The Eagles head into Super Bowl LII as underdogs to the mighty Patriots, but Philadelphia has the pieces to pull off a huge upset in Minneapolis. Possessing a defense that's loaded with talent and an offense that's finding its way under a backup quarterback, Doug Pederson's crew does indeed have a path to victory in the big game.
1) The ferocious defensive line must terrorize Tom Brady.
The recipe for beating the Patriots always revolves around getting No. 12 off his spot. The NFL's leading passer is a deadly marksman from the pocket and he's capable of carving up any defense when he has time to throw from the pocket. Brady enters Super Bowl LII with a 66.4 percent completion rate on the season (including the playoffs), as well as a 103.1 passer rating on the strength of a 37:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. There's a good chance he'll receive his third MVP award on the night before the Super Bowl.
While we've grown accustomed to seeing TB12 slice up opponents with pinpoint passing, particularly at short and intermediate range, he has been particularly on point in January. Brady posted back-to-back games with a 100-plus passer rating in playoff wins over the Titansand Jaguars, piling up five touchdowns and zero picks in the process. His accuracy remains elite at age 40, and the veteran QB has shown the capability to post 300-yard games with or without his No. 1 target, Rob Gronkowski.
Long story short: If the Eagles are to have any chance at pulling off this upset, they need to significantly disrupt Brady's rhythm in the pocket.
Fortunately for the Eagles, they just happen to have the deepest and most talented defensive front in football. The unit features four first-round picks in Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and Chris Long, and each has a unique set of pass-rush skills. Add in the disruptive abilities of Tim Jernigan and Vinny Curry, and you see how the Eagles roll out pass rushers like a basketball team using a 10-man rotation to full-court press opponents from tip-off to buzzer.
Given the pass-rushing success enjoyed by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game -- particularly during the first half -- it's easy to see how the Eagles' D-line could significantly impact the game, despite the Patriots' attempts to wear down opponents through a frenetic tempo that zaps the energy out of pass rushers over the course of the game.
Taking a closer look at Philadelphia's typical tactical approach, I believe defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will likely stick with his four-man rush to attack Brady. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles posted a 38.1 percent pressure rate with a four-man rush -- the second-highest figure in the NFL. In addition, they lead the NFL with 16.9 total pressures per game and had seven players finish the season with 20-plus pressures (most in the NFL). With Philly's front line adept at collapsing the pocket via straight rushes and twists from a "wide nine" defensive alignment, the Patriots' edge blockers (Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming) will face tough matchups on the island. Not to mention, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason face the unenviable task of dealing with No. 91 on the inside. Cox, who just received his third straight Pro Bowl nod, is a disruptive force on the inside. His ability to wreck shop forces opponents to scrap their game plans. Against a stationary quarterback like Brady, Cox's inside penetration could destroy the Patriots' timing on offense.
That said, Brady does boast the NFL's top passer rating when under pressure this season at 95.5, according to Pro Football Focus. He consistently beats the pass rush with his quick release and that has made him nearly impossible to defend. Given Brady's 55.4 completion rate and 10:2 TD-to-INT ratio when facing heat, according to PFF, the Eagles will need to collapse the pocket in a hurry or put their hands up at the line of scrimmage to throw Brady off his game.
If the pass rush is accompanied by aggressive, bump-and-run coverage on the perimeter, Philadelphia's defense could make life miserable for Brady in the pocket. Now, that doesn't mean the Eagles will completely shut down the future Hall of Fame quarterback for four full quarters, but a fierce defensive effort could be enough to help Philly build a lead or close out a close game in U.S. Bank Stadium.
2) Nick Foles has to get into a groove.
It's not a coincidence that the Eagles' offense has shown more pop in the postseason; Pederson used the bye over Wild Card Weekend to come up with a plan to help his QB2 get into a rhythm. The wily play-caller assessed Foles' performance in the Eagles' final four regular-season games and crafted a game plan that's loaded with screens, quicks, RPOs (run-pass options) and rhythm throws. Although Philadelphia utilized a lot of spread concepts with Carson Wentz under center, Pederson needed to tweak the scheme to help a more stationary quarterback thrive at the helm. Unlike No. 11, who is capable of executing the zone-read as a big, athletic dual-threat capable of turning the corner on quarterback keepers, Foles is a traditional passer who is at his best dealing from the pocket.
Thus, the Eagles needed to find a way to stress the defense without having a mobile playmaker at the helm. Enter the RPO game and a bevy of complementary play-action passes that put defenders in a bind with deception and misdirection. The Eagles' RPO scheme will intentionally leave a front-seven defender unblocked, with the quarterback instructed to read his reaction and make the handoff or throw based on his movement. For instance, Philadelphia will align in a 2x2 or 3x1 formation with the running back positioned away from the slot. Foles will take the snap, put the ball in the belly of the running back and read the reaction of the weak-side linebacker. If the linebacker chases the ball, No. 9 will pull it out and fire a slant to a receiver running a one- or three-step slant into the void. This is easy money against zone teams, but it's also effective against man-to-man when defenders aren't disciplined with their eyes.
