The New England Patriots can pull off back-to-back titles -- and three in the past four years -- with a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Although the Pats enter the game as solid favorites, thanks to the presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Eagles are a formidable foe with the potential to give New England problems on both sides of the ball.
1) Lean on running backs in the passing game.
Everyone in football knows New England loves to use running backs to create mismatches in the aerial attack. For years, the Patriots have deployed guys like J.R. Redmond, Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, among others, to exploit suspect cover skills of linebackers and safeties in the open field. That's certainly been the case in the 2017 campaign.
Josh McDaniels routinely crafts game plans around these kinds of personnel advantages, with Tom Brady targeting overmatched defenders into submission. New England running backs combined for the second-most receptions (126) and receiving yards (957) in the NFL this season, while posting a league-best nine receiving touchdowns. Looking at the per-game averages (including the playoffs) -- 10.5 targets, 8.3 receptions and 62.2 receiving yards -- it's easy to see how much of a role Pats RBs play in the passing game on a weekly basis. New England entered most games this season knowing it could exploit the opponent's vulnerabilities at linebacker. The Eagles, though, are a bit of a different story.
Including the postseason, Philadelphia has surrendered the second-fewest scrimmage yards per game to running backs (100.1); the Eagles' ability to tackle well on the perimeter has played a big role in that feat. Mychal Kendricks, Nigel Bradham and Dannell Ellerbe have formed a pretty solid linebacking corps. Kendricks (87.3) and Bradham (82.2), in particular, earned high marks from Pro Football Focus for their play this season. Although PFF grades aren't gospel, they're a useful tool for evaluating individual performance. And Philly's linebackers do indeed stand out on the All-22 tape; Kendricks and Bradham play like their hair's on fire, exhibiting outstanding hustle and pursuit at all times.
However, Eagles LBs have rarely been isolated on the perimeter. New England's myriad spread and empty formations -- with running backs aligned in various spots -- could put each of Philly's 'backers on an island. Ellerbe, in particular, might find himself in deep water if the Pats can isolate him in the middle on a variety of option routes between the hashes to exploit his underwhelming stop-start quickness in space.
With that in mind, I believe this could be one of those games where we see the Patriots throw 50-plus times, giving TB12 plenty of chances to pick apart the defense with short throws. The Eagles' defensive line is so good against the run that the "dink and dunk" game might provide New England with a greater chance to succeed on offense. With Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead adept at chewing up yards after the catch, the Pats should put the ball in their hands early and often.
2) Aggressively defend RPOs and quick passes.
Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick do everything in their power to take away "crutches" from opposing quarterbacks. Whether it's playing higher coverage to eliminate quick passes to the perimeter or falling into max zones (eight-man coverages) to test the discipline and accuracy of suspect throwers, the Patriots employ a number of tactics designed to force QBs out of their comfort zone. While every defensive coordinator in football says he wants to force quarterbacks to win with their second and third pitches, New England is one of the few defenses that consistently forces opposing signal callers off their game.
Against the Eagles, the Patriots face a red-hot quarterback coming off one of the best performances of his career. Nick Foles absolutely carved up the Minnesota Vikings' top-ranked defense in the NFC title game with a combination of pinpoint, underneath throws and scripted haymakers to every area of the field. The spectacular performance from No. 9 changed the narrative surrounding the Eagles' offense with the QB2 at the helm -- filling in for injured star Carson Wentz -- and forced observers to re-evaluate the potency of the unit in Super Bowl LII.
Studying the numbers from Foles' most recent performances (two playoff games), it's hard to ignore his efficiency running the offense. He has completed 77.8 percent of his passes, averaged nearly 300 passing yards per game (299.0), posted a 3:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and compiled a 122.1 passer rating. In addition, Foles has averaged a whopping 9.5 yards per attempt while showcasing a better deep ball than many anticipated. While it's easy to dismiss this production as simply a two-game hot streak, it would be silly to ignore his rock-solid numbers since taking over as the starter in Week 15. Since that point, he has completed 64 percent of his passes with an 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 96.4 passer rating. For comparison's sake, Brady has posted a 63.9 percent completion rate, 10:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 97.6 passer rating during that same span.
Looking at the All-22 footage, the Eagles have helped Foles find his rhythm by prominently featuring RPOs (run-pass options) in the game plan. These plays instruct the quarterback to count the numbers in the box pre-snap and determine whether to hand the ball to a running back or throw to a receiver on a quick pass (slant or bubble screen). In addition, these plays also feature a post-snap read where Foles keys on a designated defender to help make that aforementioned decision. We've seen these concepts -- which are more prevalent in high school and college -- trickle up into the NFL recently, but no one does it better than the Eagles. Just look at this Pro Football Focus split of Foles' numbers from this season (including the playoffs):
Foles running RPOs: 93.8 percent completion rate, 0:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.6 passer rating.
Foles running Non-RPOs: 61.5 percent completion rate, 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio ratio, 94.4 passer rating.
In a league where a 70 percent completion mark puts you among the ranks of the elite, Foles' 93.8 figure on RPOs would earn him a gold jacket over time. That's ridiculous efficiency from a quarterback, particularly a QB2 who's been thrust into the lineup during the stretch run of the season.
