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Film Room: How the Eagles can attack the Patriots’ defense

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The Patriots’ defense is vulnerable, but how do you attack it?

Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Super Bowl week has finally arrived! After a week of practice in Philadelphia, the Eagles have landed in Minnesota and are continuing their preparations in what is sure to be a busy week. On top of all of the preparations they’ve been making in film room and on the field, the Eagles will be swarmed with media night and various other accommodations that come with playing in the Super Bowl.

In preparation for the game, I decided to go back through the Patriots’ 2017 season and study the games in which they gave up the most points or yards. What I found was not all that surprising. Despite Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s background on the defensive side of the ball, that unit struggled throughout the course of the season. According to Football Outsiders DVOA, the Patriots were 31st in the league on the defensive side of the ball — ranking 29th in yards per game and 31st in yards per play.

Those aren't good number any way you splice them. The saving grace for the Patriots is that they ranked 5th in points per game, essentially serving as a bend-don’t-break defense.

Quick Notes

  • Primarily a man defense team.
  • Struggle to cover running backs and receivers out of the backfield.
  • Versatile fronts — can switch between odd (3-4) and even (4-3) fronts.
  • Susceptible to shallow crossing routes and pick plays.
  • Tend to blow zone coverages.
  • Limit deep chunk plays in the passing game.
  • If predictable in play calling, they can easily stop you.
  • Because of versatile fronts, most teams ran inside/outside zone instead of trap or power/pulling plays.
  • Because they’re predominately a man coverage team, they give up a lot of YAC.
  • Bunch and stack formations can create separation for the receivers, and drive defensive backs away from the target with traffic.

I mentioned how the Patriots’ defense was vulnerable to shallow crossing routes in my quick notes. As a team that plays A LOT of man coverage, their players don’t have the luxury of carrying a receiver to another zone and closing those holes. Once a receiver gets you in a trailing position, depending on the play design it can be bad news for the defense.

In the play above, the Kansas City Chiefs ran what is called “mesh.” Mesh usually requires two players running underneath drag routes from opposite sides. This was a concept of Chip Kelly’s offense, and is one that most offenses utilize on a regular basis. The Eagles have used mesh quite a bit this year.

The play above is Torrey Smith’s 59-yard touchdown catch against the Cardinals. If you pay attention to the Eagles underneath receivers, you’ll notice that they are running the mesh concept. Now that you know what it looks like, let’s get to why it’s effective.

Against man coverage, drag routes work effectively because the receiver just has to win a release and move horizontally as opposed to vertically. The way the Chiefs ran it against the Patriots in the first clip was out of a trips-bunch formation. This eliminates the opportunity for the Patriots’ defense to press at the line of scrimmage, giving the receiver a free release. The bunch helps create separation for the receiver and a traffic jam of bodies the the defense has to sift through. With a lone receiver coming from the left side of the formation, more traffic is created across the middle of the field. The final successful aspect of this play design is that there was only one receiver to the left side — tight end Travis Kelce (87). With the Patriots in man coverage, there’s nobody left on that side to stop the receiver with the ball in his hands, allowing for nearly 12 yards after the catch.

The Chiefs would come back with mesh again later in the game. This variation of the play does the exact same thing as the previous one, but adds a more defined version of the running back wheel route which forces a linebacker to cover and play in space. If the read is there, the quarterback can lob a pass that leads the running back towards the end zone if the linebacker is slow to cover. If the read isn’t there, there’s another drag route coming across the field underneath into the area that the wheel cleared out.

The play above is another example of the Chiefs running mesh, but as I mentioned in the quick notes, you can’t become predictable against this defense. That was one of the flaws of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game — they became predictable with their play calling. Above, the Chiefs ran mesh again, but the defender covering the wheel route diagnosed and tackled the receiver coming from right to left just short of the first down.

I wanted to attach one of the more memorable examples of the mesh play’s effectiveness against the Patriots’ man coverage defense. The play above is Juju Smith-Schuster’s long catch and run that set the Steelers up in scoring position before they ultimately turned the ball over. A pick was created for Smith-Schuster across the middle from the opposite drag route, which helped spring him free.

In the play above Alex Smith glances from right to left before attacking the left side of the defense. On the left side the Chiefs again created traffic using a crosser route from the outside receiver before the inside receiver stops and runs up towards the sideline. In the play you’ll notice the inside slot receiver running an over route towards the left side of the field. Smith moved on and his eyes may have led the defense to abandon that receiver, but the Patriots didn’t seem to have any regard for him, passing him off to nobody. That’s a trend I noticed with this defense. I’m not sure if it’s communication or awareness, but early in the season the defense blew their fair share of coverages when offenses stack receivers or flood areas of the field. Blown coverages are part of the game, and will happen from time-to-time, but I did notice that a team like the Panthers benefitted from those against New England.

The three teams that scored the most points against the Patriots used a lot of jet-motion and window dressing pre- and post-snap. Everyone saw what Andy Reid did the first several weeks of the season — to the Eagles and Patriots alike — but then the Texans and Panthers both used a lot of motion en route to scoring over 30 points each in New England.

In the play above, the receiver to the right side of formation goes into what is called orbit-motion when the ball is snapped. The Patriots’ defense has to respect the possibility of a handoff to the running back or the receiver in motion. This freezes the linebackers and allows the tight end to slip in behind the linebackers and secure a catch for a 17-yard gain.

The Panthers have historically had success using motions and reverses to aid their run game. In the play above they run a reverse and the initial handoff to the running back gets the Patriots’ defense flowing to the wrong side of the field. Eventually they try to correct themselves and two of the Patriots’ defenders run into each other in the middle of the field. Throughout the season and the playoff run, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has done an excellent job of using pre-snap motion to fool defenses. Nelson Agholor has been one of the beneficiaries of this and I would be shocked if the Eagles don’t incorporate or stick with these designs on Sunday.

