New England Patriots Game Preview: Defensive Strategy vs Philadelphia Eagles

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MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 15: Stephon Gilmore #24 of the New England Patriots smiles after returning a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on September 15, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Can the New England Patriots’ defense get back on track against Carson Wentz and the banged-up Philadelphia Eagles?

The New England Patriots are coming off their bye week and travelling to Philadelphia on Sunday to face the 5-4 Philadelphia Eagles . They earned a well-deserved week off after an 8-1 start to the 2019 season in defense of their Super Bowl 53 title. 

Although they lost coming into the bye week to Baltimore 37-20, during the bye week New England saw things break their way. The second-place Buffalo Bills dropped down in the AFC East standings with an ugly loss to the Cleveland Browns to drop to 6-3. Also, last year’s top competition and number one seed in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs, lost to the Tennessee Titans and are now only a half-game ahead of Oakland in the AFC West race.

The Patriots get back to work this weekend with a rematch of Super Bowl 52 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are tied for first in the NFC East but are just 5-4 and have struggled with consistency in 2019. Philadelphia already has lost the dynamic wide receiver DeSean Jackson for the season and running back Corey Clement.

This week the Eagles will be without number one wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and scat-back Darren Sproles who is done for the season. Starting running back Jordan Howard left the win against the Bears two weeks ago with a shoulder injury and will be a game-time decision. On defense, starting linebacker Nigel Bradham–who has been out since week six–is expected to be out as well.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 and on WPRI-TV Channel 12 in Providence and Southeastern New England. The station’s top duo will handle the national broadcast of the premier afternoon game with the esteemed Jim Nantz handling the play-by-play duties and with top broadcaster in all of sports, Tony Romo, as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work from the sidelines. 

On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast on 98.5 The Sports Hub is the flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network and all of the network’s 38 stations carry the game live. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, who provides his own unique color analysis.

Sunday’s game will also be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Adam Amin will call the game with Jack Del Rio providing analysis. The great Sal Paolantonio will work from the sidelines. 

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.

The New England defense took a big step backwards before the bye week allowing 37 points and over 200 yards rushing to the Baltimore Ravens. In the eight weeks prior, the Patriots were unsustainably dominant. 

After allowing just three touchdowns and two field goals in seven games the defense they gave up four touchdowns and a field goal. After being able to end drives on third down, the defense could not get off the field and allowed two 11 play scoring drives and two 14 play scoring drives. Baltimore converted 50% of their third downs on their way to their 37-20 victory.

The Patriots on defense have held opponents to 300 or fewer total yards in more than half of their match-ups. However, the defense is still first in points allowed (98 points), yards allowed (2,244 yards), turnovers forced (27), and second in first downs allowed (129). They are second in passing yards allowed (1,352 yards), first in passing touchdowns allowed (three),  interceptions (19), and net yards per pass attempt (4.1).

The Patriots have allowed opponents to convert just 18.9 percent of their third downs (20 of 106) which is still the best in the league. Despite the poor performance versus Baltimore, opponents have reached the red zone just 11 times in nine games and scored just five red zone touchdown in the entire season.

How do the Patriots plan to regain their strong defensive performance after their first poor performance of 2019?

Key Match-ups: 

Philadelphia’s Offensive Line vs Patriots’ Defensive Line:

The Eagles have transitioned into a running offense in 2019 behind their strong offensive line. The line is the strength of the offense as tackle Lane Johnson has been their best and most consistent blocker. Jason Peters has had injury issues (and his availability is in question) but rookie first-round draft pick Andre Dillard has been solid run-blocking and adequate as a pass blocker filling in at tackle.

On the inside, guard Isaac Seumalo plays better with Peters next to him and right guard Brandon Brooks has blossomed into arguably one of the top guards in the NFL. At center, Jason Kelce is no slouch and the veteran has fell off a pinch from his All-Pro level but still more than holds his own and is one of the brightest players recognizing stunts and blitzes.

The surprise of 2019 has been the ability for the Patriots to generate pressure. Linebacker Jamie Collins leads the way with six sacks but New England has three additional players with 4.5 sacks in Kyle Van Noy, Adam Butler, and rookie Chase Winovich. With 32 sacks in just nine games, the Patriots have been able to scheme and confuse opponents without a stud edge rusher.

