Evan Silva

Matchups

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Silva's Super Bowl Matchups

Sunday, February 4, 2018


Super Bowl 52 Matchup

Patriots Passing Game

Philadelphia’s ability to generate pass rush was undersold by its regular season sack total, finishing a middling 15th in sacks (38) despite leading the NFL in QB hits (115). 11 of the last 12 quarterbacks to face the Eagles finished below 275 passing yards, and Philly has held each of its last four enemy signal callers to 6.0 yards per attempt or fewer. Although attacking the teeth of Philadelphia’s top-five pass defense may seem sub-optimal at first glance, Tom Brady’s path of least resistance will likely be to throw with volume and a ball-out-quick mentality featuring high-percentage running back, slot receiver, and Rob Gronkowski targets and occasional deep shots to Brandin Cooks, who draws winnable matchups against Philadelphia’s inconsistent outside corners. The Patriots have historically gone especially pass heavy in the playoffs regardless of opponent; Brady averaged 37.0 pass attempts per game in the 2014-2017 regular seasons, then spiked to a 46.6-attempt average in those years’ ensuing ten postseason games. I think this will be the core of New England’s Super Bowl 52 game plan, and there are just enough edges throughout their running back and pass-catcher corps to have a reasonably good shot to execute.

Patriots Running Game

The Eagles showed minimal deficiencies toward defending running back play in 2017, but perimeter-oriented backs gave them trouble in January. Whereas interior grinders Devonta Freeman (10/7/0) and Latavius Murray (6/18/0) got nothing going against Philadelphia, Tevin Coleman (10/79/0) and Jerick McKinnon (10/40/0) were reasonably successful, and also combined for 100 receiving yards on 13 targets. Running back targets are a Patriots staple with target totals of 17 and 14 through two playoff games. Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White are all capable of exploiting Philly’s potential weaknesses versus edge runs and backfield catches. Lewis has become a passing-game usage monster with target counts of 5 > 7 > 10 > 8 in the last four games, averaging 25.3 touches during that span. White’s receiving and scoring-position roles grew as Burkhead battled a late-season knee injury, although White has still gone 12 straight games without reaching double-digit touches. Burkhead’s usage is entirely up in the air; the knee injury cost him a full month, then Burkhead returned to play just three snaps in the AFC Championship game.

Whereas OLBs Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks are assets in coverage, the Eagles’ inside linebacker position should have a Patriots target on its back. After MLB Jordan Hicks tore his Achilles’ in Week 7, Philly resorted to a middle linebacker mishmash of Joe Walker (now on I.R.), journeyman Dannell Ellerbe, and special teamer Najee Goode. Ellerbe, who missed the NFC title game with a hamstring injury but is due back, only plays in the Eagles’ base defense, an alignment the Patriots can theoretically force Philly into by using two-back or two-tight end formations and playing with tempo, restricting the Eagles’ ability to substitute. Per PFF’s Pat Thorman, the 2017 Eagles allowed just 6.0 yards per pass attempt and 4.8 yards per play to offenses that huddled, but got drilled for 8.7 yards per attempt and 7.3 yards per play by teams playing no-huddle offense. From Lawrence Timmons to Benardrick McKinney and Kiko Alonso, New England has made a habit of exposing coverage-deficient inside linebackers over the years.

Patriots Pass Catchers

Although Danny Amendola’s AFC title game usage was enhanced by unforeseen in-game factors such as New England falling behind by two scores and Rob Gronkowski’s second-quarter concussion, the fact of the matter is Amendola’s stretch-run role has grown considerably regardless. “Playoff Danny” has averaged 37.0 routes run over the last six games after running just 25.9 routes per game in his first 11 appearances. Amendola leads the Patriots in postseason targets (22), catches (18), receiving yards (196), and receiving scores (2). Fellow slot receivers Doug Baldwin (5/84/0), Cooper Kupp (5/118/1), Sterling Shepard (11/139/1), and Jarius Wright (3/51/0) all produced at or above expectation against the Eagles from Week 13 on. Amendola’s ability to win early in routes and rack up chain-moving receptions meshes seamlessly with a pass-first, ball-out-quick New England game plan.