In the play above, the Panthers’ sent rookie Christian McCaffrey in motion and faked the throw to him. McCaffrey attracted a lot of attention when he was in games because of the dynamic abilities he displayed in college. This wasn’t any different, as the entire Patriots defense was fooled by the fake, setting up the ensuing screen for success. This is a play that Doug Pederson has also utilized, although I don’t believe he’s utilized as much pre-snap motion with it, but the Eagles have had a lot of success with this, whether the running back be Corey Clement, Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles or Kenjon Barner.

One thing teams did a good job of against the Patriots’ defense, was manufacturing separation for receivers out of the backfield. In the play above, Dolphins wide receiver Devante Parker comes across the formation post-snap, out-flanking his defender who is, again, in man coverage. The play-action boot to hit the flat receiver works because the defender has to go wide to avoid getting tangled in the traffic over the middle.

The Panthers utilized a similar look with their tight end Ed Dickson (84) coming across the formation on the play-action boot. If the Eagles can utilize boots — Nick Foles’ lack of athleticism may be cause for concern — they may be able to matchup Zach Ertz with a linebacker and take advantage.

Boots and play-action aren't the only way to attack the Patriots with receivers out of the backfield. When watching the Patriots’ games, I noticed times when they would neglect to defend a running back slipping out of the backfield, or just blatantly struggled to do so. I believe part of that is due to their inexperience and lack of talent at the linebacker position.

In the play above, Texans running back D’Onta Foreman leaks out of the backfield off of the play-action fake and nobody picks him up. The play only gains seven yards, but that’s still a 2nd-and-3 as opposed to a 2nd-and-10. The play is essentially a flood concept, but being patient and taking those gains are important to sustaining drives.

The play above is another example of the Patriots’ struggles against defending receivers out of the backfield. The play action distorts the coverage and Matt Forte (22) slips underneath, picking up and easy 10 yards. There were plays I noticed in other games where the running back was looked over as an option, but he still found an open area of the field to camp in. I’m not going to bore you with clips of running backs catching 5-8 yard passes, but if those are there, it’s important for Nick Foles to take them. A key to the Eagles winning will be sustaining long drives to keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.

The play above doesn't feature the running back, but instead features Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry swinging out of the backfield. If you look at the receivers split out wide, you’ll notice they’re driving cornerbacks back, creating separation for Landry and forcing Landry’s defender to weave through traffic.

This is one of the games that the Eagles really could have used Darren Sproles. In the play above, the Dolphins motioned their halfback out wide right. This forces the linebacker to follow him, as the Patriots are in man coverage. The running back eats up the cushion and zooms past the linebacker for a huge gain. If the Eagles can utilize Ajayi, Clement and Barner in the passing game, they stand a good chance of keeping the Patriots’ defense on their heels.

As mentioned in the quick notes, teams typically steered away from trying to wham and trap the Patriots. They deploy 3-4 and bear fronts that combat those run plays well. They weren't spectacular at stopping the run by any means and there’s reason to believe that the Eagles can impose their will when it comes to running, even if they primarily stick to zone runs.

I didn’t notice the Patriots giving up a lot of big plays down the field unless a receiver made a spectacular catch or the quarterback made a nice throw. They typically don’t allow separation down field, which may be part of why Belichick prefers man coverage with this unit. In addition to to limiting big plays, the Patriots are coached well when it comes to situational football. They give up yards, but clamp down in the red zone, which is part of why their scoring defense is among the best in the league. Belichick likes to bracket your best receivers in the red zone to force you to go to your second or third best option. My best guess is that he’ll attempt to take away Zach Ertz and possibly Alshon Jeffery. This still leaves the Eagles with their stable of running backs, Trey Burton and Nelson Agholor.

Sticking specifically with matchups, the Patriots seemed to play cornerback Stephon Gilmore on bigger receivers, with cornerback Malcolm Butler covering smaller, shiftier players. I’ll be interested to see if they move former Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe outside to avoid him matching up with Agholor. Most of Rowe’s snaps seemed to come in the slot, but Agholor would be a mismatch for him. I initially thought Patriots safety Devin McCourty would matchup with Zach Ertz, but after speaking with Mark Schofield, he believes they’ll stick Patrick Chung on Ertz. I’d have to believe that’s a mismatch, but I believe Ertz will see a steady diet of McCourty and Chung. McCourty matched up some with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce some, so that’s a matchup to watch. Ertz holds a size advantage over both safeties, but McCourty is one of the best man-to-man safeties in the league.

A hot topic of discussion has been and will be the Eagles’ use of the RPO (run-pass option). The Eagles should be able to take advantage of the Patriots’ linebackers in this regard, but their wide receivers will need to beat Butler and Gilmore quickly, which isn’t an easy task. Despite that, it’s a tactic that will likely give the Patriots a headache. Mark Schofield mentioned that, in an effort to combat the Eagles’ RPOs, the Patriots will play more cover 2, which pulls a safety out of the box, opening up the run game.

Overall, the potential is there for the Eagles to have another big game on offense. I don’t expect them to have quite the effort they posted against Minnesota, as that was one of the best offensive performances I’ve ever seen in a championship game. If the Eagles want to have success, they’ll have to execute efficiently. Doug Pederson has given Eagles fans every reason to believe he can put together the perfect offensive gameplan, but execution is the key. Against the Atlanta Falcons the execution was so-so, but the gameplan was fantastic. Against Minnesota both aspects were lights out and the final score was a perfect indication of such. These games often come down to execution and players making a play, and there’s no reason to believe the final game of the 2017 season will be any different.

Want to learn more about the Eagles’ offense? Check out my work below and follow me on Twitter: @TjackRH