By Michael David Smith
After the Eagles took the Patriots down to the wire in a Sunday night game that just about everyone thought would be a blowout, the talk around the league this week is whether the Eagles provided a blueprint for how to play against the Patriots, and whether that blueprint is something other teams will follow to beat the team that has looked unbeatable.
To find out, I re-watched every play of the Patriots-Eagles game, keeping an eye out for plays on which the Eagles showed a schematic advantage that other teams might be able to replicate.
First, let's get this out of the way: The Patriots outplayed the Eagles on Sunday. That's the case whether you want to look at DVOA, yards, first downs, or that obscure statistic known as the scoreboard. No one is suggesting that the Eagles played a perfect game or unveiled some magic formula that leads to an automatic victory over the mighty Patriots.
But the Eagles did play a close game against a team that hasn't had to face many close games. And they may have done some things that can tell us how other teams can play the Patriots close, and maybe get a few breaks late in a close game and actually win.
Although the Eagles' offense was the main reason that Philadelphia stayed in the game, let's start with the defense. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said after the game that his unit's No. 1 goal all week had been to find ways to prevent Patriots receiver Randy Moss from getting any big plays, and on that count, the Eagles succeeded. Moss had 43 receiving yards and 8.6 yards per catch, both his lowest marks in a Patriot uniform.
So how did they do it? True double coverage is very rare in the NFL, but the Eagles were about as close to double covering Moss as NFL defenses get. They basically always had a cornerback lined up in press coverage on Moss, bumping him at the line of scrimmage, and one of the safeties, either Brian Dawkins or J.R. Reed, would almost always provide help up top on Moss. The safeties kept Moss in front of them, and that kept Moss from breaking big plays.
A good example of the way the Eagles played Moss came on a first-and-10 late in the first quarter. The Patriots had trips to the left with Moss lined up as the middle receiver and running back Kevin Faulk lined up as the wide receiver. The Eagles sent linebacker Takeo Spikes all the way out to the sideline one-on-one with Faulk, which is a mismatch in the Patriots' favor. But it was a mismatch the Eagles were willing to live with because it allowed cornerback Sheldon Brown to match up with Moss, whereas if Brown had gone out to cover the widest receiver, as cornerbacks usually do, Moss would have had a mismatch on the inside. Surprisingly, Tom Brady threw to Moss instead of trying to find Faulk downfield, and the pass was incomplete. The Eagles made it clear all day that they were willing to give up some mismatches in exchange for the ability to stop Moss, and on that play, it worked.
Of course, there were plenty of plays when it didn't work. By devoting so much attention to Moss, the Eagles were undermanned against Jabar Gaffney and Wes Welker, both of whom had very good games. (Although Welker got more media attention and had bigger traditional numbers, Gaffney actually had a more productive game.)
One thing that's often overlooked in discussions about this great Patriots offense is that Moss isn't the team's only big-play receiver. The Patriots' other deep threat, Donte' Stallworth, is quietly having a very good season, and the Eagles did basically the same thing to stop Stallworth that they did to stop Moss: They got physical and kept him in front of the secondary. That worked against Stallworth on every play except one, when Sheldon Brown missed a tackle and allowed Stallworth to turn a short completion into a 31-yard gain.
Overall, Brady completed 19 of 23 passes for 236 yards to Gaffney and Welker, but just nine of 19 passes for 97 yards to Moss and Stallworth. That might lead some to conclude that there's no point in selling out to stop Moss and Stallworth because you're just going to get beaten by Gaffney or Welker. But the fact is, Moss and Stallworth are more dangerous than Gaffney and Welker. A game plan that leaves Gaffney and Welker open isn't ideal, but it's better than one that allows Moss to dominate the game.
On the other side of the ball, if I were an offensive coordinator getting ready to play against the Patriots I would plan a healthy dose of passes to the tight end. That's backed up both by the Patriots' DVOA vs. types of receivers (the Patriots are better than average in covering all types of receivers except tight ends) and by my observations in watching the tape of the Eagles game. Philadelphia tight end L.J. Smith didn't have a huge game -- three catches for 46 yards -- but his catches went for 17, 11 and 18 yards, and he excelled against Patriots safety Rodney Harrison in coverage.
