Can the New England Patriots Stop the Philadelphia Eagles' Pass Rush in Super Bowl LII?
As a team, the New England Patriots don't have many weaknesses. If they did, they wouldn't be playing for their third championship in the past four years. But that doesn't mean they're fully bulletproof. And one of those weaknesses could provide a glimmer of hope for the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
Back in Week 8, the Patriots' right tackle, Marcus Cannon, went down with an ankle injury that had been bothering him pretty much the entire year. He was eventually placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Although that may not seem impactful -- a right tackle certainly doesn't carry the same weight as a center or a left tackle -- it put a dent into the Patriots' abilities as an offense.
We can quantify this with the help of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), which is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and offenses. In this instance, we'll be looking at Sack NEP, which shows the number of expected points a team has lost throughout the year due to sacks (or how many additional points they would have scored had they not taken any sacks in that period of time). More specifically, we'll be viewing this on a per-drop back basis (Sack NEP per drop back) so as to account for volume.
Check out what the Patriots did with and without Cannon in the regular season. The "without" split also omits Week 3, a game which Cannon missed due to an earlier iteration of his ankle injury. The more negative a team's Sack NEP per drop back is, the worse they were at keeping their passer upright.
The Patriots were almost a completely different team when he wasn't out there.
|Patriots in 2017||Sack NEP per Drop Back||Sack Rate|
|With Marcus Cannon||-0.06||5.52%|
|Without Marcus Cannon||-0.11||5.83%|
For context, the Patriots were right in line with the league-average Sack NEP per drop back without Cannon. Conversely, a mark of -0.06 for the full season would have ranked third in the league. That's a pretty major falloff.
This didn't matter at all in the Divisional Round against the Tennessee Titans, who ranked 18th in Sack NEP per drop back on the defensive side. They never got Brady to the ground in that game. But it was almost the Patriots' undoing against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Within the first four drives of the AFC Championship Game, Brady was sacked twice, both of which came on third down when the Jaguars could unleash their nasty defensive front. Brady was under pressure more often than that, as well. It was pretty clear that the Jaguars were doing something right, and it was part of the reason they took a 14-10 lead into halftime.
This should present a bit of concern for the Patriots heading into their matchup with the Eagles. The Eagles' defense generated -0.12 Sack NEP per drop back this year, better than the average mark on the defensive side of the ball. They've got depth on the defensive line, and that depth could allow them to exploit the Patriots' weaknesses on the right side. If you're looking for a reason to think Philadelphia could at least partially keep Brady in check, much of it seems to lie here.
That said, it's pretty obvious that the Patriots are aware of this deficiency. And evidence of that comes from the rest of that game against the Jaguars.
After allowing those two sacks within the first four possessions, the Patriots gave up just one sack the rest of the game. That included five drop backs on third down, one of which resulted in a 21-yard completion on 3rd and 18. That doesn't happen if you're under a boatload of pressure.
Clearly, the Patriots made some adjustments throughout the game that helped slow down the Jaguars' pass rush. That means that even if the Eagles are able to get to Brady early, it's not a guarantee that trend will continue for the entire game. But if they can generate pressure, it will make life much more difficult for Brady and company.
We've seen this Eagles defensive front flash its skills already this postseason. They sacked Matt Ryan three times in the Divisional Round, and they prevented Case Keenum from standing in the pocket and picking the secondary apart with his team's skilled wide receivers in the NFC Championship. We know the difference this defensive line can make when it's on, and they're catching the Patriots at the right time with Cannon out of the lineup.
There will be plenty of matchups to watch throughout Super Bowl LII, but perhaps none will play a bigger role than this one between the Patriots' offensive line and the Eagles' big men on the opposite side. It's Philly's strength against New England's weakness, and it may be the one area in which the Eagles have a clear advantage. If they can disrupt Brady's rhythm and get him on the ground, then their odds of pulling off the upset get a considerable nudge in the right direction. If not, then preventing the Patriots from bringing home yet another Lombardi Trophy will get a whole lot more difficult.