Can This Eagles Defense Contain Tom Brady and Patriots to Pull off Upset?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 29, 2018

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 21:  Jalen Mills #31 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates a first quarter touchdown by teammate Patrick Robinson (not pictured) against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Thus far, most of the national focus for Super Bowl LII has been on Tom Brady and Nick Foles. That's understandable; this game's quarterback matchup is compelling. Brady is the most decorated player in NFL history, while Foles is an intriguing, streaky backup playing his best football with little to lose. 

But as Super Bowl week officially gets underway, we'll start looking far beyond the quarterbacks—such as the Philadelphia Eagles defense versus Brady and the New England Patriots offense.

The good news for those hoping for a close game is that the underdog's D is on fire.

The Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings were the only teams to hold opponents to 10 or fewer points more than five times during the regular season. Philly has now accomplished that feat in back-to-back playoff games.

The Eagles surrendered only 17 points these playoffs, with seven of those coming on an 18-yard touchdown drive resulting from a muffed punt.

In fact, they haven't surrendered more than 10 points in any of their last four games, which makes them the first team this decade to accomplish that feat. That hasn't happened since the 2009 Denver Broncos opened the season with four consecutive games with 10 or fewer points allowed.

The Eagles are just the fourth team since the turn of the century to give up fewer than 20 points in their first two playoff games, joining the 2008 Baltimore Ravens, the 2006 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts and the 2002 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On paper, the Vikings and Jaguars are superior, but it's that hot streak that should terrify the Pats. When the Eagles are at their best defensively, they are dangerous.

Only the Ravens and Detroit Lions have more three-plus-takeaway games this season, and two of Philly's have come during this four-game hot streak.

They don't get a ton of sacksthey ranked in the middle of the pack with 38 during the regular seasonbut according to Pro Football Focus they generated more pressure this season than any other D in football.

Oh, and have I mentioned they had the league's top-ranked run defense during the regular season? The Eagles were the only team in the NFL to surrender fewer than 80 rushing yards per game, and they completely shut down Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray in their first two postseason outings.

It's no surprise that in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) at Football Outsiders, only the Eagles and Vikings ranked in the top seven against both the pass and run during the regular season.

The secondary was supposed to be this team's weak spot, but 30-year-old veterans Patrick Robinson (four picks and 18 passes defensed) and Malcolm Jenkins (two picks, 69 tackles and a Pro Bowl nod) had career years. New arrival Ronald Darby has been superb when healthy, and second-year corner Jalen Mills has improved immensely.

Robinson, Jenkins, Darby, Mills and safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Graham have a combined 19 interceptions this year.

That has made life a lot easier on a front seven led by perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and an ensemble cast of edge-rushers that includes Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and rookie Derek Barnett. Those four combined for 22.5 sacks to complement Cox, who also received plenty of help from run-stuffing interior defensive linemen Tim Jernigan and Beau Allen and stellar linebackers Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham.

Fletcher Cox has made the Pro Bowl three years in a row.
Fletcher Cox has made the Pro Bowl three years in a row.Abbie Parr/Getty Images

I just named 15 key players. Only 11 can be on the field at one time. That speaks volumes about Philly's depth and the wide variety of ways defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz utilizes his guys.

"He always puts us in great position to make plays," Jenkins said of Schwartz this week, per Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press.

Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar noted last offseason that when "Schwartz took over the Bills' defensive coordinator position in 2014, Buffalo's defense went from 20th in points allowed the year before to fourth in Schwartz's one season there. And when the Eagles hired him to replace Bill Davis as their defensive coordinator in 2016, that defense progressed from 28th in points allowed to 12th."

It climbed from 12th to fourth this season, with a strong finish indicating that unit still might not have peaked.

Farrar praised the "Wide 9" technique which Schwartz has mastered. The concept, which has defensive ends angling inward while rushing from the 9-gap far outside the tackles, frees up rushers to apply as much pressure as possible.

The drawbacks are that it forces rushers to run farther in order to contact the quarterback and that it can expose a defense on runs up the middle. But that explains why the Eagles have high pressure numbers and so-so sack numbers and why Schwartz doesn't use it on every down.

Jim Schwartz has gotten the most out of the Philly defense.
Jim Schwartz has gotten the most out of the Philly defense.Michael Perez/Associated Press

Of course, having Cox, Jernigan and Allen up the middle sure makes it easier to widen the defensive line without getting burned on the ground.

"When the defensive ends are aligned that far outside the tackles, it forces the tackles to fan out to block more quickly, eliminating the potential for those outside blockers to come back in to counter linebacker blitzes and defensive tackle stunts," Farrar wrote.

He continued: "Once the tackles are out there, they're committed. And when you can get consistent pressure with four linemen (which Schwartz prefers, as he's not generally a big proponent of the blitz), it allows your linebackers and defensive backs to affect coverage more clearly."

That sounds a lot like the accepted formula for how to beat Brady, which is to get as much natural four-man pressure as possible.

Obviously, everything Schwartz and his players have been doing has worked like a charm of late. Now, that defense will have to put together one more shiny performance against the best scheming team in pro football. Unlike the last four games, it must do it outside of Philadelphia.

As Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit notes, Philly had the seventh-largest drop in point differential from home to road games in 2017.

The Eagles gave up a league-low 12.4 points per game at Lincoln Financial Field this year, but that average rose to 23.5 in road games.

Although it should also be noted that three of their five three-plus turnover games and three of their six three-plus sack games have come on the road and that this game will be played at a neutral site.

If the defense can pretend it is at the Linc on Sunday and extend its current hot streak by another game, the Eagles will have a legitimate shot to win their first championship in nearly six decades.

       

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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