PHOENIX – The plan is in place for the Eagles' defense, and coordinator Jonathan Gannon has the utmost confidence that his players will execute the vision, communicate seamlessly, and play physical, aggressive, and intelligent football on Sunday in Super Bowl LVII against the Kansas City Chiefs.
But when you're lining up against an Andy Reid offense that was first in the NFL in total yardage, passing, and scoring in the regular season and is piloted by a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) featuring a future Hall of Fame tight end (Travis Kelce), you also have the understanding that there will be a bag of tricks to handle as well.
So, oh boy, that's a bunch on the defensive plate.
"Yeah, absolutely. Every game you turn on, he's (Reid) doing something new. We've got to be prepared for all of that," Gannon said. "One of our staples is adaptability. We know that we're going to have to adapt in game and we've got to be ready to make adjustments in game, in real time, and ultimately execute the plan and those adjustments to have a chance."
And what does the Eagles' defense need to do on Sunday to win the game?
"Not have the ball thrown over our heads and take it away," Gannon said.
That's the formula the Eagles have been living by since Gannon took over the defense in 2021. In his first season, saddled by the loss of defensive end Brandon Graham and learning how to best utilize the personnel, the defense did an excellent job keeping the Eagles in games. They allowed 18 or fewer points in 10 games. They kept offenses in front of them. And the Eagles reached the postseason. 2021 was a good first step.
This next step, as the line in "Groundhog Day" goes, has been "a doozy."
The Eagles have a dominating defense. Gannon's scheme is the same – of course, he's added tweaks and he has dialed up pressures and given his players more responsibility as their talents have allowed them to handle it – and the results are dazzling. The Eagles strangle offenses with a non-stop, come-from-all-directions pass rush, a run defense that clogs lanes and plays on the other side of the ball, and a pass defense that topped the NFL in the regular season and that has played shut-down defense in the playoffs.
This is the Super Bowl and this is the Kansas City Chiefs and, of course, this is a different animal here.
"Everything about Patrick Mahomes makes him special, honestly," safety Marcus Epps said. "He can throw it a mile, he's great at creating plays with his legs. I think he did a really great job this year of dicing teams up from the pocket as well. It's everything with him. He's a generational talent."
Clearly, then, the first job is to affect Mahomes, if that's possible. The Eagles have the best pass rush in the NFL and they're going to have to win against a Kansas City offensive line and protection package that is going to be well prepared for what Philadelphia brings.
"We have to win our battles," linebacker Haason Reddick said. "I don't think you go into this game thinking you are going to get clear paths to the quarterback. They're going to have something built in to account for what we do, so it comes down to winning one-on-one battles, or whatever it's going to be, in this game. You also know that Mahomes isn't a guy who is going to go down easily. He can buy time with his legs. He can move, even with that ankle (Mahomes suffered a high-ankle sprain against Jacksonville in the AFC Divisional Round).
"It's a challenge and, as you know, I love challenges."
Then there is the matter of handling tight end Kelce, a topic the Eagles have talked about all week. Kelce caught 110 passes for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season and has 21 catches, 176 yards, and three touchdowns in the two playoff wins.
He's the best in the game and he is on the verge of being unstoppable.
"We have to have a plan for what they like to do," Gannon said. "Everything is coming with him. He's a first-, second-, third-level guy. He's got run-after-catch abilities. He's explosive. He's got ball skills. He's got a huge catch radius and he's very intelligent. What I mean by that is, just because Andy draws up a route and says, 'Hey, this is what you should run,' if he sees the coverage tilted a certain way, he'll adjust his route. He'll adjust his coverage real time by what the coverage is saying and find spots or break away from different leverages. He and the quarterback are on the same page.
"We've got to do a good job on him."
Hey, the Eagles have to do a good job on everyone. Cincinnati "limited" Kelce to seven receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, but wide receiver Marquez Valdez-Scantling went off with six catches, 126 yards, and a score. Reid has always employed his running backs effectively – remember how he used Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook so effectively in both the run and pass games? – and that's a piece to watch on Sunday with Kansas City at full strength and ready to bring back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to team with Isiah Pacheco and others in the backfield.
"How does he not use his running backs? They do everything," Defensive Ends/Outside Linebackers Coach Jeremiah Washburn said. "They've got a great group and they're kind of like Baskin-Robbins. They all can do something different, so he uses those guys in a variety of roles and they embrace it. There is a reason, when I was coaching in Detroit on offense (offensive line coach) we called it 'the Westbrook screen.' We named it after Brian Westbrook and you see him still using variations of that very effectively."
The bottom line: The Eagles face their toughest challenge on Sunday, as it should be. This is the best against the best (best pass rush against the best pass blocking group, per metrics). The defense needs to come up big.
"You don't shut down this offense, per se. They're No. 1 for a reason. But you play your best football with everybody on the same page and you go out and win," Gannon said. "That's the goal. That's what we're practicing for all week, to go out and play our best football, because we're sure going to need it against this offense that really has it all."
Check out these exclusive photos of several of the Eagles captains at Super Bowl LVII in Arizona.