. Meanwhile, the team began to make use of their midseason prize's abilities in the passing game here in the postseason. Ajayi snagged three catches in each of the two playoff games, but it's the way in which he's been deployed that could be notable in the Super Bowl. Foles threw Ajayi a screen pass on 12.3 percent of his pass routes, which is up from 4.3 percent with Wentz. The elusive back has made the most of his chances out in space, averaging over 11 yards per catch in the postseason. Watch for Ajayi in the open field in this contest.