Chris Simms' Super Bowl Matchups to Watch

Chris Simms@@CSimmsQBNFL Lead AnalystFebruary 1, 2018

Chris Simms' Super Bowl Matchups to Watch

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    I've been saying since before the season started that the New England Patriots were going to be in Super Bowl LII. There have been plenty of reasons for this—like the team's stellar offseason moves, its quality roster and, of course, the presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

    Don't get things confused, though; the Philadelphia Eagles are going to be the more talented team on the field this Sunday. From top to bottom, they have the better players and the better roster. What gives New England an edge heading into the big game—and has given them an edge all year long—is what happens behind the scenes with the coaching staff.

    I spent a year with the New England coaching staff, and I know how Belichick and Co. operate. When my coaching friends in the NFL ask me what makes New England's preparation different, they usually don't like my answer. New England's coaches simply outwork everyone else day after day, week after week and all year long.

    There isn't a secret to the Patriots' success. They win on the field because the coaching staff wins before the games ever take place.

    If talent alone won games, the Patriots would have fallen to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. I've never seen a more blatant talent disparity in a conference title game than I saw between the Jaguars and the Patriots.

    Hard work, proper preparation and successful execution are just as important in games as raw talent. And when all of these things start to balance out, games come down to the individual matchups.

    Super Bowl LII is going to be a game of matchups, and whichever team figures out how to exploit the right ones is going to win. These are my most important matchups to watch for heading into Super Bowl Sunday.

New England's Game Plan vs. Philadelphia's RPOs

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    We've seen the run-pass option (RPO) become increasingly popular in the NFL this season. Much of the Eagles' offensive success has been predicated on the RPO, especially in the postseason and with Nick Foles under center.

    Foles is obviously comfortable with RPO concepts—he used them in college and while playing for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia—and the Eagles have put more RPO calls into the playbook for him. The RPO has allowed Foles to get into a rhythm early in games because it creates easy throws for him. He can identify a matchup he likes and simply hand the ball off if there isn't one there.

    Defending the RPO is tough against the Eagles because their run game is so dominant. Teams start moving defenders closer to the line in order to slow it, and that opens up holes for easy completions by Foles.

    How Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia decide to attack the RPO will be a big key to this game, and I'll be watching the game plan closely early on.

    The Eagles have done a tremendous job of successfully running RPO plays on first down in the postseason. This often leaves them in 2nd-and-short situations, and it makes the overall offensive game plan easier. If the Patriots want to win defensively in Super Bowl LII, they need to slow the RPO and put Philadelphia in more 2nd-and-longs.

    I expect New England to utilize its hybrid defenders to block off easy throwing lanes on RPO plays. The Patriots don't have the size on the defensive line they've had in years past, but they have some athletic defensive end-linebacker hybrids—like James Harrison and Marquis Flowers—who can play at the line and drop out into coverage after the snap. By changing up which defenders are doing so, the Patriots can make it difficult for Foles to make a decision before the snap.

    If Foles sees a lot of guys at the line, he'll be hesitant to run the ball. Belichick and Patricia can then counter by dropping different defenders into coverage to stop the pass. This could evolve into one of the most important move-and-countermove matchups of the entire game.

Eagles Offensive Line vs. Patriots' Interior Defenders

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    I've already mentioned the fact that the Patriots don't have the size on their defensive line they've enjoyed during past Super Bowl campaigns. However, they do still have some quality run-stuffers on the interior in Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Alan Branch—although Branch has yet to appear in the postseason.

    Usually, the Patriots have more than three large run-stoppers, but this is a rare year where New England just isn't as big on defense. Ricky Jean Francois will be part of the rotation, of course, but Brown, Guy and especially Branch will be who I have my eyes on early.

    The Eagles have one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the league. Not only can it win with straight-ahead power, but it also can win in space. Philadelphia's linemen are an athletic group that can make the horizontal run game effective as well.

    The Patriots will need their interior linemen to hold their own against the run in order to avoid putting extra defensive resources into the box. New England cannot afford to get caught selling out against the run the way the Minnesota Vikings did in the NFC title game.

    A healthy return by Branch could have the biggest impact on this matchup because Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks is one of the most powerful linemen in the game. Between Brooks and center Jason Kelce, the Eagles can really open some holes inside. The size, physicality and experience of Branch can help counter that, provided he's back to 100 percent.

