Super Bowl LII Preview
by Aaron Schatz and Scott Kacsmar
For the fourth time in the last five seasons, the Super Bowl is a matchup between No. 1 seeds. New England's appearance, for a record tenth time, comes as a surprise to no one. The Patriots were projected with 11.6 mean wins in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, the second-highest total for any team since 2012. Their offense has fired on all cylinders, leading the league in yards and second with 28.6 points per game. After struggling mightily on defense for the first month of the season, the Patriots have allowed more than 24 points in a game only once, and that was in a 27-20 loss at Miami. That's also the only loss the Patriots have in their last 14 games, and they rank No. 1 in weighted DVOA.
Teams that finished the regular season No. 1 in weighted DVOA are 9-3 in the Super Bowl since 1986, but if this team could lose to Jay Cutler and the Dolphins, then surely Nick Foles has a chance with a superior Philadelphia team, right? The Eagles weren't nearly this high in our preseason projections. 2017 looked to be more of a year of flirting with the wild-card round unless Carson Wentz did his best 1984 Dan Marino impression. He wasn't that great, but stark improvements over his rookie season combined with a strong defense (and a schedule that ended up much easier we had forecast) had the Eagles out in front of the NFC for months. Doug Pederson's upstart team wasn't able to beat annual contenders such as Kansas City and Seattle on the road, but the Eagles basically stomped the rest of the competition in their way.
Then Week 14 happened and expectations were readjusted. The Eagles picked up their biggest win of the regular season by knocking off the Rams on the road, 43-35, in a game that had major playoff seeding implications. Unfortunately, it looked like a pyrrhic victory after Wentz tore his ACL in the third quarter. Foles had to take over and things got off to a fine start when he threw four touchdowns against the Giants, but the Week 16 game against Oakland was a candidate for the ugliest game of the year with the way the Eagles looked that night. Philadelphia immediately became the "No. 1 seed everyone wants to see in the playoffs."
Funny thing is, that didn't work out so well for the NFC. The Eagles embraced their role as home underdogs and took care of Atlanta in a low-scoring game before lighting up a quality Minnesota team, 38-7, in the NFC Championship Game. Just like that, the Eagles are in the Super Bowl, and Foles has a 63.0% passing DVOA in his playoff career. Given how people are always blown away by Mark Sanchez's 28.3% DVOA in the playoffs, just think what seeing Foles on top of everyone would look like if he ever hits 150 attempts to qualify for our postseason DVOA list while still producing at this level. Thanks to this little run, Foles' 2013 season where he had a 119.2 passer rating will no longer be the only positive footnote in his career. He has a chance at being one of the unlikeliest of heroes to lead the Eagles to their first Super Bowl win.
We can have another great Super Bowl if those Eagles from Championship Sunday show up for this one. It also wouldn't be a Super Bowl (or the 2017 season) without a big-name injury to monitor. Rob Gronkowski is that player this week, but the stud tight end should be good to go after leaving the AFC Championship Game with a concussion. This is a big opportunity for Gronkowski since he missed last year's Super Bowl and wasn't 100 percent against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. He even happened to miss the 2015 meeting with Philadelphia, a 35-28 upset by the Eagles that has no predictive value for this matchup. The fact that the Eagles had three return touchdowns that day and Chip Kelly was the head coach says enough about how detached we are from that game.
When we did our "Building a Super Bowl Winner" feature before the 2016 season, we found that a dominant offense or defense was usually an ingredient in a championship team. Last year, the Falcons tried to win with the No. 1 offense, but the No. 26 defense wore down against New England and shares the responsibility in blowing that 28-3 lead. Since 1986, no team has won a Super Bowl with an offense or defense ranked lower than 25th in DVOA. However, the Patriots are one win away from doing so with the No. 1 offense and No. 31 defense. As we pointed out in the AFC Championship preview, this is a truly unique defense. The Patriots had the worst defense in the league over the first 80 yards of the field and then suddenly became No. 4 in DVOA when opponents got inside the 20. Even though the Patriots ranked 32nd in yards per drive allowed, they were still sixth in points per drive allowed. Our drive stats go back to 1993, and in that time no other defense has ranked in the top 10 in points per drive while ranking 26th or lower in yards per drive.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. (Game charting isn't lined up with DVOA yet in our data, so those stats may be listed with passer rating or simply yards per play.) Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
This week, we're breaking out separate charts for offensive and defensive DVOA each week. The defensive charts are "reversed" so that better games are still higher on the chart even though they have negative DVOA. In the Philadelphia offensive chart, games started by Nick Foles are colored black instead of gray. For the first time, we've also added in week-to-week charts for special teams.
