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January 30, 2018

Eagles vs. Patriots: Five matchups to watch, when the Eagles have the ball

A week ago in the Philadelphia Eagles' win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Birds' offense exposed the "No. 1 defense in the NFL," to the tune of 31 points. In the Super Bowl they'll be a facing a defense that is nowhere near as talented as the Vikings'.

Here are five matchups to watch when the Eagles have the ball. 

1) The Eagles' run game vs. the Patriots' front seven

The Patriots are not a very good run defense, and even their 20th overall ranking was aided by the Pats gaining big leads, and the opposing offense often needing to pass more than usual in the second halves of games.

A look at the Pats' numbers against the run in 2017: 

 Patriots run defenseStat NFL rank 
 Rushing yards per game114.8 20 
 Rushing yards per attempt4.7 31 
 Percentage of rushing attempts resulting in a 1st down25.1% 29 
 Rushes of 20+ yards11 T-18 
Rushing TDs allowed 

As you can see, the Patriots allowed 4.7 yards per carry this season, which was second-worst in the NFL. Oddly, they only allowed six rushing touchdowns, which was second-best.

Notably, the Patriots are particularly bad when defending the run when the offense is in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs). The following is an excerpt from a great piece that is worth your time from Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis.

The Patriots defense is particularly susceptible to runs out of 11 personnel.

This year they are allowing a 61% success rate and 6.0 YPC to offenses when they are running the ball out of 11 personnel.  These rankings are well worse than the NFL average of 47% success and 4.6 YPC out of 11.

And when these teams run out of shotgun from 11, they average 6.7 YPC and post a 59% success rate against New England.  The numbers don’t get much better for the Patriots even when stripping out potential garbage time.  When stripping out all runs where the offense was behind by over 10 points, the Patriots still allowed 6.6 YPC and a 56% success rate to 11 personnel in shotgun.

But it’s not just isolated to shotgun, as this year the Patriots still allowed a 64% success rate and 4.9 YPC to RBs-run from 11 personnel when under center.

So what does this mean for the Super Bowl?

The Eagles are one of the most run heavy teams from 11 personnel, recording nearly 60% of their total rushes on the year from 11 personnel.  The only teams with a higher rate of runs in 11 personnel were the Raiders and Rams. 

Obviously, if the Eagles have their run game working, it will have a number of positive effects. Most notably, it will take pressure off of Nick Foles to win the game on his own, and it could potentially keep Tom Brady off the field. This is a clear matchup advantage for the Eagles, and a very important one.

Oh and speaking of 11 personnel, that brings us to our next matchup...

2) WR Nelson Agholor vs. SCB Eric Rowe

When Eric Rowe was still with the Eagles in Jim Schwartz's first year in 2016, he would play strictly on the outside, even when he was the team's "third cornerback" during OTAs and training camp. Rowe would come on the field, and one of the outside corners would move into the slot.

And for good reason. Rowe has great size at 6'1, 205, and a fast 40 time. On a straight line, Rowe can be very fast, and his best moments with the Eagles often came when opposing offenses tested him deep. When asked to change direction in shorter areas, however, Rowe is not quick, or light on his feet. For that reason, he is not an ideal slot corner.

I was taken by surprise in re-watching the Pats-Steelers game Week 15 by how much the Pats lined up Rowe in the slot. In that game, Rowe had a pass breakup on the Steelers' ill-fated fake spike that popped up in the air and was picked off by safety Duron Harmon. For that reason, he was remembered as something of a hero in that game. However, for the duration of the game prior to that play, Rowe got worked over by the Steelers' offense, mostly by JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eli Rogers.

Because the Patriots have Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler manning the outside, Rowe was forced into the slot, and outside of his comfort zone.

"It was just something I had to do," Rowe explained, "because of what our situation at corner was, with Malcolm Butler, obviously he's a great player, and Stephon Gilmore, I was like 'Well, shoot, I gotta find a role on this team,' so I was like, 'Hey let me get some slot reps.' Somehow I get on the field, so..."

Wait. "Somehow I get on the field?" Yeesh.

Rowe confirmed that when opposing offenses are in three wide receiver sets with a receiver in the slot, his responsibility is pretty much always the slot. The matchup of Nelson Agholor on Rowe is one that the Eagles can pretty easily generate, and subsequently exploit.

When the Eagles are able to identify man coverage looks by the Patriots' defense, Doug Pederson would be wise to have Nick Foles identify Rowe, and attack him. He is quite clearly the most vulnerable corner in the Patriots' secondary.

3) TE Zach Ertz vs. S Patrick Chung

Another thing I noticed in watching the Pats-Steelers game in trying to get a feel for how the Pats' secondary tries to match up, safety Patrick Chung covered Steelers tight end Jesse James for most of the day. Why is that notable? Well, James is 6'7, and Chung is 5'11. In taking a quick peek at other Pats games, Chung often covered much bigger tight ends, such as the Jags' 6'6 Marcedes Lewis.

"I'm just trying to play ball," said Chung. "Whether you're bigger or smaller, you're still trying to beat me, so I just go with that mindset and try not to get beat. Ertz is good, man. Savvy guy, good quickness, good hands. He's going to have his plays. I just have to try to limit him a little bit."

If you're expecting the same Patrick Chung on Sunday that used to play for the Eagles, don't get your hopes up. He has been one of the better Pats defenders this season, with Bill Belichick going as far as to call him one of the best players in the NFL.

Still, a seven-inch difference in height is significant, and Ertz has been a quality red-zone weapon all season for the Eagles.

4) LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Pats DE Trey Flowers

For the majority of the season, the best pass rusher on the opposing defense lined up opposite Lane Johnson. As we've noted all season long, Johnson faced a new stud edge rusher seemingly every week and shut them all out. Among the players he faced were Ryan Kerrigan twice, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul twice, Joey Bosa, Von Miller, DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Bennett, and Khalil Mack.

It wasn't until the NFC Championship Game that "the stud edge rusher" went up against the LT, Halapoulivaati Vaitai. In that game, Vaitai was more than up to the challenge against an outstanding player in Everson Griffen, though the Eagles certainly gave him help. Pederson chipped with a TE, chipped with a RB, rolled out the opposite way, had some three-step drops, screens, play action, and a steady diet of RPO's (run-pass options) that all helped slow the Vikings' pass rush down.

The Eagles will not have to go to those lengths with Flowers, who does not possess the same level of talent as Griffen, but they should still be mindful that one blindside shot can change a football game, and Flowers had 2.5 sacks in the Super Bowl a year ago.

5) Nick Foles vs. himself

As we pointed out last week, Nick Foles did a great job of standing tall in the pocket against the Vikings' defense and delivering confident throws. 

We all saw the results.

On Sunday, as shown above, the Eagles should have their share of favorable matchups against the Pats. The run game should have its opportunities, there are some matchups to like in the passing game, and there's little reason to think the Eagles' stellar offensive line shouldn't be able to provide good pass protection like they have the rest of the season. This game is there to be taken, but the Eagles need Foles to confidently let it rip.

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