    Branch has been plugging holes for more than a decade, and he can really make a mess of things on the interior. He was a big part of New England's defensive success last season as well as this season (when healthy).

    If the Patriots cannot slow the run without bringing extra help, the Eagles are going to have a much easier time executing RPOs and hitting big plays off of play action.

Patriots' Defensive Game Plan vs. Eagles' Three-TE Sets

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    Another way the Eagles can create easy throws for Foles is by utilizing three-tight-end sets. Because the Philadelphia run game is so good—it was ranked third in the regular season with an average of 132.2 yards per game—defenses tend to key in on it when Brent Celek, Trey Burton and Zach Ertz are on the field at the same time.

    Defenses usually want to get bigger against three-tight-end sets because most teams are going to try to overpower them with the run. However, Philadelphia's tight ends—particularly Burton and Ertz—are legitimate receiving threats and have to be treated like receivers. This makes it harder to guess what Philadelphia is going to do, and if a defense guesses wrong, big plays for the Eagles often follow.

    Along with the RPO, the three-tight-end set haunted the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

    Where are the Patriots going to draw the line between getting big and playing the pass? My guess is that Belichick will risk giving up a five-yard run before he'll want to bring in extra linebackers or linemen and risk getting beaten by a long play-action pass. Obviously, though, down and distance will impact his decision-making.

    We may see some nickel formations against the three-tight-end set on 2nd-and-long, but Belichick and Patricia may go ahead and get big if the Eagles trot the formation out on a 3rd-and-short.

    The Patriots have often burned teams by passing out of multiple-tight-end sets during their Super Bowl runs. Now, it's their turn to try defending it. This is an under-the-radar schematic matchup, but one I'll be very interested to follow throughout the game.

Eagles Wideouts vs. Patriots Cornerbacks

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    The threats of Philadelphia's run game and tight ends open up lots of one-on-one opportunities for wide receivers like Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery. Fortunately for New England, though, the Patriots have the cornerbacks who can win one-on-one matchups more often than not.

    There isn't a team in the NFL that asks more of its top three corners—Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe—in man coverage than the Patriots. These three will play almost exclusively in man assignments, which allows the Patriots to have a lot of flexibility in the front seven and on the back end.

    If the Eagles are going to win this game, I think they'll need to definitively win one of their matchups against New England's top corners.

    The Patriots know they aren't great at stopping the run. They're going to want the freedom to commit more resources against the run, but if one of their cornerbacks starts needing help, that freedom goes out the window.

    If the game ends and a couple Eagles receivers have combined for 15 catches and 180 yards, I'd be willing to bet the scoreboard has Philadelphia as the winner. This will mean New England was forced to put a lot of resources toward stopping the run, and the Eagles were able to create big plays in the pass game as a result.

    If, however, Butler and Co. can hold their own and limit big plays on the outside, it's going to be hard for Philly to keep pace with New England's offensive output.

Rob Gronkowski vs. Malcolm Jenkins

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    Assuming he's back and near 100 percent, tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to be a major factor on Super Bowl Sunday. The Eagles are going to have to figure out how to stop him if they're going to win defensively.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars used safety Tashaun Gipson to limit Gronk's release off the line, and the strategy was effective more often than not. I believe the Eagles will use a similar game plan with safety Malcolm Jenkins shadowing Gronkowski from up close.

    Playing tight man coverage is something Jenkins has done successfully throughout his career—even back when he was with the New Orleans Saints—and he's going to be comfortable with this matchup.

    What makes Jenkins so special is the fact he can cover like a slot corner as well as play a physical role like an additional in-the-box linebacker. He can hang with tight ends and running backs in space, and he can come up and provide excellent run support when needed.

    Jenkins is going to need to utilize his entire skill set to slow Gronkowski. Stopping him completely is probably out of the question, but making sure he doesn't turn mid-range catches into long plays will be key.

    If Jenkins and the Eagles can hold Gronkowski to five or six catches and fewer than 80 yards, I think there's a good chance we'll be looking up and seeing Philadelphia ahead on the scoreboard. Jenkins limiting Gronkowski by himself will allow defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to put other resources toward covering running backs out of the backfield.

    If Gronk is able to draw double coverage while also breaking loose and turning those five or six catches into 120 yards, it will mean the Patriots are doing exactly what they want to do offensively.

