Eagles vs. Patriots: Full New England Game Preview
The New England Patriots may have taken their first loss of the season last Sunday against the Denver Broncos, but it looks as though they escaped with their championship hopes still intact. Though knee injuries to both Rob Gronkowski and Dont'a Hightower against the Broncos had the potential to submarine the Patriots' Super Bowl dreams, it looks as though both cornerstone players should be back in short order.
For a team with its eyes fixed squarely on January and February, that bit of long-term news is a huge plus. However, the Patriots do have some important short-term goals to meet now that their lead for home-field advantage in the AFC has been trimmed to one game. Facing a reeling Philadelphia Eagles squad in Foxborough at Gillette Stadium, even a depleted Pats squad doesn't have many excuses this week.
The Eagles sure look like a team that has quit on head coach Chip Kelly's eccentric regime the past two weeks, losing to a pair of sub-.500 teams by a combined score of 90-31. But Philadelphia still has talent throughout its roster, and despite a woeful 4-7 record, it sits just a single game back of Washington, the division leader in the wretched NFC East.
Thus, the Patriots will need a focused and more complete effort than they delivered last Sunday night at Denver. Read on for a full analysis of how New England can rebound and hang on to the top seed in the AFC in Week 13. The Patriots take on the Eagles on Sunday, and kickoff is at 4:25 p.m. ET on Fox.
Week 12 Results and Recap
AFC East Standings
For the first 50 minutes, the Patriots went about their business as usual and appeared they would once again overcome a spate of injuries to remain unbeaten. However, a defensive collapse and poor situational offensive execution allowed the Broncos to storm back, as Denver overcame a 14-point deficit over the final two minutes and won the game in overtime, 30-24.
Tom Brady was in control against Denver's man-oriented coverages for most of the game, finishing with three touchdowns to no interceptions and gashing the Broncos' vaunted defense for big plays.
When Brandon Bolden's 63-yard score put the Pats up 21-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, New England appeared safe. However, Brady went just 10-of-24 for 174 yards in the second half, as over a third of his yardage came on that one Bolden wheel route.
More distressingly, the defense collapsed against Denver's zone-stretch running scheme when Dont'a Hightower left the game. The linebacker trio of Jonathan Freeny, Jerod Mayo and Darius Fleming failed to consistently identify gaps to shoot and was often down-blocked by Denver offensive linemen.
The Pats ended up conceding 5.6 yards per carry on the evening, including C.J. Anderson's game-winning 48-yard sprint to the house.
The takeaways from this game shouldn't be too distressing, as better health would have given the Patriots the personnel necessary to take away Denver's rushing attack and exploit some of the Broncos' questionable coverage tactics.
Even so, New England will rue the missed opportunity to put a stranglehold on the conference's top seed, having blown its largest fourth-quarter lead since the infamous "4th-and-2" game against the Indianapolis Colts from 2009.
News and Notes
Gronkowski Opens Up About Injury
Though this technically falls under injury news, Rob Gronkowski warrants his own mention in this section. Speaking in a Bleacher Report "Uninterrupted" feature, Gronkowski suggested he would refrain from coming back until he was 100 percent.
The joint statement he released with the Patriots also announced he had a bone bruise and a mild sprain, which is a far better diagnosis than most expected when the injury first occurred.
Thinking ahead, the Patriots' margin for error in the race for home-field advantage shrunk significantly with the loss to Denver. Football Outsiders' playoff odds peg the situation as a coin flip, giving New England a 50.1 percent chance of earning the AFC's top seed.
That's still far higher than any other AFC squad—the Cincinnati Bengals are next at 27.6 percent—but it only conservatively estimates the effect a missing Gronk would have on the offense.
The actual odds will fall much lower if New England trips up at home this week. Road games against the wild-card-contending Houston Texans and New York Jets are the trickiest remaining games on the schedule, and if Gronkowski can play without incurring significant additional risk to his health, it might make sense to bring him back for the road trip to Houston in Week 14.
Patriots Draw Demoted Officiating Crew
New England has had a rough time with referees the past two weeks. Thus, more than a few eyebrows were raised when the NFL demoted Pete Morelli's crew from this week's Sunday Night Football game and reassigned it to the Patriots-Eagles contest. Morelli's crew drew heavy criticism for committing a bevy of errors and delaying the pace of the Arizona Cardinals-San Francisco 49ers game last Sunday.
After consecutive debacles with the zebras, the Patriots would seem to have less tolerance than most teams at the moment for shoddy officiating. However, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, New England head coach Bill Belichick came to Morelli's defense and argued the Pats have had no issues with his crews in the past:
It's not anything we have any control over. We've had Pete's crew twice this year already and really haven't had any problems with them -- once in preseason, once in the regular season. I thought in terms of the communication and all the things on the field, there wasn't an issue with them.
It's too facile to say the officials were the primary reason for the Patriots' Week 12 loss, as there was a team-wide breakdown during the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter and into overtime. Still, for a team that hasn't caught many breaks over the past month, an error-free game from the referees would be a nice starting point as the Pats try to pick up steam down the stretch.
