Bill Belichick, Brandin Cooks, Carson Wentz, Danny Amendola, Dante Scarnecchia, Derek Rivers, Dont'a Hightower, Fletcher Cox, Howie Roseman, Jacksonville Jaguars, James Harrison, Jay Ajayi, Jim Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs, LA Rams, New England Patriots, NFL, Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles, Rob Gronkowski, Super Bowl, Tom Brady
The big day is here and as the end of my fourth season of blogging about the NFL approaches it is just left to preview the Super Bowl and take a look at the coaching tape next week. This year the final game comes down to the Philadelphia Eagles taking on the New England Patriots.
The Patriots have reached the Super Bowl for the third time in the last four seasons and this is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s eighth Super Bowl in seventeen years, which is simply an unprecedented number for a head coach and quarterback that match any other team’s number of total Super Bowls. This year started poorly with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and two losses in the first four games but still the Patriots were able to amass a 13-3 record and once again make the Super Bowl.
Their defence started off poorly, particularly in coverage, but improved through the year as communication got sorted and they found their way. This defence is still not a great one in terms of yards given up and finished the regular season ranked thirty-first in the league by DVOA with the rush defence a poor thirtieth and the pass defence a more respectable twenty-first. Their front seven has lost talent recent years and losing Don’t’a Hightower and rookie Derek Rivers to injury really didn’t help. However, the Patriots managed to finish the season fifth in points allowed this season and have their classic bend but don’t break approach working well enough that they haven’t given up more than twenty-seven points since the first four games where they started so poorly. The secondary has been playing well recently and it was a very typical move to pick up James Harrison off waivers late in the season and it would not be a surprise to see the veteran pass rusher make a couple of plays again in this game.
If the Patriots defence has struggled, the offence has excelled once again despite Tom Brady turning forty as he fights time to keep his career going. Brady finished the regular season with four and a half thousand yards, thirty-two touchdowns and only eight interceptions and already has a trademark come from behind win against the Jaguars in the post season. They were the number one ranked offence in the league by DVOA leading the league in passing offence and number three in rushing offence. There was an overhaul of their receiver group but they had to do all this without Brady favourite Julian Edelman who tore his ACL in pre-season. Still, Brady has made use of the plethora of running back options out of the backfield as well as tight end Rob Gronkowski who led the team in passing yards and receiver Brandin Cooks who seems to have quietly gone over a thousand yards as well this year. Special mention ought to go to receiver Danny Amendola who showed up big against the Jaguars when it mattered most and has a reputation for making big plays in the playoffs.
If the Patriots march to the Super Bowl had an air of inevitability about then the Eagles are almost a surprise representative for the NFC. In the offseason GM Howie Roseman continued to develop his team and signed a number of veterans who all seem to have contributed at various points giving the Eagles one of the most complete rosters in the league. Not content to rest on what he had done in the offseason Roseman also traded for Jay Ajayi in what appears to have been an almost prescient move when Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP calibre season, was lost for the season to injury in the Eagles’ week fourteen win against the LA Rams. The Eagles actually only lost their final game with nothing to play for once Wentz went down and also finished the regular season 13-3.
The Eagles offence may have finished the season ranked eighth in the league by DVOA, but they have found a way thanks to creative play calling, an offensive line that gets the job done and a rush attack that looks stronger than its ranking of seventeenth by DVOA. There has been much talk of the rush-pass-option or RPO plays that they run, but fundamentally this is a unit that continued to play well with a backup quarterback who looked genuinely good in his last outing against one of the best defences in the league. The huge question for the Eagles in this Super Bowl is whether head coach Doug Pederson and his staff can come up with a game plan that allows Nick Foles to be as effective in the Super Bowl with all the pressure that comes with being the starting quarterback for the big game. The Eagles strength and depth amongst their skill players facilitate the multiple ways their coaching staff attack different teams and should allow for the coaches to play how they want against the Patriots.
The Eagles defence finished the regular season ranked fifth in the league by DVOA and been effective against both the run and pass but particularly against the run where they rank third. This is perhaps not surprising given that the strength of this defence is the defensive line that has not only played well, but features depth which allows Jim Schwartz to not only be aggressive but maintain a fearsome pass rush into the fourth quarter when a lot of team’s pass rush gets tired. The Eagles have enough in their back seven to take advantage of this pass rush but it will be interesting to see how they fare against a quarterback of Brady’s ability in the season’s biggest game and so now feels like a good time to get into the matchups.
The big cliché before this game is one that I have used myself when talking about a team’s ability to beat Brady, namely that the formula is rushing four and playing good coverage. Now it is true that this is a formula to beat most teams, but it is harder to do than it first seems and Brady seems to be so strong against most defence but the way to bother him is to get pressure up the middle. The Jaguars played well for the most part against the Patriots but Brady still found a way and that has to be the worry for Eagles in this game. They will blitz more than the Jaguars and possibly have a better pass rush although their coverage players are not a strong. Still in Fletcher Cox they have a formidable rushing defensive tackle and the Patriots’ ability to mitigate this will go a long way to deciding the game. In Dante Scarnecchia the Patriots have one of the best offensive line coaches in the league and between his unit and Brady’s ability to recognise what a defence is doing and get rid of the ball they have the tools to allow the offence to function against the Eagles rush. In what I think is going to be a feature of this Super Bowl, the coaching matchup between these two sides of the ball is going to be fascinating. How the Eagles chose to cover Gronkowski and their success in executing it could go a long way in deciding this game.
When the Eagles have the ball the coaching matchup is also going to be enthralling. The usual approach that Belichick is known for on defence is that he makes a team beat them left handed i.e. he takes away what the opposing team does best. I have written before about the way he does this in coverage by putting his best cover corner on his opponent’s second best receiver and double covering their best, but this is not so easy when the ball is spread around the offence and it doesn’t feel to me like the Eagles have an obvious primary option to use this approach on. My hunch would be that with a backup quarterback, even one as talented as Nick Foles, the approach will be to stop the run and make Foles prove that he can play near the standard he set in the conference championship game and beat you. Even then, this is another great coaching matchup and as usual, red zone defence is going to be a key factor as it usually is for a team that often gives up few points even if the opponent can move the ball between the twenty yard lines.
I am really excited about this game as it has great promise in terms of the coaching matchups and the players involved, but it is a real shame that the Eagles are without Carson Wentz and I have to give the edge to the Patriots. It feels to me like this should be a close game with the experience of Brady and Belichick likely to win the day but I definitely think the Eagles will be a stern test and I can see them winning. The greatness of this Patriots run is already assured and we are witnessing a historic head coaching and quarterback pairing, perhaps for the last time, but that doesn’t guarantee they will triumph.
Now all that is left is to watch the game and witness football history.