One thing you'll notice on the tables below: each unit involved in this game has been better in recent weeks (weighted DVOA) than it was over the entire season.
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WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Technically, the Los Angeles Rams led all teams in scoring in 2017, but any worthwhile metric had the Patriots as the No. 1 offense. The Patriots had the highest DVOA, averaged the most yards and points per drive, and achieved this with great consistency. Their lowest offensive DVOA in a game was -2.8%. Every other team had at least two games below -5.0%, and the Saints were the only other offense that didn't have a game below -15.0%. New England's worst offensive outings were -2.8% DVOA against the Buccaneers (Week 5) and the Dolphins (Week 14). So those Florida trips weren't good, but those were also the only two full games that Rob Gronkowski missed this season. The other Florida team, Jacksonville, also gave the Patriots some trouble when Gronkowski left in the first half with a concussion, though New England was able to rally late for the comeback win.
This should be a great chess match on early downs. The Patriots had the No. 1 offense in DVOA on first down (31.9%) and the Eagles had the No. 1 defense (-19.6%). The test will be to see if the Eagles can stack two good plays in a row to force Tom Brady into tough third-down situations. On second-and-medium and second-and-long, the Patriots were still the No. 2 offense in both splits. However, the Eagles dropped to 26th and 22nd respectively on defense. With the Eagles ranked No. 3 against the run, expectations should be for a pass-happy game plan, but as the Patriots showed against Jacksonville, they are not afraid to change things up if they like the matchups they see. It is worth noting that of the six times the Eagles allowed over 100 rushing yards this season, five of them have come since Week 11.
Does this matchup favor another New England comeback? We know every Super Bowl involving the Belichick/Brady Patriots has come down to the end, and they have never scored a point in the first quarter of the previous seven games. The Eagles were a pretty good first-half team this year too. The Patriots still rank No. 2 in second-half offense and No. 2 in late and close situations. Philadelphia's had some experience at protecting big leads this year, but not against the likes of Brady and the Patriots. Philadelphia's lowest defensive ranking is also the fourth quarter where they fell to 14th in DVOA, so this could be another opportunity for a late drive by the Patriots.
The Patriots have a lot of weapons, but Gronkowski is still the matchup nightmare, and he will be back for the Super Bowl. Philadelphia's cornerbacks are not as good as Jacksonville's, but the Eagles did a respectable job with Minnesota's Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs last time out. For the season, the Eagles ranked No. 7 in DVOA against top wideouts -- they faced 10 passes per game to No. 1 receivers, but were highly efficient against those passes -- and had the highest DVOA against No. 2 wideouts. However, the Eagles were just 22nd against other wideouts and 17th against tight ends, so this could be a game for Danny Amendola and Gronkowski. Amendola has been fantastic in his playoff career and really took over in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Eagles have allowed six games this season where receivers gained at least 50 yards in the slot. Amendola (six) and Gronkowski (four) have combined for 10 such games for the Patriots this year. Sterling Shepard of the Giants feasted on the Eagles underneath for 120 and 123 slot yards in his two games this season. Big games by slot receivers and tight ends are a common thread linking the Eagles' worst games of the year.
One thing to definitely watch for is that Tom Brady likes to go deep down the left sideline to Brandin Cooks at least a couple of times per game. The Eagles allowed 11.7 yards per attempt on deep left passes, compared to just 4.7 yards per attempt on deep right passes, but that says more about the abilities of Jalen Mills (left cornerback) than the weakness of Ronald Darby (right cornerback). Remember that Darby missed much of the season, playing only six full games from Week 11 to Week 16, and many of those deep attempts that hit down the left sideline came with Patrick Robinson or Rasul Douglas replacing Darby as the outside cornerback. Robinson is now the nickelback, and Douglas is unlikely to play much in the Super Bowl unless the Eagles suddenly pull out a dime package they didn't use in their first two playoff games.