Damaris Johnson an Underrated Addition
Roster moves are mostly academic at this point of the season, with coaches shuffling around the bottom of the roster based on injuries and week-to-week needs. However, the Patriots may have snagged a useful December addition in fourth-year slot receiver Damaris Johnson.
Per CSNNE.com's Phil Perry, Belichick suggested Johnson's familiarity with New England's system from his time in Houston could help him make a quicker transition into the offense:
He’s done a number of different things. Has some versatility offensively and played at different positions, returned kicks. Was at Houston, so hopefully there’s some familiarity with our offensive system and what we do. A little bit of carryover when you bring a guy in the middle of the season, not that that’s an overriding factor, but it certainly doesn’t hopefully hurt. Hopefully it helps, I’d say, his versatility and his experience.
Johnson will probably become the team's kick returner, given Danny Amendola's shaky health and the release of Chris Harper. Of course, Harper's muffed punt was the game-changing moment in the Denver loss, and in inking Johnson, Belichick is surely hoping to avoid a similarly costly gaffe from an unheralded contributor in the future.
As Houston's slot receiver last year, Johnson compiled 331 yards on 31 receptions and averaged 22.7 yards per kick return. Though he's not going to change the complexion of New England's season, he adds experience and familiarity—sorely needed assets at this point—to the Patriots' offensive depth chart.
Latest Injury News
We've already covered Gronk, but he wasn't the only significant starter lost. Just like Gronkowski, Hightower has received the ambiguous week-to-week label after suffering a sprained MCL against Denver.
His exit undeniably changed the course of the game, as Denver was able to recapture an offensive balance, which alleviated the pressure on Brock Osweiler once Hightower's injury freed up the Broncos' running game:
Broncos rushing stats before Hightower injury: 15 carries, 43 yards. Broncos after Hightower injury: 17 carries, 136 yards, 3 TD.— Kevin Duffy (@KevinRDuffy) November 30, 2015
New England should receive one of its starting linebackers back just in time (more on that below), but Hightower's injury is a frustrating setback for a defense that was about to become healthy along the front seven.
The defense will survive his absence—remember, Hightower already missed one game earlier this season with a rib injury—but it's a suboptimal outcome for a team that needs to rely on its defense over the next couple of weeks.
The Patriots apparently suffered a third injury to a starter against the Broncos, but no one knew about Easley until he failed to practice Wednesday. Not much is currently known, except that the official injury report lists Easley with an ankle injury.
If he needs to miss any time, the Patriots do have solid defensive line depth. Rookie Geneo Grissom, who played an interior sub-package rushing role earlier this season, would likely see an increase in snaps in the event that Easley is limited or needs to sit out against Philadelphia.
However, his absence would not be inconsequential. Pro Football Focus rates Easley first among all defensive tackles in pass-rushing productivity, just ahead of Geno Atkins. Though he's had just two sacks, he's also generated 32 total pressures in just 200 pass-rushing snaps. For the short term, Easley's status is the most important one to watch ahead of Week 13.
Danny Amendola and Jamie Collins
Rare is the occasion when the Patriots receive good injury news, but it looks like part of the cavalry is on its way back. Amendola and Collins, who both missed the Broncos game, have been limited participants in practice this week after missing practices last week. As such, one would expect them to return to their normal starting roles this Sunday.
How Collins will perform is a huge mystery, given that his illness apparently caused significant loss of weight and strength, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Collins has likely been building up his body and stamina, but there's still no substitute for actual football. The best-case scenario sees him return to his havoc-wreaking three-down form by the end of the season, though that might be a stretch for this week.
Amendola's return would arrive not a moment too soon after Gronkowski's injury. The Pats would likely employ more 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) with his return to the lineup, as New England moved away from two-tight end sets at the end of the Broncos game without Gronk. Needless to say, Amendola figures to see a heavy volume of targets for the foreseeable future.
Cedric Thornton and Walter Thurmond
The reeling Philadelphia defense suffered two more casualties during its Thanksgiving humiliation against the Detroit Lions. Defensive end Cedric Thornton and safety Walter Thurmond, steady veterans who are unquestioned starters, both missed Wednesday's practice. Thornton was listed with an ankle injury, while Thurmond drew injury designations for both his calf and hamstring.
Thurmond's potential absence could be more damaging, especially given that starting cornerback Nolan Carroll suffered a season-ending broken ankle against the Lions. Rookie Eric Rowe struggled in place of Carroll, and Thurmond's absence would force reserve Chris Maragos into the lineup and further thin an already-faltering secondary.
*For the full injury report visit Patriots.com.
Patriots Linebackers vs. Eagles Offensive Line
We might as well pick up with the type of matchup that sunk the Patriots last week. Like the Broncos, the Eagles will run lots of outside zone-rushing plays, though Philadelphia does so exclusively from shotgun, while Denver did so with multi-tight end looks from under center.
The personnel groupings and run fits will be different, but the keys for the Patriots are the same: Maintain gap integrity along the line and find gaps to prevent the running back from reaching the second level.
