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Duffy: How will the Patriots game plan for the Eagles?

Everyone is familiar with the mystique surrounding the New England Patriots. And for good reason, as Dave Spadaro explained earlier on Thursday. There are kids in college right now who don’t know a team from Foxborough that isn’t led by the iconic pairing of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They’ve consistently competed for titles since the turn of the century and, as a fan of the game, the thing that is so impressive is that they consistently find new ways to be great.

Early in Brady’s career, this team was comprised of an efficient offense and a stellar defense. With players like Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and others, they were tough to score against with sticky man coverage, the ability to attack the quarterback from a variety of angles, and thievery from a turnover-creation standpoint. Eventually, those players left, and the team became an offensive juggernaut for years with Brady and the passing game, whether he was throwing to receivers, backs, or tight ends, as well as with the running game.

That efficiency on offense continues to this day as Brady is still a great field general. Running back James White, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and company can burn you in a number of ways. However, the defense is the backbone of this 2019 team, and that’s what they’ll bring to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon. The numbers back that up. Here are the opponents' stats that I look at on a weekly basis, and where the Patriots rank in the NFL in each category.

Table inside Article
Category Number NFL Ranking
TD Efficiency 7% 1st
Scoring Efficiency 11.3% 1st
Opponent QB Rating 45.8 1st
Opponent Completion Percentage 54.1% 1st
Yards Per Pass Attempt 5.29 1st
Yards Per Completion 9.79 1st
Opponent Passing TDs 3 1st
Interceptions 19 1st
Takeaways 27 1st
Third-Down Percentage 18.9% 1st
Opponent Third-Down QB Rating 18.3 1st
Opponent Red Zone QB Rating 26.3 1st
Completions of 20+ Yards 17 2nd
Touchdown Catches of 20+ Yards 2 2nd
Sacks 32 3rd

Now, I know what you’re going to say. "Fran, they haven’t PLAYED anyone!" Yes, the schedule isn’t that awe-inspiring, but we’re not talking about a two- or three-game stretch here, people. This has been over nine games, and these numbers are too impressive to ignore. They’re playing sound, fundamental football in pretty much all areas on defense. It’s going to present a huge challenge for the Eagles' offense, even coming off the bye week.

For the purpose of this article, I wanted to really hone in on two areas. First, I want to look at the Patriots' pressure packages. As I talked about with Greg Cosell on this week’s Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast, the Patriots are a high-volume man coverage team. Belichick has not been afraid to let his big dogs hunt up front this season. He’ll play straight man-to-man across the board, either in Cover 1 (one-high safety) or Cover 0 (no safety in the middle of the field) and blitz the quarterback with five-plus.

They’re fairly predictable on the back end from that standpoint, but up front they are extremely multiple in the way that they line up and in the way they deploy their personnel. Here’s what I mean by that.

Let’s look at one of their dime packages, which means they have six defensive backs on the field. That dime package could consist of:

  • Three safeties (Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon)
  • Three corners (Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, and Jonathan Jones)
  • Two linebackers (Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins)
  • Three down linemen (Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, and John Simon)

When they line up with that personnel grouping, there’s a lot of possibilities for the Patriots up front. They could come out in what looks like a very basic 3-4 alignment, with those down linemen, Collins and Chung off the edge, and Hightower and Harmon as "stacked" linebackers. They could line up in more of a 4-2 alignment with Butler, Guy, Simon, and Hightower on the line of scrimmage and Collins and Chung as the stacked players. Or, they could line up in any of several pressure fronts. That is the genius of these kinds of defenses. It’s tough to predict what they’re going to do in any given situation based purely off the personnel. You have to see how they line up first, and by that point it is on the quarterback and the offensive line to get things straightened out.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at those pressure concepts. The Patriots have been so successful at attacking opposing quarterbacks all season long. Here are a couple of noticeable themes.

One of the Patriots’ primary pressure looks is the "Diamond" front. They line up five defenders across the front, creating a five-over-five look for the offense. What this causes is one-on-one looks across the board which, if you have dynamic athletes on defense, can create some problems in protection.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

On these two clips against Washington, the Patriots use this front to get uber-athletic linebacker Jamie Collins isolated one-on-one with the center with a two-way go. That matchup will almost never go well for an offensive lineman.

The Patriots also utilize a ton of stunts and games up front out of these looks. With athletic chess pieces like Collins, Chase Winovich, Adam Butler, Hightower, John Simon, and others, the Patriots are excellent at running these schemes to get defenders home free to the quarterback.

One personnel grouping that the Patriots will often bring pressure from is one of their "speed" nickel packages with three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs on the field. From these looks, you’ll often see defenders coming from depth, whether they’re slot corners, safeties, or linebackers.

On the first play against Cleveland, it’s first down, and a simple twist from Butler and Hightower works well against the Browns’ right guard. Butler -- who I profile on this week’s podcast in my Scouting Report segment -- is really effective on these schemes because of his quick first step and ability to penetrate into the backfield. He crosses the guard’s face into the A gap, and with the center sliding the opposite way and the back having to protect against Hightower, he’s able to get home for a shot on quarterback Baker Mayfield.