|Philadelphia CB Coverage, 2017 Regular Season|
|Player||G||Tgt||Yd/Pass||Rk||Suc Rate||Rk||Air Yds||Rk||YAC||Rk|
The Eagles weren't particularly bad against running backs in the passing game, ranking tenth in DVOA. However, it's worth noting which running backs they specifically had trouble with. Essentially, the Eagles wouldn't allow receiving yardage to dual-threat running backs (Gurley, Elliott, Hyde, etc.) but they allowed plenty of valuable receptions to smaller receiving backs. The three highest receiving totals by running backs playing the Eagles belonged to Andre Ellington (65), Christian McCaffrey (56), and Chris Thompson (52). In two games, Thompson caught 9 of 10 passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns. This suggests that the Patriots' undersized running backs could be a problem, especially if they end up split wide and going against Eagles linebackers in man coverage. (The Eagles did at least do a good job of bottling up former Patriots receiving back Shane Vereen, now a member of the New York Giants.)
The Eagles allowed 5.6 average YAC in the regular season (26th in the NFL), including an average of 5.2 YAC on passes to wide receivers (30th). They were fourth in YAC allowed to tight ends at 3.8, but Gronk isn't exactly specializing in short block-and-release tight end routes. Gronk himself had 5.0 average YAC, which matches the team, as the Patriots were surprisingly only middle-of-the-pack with an average of 5.0 YAC.
There will be a lot of ink spilled about how the way to beat Tom Brady is to get pressure with just four pass rushers, so you can have seven players in coverage. This is true, in that this is generally a good way to beat any offense. It has not been specifically true for Brady in 2017. Historically, Brady has always been phenomenal when opponents sent a blitz, especially against a big blitz of six or more pass rushers. But in 2017, Brady's numbers actually went down when opponents sent additional pressure. He averaged 7.7 net yards per pass against 3-4 pass rushers, but 6.3 net yards per pass against 5-6 pass rushers.
In the two playoff games, Sports Info Solutions only recorded a blitz 13 times: 10 by Tennessee, and only 3 by Jacksonville, all during the Patriots' second-half comeback. None of these were six-man blitzes. Brady averaged 7.0 yards, roughly the same. as the 6.8 net yards per pass he averaged otherwise. The three Jaguars blitzes included second-and-10 and third-and-10 on the Jaguars 45 with six minutes left, two incomplete passes that forced the Patriots to punt near midfield down 20-17.
So there's some evidence that blitzing can work against Brady, as long as the defense picks its spots instead of just trying to bring extra pressure constantly. And very few defensive coordinators pick their spots on blitzes as much as Jim Schwartz. The Eagles rushed four on 80 percent of pass plays this season, which ranked third in the league behind Jacksonville and Cincinnati. When they did blitz, they were the only team in the league that sent six men (45 plays) almost as often as they sent five men (58 plays). The Eagles gave up 5.7 net yards per pass with four pass rushers; that went up to 6.4 with five pass rushers, but down to 4.5 with six. And when they blitzed, the Eagles got pressure 52 percent of the time, third in the league behind Seattle and Washington.
One of the Patriots' strategies for staying away from pass pressure is to go empty, forcing the defense to spread out and giving Brady five possible quick pass options. Sports Info Solutions has the Patriots running empty-back sets on 12.3 percent of plays, fifth in the NFL. The Patriots were ninth with 6.4 yards per pass from empty sets, but importantly, they only were pressured 21 percent of the time on these plays compared to a league average of 28 percent. The Eagles defense ranked ninth by only allowing 4.9 yards per pass from empty sets, but also only got pressure 27 percent of the time. That's much less than Philadelphia's pressure rate overall and even less than the league average.
The other strategy to control the Philadelphia pressure should be a no-huddle, hurry-up offense. Now, keep in mind that the NFL's official scorers are sometimes iffy on marking every instance of offenses going no-huddle. Nonetheless, based on the information we have, the Patriots did not use the no-huddle very often. We list them with 56 plays, compared to an NFL average of 89. However, the Patriots' offensive DVOA went up with a no-huddle, to 40.9%. That was fourth in the league behind three offenses (Saints, Jaguars, Bengals) that used no-huddle even less than the Patriots did.