The Eagles will also use a variety of RPO bubble screens to take advantage of undisciplined defenders and soft coverage on the perimeter. If Foles comes to the line and spots a numbers advantage on the perimeter, he will throw the bubble screen to the designated receiver and rely on his playmaker to pick up extra yards in the open field. Based on Foles' production executing RPOs -- according to Pro Football Focus, he has completed a whopping 93.8 percent of his RPO passing attempts this season -- the Eagles should stick with this approach to help him find his rhythm as a passer.
If these concepts sound familiar when it comes to Foles, it is because they're ripped directly from the Chip Kelly playbook that helped No. 9 play like an MVP candidate in 2013. You remember that year, right? It's the season when Foles posted a sparkling 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio to go along with a 119.2 passer rating, keying the Eagles' NFC East title.
With Pederson also swiping Kelly's mesh concept (a pair of short crossing routes designed to intersect at about 5 yards with another receiver positioned at about 12 yards over the ball to create a "triangle" read for the QB), the Eagles have put Foles in an offense that plays to his strengths as a rhythm passer. Don't believe me? Just look at the numbers in this postseason. Over the past two games, Foles has completed 49 of his 63 passes (77.8 percent) for 598 yards and three scores. But here's an important distinction I noticed in the Next Gen Stats passing charts from Foles' twoplayoff games: Thirty-nine of his completions (out of 45 attempts) have come on throws targeted at 10 yards or fewer from the line of scrimmage. With Foles also completing 16 of his 17 throws behind the line of scrimmage on quick (WR screens) or slow screens (RB screen), the Eagles' passing game is efficient and effective with the veteran QB2 in charge.
Against New England's man-heavy scheme, the Eagles can continue to use those concepts to exploit some matchups on the perimeter. Studying the AFC Championship Game, the Jaguars had success using a variety of RPOs (bubble screens) and underneath crossing routes from bunch alignments. In addition, Jacksonville was able to get the ball to running backs on option routes and designated checkdowns. Considering the similarities between the Eagles' offensive structure and the Jags' approach, Pederson and his staff can feature a similar plan to help Foles enjoy success against a defense that will employ man coverage for most of the game.
3) Win the special teams battle.
New England receives plenty of praise for its "complementary football" approach, and it's valid: The defending Super Bowl champs routinely win because they dominate the kicking game on the way to winning the field-position battle. The Patriots are willing to play ping-pong with their punt and kickoff teams, routinely gaining extra yards and eventually scoring points from favorable field position.
What do I mean? Basically, the Pats excel at covering kickoffs and punts, and their superb play in those areas forces teams to drive the length of the field. Given the odds of orchestrating lengthy drives against a solid defense, New England's ability to routinely pin opponents inside the 10-yard line is a huge advantage.
Think about it this way: The Patriots were struggling against Jacksonville for most of the AFC title game, but their ability to control the field position in the second half eventually led to scoring opportunities. For instance, the Patriots' final scoring drive started at the Jags' 30-yard line after Danny Amendola's 20-yard punt return. While Amendola's return stands out in the minds of most observers, the scoring chance was originally set up by Ryan Allen's 35-yard punt that was fair caught by the Jags at their own 10-yard line. Allen actually pinned Jacksonville at the 10-yard line or deeper three times, which is a huge advantage for the defense.
Allen's effectiveness extends beyond his ability to pin opponents inside the 20 -- he is also one of the best at booting kicks that allow his coverage units to corral returners quickly after the catch. Allen has surrendered just 105 punt-return yards on the year, which ranks behind only Dallas' Chris Jones (75 yards) and Indianapolis' Rigoberto Sanchez (80 yards) among punters with 50-plus attempts.
The Eagles must counter with a strong effort in the return game. Kenjon Barner has been an effective returner for Philly, but he has three fumbles this season. Suspect ball security is definitely a concern against a team that's notorious for exploiting miscues in the kicking game. If Barner doesn't field kicks cleanly or take care of the ball, he could set up the Patriots' offensive juggernaut with an untimely miscue.
On the flip side, the Eagles' punt-coverage units are among the best in football. Donnie Jones is a directional-kicking specialist adept at "coffin corner" kicks, as evidenced by his five punts inside the 20-yard line during the playoffs. He is capable of booming high-arcing kicks that force fair catches or allow the coverage team to quickly corral the returner after the catch. The Eagles' punt-return unit surrendered 171 yards on Jones' punts during the regular season, which ranked in the top third in the league.
If the game comes down to field goals, the Eagles have one of the most effective long-distance scorers of this season in Jake Elliott. The rookie nailed 83.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 89.4 percent of his kicks from 40-plus yards out (12 of 13 from 40-49 yards, 5 of 6 from 50-plus). With a 61-yard game-winning boot on the resume, the Eagles enter the Super Bowl knowing they are in scoring position whenever they reach the Patriots' 40-yard line. That's a huge advantage in a game that could require 30-plus points from the winning team.