That play was from a Cover 1 look with a single high safety, but the second shot against the Jets presents a Cover 0 look. This "all-out" pressure means that the Patriots bring more than the offense can block, and Collins makes a beeline through the B gap to attack the quarterback. In these scenarios, Carson Wentz will either have to make that defender miss or get the ball out quickly. Luke Falk does not do that here, and he’s brought down for an 8-yard loss.

Those blitzes came from their nickel (five defensive back) packages, but the Patriots use plenty of dime (six defensive backs) as well. As you can imagine, the pressure from those packages is effective as well.

Both of these blitzes resulted in interceptions out of a Cover 0 look, with no safeties in the middle of the field and the cornerbacks all playing on islands. Notice one thing though on both plays. Not all six defenders up on the line of scrimmage actually blitz. In fact, they’ll either mush rush (meaning that they’re serving as contain and have their eyes on the quarterback in case he tries to run) or they’ll drop into a short passing lane. This is what gets Collins that pick against Miami, as the ball comes out flat and he’s in position to pull it down for the pick going the other way.

The Patriots are great at occupying blockers both pre- and post-snap to help get one defender home free for a pressure. The threat of six rushers was present on both plays, but in reality, only five came. In that play against the Jets, they even kept in two eligible receivers as blockers, meaning that the Jets won the numbers game seven-to-five in protection, but the Patriots still got a free rusher home! That’s a great example of what it means to "break down the protection" from this Patriots defense.

Last, but not least, is what New England does against empty sets, where the quarterback is by himself in the backfield and all five eligible receivers are spread out across the width of the field. The Eagles have played a good amount of empty this season, especially in that Detroit Lions game. What is the benefit of an empty set? Yes, the quarterback technically is more vulnerable because there are no extra bodies in protection, but it also forces the defense to declare what they’re doing in coverage. You can’t disguise as much against an empty set. This, in turn, makes things a bit more easily definable for the quarterback, clearing the picture up faster.

In the game against Detroit earlier this season, with the Eagles missing both DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery and with Dallas Goedert nursing his calf injury, the Eagles played a TON of empty. Detroit responded by leaning heavily toward coverage, relying on three- and four-man rushes to get home while using extra bodies to play in space. This season, the Patriots have done the opposite.

By forcing the issue and bringing pressure against the quarterback in an empty set, Belichick is forcing the quarterback and the opposing playmakers to beat him. He’s essentially betting on his defensive backs to hold up long enough on islands to allow his free blitzer to get home. This can cause a quarterback to panic, can force a throwaway, or, worse, a bad decision with a sack or interception. If the Eagles go to empty sets in this game, watch how the Patriots play it, and then how the offense responds.

The other aspect of this game that is definitely worth debating is a tactic we can expect to see on the back end in coverage. Belichick has long been a proponent of utilizing "bracket" coverage, which is basically a designated double team to try and remove an opponent’s most dangerous pass catcher from the progression. Over the years, Belichick has been very creative in disguising where those double teams are coming from because he’ll use any combination of safeties, cornerbacks, and even linebackers in coverage for this purpose. Sometimes he'll bring a player from the opposite side of the formation after the snap to help double-team someone on the opposite sideline!

He’s removed deep threats like Tyreek Hill and T.Y. Hilton, tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce, and everyone in between. Back in Super Bowl LII, on almost every third down, the Patriots made it a point to bracket Zach Ertz, and the Eagles were ready for it. This was something I asked Greg Cosell to break down this week on Eagles Game Plan.

Whether it was other players making big plays when they were left one-on-one or with creative route concepts to get the "bracket" away from Ertz, the Eagles were able to have success against New England in that game despite the extra attention for the versatile tight end. The last time the Eagles took the field against Chicago, Ertz didn’t see many double teams. He did beat one for a first-down catch along the sideline in the third quarter, but he consistently found ways to win one-on-one no matter who was lined up across from him.

Earlier this season, the Eagles matched up against the Detroit Lions, who are coached by Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator for the Patriots in that Super Bowl. He also decided to bracket Ertz on most third downs back in Week 3. For the Eagles, the results were a bit of a mixed bag.

There were examples of the Eagles finding ways to win against those double teams (as we showed with that Mack Hollins catch over the middle on a deep dig route), but too often they were not able to capitalize and move the ball. There were drops, misfires, and some breakdowns in protection in critical moments that resulted in incompletions and stalled drives.

Is there a chance that the Patriots do NOT bracket Ertz in this game? Sure, that’s possible. There’s been speculation that they may designate stud cornerback Stephon Gilmore to shadow Ertz. Cosell pointed out on the podcast this week that the team may go the route they went in the 2018 AFC Championship Game and have cornerback J.C. Jackson hold that duty down like he did against Travis Kelce. But the Eagles have to be prepared for the brackets in this game and they have to find ways to move the chains and win those one-on-one matchups ... all while protecting Wentz from those various pressure packages. It will be the primary thing I’m watching throughout Sunday’s game.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,_ Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the_ ourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.

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