Meanwhile, on defense, the Eagles had significant problems with the no-huddle offense. They faced it on 123 plays, a high number that makes sense considering that opponents were often trying to come back from deficits. But the Eagles also allowed 18.2% DVOA to no-huddle offenses. That's far, far worse than their defense overall. It makes a lot of sense, because so much of the Eagles' pass-rush is based on rotating players on the defensive line. Seven different Eagles defensive linemen played at least 40 percent of team snaps in games where they were active. Not one was above 70 percent. (By comparison, Trey Flowers played 87 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps when he was active.) The Eagles had five defenders with more than 20 hurries by Sports Info Solutions charting (subscription required) and two of those players, Chris Long and Derek Barnett, are not technically starters.
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Another reason for the Patriots to spread it out and sling it around: the Eagles were the best defense in the league when opponents had their quarterback under center (-28.5% DVOA, 4.1 yards/play). When the quarterback was in shotgun, they were ninth with -3.4% DVOA and 14th with 5.7 yards per play. The Patriots only use shotgun about half the time, less than the league average, but were the No. 1 offense by DVOA both in shotgun and with Brady under center.
Going spread or hurry-up doesn't force the Patriots to go away from the running game because of their flexibility on offense. They can easily go empty-back from 21 personnel, and often do, splitting out Dion Lewis, James White, and even fullback James Develin. The Patriots have only two wide receivers on the field more than almost any other offense in the NFL, but the Eagles were very strong against passes from these sets in 2017. Only the Saints allowed a lower passer rating when opponents had just two wide receivers on the field. Of course, those numbers primarily relate to condensed 21-personnel sets, not 21 personnel all stretched out in a spread formation. The Eagles were faced with 21 or 12 personnel in empty on only 13 plays, so those numbers are pretty meaningless.
The running game presents a matchup of strength against strength, almost exactly mirrored. The Patriots offense ranked No. 1 in adjusted line yards and No. 3 in DVOA running the ball. The Eagles defense ranked No. 1 in adjusted line yards and No. 3 in DVOA against the run. The Patriots excelled at making sure they got positive yards, only getting stuffed at the line for a loss or no gain on 16.3 percent of runs (third). The Eagles excelled at stuffing opposing runners at the line for a loss or no gain, 29.3 percent of runs (second).
How did the Patriots do when running against top defenses this season? Pretty well. The Pats had six games against defenses that finished in the top dozen of run defense DVOA, including the postseason game against Tennessee. The Patriots put up 16.7% DVOA running the ball in six games against five teams (Texans, Panthers, Jets x2, Broncos, Titans). They averaged 3.94 yards per carry, which matched the season average allowed by these five teams... except the Patriots averaged 3.94 yards per carry with an average of 7.5 yards to go, while other opponents averaged 3.94 yards per carry against these teams with an average of 8.5 yards to go.
The Patriots running game is pretty balanced, as is the Eagles run defense. Both teams rank in the top ten of ALY in all five directions that we track. However, the Patriots do run a little bit better either up the middle or on the right side, and the Eagles run defense is a little bit worse on that side (tenth in ALY against right tackle and right end runs).
You should also read:
- Ben Muth on the Patriots offensive line in the AFC Championship Game
- Derrik Klassen on what Gronk means to the Patriots offense
- Vincent Verhei on the elements that tied together New England's worst games this season
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Using numbers to break down the matchup between Nick Foles and the Patriots defense is not a particularly easy task. Foles has a four-game sample size this year, with a little bit of a fifth; most of the passing stats for the Eagles prior to Week 15 are fairly useless as an indicator of what Foles can and will do. The Patriots, meanwhile, have followed their usual trend of playing much better in the second half of the season. Their pass defense had 33.7% DVOA in Weeks 1-8, 30th in the NFL, with 7.65 net yards allowed per pass. Since their Week 9 bye, and including the playoffs, the Patriots have 3.1% DVOA against the pass, which ranks 15th, and have allowed just 5.32 net yards per pass. As we'll get to in a few paragraphs, the run defense has also improved, although more recently.
Doug Pederson's top priority should be to make sure Foles is comfortable in the biggest game of his life. The Super Bowl is the game's greatest stage, and past performance is really not a great indicator of what a quarterback will do on that one night. Doug Williams, Phil Simms, and Mark Rypien are Super Bowl heroes, while Cam Newton, Boomer Esiason, and Rich Gannon all flopped to end their MVP seasons.
Success with Foles comes from a manageable game script where he isn't asked to play the hero. In his career as a starter, Foles is 5-14 (.263) when his team allows at least 24 points, 6-11 (.353) when he has to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, and 3-6 (.333) when he attempts at least 40 passes. Needless to say, the Patriots are far more comfortable and successful in those situations with Brady, so the Eagles really need to have a good start.