Brady showed no fear targeting Brandin Cooks against Jacksonville’s shutdown perimeter corners in the AFC title round, and Brady and Cooks successfully flamed A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey for 100 yards, not including 68 yards on defensive pass-interference flags. (Philadelphia has committed the NFL’s 11th-most penalties per game (6.89), second most among all playoff teams.) This is a list of perimeter wideouts to face the Eagles in their last six games: Julio Jones (9/101/0), Roger Lewis (4/74/0), Tavarres King (2/70/1), Stefon Diggs (8/70/0), Amari Cooper (3/66/1), Brice Butler (2/50/1), Adam Thielen (3/28/0), Dez Bryant (3/24/0), and Sammy Watkins (3/21/1). The Eagles tend to play a cushion-heavy Cover 3 in which they can be susceptible to quick hitches, which Brady will be willing to take all day. A smattering of early hitches could be used to set up double-move opportunities for Cooks and/or Rob Gronkowski.

Particularly when 4.33 speedster Cooks runs routes on the offensive right side – he does 28% of the time – he will have a straight-line speed advantage on Eagles LCB Jalen Mills, who runs 4.61. Cooks also has notable career indoor-outdoor splits, and Sunday’s game will be played indoors at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium. Cooks has scored 19-of-28 (67.9%) career touchdowns and averaged 71.1 receiving yards per game in indoor environments, versus 64.4 yards per game outdoors. The splits did narrow as Cooks moved from the Superdome to Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium in 2017. Cooks has drawn target counts of 11 > 9 > 8 in his last three games and is the Patriots’ best Super Bowl bet to break a deep passing play.

Rob Gronkowski enters the Super Bowl with 145-plus yards and/or a touchdown in five straight non-concussed, non-bubble-wrapped games to face a sturdy Eagles back seven that has yielded 50 yards to just four individual tight ends in 18 games and held Kyle Rudolph to one catch on four targets in the conference title round. OLBs Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham are plus cover ‘backers, and Pro Bowl SS Malcolm Jenkins will defend Gronk when the Eagles play man coverage. As the NFL’s most matchup-proof tight end, Gronk is going to win battles regardless of his opponent. Albeit all the way back in Week 2, the Eagles had no answers for Travis Kelce, who is Gronkowski’s most comparable player. Kelce flamed Philly for 8/103/1 on ten targets, specifically blowing by Jenkins for 44 yards on a first-quarter double move and taking what he wanted in the middle of the field for the rest of the game.

Chris Hogan suffered a Week 8 shoulder injury he later aggravated and wound up costing him seven games. Hogan returned for the Divisional Round and has shown minimal rapport with Brady through two playoff games, connecting just three times on eight targets for 24 yards and a touchdown, the score coming from four yards out in New England’s win over Tennessee. Hogan has still played 83% and 91% of the snaps, running 48 and 44 routes. Hogan also runs a team-high 36% of his pass patterns on LCB Jalen Mills’ side of the field. Albeit not to the extent of Cooks, Hogan maintains a speed edge (4.50) on Mills (4.61). On the season, Hogan has only one fewer red-zone target (14, 13) and two more targets inside the ten-yard line than Cooks, despite having played 480 fewer snaps. Pro Football Focus charged Mills with nine touchdown passes allowed this season, most among NFL corners.

Eagles Running Game

Warren Sharp made intriguing observations as to personnel packages against which New England’s run defense is most exploitable. The Patriots’ last four opponents didn’t exploit them enough, as Jaguars, Titans, Jets, and Bills running backs managed a combined 82/239/2.91/1 rushing line against a New England front seven that stiffened down the stretch. The Patriots have remained beatable by running back receptions; DC Matt Patricia’s defense yielded the NFL’s third-most receiving yards per game to backfields (52.4) this season, then gave up 98 receiving yards to Jaguars backs last week, including three explosive passing-game bursts on run-pass options (RPOs) by underutilized Jaguars change-up runner Corey Grant. Unless the Eagles crack Sharp’s 11-personnel code, feeding Jay Ajayi passing-game chances to attack OLBs Marquis Flowers and Kyle Van Noy and MLB Elandon Roberts will be the Birds’ best bet to get Ajayi rolling. PFF has charged Van Noy with an 87.5% completion rate allowed on throws into his coverage. Roberts has an 82.8% completion rate against.

Ajayi’s touch counts steadily ascended from Week 17 through the conference title round (16 > 18 > 21), and he is being targeted on 32% of his routes, more than passing-down specialty back Corey Clement (25.9%) and obviously more than LeGarrette Blount (7.7%). The Eagles need October trade acquisition Ajayi to take on a bigger passing-game role, and the coaches had the last two weeks to figure that out.

