Superbowl Preview31st January 2018
For even the most casual NFL observer, this weekend should be one of the highlights of the year, for Superbowl LII is upon us. This year’s game is a rematch of Superbowl XXXIX, with the New England Patriots facing off against the Philadelphia Eagles in what should be one of the more unpredictable Superbowls in recent years. That being said, it would be hard to imagine this year’s game being any closer than last year’s overtime thriller. Then again, on any given Sunday…
The Philadelphia Eagles have never won a Superbowl, having lost to the Raiders and Patriots in their two previous trips to the big game. On paper, however, the third time might really be the charm. The only slight concern for the Eagles is like most sports, the NFL doesn’t take place on paper and they will have to beat the reigning-champion New England Patriots to lift the Lombardi trophy. So what do they need to do to come out on top?
The Eagles have managed the remarkable result of finishing in the top four in the NFL in both offence and defence. This allowed them to make their way to an impressive 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC. What is more, they did this whilst losing star quarterback Carson Wentz to injury towards the end of the season. A major reason for this consistency has been their focus on surrounding talent, with a particular focus being the offensive line.
The Eagles have over $27 million invested in their offensive line in terms of salary for the season, roughly $10 million more than their opponents. This spending is one of the very highest in the NFL, but it is hard to argue with the Eagles’ results; especially in the run game where they ranked fourth in the NFL, averaging 4.5 yards-per-carry. This ability to grind opponents down has been a major feature of their offence, and is due in large part to their investment on the offensive line.
What has been an issue for them, however, has been their propensity for turning the ball over in the run game. The Eagles fumbled the ball twenty-five times this season, and while that was bad rather than appalling, it certainly won’t be something they will want to continue into the Superbowl. Working in their favour in this regard, however, is the fact that the Patriots run defence is one of the worst in football.
The Patriots have struggled to stop the run all season, finishing the year a miserable 27th in rush defence whilst allowing a miserable 4.7 yards-per-carry. Based on that, the Eagles should be extremely optimistic about their chances of running the ball on the Patriots come Sunday. It should not be ignored that the Patriots run defence has improve significantly in the play-offs, though that might well be due to the offences that they have had to face than anything.
What should be of concern to the Eagles offence though, is their ability to throw the football against the Patriots. That is not to say that the Patriots are a good pass defence, they are not, but they have two aces in their pocket that the Eagles should be highly mindful of: they have been very effective at pressuring the quarterback, and the Eagles will be forced to start Nick Foles due to the injury to Wentz.
Foles actually played extremely well against a stout Vikings defence two Sundays ago, but baring one season under Chip Kelly his career resume is hardly impressive. In place of Wentz late on in the season, Foles both turned the ball over more whilst scoring less. It is fair to say that the Eagles offensive scheme takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback, but should Nick Foles be able to guide the Eagles to a Superbowl it would be a testament to the ability of the Eagles coaching staff and their surrounding talent.
Defensively the Eagles have a lot of reason to be optimistic. They allow under four yards-per-carry against the run, and against the pass ranked third in the NFL, in large part due to a high number of interceptions. While this ability to pick-off passes is extremely valuable in the modern NFL, their dependence on forcing does have some downsides. When the Eagles aren’t able to force turnovers, they have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback.
This is especially relevant against a Patriots team that, when Tom Brady is given time to pass, has shown an incomparable ability to scheme receivers open. The Patriots multitude of small yet shifty inside receivers are a match-up nightmare for every defence in the NFL, and by focusing on getting the ball out quickly they will make it even harder for the Eagles to force them into attempting the long throws that the Eagles secondary feeds off.
While the Patriots don’t rely very heavily on their running game, they do use it effectively for punish teams when they spread out to counter the Patriots’ passing game and to punch the ball in once they reach the red-zone. While the Eagles will likely be focused on slowing down the Patriots league-leading passing attack they will need to make sure that they don’t over-commit to stopping the pass and allow themselves to be gashed in the running game as a result.
This game will also be a significant test for the Eagles linebackers. The Patriots use their running backs in the passing game to a greater degree than any other team in the NFL, and while the Eagles linebackers have been acceptable in this regard throughout the season, the Patriots will force them to cover at the absolute highest level for almost every passing snap. What is more, this could be a real problem for an Eagles defence that has had to rely on blitzing to generate pressure.
While the Eagles do have four defensive linesmen with five sacks this season, they only have one who reached six, with nobody managing to reach the ten sack mark. They have been able to get around this to some extent by rotating defensive linesmen to keep players fresh and by bringing extra pass rushers on key downs; this is not something they will likely be able to get away with against the Patriots.
The Patriots use of running backs as receivers is a hugely effective way of punishing teams for attempting to bring pressure through extra pass rushers. Teams who look to bring pressure against the Patriots often find themselves being burnt by Brady’s ability to find the open man and punish the defence after the catch. Instead, the recipe for beating the Patriots has been to get pressure with only four pass rushers, not something the Eagles have done well at this year.
It might sound then as though the Eagles will be facing an uphill battle on Sunday if they want to win their first Superbowl, but in reality they are likely the better team. They are stronger at almost every position and are generally well coached. The only issue is that the Patriots will have the best player on the field in Tom Brady, and are extremely well coached.
If the Eagles want to win on Sunday they will need to prevent Brady from being able to beat them, and given their superior talent level overall, this is probably best accomplished by playing fairly conservatively. If the Eagles can find some consistency on the ground and limit what they ask Nick Foles to do then they should be able to put points on the Patriots, even the Jaguars poultry defence managed twenty points against them two weeks ago.
Defensively the Eagles would be best advised to force the Patriots to consistently make plays in the passing game in order to beat them. By trying to do too much they will only play into the Patriots’ hands. This is a game that Philadelphia probably should win, they just need to keep out of their own way.