Given how well Foles has played in an RPO-based system, the Patriots have to make stopping those plays a top priority in Super Bowl LII. They will need to cloud Foles' pre-snap reads with constant movement near the line of scrimmage to mess up his count. In addition, New England must smother the Eagles' receivers in tight man coverage. RPOs are designed to kill zone coverage because they put a designated defender in a bind and there's a built-in answer to his reaction. But man coverage eliminates the quandary and makes it a one-on-one battle on the perimeter.
Since New England's a man-heavy team (Cover 1-Rat), the Pats have enough defenders in place to stop the Eagles' preferred RPO concept (inside/outside zone run with back-side slant route). The bump-and-run coverage on the outside should disrupt the release and timing of the route, forcing Foles to make a tight-window throw. With Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler adept at challenging receivers at the line, man-heavy tactics should bode well for New England.
Here's the thing, though: The Patriots have struggled to defend RPOs all season. They've surrendered 5.6 yards per play on RPOs (fifth-most in the NFL, according to PFF), and they had a difficult time slowing down the Jaguars' RPOs. Remember all those first-half bubble screens to little-known Jags RB Corey Grant? Thus, Belichick's crew must be prepared to see the bubble screen featured prominently in Philly's game plan. The perimeter defenders must work on block destruction -- to minimize the space for pass catchers to run -- while the rest of the defense needs to hustle to the ball and keep gains to a minimum. These plays need to be held to 4 yards or fewer early in the game, or the Eagles will run them over and over to pick up easy yards.
The Patriots should also consider dialing up more pressure against Foles in Super Bowl LII to disrupt the timing of Philadelphia's passing game. No. 9 hasn't performed well under pressure this season and the constant harassment could force him to turn it over. Check out this breakdown on Foles' season (including the playoffs), courtesy of PFF:
Foles under pressure: 48.0 percent completion rate, 2:2 TD-to-INT, 64.2 passer rating.
Foles from a clean pocket: 71.9 percent completion rate, 6:0 TD-to-INT, 109.9 passer rating.
3) Thwart the Eagles' ground attack.
OK, despite all of the attention on Foles and the Eagles' passing game of late, the team's ground-and-pound attack is really the centerpiece of Doug Pederson's game plan. The Eagles finished the regular season ranked third in rushing offense (132.2 yards per game), largely fueled by the big-bodied duo of Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. With Corey Clement also chipping in as the RB3, Philadelphia bludgeons opponents with a diverse rushing attack that hits between the tackles and on the edges from a variety of power and spread formations.
Studying coaches tape from the Eagles' regular-season and playoff games, Pederson has clearly defined roles for each of his runners in the backfield. Ajayi is the lead back, with a crafty running style that blends finesse with power. He excels at running between the tackles, but also flashes enough quickness and acceleration to turn the corner on outside runs. Blount is a bulldozer with the size, strength and power to run through contact in the hole. He also boasts enough athleticism to hurdle cut tacklers on the perimeter. Clement's a nifty change-of-pace back with a solid set of skills. Despite limited playing time and touches, he is a viable threat to grind out first downs on inside or outside runs. The undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin shows some quickness and burst to turn the corner, but he is rugged enough to move the pile on inside runs. Considering the depth of this backfield and Pederson's patience with the running game, it is no surprise the Eagles are 12-1 this season when the team rushes for 100-plus yards.
That's why the Patriots must make a concerted effort to take away Philadelphia's rushing attack in a Foles-led offense. Sure, the veteran showed the football world he could win a game as a playmaker in the NFC title bout, but the pressure of pulling that off again -- in the Super Bowl, no less -- could force him out of his comfort zone, especially if the ground game isn't working.
Remember, Belichick wants to make opponents play "left-handed" (take away their strengths) by neutralizing top options and forcing others to make plays. Against the Eagles' dynamic backfield, he could be forced to play more "plus-one" defenses with an extra defender aligned in the box. As a man-to-man team with Cover 1-Rat (man coverage with an underneath robber at 10 yards and a deep-post safety) as a base call, New England can easily deploy another safety near the line of scrimmage to get a free hitter to the runner.
This tactic has been effective for the Patriots down the stretch, as they've allowed just 72.5 rushing yards per game (3.2 per carry) since Week 16. Most importantly, New England has shut down quality runners in the backfield: Derrick Henry managed just 28 yards on 12 carries in the Divisional Round, while Leonard Fournette carried the ball 24 times for a meager 76 yards in the AFC title game. That's pretty impressive, especially when you consider the Patriots' first four showdowns against teams that went on to finish the regular season with a top-10 rushing offense:
The onus is the Patriots' front seven to clog up the running lanes at the point of attack. New England is typically a "read and react" defense along the line, but the Pats could employ more run blitzes to plug the holes against Ajayi, Blount and Clement. With an extra defender also hovering around the box, the Patriots could make life difficult for the Eagles on Super Bowl Sunday.
If New England can keep Philly under the 100-yard rushing mark, Brady, Belichick and Co. could walk away with yet another Lombardi Trophy.