When Pederson was Andy Reid's offensive coordinator for the Chiefs in 2015, he called a game that included 50 throws (and 60 dropbacks) for Alex Smith in a 27-20 loss to New England in the divisional round. The main criticism, which Pederson took the blame for at his introduction as Eagles' coach, was the final drive where the Chiefs used 16 plays and 5:16 to drive 80 yards for a touchdown. The problem was only 1:13 remained in the game and the Chiefs were still down 27-20. Pederson's explanation of the drive did not pass the sniff test. "It took so long because number one, we did not want to give Tom Brady the ball back." The problem here is it was almost inevitable that Brady would get the ball back, because any strategy that involves getting an onside kick recovery is a pipe dream. The defense needed a stop to get the offense the ball back with enough time to get another touchdown for overtime. The clock management was again poor, which goes back a long time with Reid, including the Eagles' last Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.
So for Pederson to avoid those old clock issues, he needs to stick to that strategy of not wanting to give Brady the ball back in this game. The Eagles only had one game this season with more than two turnovers (Chicago, Week 12). For as unpredictable as his career has been, Foles generally does a good job of keeping interceptions and sacks down. He's never thrown an interception in his three playoff starts on 96 passes. The Patriots only have one takeaway in their last six games, but it was a monster one: the fake-spike interception thrown by Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
You've no doubt heard a lot about run-pass options (RPOs) in this game. It's a play the Eagles use more than anyone, and Foles has done well in the playoffs with these quick decisions and short throws. Of course, Bill Belichick did not need two weeks to figure this out. The Patriots could try to disrupt Foles' rhythm by playing man coverage to deter him from making those quick throws. According to Sports Info Solutions charting, the Patriots played more man coverage this season than any defense except for Minnesota and Kansas City. That includes a lot of Cover-1, but also more Cover-2 Man Under than any other defense (28 percent of pass plays). Against man coverage, Foles only averaged 5.7 yards per pass attempt in the regular season, but he averaged 6.8 against Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings were caught being too aggressive at times, and Foles took advantage with a touchdown on a 41-yard flea-flicker to Torrey Smith.
Still, Foles shouldn't fall in love with the deep ball this week. The three quarterbacks to beat the Patriots this year had three of the five lowest averages in air yards against Belichick's defense: Alex Smith (7.3), Cam Newton (7.0), and Jay Cutler (6.9). That's not to say the quarterbacks who went bombs away against New England failed this year; Deshaun Watson (12.0), Philip Rivers (11.0), and Jameis Winston (10.9) all lost one-score games to the Patriots, Still, the quick-passing approach is more likely to keep the ball in possession of the Eagles. The Patriots ranked much better against deep passes (11th in DVOA) than against short passes (27th) this season. And holding the ball for a long time could just invite more pressure on Foles. Would it shock anyone if veteran addition James Harrison was the player who finally exposed Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle on a crucial sack? All it takes is one of those to change the whole game sometimes.
As I noted in our AFC Championship preview, the Patriots defense was only 27th in pressure rate in the regular season. They were tenth in adjusted sack rate, but that's generally because of coverage rather than pass rush. They led the NFL with 14 regular-season sacks coded by SIS as either "Coverage Sack" or "Failed Scramble." However, the Pats' pass rush may be coming alive in recent weeks; seven of their eight sacks against Tennessee in the divisional round were marked as blown blocks by SIS.
New England was not an aggressive defense when it came to blitzing this season. They only blitzed 20 percent of the time, ranked 22nd in the league. The only quarterback they blitzed more than a third of the time was Derek Carr (34.0 percent) in a 33-8 win that got out of hand quickly for Oakland. Meanwhile, defenses didn't mind going after the Eagles with blitzes. The Philadelphia quarterback was blitzed at least 35.0 percent of the time in nine out of 18 games this season, but the Eagles went 9-0 in those games with at least 26 points scored in all of them. The Raiders (15.0 percent) and Chiefs (14.3 percent) really backed off against Philadelphia and the results were very favorable to those defenses. As always, a good mixture of strategies with pressure is optimal, and the difference with Foles from Wentz is that Foles is far less likely to scramble around to make something happen.
