In the early rounds of Super Bowl 52, New England quarterback, Tom Brady, will have one primary assignment: Take Philadelphia’s dynamic defensive line out of the game. So far this year, the Eagles’ defensive front has been quietly terrorizing the league’s signal-callers with its four-man rushing packages, dominant linebacker play, and near-unrivalled depth. The unit might not be prolific when it comes to sacks (38 this year), but its ability to generate heavy pressure with a low blitz percentage provides for a potential nightmare matchup for Brady & co., who will be looking to pick up their third Lombardi Trophy in four years.
Much More Than Four
If the Eagles are to emerge victorious in Sunday’s encounter, the defensive game-plan will have to be ran through the four men up-front. Limitations in the secondary mean that the Eagles’ D-line will have to take a more aggressive approach than that which we saw from Jacksonville in the AFC Championship game. The Jaguars’ ability to rely on Jalen Ramsey and A.J Bouye through three quarters allowed for the execution of a conservative strategy in the trenches. Brady was pressured on only 22% of his dropbacks in the Championship game, but was still only able to record 10 points until that fourth quarter.
Without the luxury of a dominant secondary, the onus will fall on the Eagles’ vaunted defensive line. The unit is as deep as any in the NFL, and experience and All-Pro talent abounds. As Bill Belichick noted in reference to the line’s personnel grouping, “I wish it was four. It’s about eight, nine”. The Patriots Head Coach is, of course, correct. Exhaustion will not be a problem for Philadelphia’s blue chip unit, and the ability to play with four options at defensive end means that Brady will be pressured without abatement.
A primary key to the success of Philadelphia’s defensive front has been the philosophy of the franchise’s defensive coordinator. Jim Schwartz’s scheme is built around taking the initiative through leveraging the athleticism of his four rushers against the slower and less-mobile offensive linemen. Such an approach has been a hallmark of each of Schwartz’s defenses all the way back to Buffalo in 2014, and his heavy pressure/low blitz scheme has been taken to new heights this year. In essence, it’s about creating turnovers at the line — and having forced 19 interceptions during the regular season (and with some limitations at corner), it’s clear that the philosophy is sound in practice, as well as in theory.
When it comes to matching-up against the Patriots, the four upfront are capable of having success. Vinny Curry and Derek Barnett will alternate on the right side of the line — a weak spot for the Patriots — while Fletcher Cox (the best player on the field not named Brady) will exert heavy interior pressure. All in all, with the edge rush and interior pressure combined, the D-line will ask major questions of the Patriots’ pass protection.
Brady Under Pressure
But notwithstanding the unit’s consistency and effectiveness this year, the Eagles’ defensive front will be presented with its biggest challenge of the year in stopping a quarterback who is completing 59% of his passes while under pressure. Despite being without Julian Edelman (the Patriots’ secret weapon against the blitz), Brady has shown himself to be by far the best quarterback in league while facing pressure. On Sunday, Brady will look to release the ball quickly, picking Philadelphia apart with short passes. Tight-end, Rob Gronkowski, will be pivotal here. Gronk is Brady’s favoured option when facing pressure.
One thing that should worry the Eagles is the Patriots’ ability and willingness to make in-game adjustments. Against Jacksonville, Brady was sacked twice in his first four snaps, but was crucially sacked just once for the remainder of the game. Some of this might be the result of Jacksonville’s inexplicable decision to play more conservatively as the game wore one — but Josh McDaniels can and will make on-the-fly adjustments if it’s required.
Due to the four man rush, Schwartz will typically have an extra man in coverage and would be smart to use him to stop Danny Amendola and the Patriots slot receivers. If Amendola finds ways to get open early, then Brady should be able to get the ball away avoid hits. Philadelphia has to find a way to force Brady to go vertical.
In past Super Bowls, we’ve seen on-form QBs struggle against elite pass rushing. Peyton Manning was undone by Seattle’s D-line, and Cam Newton was neutralised by Von Miller. If the Eagles are to have a chance against New England this Sunday, they will need to hope that history rhymes, if not repeats, and that the favoured quarterback struggles to find options under pressure. Fortunately for Philadelphia, Schwartz has put together a defensive front that should — at the very least — prove to be a headache for the thirteen time All-Pro quarterback. The question then remains whether Nick Foles and the explosive Philadelphia offense can get it done on the other side of the ball.
The Eagles manage to contain Brady enough to keep this one close. Expect a low scoring and nervy first hand before both offenses get going in the second. The Patriots win, but Philadelphia keeps it inside the number (+4.5).