Ronald Darby vs. Brandin Cooks

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    One reason the Patriots offense has been so unstoppable this season is the aforementioned use of running backs in the passing game. If guys like Gronkowski and receiver Brandin Cooks are able to draw double coverage downfield, Brady is able to get the ball to his backs for medium-sized gains more often than not.

    This is why limiting Gronk is so important for the Eagles' defensive game plan. The same is true with Cooks, who has been Brady's biggest deep threat this season. When the Patriots have opposing defenses worrying about Cooks' deep-strike capability, those underneath running back routes start getting more and more open space—especially against a zone defense.

    Philadelphia won't play tons of man, but it's going to have to from time to time in order to change up its defensive looks. If Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are seeing the same thing all game long, they're going to begin carving up Philadelphia's defense.

    I expect to see the Eagles put cornerback Ronald Darby on Cooks in man-to-man situations.

    That man coverage will likely come on third down, and Philadelphia is going to have to ask Darby to be on an island against Cooks in those situations. This will allow the Eagles defense to focus more on protecting the sticks, and it will potentially allow them to double-team Gronkowski.

    As is the case with Gronkowski and Jenkins, Darby won't be asked to shut down Cooks by himself on every play. If he is able to every so often, though, it will give schematic flexibility to Schwartz. If the Eagles are forced to keep a safety over the top all game long, Schwartz will consistently be limited in the coverages he can call.

Cameron Fleming vs. Eagles Defensive Ends

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    Cameron Fleming wasn't the Patriots' original starter at right tackle this season. He eventually replaced Marcus Cannon, however, and has done a solid job in the starting role since.

    Solid isn't going to be good enough against a dangerous and versatile Eagles pass rush.

    Fleming struggled in the AFC title game against Jacksonville's pass rush, primarily against guys like Dante Fowler Jr. coming off the edge. He's going to face a similar challenge this week.

    Philadelphia's defensive line isn't quite as good as Jacksonville's, but it's close. The Eagles line is also very deep, and I expect Fleming to see a rotating group of guys rushing against him in passing situations. Schwartz is going to allow guys like Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Derek Barnett to take turns against Fleming until he finds out which one gives his defense the best matchup.

    The Patriots don't like to help out their tackles much, so those one-on-one opportunities are going to be there for Philadelphia's defensive ends most of the game.

    Once the Eagles have figured out which defensive end can exploit Fleming the most, they're going to hammer the matchup home. This is exactly what Philadelphia did against the Minnesota Vikings once it figured out that Long had Rashod Hill's number.

    This is a matchup I'm going to be watching early because it's going to be critical by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. If there's an Eagles defensive end consistently whipping Fleming's butt when the game is tight, it's either going to force the Patriots to adjust and provide help, or it's going to wreck their offense entirely.

Eagles Linebackers vs. Lewis, White and Amendola

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    As I've already mentioned, the key to slowing the Patriots offense is limiting the underneath throws to running backs like James White and Dion Lewis. Limiting throws over the middle to wideout Danny Amendola will also be extremely important on Sunday.

    This is going to place a ton of pressure on Eagles linebackers, including Mychal Kendricks, Nigel Bradham and Najee Goode.

    One of the few flaws of the Eagles' defensive scheme is that it can leave linebackers exposed in one-on-one situations in the middle of the field. If there's any sort of communication issue when those situations arise, we often see big plays from the opposing offense.

    This is precisely what happened on Minnesota's lone touchdown in the NFC Championship Game. Goode got turned around and left Kyle Rudolph wide open down the middle of the field for the score.

    The Eagles won't—or at least shouldn't—ask their linebackers to cover Gronkowski one-on-one, but they will put them in man situations against New England's backs and in zone situations over the middle against Amendola.

    The man situations will be tricky because of Lewis and White's ability to create separation and make guys miss in space. Zone situations will be just as tricky because Philadelphia's linebackers will have to adjust on the fly while passing off coverage over the middle.

    The Patriots are going to see on film that teams have crossed the Eagles up with routes over the middle, and they're going to be ready to take advantage.

    There's no team in football that knows how to work the middle of the field with slot receivers and running backs better than New England. Philadelphia's linebackers are going to have their hands full protecting that middle.

    This is definitely going to be one of the biggest matchups of the game because so much of what New England wants to do on offense is predicated on working the middle of the field.


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