The question of whether the Eagles are actually good at pass protection is a difficult one. The idea that the Eagles have one of the best offensive lines in the league does not match up with our stats. The Eagles ranked 22nd in adjusted line yards, and according to Sports Info Solutions, they were a dismal 29th with a 36.3 percent pressure rate allowed (subscription required). That pressure didn't always result in sacks, as they ranked 12th in adjusted sack rate, but it's really bad.
Look closer at the weekly splits, however, and you see a very interesting story about the Eagles and their pressure rate. As we all know, the Eagles lost left tackle Jason Peters to an injury in Week 7. As you might expect, the Eagles' pressure rate went up even further after Vaitai replaced Peters. Yet the adjusted sack rate actually went down significantly. Then, when Nick Foles came in at quarterback, the adjusted sack rate stayed lower while the pressure rate went down. Here are numbers along with where each stat would have ranked during the regular season:
|Philadelphia Pass Protection by Week, 2017|
These stats bring up a lot of questions about how much the quarterback is responsible for pressure rate compared to the offensive line. We already know that a quarterback's own habits have a lot to do with sack rate. Perhaps that is true of pressure rate as well? And which is the fluke, the adjusted sack rate before Peters was hurt or the adjusted sack rate since?
As Vincent Verhei pointed out in Quick Reads, one common thread between the Patriots' worst games this season is that their pass defense was torched by running backs in the passing game -- with downfield passes, not dumpoffs or screens. This hasn't been too much of a regular go-to play for the Eagles, but Pederson does like to call for wheel routes out of the backfield, probably to Corey Clement. You want to get your running backs singled-up against the Patriots' slow linebackers. Whether they go to the wide receivers or the running backs, the Eagles were not a high-YAC team this season. Their average of 4.5 YAC during the regular season ranked just 27th. Their 7.0 average YAC against Atlanta in the divisional round was a significant outlier.
New England's secondary did not have the best coverage metrics according to SIS charting, but those metrics have improved since that awful September. We've removed Jonathan Jones, now injured, from this table. He will be replaced a nickel by former Eagles second-round pick Eric Rowe.
|New England CB Coverage, 2017 Regular Season|
|Player||G||Tgt||Yd/Pass||Rk||Suc Rate||Rk||Air Yds||Rk||YAC||Rk|
You'll notice the difference between Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore: Butler is more consistent at preventing successful gains but tends to get burned deep. The numbers for both cornerbacks improve if we remove September and add on the two postseason games, and the same goes for Eric Rowe. The ranks in this table represent where these numbers would have ranked during the regular season among qualifying cornerbacks.
|New England CB Coverage, 2017 Weeks 5-20|
Rowe has been surprisingly good since he came back from injuries that cost him much of the first half of the season. His yards allowed per pass and YAC stats are significantly inflated by one colossal blown play, the 69-yard catch by JuJu Smith-Schuster in Week 15. Remove that play, and Rowe has allowed just 5.4 yards per pass since he returned in Week 12.
The best Patriots defensive back in man coverage may not be any of these cornerbacks, but instead safety Patrick Chung, who tends to cover the tight end man-to-man. The Patriots ranked eighth this year in DVOA against tight ends, where they ranked 20th or worse against the other four receiver types we track. The Patriots are second in DVOA against tight ends since Week 5. Of course, the Vikings have Harrison Smith to cover tight ends and ranked second in DVOA against tight ends for the full season, and Zach Ertz led the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game by catching 8-of-8 passes for 93 yards, so score one for Doug Pederson's ability to scheme against an opponent's strength. The Patriots have now seen all those plays on film; does Ertz have additional tricks he hasn't used yet that will get him open against Chung?
The Patriots' season-long rank of 30th in run defense seems to indicate that the Eagles should run the ball more against the Patriots, but that was supposed to be the strategy for Tennessee and Jacksonville and it didn't work out very well for them. The Patriots, recognizing that opponents would run the ball, have played a lot of bear fronts and concentrated on stopping the run. This stretch of strong run defense started near the end of the regular season, against the run-heavy Bills in Week 16, then continued with the Jets and then the Titans and Jaguars in the playoffs. In those four games, the Patriots have a run defense DVOA of -23.6%, which would have ranked second behind Arizona during the regular season. They have gone from allowing 5.1 yards per carry to allowing 3.3 yards per carry. On first downs, they're allowing just 3.0 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, the Eagles' running game has declined around the same time. For the Eagles, it's tied to the replacement of Wentz with Foles. Since Week 15, including the playoffs, the Eagles have averaged just 3.9 yards per carry with -21.6% DVOA, which would have finished 31st during the regular season -- ahead of, ironically, only Arizona again. They're gaining just 3.3 yards per carry on first downs. And looking at where the decline is in the running game, it primarily seems to be with Jay Ajayi. Ajayi had a phenomenal 7.0 yards per carry in his first five games with Philadelphia, but has dropped below 4.0 yards per carry since. LeGarrette Blount has also dropped in yards per carry, but not in DVOA because his role has shifted substantially towards short-yardage situations since Ajayi's arrival.
