Earlier this week, I looked at the New England Patriots' defense and the challenges it will present the Eagles on Sunday night. Now it’s time to flip the script and look at the offensive side of the football.
The discussion clearly has to start with Tom Brady, who is still playing at an extremely high level. Brady doesn’t have the strongest arm in the NFL, and he’s not the most athletic passer in the league. He is, however, without question, still the best quarterback in the NFL. One area where Brady stands out above all else is with his pocket movement. Your first question may be, "Fran, you just said he’s not a great athlete, so how can his pocket movement be so good?" The answer is the definition of "pocket movement," which describes a quarterback’s ability to navigate the small area of the pocket while staying in-rhythm with his eyes downfield. Brady’s ability to operate with bodies around him is rare, and here are just a few examples of it.
Note that there is audio commentary for each of the video clips.
Shot 1 - The #Patriots OL has not been great this year, but Tom Brady is one of the best in the NFL at operating from a tight pocket. Consistently works to create space for himself to deliver downfield. #Eagles DL have to be able to finish as pass rushers #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/HOwdlGUu1S — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) February 1, 2018
What does this mean for the Eagles? That means that the defensive line has to be able to get home. Everyone’s favorite "key to victory" for the Eagles is getting pressure with a four-man rush, which is true. Pressure alone won’t do it, however. The line must impact the throw, either forcing sacks, errant passes, or, even better, getting the football on the ground. That has been a hallmark of the Eagles' defense this season, and it’s something that must be done at a high level on Sunday night. The way that Brady runs the offense, both pre-snap and post-snap, is nearly impossible to replicate. He is the pinnacle of the position, and he’s the No. 1 player that you have to keep from having a good game if you’re the Eagles defense.
The NFL is all about exploiting one-on-one matchups. If you read this piece on a weekly basis, you know how much I write about schemes on both sides of the ball and the X's and O's of the game, but when you boil down to it, it’s about beating the man across from you. The more players a team has that can do that, the better off it is. The Patriots have a few players who win those matchups more often than not. That is especially true at tight end and at running back.
Shot 2 - The NFL is a matchup league, and Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare. The #Eagles certainly have a plan of attack when it comes to covering him in all situations, but the #Patriots do a lot of creative things with him as well, which I'll get back to in a bit... pic.twitter.com/pdxVOsvc8h — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) February 1, 2018
Shot 3 - Whether it's James White, Dion Lewis, or Rex Burkhead, the #Patriots love to use their RBs in the passing game. They will try to stress the #Eagles defense in multiple ways both out in space and between the numbers through the air. Something to watch on Sunday night pic.twitter.com/V98yueUpws — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) February 1, 2018
When you have versatile pass catchers at running back and tight end, it can be a game-changer for an offense because players like that tend to be more dynamic than their defensive counterparts. You can get creative with how you deploy them, and that’s exactly how the Patriots operate. They know that if they come out in "heavy" personnel groupings with multiple backs and/or tight ends, the defense will counter with base personnel.
They also know that if they spread the defense out in an empty formation with those personnel groupings on the field, one of two things will happen. Either the defense will play man coverage, and Brady can find his favorite mismatch and take advantage of it, or they will play zone, and Brady picks apart zone coverage with one of their many pass concepts.
They usually get a good clue of man or zone before the snap by using those running backs out wide. If a cornerback lines up over a fullback or over a running back on the outside, it’s a pretty good clue for Brady that the defense is in zone coverage. If a fullback has a linebacker over him out wide, it’s a pretty good clue that he’s facing man. Watch what happens when the Patriots put defenses in this scenario.
Shot 4 - The RBs and the TEs on the #Patriots roster allow them to be very creative with their formations, motions, etc. Makes it especially tough when they go tempo. This, along with Tom Brady, is the toughest part of facing this offense #Eagles #SuperBowl pic.twitter.com/pOxNY9ki0d — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) February 1, 2018
Stopping plays like this from happening is a multi-layered proposition. First, the Eagles have to win some of these matchups one-on-one. When they’re in their nickel package, Malcolm Jenkins will likely see a lot of Gronkowski in man coverage. When they’re in dime, Corey Graham has been in that role. Both players will have to try and eliminate Gronkowski from the progression when they’re tasked with facing him one-on-one. Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham will see a lot of the backs, so playing with them in space will be a big part of Sunday’s game as well.
When they’re in zone coverage, the Eagles need to be disciplined with their assignments. Every zone concept can be beaten, in theory, but if the coverage can do enough to force Brady to hold on to the football and let the rush get home; they will be able to keep them from moving the ball down the field. Disguising coverage will also be key as well. Empty formations make that tougher to do, but you never want Brady to know TOO much about what you’re planning to do schematically on any given play.
The last dimension of the Patriots' offense that we have to detail is the vertical passing game. New England was one of the best big-play offenses in the NFL this season, something that is very different from their identity a year ago. The addition of Brandin Cooks in the offseason is a big part of that.
Shot 5 - The dimension that the #Patriots have this year which makes them even more dangerous is Brandin Cooks and his speed. Helped make NE one of the best big-play offenses in football. #Eagles corners have to be prepared to deal with his speed #SuperBowl pic.twitter.com/teSrOGHyY3 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) February 1, 2018
Cooks’ vertical speed makes him a threat to go deep and win on any given play, and his ability to track the deep ball made him one of Brady’s favorite receivers this fall. Whether it’s Jalen Mills or Ronald Darby covering Cooks on the perimeter (or Patrick Robinson on the snaps when he wanders into the slot), this is a major factor in this game. Cooks is a good route runner who does a nice job on double moves, and the Eagles have to keep him contained on Sunday night.
Shot 6 - With Cooks' speed, the #Patriots seemed to incorporate more max protection, 2-man route concepts into their offense. Whether he's stretching the field vertically or running away from DBs east-west, Cooks is a weapon for Tom Brady and another dynamic pass catcher for Pats pic.twitter.com/rErTDww2Sz — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) February 1, 2018
With Cooks in the fold, the play-action pass game has been a staple for the Patriots all year. Play-action also helps to hide some of the warts you may have in pass protection (as defenders have to react to the run fake before getting after Brady), so you can expect to see a good amount of run fakes from this unit on Sunday. Can the defensive line get home quick enough to force bad throws, and can the coverage stay tight enough to force Brady to hold the football? That’s the story of defensive football every week, but it could be the ultimate key to victory on Sunday for the Eagles to finally hoist a Lombardi Trophy.
Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. 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.