The Philadelphia Eagles are kicking off their 2023 schedule with a road game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. In order to preview this Week 1 matchup, I reached out to our enemies over at Pats Pulpit. The terrific Taylor Kyles kindly took the time to answer my questions about this upcoming battle. Let’s take a look at the answers. [For my answers to questions about the Eagles, stay tuned to PP.]
1 - What’s going on with the Patriots’ offensive line? Can you name the expected starting five on Sunday? What’s the confidence level in that unit?
New England’s tackle spot opposite Trent Brown has been a big question mark all offseason.
Many have attributed their current issues to signing multiple affordable veterans instead of a big name like Orlando Brown or Mike McGlinchey. In reality, all three of those acquisitions have been impacted by injury. Conor McDermott (re-signed) is on season-ending IR, Riley Reiff (free agent signing) got rolled up on in the preseason finale and was recently placed on short-term IR, and Calvin Anderson (free agent signing) missed the entire summer with an undisclosed illness and was just activated from the NFI list last week. Anderson is now expected to start at right tackle in the opener.
I’ve been saying for months one weak link on the line can be overcome. But things got more complicated with Mike Onwenu spending the summer on the physically-unable-to-perform list following offseason ankle surgery, while Cole Strange suffered a knee injury early in training camp that kept him out for the remainder of those practices. Onwenu was activated from PUP on the final day of camp and Strange returned shortly after, but it’s unknown how much they’ll play against Philly.
This means we’ll probably see a lot of rookie Atonio Mafi, who was drafted as Onwenu insurance but slid into the starting when Strange stopped practicing. Mafi looked so good he didn’t dress for the final preseason game, but he’ll of course be thrown into the fire against a loaded Eagles front, especially if they’re more exotic under Sean Desai.
2 - To what extent do you expect Bill O’Brien to make a difference for Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense?
For one, Mac Jones and the offense in general seem more confident with O’Brien at the helm. He brings credibility, discipline, experience, and an understanding of how to put players in positions to succeed. All of these traits were severely lacking last season, and the energy surrounding the offense is noticeably different because of the change.
Speaking specifically to Mac, O’Brien will give the cerebral quarterback answers and allow him to play to the strengths that made Jones a Heisman candidate at Alabama. We’ll see more second and third-level RPOs to put defenses in conflict, play action shots (which were almost non-existent last season), and quick game concepts to keep the offense on schedule. The third-year passer has also had significantly more freedom at the line to get into the best possible play.
The AFC is too loaded for me to declare Mac Jones a potential Pro Bowl contender, and he absolutely has his physical limitations, but he’s smart and accurate enough to orchestrate a hyper-efficient offense that I think will surprise people.
3 - Where do you think the post-Tom Brady version of Bill Belichick ranks among NFL head coaches? Do you feel like he still gives the Pats a significant coaching edge?
Belichick is still right up there with the best of them. I think his lack of a succession plan for Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels put the team in tough spots when those guys left, and he’s been uncharacteristically conservative at times since Brady’s departure. That said, his defense has consistently been one of the best in the league. And the offense, save for last season, has performed about as well as could be expected with a shell of Cam Newton and a rookie Mac Jones.
There’s a narrative that New England’s defense didn’t rise up against good quarterbacks last season, but that lets the offense off the hook for some horrendous 4th quarter performances that put the defense in brutal positions. Bill was stretched thin having to keep a close eye on the offense, which was a far departure from standard operating procedure, and it showed in the team’s poor discipline at times.
That said, he still schemed up some beauties in 2022 and there’s still no coach I’d rather have planning for the NFL’s most talented offense.
4 - If you’re game-planning for the Patriots, how are you attacking the Eagles?
I’m running off-tackle in the ground game and attacking the middle of the field through the air.
The Eagles’ interior defensive line depth is ridiculous, and I don’t mean any disrespect to Haason Reddick or Josh Sweat, but it seemed like teams had the most success pulling linemen to kick out the edge while washing down the inside on gap concepts. That said, they also held their ground plenty well at times, so I’m sure this will be an entertaining back-and-forth.
As you know, there are a lot of new faces and players stepping into bigger roles at linebacker and safety for the Eagles. O’Brien is also known for attacking the middle, especially with empty looks where he gets his most elusive receiver matched up on linebackers. With standouts James Bradberry and Darius Slay holding down the perimeter, it’s a much smarter gamble testing the less-proven players on the inside of Philly’s defense.
5 - Who wins this game and why? With DraftKings Sportsbook listing the Eagles as 4-point road favorites, what’s your score prediction? And what are your expectations for the rest of this Patriots season?
I think the realities of Week 1 will keep this game close, and the Eagles’ new coordinators will be tested immensely against Bill O’Brien and Steve Belichick.
That said, the Eagles have so much talent and depth I don’t feel comfortable picking against them. On paper, the Patriots have improved significantly offensively and on special teams, while their already stacked defense added even more talent through the draft. But the new additions and rookies still need to prove themselves, while the Eagles have a ton of continuity at key positions on both sides of the ball. I’m going 23-20 in an Eagles road victory.
Looking at the full season for New England, I think they’ll go 10-7 and sneak into the playoffs. Hard to count out a coaching staff this talented, especially knowing the Patriots were a playoff team with a rookie Mac Jones. There’s gonna be a lot of rock fights, but I think this team will surprise people.