|Philadelphia Eagles Running Backs, 2017|
|Clement Weeks 1-14||14.9%||67||4.33||48%|
|Clement Weeks 15-20||39.6%||10||5.60||80%|
|Ajayi Weeks 2-8 (Miami)||-8.4%||138||3.46||43%|
|Ajayi Weeks 9-14||21.0%||44||6.98||50%|
|Ajayi Weeks 15-20||-26.5%||59||3.86||39%|
|Blount Weeks 1-14||-8.4%||152||4.58||43%|
|Blount Weeks 15-20||-5.7%||36||3.06||42%|
Philadelphia's offensive line yards are surprisingly mediocre given the reputation of the offensive line. They ranked 22nd, and no better than 14th in any one direction. However, that one direction was the direction where the Patriots' defense ranked dead last during the regular season: runs up the middle.
Leaving holes was a problem for the Patriots run defense early in the season, but tackling has not been an issue. This will be strength vs. strength when the Eagles run the ball. Patriots were fourth with broken tackles on only 8.8 percent of plays, while the Eagles offense ranked tenth with broken tackles on 11.5 percent of plays. The Eagles' broken tackles came primarily from Ajayi (59, including his time in Miami) and Blount (48), who both finished in the top 20 for individual players.
Running the ball isn't the only way to slow the game down. The recent strengths and weaknesses of the Patriots defense suggest that the Eagles may want to run a lot, but also do that thing that the Patriots do so well: use the short pass as the running game, rather than using the running game to open things up downfield for the deep ball.
Finally, it's impossible to discuss the Patriots defense without discussing the two ways in which they manage to get off the field despite giving up all those yards. The Patriots are much better on third downs and much better in the red zone.
Let's start with third downs. The Patriots defense may have ranked 31st for the entire season, but they improved to 12th in DVOA on third and fourth downs. Even when they gave up yardage on first or second down, they were better than average getting off the field on third down. The Eagles, however, are the perfect team to counter this. The Eagles were phenomenal on third downs when Carson Wentz was still healthy. From Week 1 to Week 14, they led the league with 58.8% DVOA on third downs. And the quality on third downs has continued with Foles playing quarterback. In Weeks 15-20, the Eagles have 26.2% DVOA on third downs. That still would have finished third during the regular season.
The other issue is the red zone. This is more of a problem for the Eagles. The Patriots somehow went from 31st in defensive DVOA overall to fourth in defensive DVOA inside the red zone. No other team in the last 25 years has had a bigger difference between its overall defense and its defense once opponents got inside the 20. For most of the season, this would have been no problem for the Eagles. In Weeks 1-14, the Eagles' 32.5% DVOA in the red zone ranked second... behind the New England Patriots. But since Foles took over, the red zone performance has declined significantly. That trouble running the ball is part of it, and those long deep pass plays against the Vikings did nothing to help Philadelphia's red zone numbers. In Weeks 15-20, the Eagles have -8.3% DVOA in the red zone, which would have ranked just 21st during the regular season. That likely means more field goal attempts instead of touchdowns, and that's often the way the Patriots keep themselves in games and set up those second-half comebacks even when their defense struggles early.