A.J. Feeley's best pass to a tight end came in the second quarter, when Patriots safety James Sanders was on top of Eagles tight end Matt Schobel, but Feeley dropped the ball beautifully into Schobel's hands. It was poor coverage by Sanders that I'm sure the Patriots' future opponents will notice when watching film, but it was such a well executed route by Schobel and such a well thrown ball by Feeley that I'm not sure it's really a replicable play for other teams to use. (And yes, I realize it sounds ridiculous to say an A.J. Feeley-to-Matt Schobel pass was so well executed that other teams wouldn't be able to pull it off, but it was just one of those plays.)
Teams can run on the Patriots, but they have to pick their spots carefully. On a first-and-10 on the Eagles' second drive, Harrison crept up toward the line of scrimmage just before the snap, becoming the eighth man in the box, and when Feeley handed off to running back Brian Westbrook (who ran straight at Harrison), the play never had a chance. Harrison tackled him for a loss of two. Feeley should have called an audible when he saw Harrison become the eighth player in the box, because it was obvious that the play wasn't going to work.
Harrison has had a long and distinguished career, and he's still very strong against the run when he's the eighth man in the box, but he isn't as fast as he used to be and he struggles against the pass. With Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin out for the season after a foot injury he suffered against the Eagles, it might make sense for the Patriots to use more schemes in which Harrison plays as a hybrid linebacker/safety, which would continue to take advantage of his skills against the run but not require quite as much from him in pass coverage.
Harrison is effective on safety blitzes, but on a third-and-8 pass, Feeley made the Patriots pay for sending Harrison at him. When Harrison blitzed from Feeley's right, Feeley stood in the pocket, looked right in the area Harrison came from, and hit Greg Lewis for a gain of 27. Harrison drilled Feeley as he threw the pass, but it was a big play for the Eagles.
Lewis had more big plays. On third-and-7 on the Eagles' second drive, Lewis lined up in the slot and Patriots cornerback Randall Gay lined up about eight yards off him. At the snap Lewis just ran straight ahead -- nothing fancy at all about the route -- but Gay backpedaled, creating a huge hole in the secondary. Although there were four Patriots in the general vicinity, all of them seemed more focused on not getting beaten deep than on stopping the completion, and Feeley found Lewis for an easy 15 yards.
Lewis was the beneficiary of another play on which the Patriots gave him way too much room to operate late in the second quarter. He scored a touchdown on the play when he and Reggie Brown both lined up on the right side of the field and both ran posts, and Gay again gave him too much room to operate. Feeley's touchdown toss was an easy game of pitch-and-catch, and watching Lewis make those plays, I couldn't help but think that other NFL wide receivers are licking their chops at the prospect of playing against Gay.
The most important part of the Eagles' offensive success may have been their pass protection. Feeley threw 42 passes and was sacked only once, on a play when he slipped to the turf while setting up to pass. One of the keys to the Eagles' pass protection was having Westbrook chip the defensive end or outside linebacker before running his route. On a first-and-10 late in the first quarter, Westbrook got an excellent chip on Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas, which both gave Feeley extra time and allowed Westbrook to sell the play as if he were staying in to block. After hitting Thomas, Westbrook ran just a few steps, turned around, caught a short pass from Feeley and picked up 13 yards.
Just as the Eagles' defensive game plan was clearly based on taking Moss out of the game, the Patriots' defensive game plan was primarily about taking Brian Westbrook out of the game. Feeley learned that the hard way on the first possession. On third-and-3, Westbrook was flanked as the Eagles' outside receiver on the right sideline, and he ran his route directly in front of the first-down marker. Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, however, was sitting on the route, and knew he could take a chance because he had safety help behind him. Samuel easily stepped in front of the pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown.
That was Feeley's big early mistake. His big late mistake was throwing to Kevin Curtis in the end zone on a slant-and-go that Samuel saw coming a mile away and intercepted easily. I really can't imagine why Feeley threw a ball 30 yards downfield when that was exactly the kind of play the Patriots had been gearing up to stop all night, and when the Eagles were having so much success on intermediate routes.
But in between those two big mistakes, the Eagles had an outstanding game plan, one that other teams might try to imitate.