Anyone who has heard anything about the Eagles this season will know about the handwringing surrounding DeMarco Murray's woeful first season in Philly. The big free-agent ticket has slumped badly in a vastly different run scheme from what he enjoyed in Dallas, as the 27-year-old is averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry this season. Moreover, he has been held under 40 yards rushing four different times, an illustration of how boom-or-bust he's been in 2015.
The Eagles are not a difficult rushing team to figure out, as their film analysts have pointed out again and again. The Patriots should be well-drilled this week, so simple execution of the fundamentals could make Philly a one-dimensional offense.
Sebastian Vollmer and Shaq Mason vs. Fletcher Cox
The Eagles defensive line is an underrated strength of this team, as the trio of Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton is much more disruptive than most 3-4 defensive lines. Cox is the jewel of that bunch with 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and numerous disruptive plays in the backfield this season.
Cox lines up exclusively on the right side of the line but will rush from both perimeter and interior gaps depending on what Philadelphia does with its outside linebacker on that side (usually Connor Barwin or Brandon Graham).
Vollmer and Mason played nearly wire-to-wire on the left side of the line against the Broncos—Mason rotated out for 16 plays, while Vollmer stayed in the whole game—so those two will likely draw Cox on the majority of New England's offensive plays.
If the Patriots hope to maintain better run-pass balance in this game, blocking Cox on early downs might be just as important as stymieing his pass rush. When possible, expect the Pats to devote extra attention to Philly's best defensive lineman.
Danny Amendola vs. Malcolm Jenkins or E.J. Biggers
Assuming Amendola is able to return from the knee sprain that kept him out one week, he should face a favorable matchup in Week 13. The Eagles have played reserve cornerback E.J. Biggers in the slot the past two games after using safety Malcolm Jenkins in that role the majority of the season, but either way, Amendola should hold the upper hand.
Pro Football Focus tracks a statistic called cover snaps per reception, which measures how often a defensive back allows a catch based on how often he drops into coverage. Based on that stat, both Biggers and Jenkins have been among the 10 worst slot corners in the league this season. Biggers in particular has hemorrhaged yardage, allowing 1.51 yards per cover snap from the slot, the fourth-worst mark in the league.
The Pats would likely be happy to see Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis retain the status quo and play Biggers in on Sunday. If that occurs, expect Amendola to pick up where he left off in Week 11 as Tom Brady's favorite target in the passing game.
Patriots X-Factor of the Week: Jonathan Freeny
A relatively anonymous offseason signing, Freeny has turned into an every-down player for the past month because of Jamie Collins' illness. Now with Dont'a Hightower temporarily sidelined, Freeny's unexpected emergence as an integral linchpin in the Pats defense should continue for another week or two.
Any linebacker who plays against Philadelphia needs to be mobile in space, as the Eagles' offensive philosophy is grounded in the notion that a defense that needs to cover more ground is more vulnerable. Consequently, look for Chip Kelly to isolate Murray and Darren Sproles on Freeny as often as possible on passing downs.
Sproles in particular has split out wide as a slot receiver on numerous occasions this season, which could test New England's man-coverage principles. Freeny's performance against the run has been solid this year, and that aspect of his game will remain critical against the Eagles. However, watch to see how much help New England provides him in the passing game, especially if Collins returns this week.
Eagles X-Factor of the Week: Lane Johnson
Depending on the status of the aforementioned Jason Peters, Lane Johnson may once again fill in on the blind side. Johnson has struggled away from his customary right tackle spot, conceding three sacks and five hits while playing the spot in three of the past four weeks, per PFF's charting.
Chandler Jones has gone sackless in his past two games, but he did have an interception and forced fumble against Denver last week. Jones and Jabaal Sheard, who also received time at right defensive end, should have plenty of juicy pass-rushing opportunities if Johnson ends up starting his third game of the season at left tackle.
Johnson will also be critical for sealing off New England's edge defenders in the running game. Philadelphia will typically have its interior lineman pull and lead the perimeter path, which requires tackles such as Johnson to keep edge defenders from disrupting the timing of the pull blockers. Against New England's corps of defensive ends, Johnson and reserve right tackle Dennis Kelly could experience their share of struggles.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Eagles 17
Even a motivated Patriots squad seems unlikely to totally wipe out Philadelphia, if only due to the personnel deficiencies. With Gronkowski's status in doubt Sunday, the offense could struggle even with Amendola's potential return, at least for one week.
Still, the perseverance New England demonstrated in a highly adverse situation at Denver is almost the complete inverse of how the Eagles have folded up the past two weeks. On paper, Philadelphia probably possesses the superior squad at the moment if we assume the Pats play it cautious with Gronk and sit him out for the week. And yet, the chasm in mental toughness between the teams seems far larger.
The Patriots might have just enough in the way of reinforcements if Collins and Amendola can return for Hightower and Gronkowski. Moreover, it's important not to discount the coaching advantage New England holds, as Philadelphia's increasingly predictable schematic and personnel patterns could spell trouble against Belichick.
Maybe that turns out to be wishful thinking if a suddenly motivated Eagles team retakes control of its postseason fate. The more likely scenario, however, sees the Patriots bounce back from their first defeat and restore order to the Foxborough universe.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Eagles 17