You should also read:
- Ben Muth on the Eagles offensive line in the NFC Championship Game
- Charles McDonald on how Doug Pederson put Foles in position to dominate Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game
- Vincent Verhei on the elements that tied together Philadelphia's worst games this season
Special teams should be a mismatch, and the added field position will help the Patriots. This is the sixth year out of the last seven where the Patriots ranked in the special teams DVOA top five. Meanwhile, the Eagles' special teams were generally mediocre. The one bright spot was kicker Jake Elliott, who replaced veteran Caleb Sturgis after Week 1. He hit 84 percent of field goals with 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards, including a game-winner from 61 yards. But even at that position, the Eagles aren't as good as the Patriots. Stephen Gostkowski connected on 92.5 percent of his field goals, and his ability to drop a kickoff in right in front of the goal line to force a return makes him the most valuable kickoff man in the league. The average Gostkowski kickoff that was returned ended up at the 21.5-yard line. The NFL's average returned kickoff ended up at the 24.8-yard line. Only Detroit's Sam Martin was better than Gostkowski in less than half as many attempts; meanwhile, the average return of a returnable Elliott kickoff went back to the 25.8-yard line. The Patriots also got better kickoff returns out of Dion Lewis than the Eagles got out of a committee of running backs, mostly Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner.
Punts are also an area where the Patriots have an advantage, although less of one. Neither team was particularly good or bad on punt returns this season, but the Patriots got better punts out of Ryan Allen than the Eagles got out of Donnie Jones and better punt coverage as well
Note that one of those bad Eagles special teams games gets a bit of an asterisk, since the Eagles had to use linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill on second-half kickoffs against Dallas in Week 11. But Elliott was still kicking when the Eagles' coverage allowed a 61-yard kick return to Ryan Switzer in the first quarter.
There are some fun coincidences that tie the Patriots 2001-2004 Super Bowl run with their 2014-2017 Super Bowl run. In both runs, the Patriots started out by defeating an NFC West champion trying to win its second Super Bowl. Then, after a year off, the Patriots defeated an NFC South champion trying to win its first Super Bowl. Finally, both the 2004 Patriots and the 2017 Patriots took on the Philadelphia Eagles in what looked like the last dance for the current coaching staff. Both coordinators left the Patriots after the 2004 season, and both coordinators will leave the Patriots after Super Bowl LII concludes. (For a good bit of nostalgia, check out our Super Bowl XXXIX preview, written back when Football Outsiders was less than two years old.)
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There's another similarity, one to watch for if (when?) this game is close in the fourth quarter. The 2004 Eagles were coached by Andy Reid. The 2017 Eagles are coached by Reid disciple Doug Pederson. The 2004 Eagles are infamous for a long, extended Super Bowl comeback drive that took way too much time off the clock. Doug Pederson is infamous for playcalling as Kansas City's offensive coordinator on a long, extended comeback drive in the 2015 playoffs against the Patriots. It took way too much time off the clock. Pederson has done a lot right as head coach of the Eagles. He's adapted his offense to the backup quarterback, he put together a brilliant game plan that eviscerated the Vikings two weeks ago, and we all love how aggressive he is on fourth-and-short. Nonetheless, Eagles fans have reason to be scared of the clock management if this game is close at the end.
Tom Brady is trying to do a lot of special things in this Super Bowl. He's trying to become the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, at age 40. He's trying to become the first player in NFL history to win six Super Bowls. He's trying to become the first quarterback to lead the league in passing yards and win a Super Bowl in the same season. But what the Eagles are trying to do is even more special. They're trying to bring Philadelphia its first Super Bowl championship and its NFL title since 1960. Foles is trying to complete his 1990 Jeff Hostetler-esque run, and this team can learn something from the last three Super Bowl winners for the rival Giants. The 1990 Giants held the ball for over 40 minutes in Super Bowl XXV, keeping Jim Kelly and the Bills on the sidelines. When the Giants beat the Patriots in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, they had long drives and limited Brady to nine possessions each time. In 2017, the Eagles led the league in time of possession margin, and in the two playoff games they limited the Falcons and Vikings to nine possessions each.
For the Eagles to truly embrace the underdog role, they should try to shorten this game with a steady diet of high-percentage throws. Do not abandon the run, and winning on third down is a must. The Patriots will want to do the opposite: sling the ball around, hurry things up, and prevent the Eagles from keeping fresh defensive personnel on the field. Our numbers say that a Philadelphia upset in this year's Super Bowl is roughly as likely as an Atlanta upset in last year's Super Bowl, and you may remember that we came pretty close to getting that upset. A Philadelphia upset on Sunday is more likely than a Philadelphia upset was back in Super Bowl XXXIX, and that game finished within a field goal. The Patriots are rightly favored here, but since this is another New England Super Bowl, a close finish may be inevitable.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets three charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive, defensive, and special teams DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games.