Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups that will determine which team emerges victorious.
With a super match-up on tap for Sunday, February 4th in Super Bowl 52 there are too many important match-ups to limit to just five. All of the match-ups are key so we will go through all the match-ups and see which will determine if the Patriots repeat as Super Bowl champions against the Philadelphia Eagles or if Nick Foles and the ferocious Eagles’ defense will pull off the historic upset and vault them to their first Super Bowl.
Eagles’ Running Backs vs Patriots’ Linebackers
Philadelphia pounded their way to a 13-3 regular season and a trip to Super Bowl 52 on the strength of their dominant running game. Ranking third in the NFL with 2,115 yards and a fourth-best 4.5 yards per attempt (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted), the Eagles were able to overcome the loss of MVP candidate quarterback Carson Wentz’s torn ACL ending his season.
With the greatness of Wentz’s play through week 14 when he went down in the win over the Rams, the running game was even more effective with the threat of his big arm preventing teams from crowding the box and bringing safeties up to the line of scrimmage. With Wentz’s big play ability and deep threat Torrey Smith, teams could not risk overcommitting to stop the run.
Since Wentz exited and Nick Foles took over at quarterback, the running game has struggled. In the last three games of the regular season, the Eagles rushed for just 108, 78, and 70 yards. In the playoffs, the Eagles have rushed for 206 yards total over their two games. Before Wentz’s injury, the Eagles rushed for less than 100 yards just twice: week one against Washington (58 yards) and week 13 in Seattle (98 yards).
For most of 2017, the Patriots struggled on defense to slow the opponent’s running game. It started in week one with Kansas City rushing for 185 yards. After inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower was lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle against Atlanta the run defense took another hit. The Patriots did improve in run defense down the stretch and after being at the bottom the league much of the season finished the regular season allowing 1,836 yards on the ground (20th in the NFL) and a second-worst 4.7 yards per rush.
A ‘Convocation’ of Eagles Running Backs
The Eagles have a number of running backs in their stable with different skill sets and are able to attack teams on the ground in a number of ways. The Eagles lost receiving back Darren Sproles three weeks into the season to a torn ACL but were able to plug-in dynamic undrafted free-agent rookie Corey Clement.
Clement usually will have specific third-down packages and only plays about 10-20 snaps a game. However, with his soft hands, speed, quickness, and elusiveness he must be accounted for at all times due to his big-play ability coming out of the backfield. Clement played 21 snaps in the NFC Championship game and had two rushes for 20 yards and one reception for eight yards. But it was Clement involved in the flea-flicker play resulting in the 41-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith and finished off the Vikings.
The lead back in Philadelphia is a familiar foe for the Patriots: Jay Ajayi was a fifth-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in the 2015 NFL Draft before being traded to Philadelphia on Halloween for a fourth-round draft pick. He played one game versus New England as a rookie and two games for Miami against the Patriots in his breakout 2016 season. In his three career games against the Patriots, the six-foot 215 pound back has just 75 yards on 28 carries for a dismal average of 2.68 yards per carry.
Behind Ajayi is a player very familiar to the Patriots: LeGarrette Blount. Blount spent four years in New England signed with Philadelphia in the offseason after leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 18 last season. Blount has been primarily the short-yardage back for the Eagles with the emergence of Ajayi and has just 40 yards rushing on 15 carries in the postseason with Philadelphia; however, he does have two rushing touchdowns. Blount hasn’t had double-digit carries in a game since November.
New England will lean heavily on the same scheme to slow the opposing rushing attacks as they did against Tennessee and Jacksonville in the playoffs. Really, things changed for the Patriots’ defense in week sixteen against Buffalo. The Patriots had been pounded on the ground for three consecutive weeks by the Bills, Dolphins, and Steelers before defensive coordinator Matt Patricia finally had enough.
Hold the Line
New England inserted recently re-signed defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois next to Malcolm Brown and kept Lawrence Guy as the three big tackles on the defensive line in a 3-4/4-3 hybrid base defensive front. They moved Trey Flowers and Eric Lee to the edge and later replaced Lee with newly signed edge rusher James Harrison. In the middle of the defense, they inserted Marquis Flowers (initially next to Elandon Roberts but when Kyle Van Noy was healthy he replaced Roberts).
This unit gave New England a strong front against the run on early downs with power on the outside to set the edge. On the inside, the speed of Marquis Flowers and Van Noy allowed the two to penetrate gaps quickly and blow-up running plays.
The defenses have been effective as they held Buffalo to 84 yards on 24 rushing attempts, the Jets to 40 yards on 19 rushing attempts, the Titans to 65 yards on 16 rushing attempts and last week the Jaguars’ top-ranked rushing attack to just 101 yards on 32 attempts. That is just 290 yards over four games (72.5 yards per game average) and a paltry 3.19 yards per rushing attempt.
Like Tennessee and Jacksonville, the Eagles are going to try and run the ball on the Patriots to set-up their play-action. New England will play Van Noy most of the game at inside linebacker as he rarely comes off the field and will be one of the two linebackers in the nickel defense and the only linebacker in the dime. Against Jacksonville, the Patriots employed Elandon Roberts next to Van Noy more often with a smaller role for Marquis Flowers.
Between Van Noy, Roberts and Flowers, the pressure is on that unit to slow Ajayi and Blount while containing Clement in the passing game. No big plays to Clement out of the backfield will be a defensive point after how Corey Grant gained 59 yards on just three receptions for Jacksonville in the AFC Championship game (and fullback Tommy Bohanon with an uncovered 20-yard reception). Overall, Jacksonville backs had eight receptions on ten targets for 98 yards against the New England linebackers.
While the Patriots contained Grant in the second half (why did Jacksonville only play him nine snaps in the game is puzzling), they also contained Fournette and T.J. Yeldon in the running game. At halftime, Fournette and Yeldon had 62 yards on just 15 carries (over four yards per rush). In the second half, they had just 39 yards on 14 carries (less than three yards per rush).
The best defensive game plan for New England is to shut down the Philadelphia running game early and jump out to an early lead and make the Eagles and quarterback Nick Foles play from behind. Making Philadelphia one-dimensional and having to pass the ball will take them out of their game plan. For that to happen Van Noy, Roberts and Flowers have a tough task ahead of them.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01