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Getting to quarterback Carson Wentz requires the Patriots to first and foremost slow the rushing attack. With Jordan Howard still injured, New England may catch a break this week. For the Eagles, the pass protection should hold up if they keep out of obvious passing downs. Getting Philadelphia into third-and-long situations will open up the exotic pass rush looks for the Patriots and allow them to create chaos again. 

The Eagles’ offensive line is arguably much better than the Ravens’ unit which allowed just one sack to the Patriots. However, Carson Wentz–while able to move around the pocket–is not Lamar Jackson and the New England pass rush should get some good opportunities on Sunday afternoon..

 

ADVANTAGE: Even

 

Philadelphia’s Running Backs vs Patriots’ Linebackers:

The New England rushing defense has been exposed the past two weeks. After Cleveland piled up 159 yards on the ground (with 44 on a big run that ended in a fumble by Nick Chubb), Cleveland gashed the Patriots for over 210 yards rushing. In both games, New England was in a lighter front (daring the Browns to run and a more athletic front to try and control Jackson) but 369 yards on the ground over two weeks is troubling.

Philadelphia has a strong duo of running backs in former Chicago Bear Jordan Howard and impressive rookie Miles Sanders. Both are averaging an impressive 4.4 yards per rush through nine games behind the powerful offensive line and the duo of multi-functional tight ends.

Howard is dinged-up with a shoulder injury and Philadelphia brought back old friend Jay Ajayi. Facing Ajayi instead of Howard is a big advantage for the New England defense. While Sanders has been impressive at times, he has lost carries and playing time to Howard heading into the bye week.

The Patriots may abandon the lighter fronts on early downs and force the Eagles to try and run against their base defense. The unit has performed best with multiple linebackers on the field for the most part. Stopping the run means getting thumpers such as Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley on the field with Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower.

The risk with going heavy is covering Sanders in the passing game. He is too athletic and quick for any linebacker to handle in coverage. With the Eagles already going heavy with two-tight ends, the Patriots linebackers may face an occasional mismatch in the passing game.

The Eagles are one of the few teams which has excelled in running the football all season. With their struggles against the run, this should be an advantage for the Eagles. However, if Howard is slowed or out, that evens the odds for the Patriots.  

 

ADVANTAGE: Even

 

Philadelphia’s Pass Catchers vs Patriots’ Secondary: 

New England’s secondary is the strongest unit on a dominant defense. The Patriots will match-up man-to-man and be physical with the Eagles’ wideouts without a second thought. Although they may not run as many cover-zero jailbreak blitzes as they did against weaker opponents, they have the talent to squash the sputtering Eagles pass attack. 

It all starts with Stephon Gilmore. He gets a break with Alshon Jeffery out and DeSean Jackson out for the season. The Eagles are down to Mack Hollins, Jordan Matthews and JJ Arcega-Whiteside to flank slot wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

The Eagles will likely primarily will go with two wide receivers and two tight ends. New England should consider treating the Eagles’ duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert as oversized wide receivers and match-up their deep cornerback group on them. While it means giving up some muscle against the running game, it should help keep them from being a mismatch against safeties and linebackers (especially with Patrick Chung still questionable with a chest and also a heel injury.

JC Jackson had a great game in the AFC Championship game last year matching-up against Travis Kelce. Dusting off that game plan and putting the long and aggressive cornerback on Ertz could slow the Eagles. Add in Gilmore on Matthews’ length and Jonathan Jones in the slot taking on Agholor (remember, an injury kept Jones out of Super Bowl 52 and Agholor had nine catches for 84 yards with four first down conversions via air and another on an end-around) and the Eagles may struggle to move the ball through the air.

The Eagles have failed to move the ball through the air effectively and losing top targets DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery is potentially devastating against the New England secondary. A heavy dose of the tight ends and running backs is the likeliest game plan from offensive coordinator Mike Groh (yes, he is Al Groh’s son–Al Groh was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells).

ADVANTAGE: New England

The game plan on defense is the same as it has been for the Patriots for 2019: take away the running game early and have the pass coverage force Carson Wentz to hold the ball and allow the pass rush to get pressure. Forcing him to make multiple progressions under pressure with unfamiliar wide receivers could create a number of turnover opportunities and help the offense with field position–something that has happened all season long..

If New England’s defense remains strong on third down, it could be a long day for the Eagles’ offense. If the offense is clicking early for the Patriots and takes an early lead, it could force Philadelphia to abandon the run and keep the raucous Philly fans docile. The defense has a golden opportunity to get back to their dominating ways this week.

NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 13

-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01

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