Eagles Passing Game

Nick Foles has flashed throughout his seven-year journeyman career that he is capable of spectacular games and/or stretches, albeit all too infrequently. The NFC Championship game was one, as Foles went 4-of-6 on 20-plus-yard pass attempts after going 2-of-15 on such throws to that point, dropping bombs all over Minnesota’s top-flight pass defense. Whether Foles’ dominant effort was a fluke or sign of Super Bowl things to come may depend on New England’s handling of the Eagles’ high-efficiency run-pass options (RPOs), which create assignment conflicts for defenders. Run-pass options have been called by Philadelphia a league-high 181 times, whereas New England’s defense faced the NFL’s fewest RPO plays (39) this season. This is of particular concern for the Patriots due to their deficiencies at linebacker. From a volume standpoint, New England has a knack for elevating opponent pass attempts. After facing the NFL’s third-most regular season pass attempts per game (36.9), the Patriots faced nearly seven more than Marcus Mariota’s season average (37, 30.2) in the Divisional Round and 36 from Blake Bortles in the AFC Championship. Bortles averaged 32.7 pass attempts per game this season.

Eagles Pass Catchers

Zach Ertz leads the Eagles in targets (39) with Foles under center, drawing at least eight in three of their four full games together. Ertz’s box-score results are 6/56/1 > 9/81/0 > 3/32/0 > 8/93/0 in those games. Keyed by FS Devin McCourty and SS Patrick Chung, the Pats allowed the NFL’s tenth-fewest receiving yards to tight ends (720) this season, then muzzled Delanie Walker (3/49/0) in the Divisional Round and Jaguars tight ends (2/8/1) in the AFC Championship. Only four opposing tight ends have reached 50 yards through 18 Patriots games. Volume more often than not overcomes matchups, of course. Ertz is getting peppered with Foles targets enough that he is the favorite to lead the Eagles in SB52 receiving.

The Eagles’ biggest pass-catcher personnel mismatch is Nelson Agholor against Patriots slot corner Eric Rowe, a plus-sized (6’1/205) DB who played safety for most of his college career and can struggle with quick change of direction, Agholor’s foremost strength. Agholor runs 87% of his routes in the slot, and New England allowed at- or above-expectation stat lines to fellow slot receivers to Jarvis Landry (8/46/2) in Week 14, JuJu Smith-Schuster (6/114/0) and Eli Rogers (1/18/1) in Week 15, Jermaine Kearse (5/59/0) in Week 17, Eric Decker (6/85/0) in the Divisional Round, and Allen Hurns (6/80/0) in the AFC title game. Agholor still ranks second behind Ertz in Foles targets (29), but has had a surprisingly quiet playoffs with just 7 targets to Ertz’s 13, Torrey Smith’s 11, Alshon Jeffery’s 10, and Ajayi’s 8. For the Eagles’ sake, I think this needs to and will be a game where Agholor wakes back up from his small-sample slump.

Alshon Jeffery is third behind Ertz and Agholor in targets from Foles (27), but Jeffery has dominated in the playoffs by catching 9-of-10 targets for 146 yards and two touchdowns as a primary recipient of RPOs. As Jeffery stands 6-foot-3, 216, the Patriots figure to defend him with man coverage from white-hot Stephon Gilmore (6’1/190), who has allowed one touchdown pass (Week 15, Martavis Bryant) in his last nine games. Gilmore is no lock to outright shadow Jeffery, of course, and Alshon will have major size and speed (4.48) advantages whenever he and Malcolm Butler (5’10/187, 4.62) match up.

After squandering a first-quarter 50-plus-yard bomb – on arguably Foles’ best throw of the game -- Torrey Smith settled into a surprise NFC Championship playmaking role, most memorably beating Vikings CB Trae Waynes and SS Harrison Smith for a 41-yard flea-flicker score. The fact that it was only Smith’s fourth game above 40 yards in 18 tries as an Eagle combined with the trick-play nature of Smith’s last-game touchdown make him a potential recency-bias trap to bet on for another big day. As usual, Smith combines a low floor with big-play dependency.

Game Overview

I think the Patriots will attack the Eagles with a ball-out-quick, no-huddle offense designed to pick away at the few chinks in Philly’s pass-coverage armor while attempting to offset pass rush, preventing the Eagles from digging into their deep defensive line rotation, and keeping probable attack target MLB Dannell Ellerbe on the field. Defensively, the Patriots had two weeks to prepare for Philly’s RPO-heavy offense, albeit not without lingering concerns about how well they’ll handle it, particularly after Corey Grant steamed the Pats on RPOs in the conference title round. This game’s spread opened at six points in New England’s favor but has crept to four in some shops. I like the Eagles to cover the spread, but the Patriots to get the win.

Score Prediction: Patriots 24, Eagles 23



Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva



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