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 New England 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.
Patriots’ Offensive Line vs Eagles’ Defensive Line
The biggest match-up headache for the New England Patriots on paper is their offensive line versus the Philadelphia front four. Philadelphia’s depth and talent make that unit so difficult to slow down or stop. While the Patriots have talented offensive linemen, they lack the blue-chip, first-round draft picks that the Eagles boast on defense.
On the interior, everything starts with Fletcher Cox. With 5.5 sacks (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted), Cox is a rare interior lineman who is stout against the run and has the first-step quickness and power to be a wrecking ball in the middle of the line. The first-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2012 has been a Pro Bowl selection the past three seasons.
Cox was credited with 60 quarterback pressures on 499 pass rushes and received the second-best overall ranking for any interior defensive lineman in the league with 91.5 grade from ProFootballFocus.com. No matter where he lines up (usually over the shoulder of the right guard) he will be double-teamed with New England center David Andrews contributing to try and slow this game-changer.
If Cox is over the right guard, for the Patriots that is Shaq Mason. Mason is one of the best run-blockers in the league having come to New England as a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 out of Georgia Tech. He was raw as a pass blocker as Georgia Tech rarely threw the football. He is solid as a pass blocker, but it is still not his forte and he needs help with premier passes.
A name to watch who may be overlooked by the media but in position for a big game in the Super Bowl is Philadelphia’s other starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. The New England Patriots are familiar with Jernigan from his time in Baltimore. Not as big as Cox, Jernigan is powerful and gave the Patriots’ offensive line fits and had a sack in the 2014 Divisional round match-up which the Patriots had to twice come back from 14 point deficits.
Jernigan will face-off with New England’s second-year left guard Joe Thuney who was a third-round draft pick out of North Carolina State in the 2015 NFL Draft. Thuney is a solid guard who has endured a lot of criticism in the press due to his occasional struggles with bull-rushers. Thuney has improved in run-and-pass blocking in his second season. His issue with bull-rushes shows up when his technique gets sloppy. At six-foot-five is he taller than most guards in the NFL and he has to maintain his leverage by getting below the defenders’ pad-level.
The Eagles will rotate with Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao. Vaeao missed time during the regular season with a wrist injury and failed to record a sack. Allen stands out with long hair flowing out of the back of his helmet. Like Vaeao, he is not asked to provide pressure but is an energy player who is disruptive stopping the run. He had one sack for the season.
Although Philadelphia was middle of the pack with 38 sacks in the regular season (the much-maligned Patriots pass rush had 42 sacks), it is really all about the pressures and not the sacks. Unfortunately for the New England offensive line, including the playoffs, the Eagles have produced 311 pressures on 753 passing plays (a league-best 41.3 percent) easily tops in the NFL (per ProFootballFocus.com).
Much of that pressure comes from the outside by Philadelphia. The Eagles bring waves of outside pass rush and at the top of that list is Brandon Graham. He led Philadelphia with 9.5 sacks and has been one of the best pure pass-rushers in the league since being the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in 2010 out of Michigan. His sack numbers do not always pop off the page but he generates consistent edge pressure with his speed, strength and powerful leverage.
Opposite Graham is Vinny Curry, a second-round draft pick of Philadelphia in 2012. Primarily a substitute edge rusher on passing downs, he has improved against the run enough setting the edge to play more regular snaps. He has taken to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s wide-nine attacking defensive front and been a force in the playoffs. Per ProFootballFocus.com, Curry has 11 pressures on just 54 pass-rush snaps in the playoffs, which is second-best.
The best pass-rush productivity in the post-season? That is Philadelphia’s Chris Long, a familiar face for the Patriots as he was on their Super Bowl roster last year. Long tops all playoff performers generating pressure on 17% of his snaps rushing the passer in the playoffs. Long is primarily asked to just rush the passer and has thrived piling up over 50 pressures while having a part-time role.
As if three were not enough, the Eagles also their first-round pick in rookie edge rusher Derek Barnett. Barnett had five sacks as a rookie. Slated for a larger role in the future, Barnett forced a fumble against the Vikings early in the game last week when the game was still close leading to Philadelphia beginning to pull away and start the rout of the Vikings.
The New England Patriots have the solid Nate Solder at left tackle and are without last season’s second-team All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon who has been on injured reserve with an ankle injury since the beginning of December. Behind Cannon, the Patriots first used LaAdrian Waddle, before an ankle injury forced him to the sidelines and the Patriots turned to third-string tackle Cameron Fleming.
Fleming–like Waddle–has stepped in and been solid if unspectacular. Both are powerful run blockers, but the massive tackles have really stood out in the pass protection. Waddle stepped in earlier in the season against Miami’s Cameron Wake, Houston’s J.J. Watt, Oakland’s Khalil Mack, and Denver’s Von Miller and shut down all of those top pass rushers without allowing a sack.
Fleming, not to be outdone, has been spectacular in the playoffs. He did allow a red zone sack to Dante Fowler early in the game on a speed move that forced a field goal, but after that, he shut down the vaunted “Sacksonville” pass rush of Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Fowler. Ngakoue and Campbell, both with double-digit sacks and with Campbell possibly the defensive player of the year were both invisible in the AFC Championship game.
This New England offensive line was projected to crumble against Jacksonville in their last game. Just as Tennessee’s pass rush was supposed to disrupt quarterback Tom Brady with their inside (Jurrell Casey) and outside (Derrick Morgan) pressure in the Divisional round; and Jacksonville to do the same with their deep and dangerous front four of Malik Jackson, Marcell Dareus, Campbell, Ngakoue and Fowler in the AFC Championship game; now no one is giving a New England offensive line a chance against Philadelphia’s defensive front in the Super Bowl.
A few things to consider in this match-up: with Waddle and Fleming healthy the Patriots can rotate and rest their tackles if need be and as they had done at times earlier in the season. In addition, although New England does not have gaudy rushing numbers, as a team they have averaged 4.2 yards per rush and had a sixth-best six rushing touchdowns. FootballOutsiders.com has the Patriots’ offensive line ranked as the best in the NFL in run blocking with adjusted line yards, their proprietary statistic that grades the success of the offensive line in creating yards for running backs.
The offensive line for the New England Patriots is an example of a unit that is greater as a whole than as their individual parts. That sums up the Patriots as a whole on both sides of the ball and particularly in the trenches. The offensive line gets little love from the analysts and pundits in the press box, but the Patriots’ offensive line has not just survived but thrived against defensive lines that–on paper–should overwhelm the group and stop their offense.
Instead, the New England Patriots’ offensive line has worked as a unit to be five solid pieces working in unison against players drafted earlier than them, with more awards than them, and with much more praise in the press. Despite that, the Patriots front five needs just one more strong performance to get their hands on the only hardware that matters–the Lombardi trophy.