BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- This is usually the time of week when the football-watching world finds itself eyeballs deep in the matchups that will dictate how the Super Bowl plays out.
Right now we're trying to figure out who is Nick Foles, really, and how can the Patriots defense will try to rattle him? What can Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels do to temper the Eagles pass rush? How will Doug Pederson try to stress New England's communication in the secondary?
As we chip away at the Xs and Os of Super Bowl LII, below are some notes on how a couple of NFC coaches, both of whom competed against Philadelphia late in the season, feel like the Patriots can have success.
USE PHILLY'S AGGRESSIVENESS AGAINST THEM
- The Eagles play mostly Cover 1 and Cover 3 on first and second downs. They'll occasionally mix in a quarter-quarter-half look on the back end -- where a corner takes one half of the deep portion of the field as a safety would in Cover 2 -- but that's rare. The point is Brady will know what he's looking at when the Patriots get lined up.
- Even if Brady's processor won't be working in overdrive, he'll still have to be on his toes because the Eagles front is so damn good. And deep. Fletcher Cox is as good a three-technique as there is in the league, and he might be the best in the league. In terms of the headaches he provides offensive lines, he's in the conversation with Aaron Donald as the best interior defender in football. Brandon Graham might be the most underrated pass-rusher in the NFL. He's so explosive and he tries really hard. And it's never a bad thing when Chris Long is your No. 3. You have to try to run to temper that rush. These guys play the run on their way to the quarterback. The reason their defense's run numbers are so good -- No. 1 in the regular season at less than 80 yards per game allowed -- is because they play so much single-high safety. They're "gapped out," meaning with one safety dropped into the box, they usually have every potential running lane covered.
- That right side of the Eagles line in particular could be a problem. Both Cox and Graham are often on that side on first and second down. You can slide protection that way to get a double team on one of them, but it's hard to double both. Cox should be the choice. The Patriots can chip Graham with a back or a tight end to help whoever the right tackle is, whether it's Cam Fleming or LaAdrian Waddle. Philly isn't going to blitz much. It's just a matter of getting their front under control.
- On the second and third levels? Eagles defenders are just guys. The linebackers are good not great. They're better against the run than they are in coverage, and they're aggressive. The screen game will be big for the Patriots. All kinds. Running back screens, receiver screens, tight end screens. If you can hit on a few of those, now the entire front is worried about getting screened every time they line up.
- The corners are blah. They're 'B' players. They play a lot of soft Cover 3. There will be space on the outside for Brandin Cooks or Chris Hogan or whoever's out there. But here's how the Eagles defensive backs are helped by their front: They can drive on the ball -- they "jump the [expletive]" out of hitches and comebacks -- because they know the ball has to come out quickly because the pass-rush is so good. If the Patriots can protect long enough, watch for double-moves from the Patriots to use the corners' aggressive style against them. The Patriots will hit one. Slant-and-go. Hitch-and-go. All it takes is for the Eagles to guess right on one snap to change the game with a deflection that turns into a pick-six, but it's still a gamble.
- Press man has hurt the Patriots in the past, but against a rush this good, you'd almost like to see press. If the Eagles played tight to the line of scrimmage, then you can rely on your speed to win off the line and try to take some shots to pick up chunk gains. But if the Eagles corners sit back and drive on your five-yard hitches and hold you to four, can you be patient enough to take that?
- The game actually sets up well for the Patriots offense because they like the quick passing game. They'll throw underneath. They'll use their backs. They've done more vertically this year with Brandin Cooks, and Rob Gronkowski up the seam is always an option. But against the Eagles pass-rush, they should be able to get it out quickly. It's just a question of what happens after the catch.
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GET FOLES OFF HIS SPOT
- Foles is who he is. He's streaky. Always has been. And when he's going good, he's a good play-action quarterback. When he has a clean pocket and he can stick to his spot, he's really solid with the deep overs, posts, digs -- those kinds of routes. If you can affect the pocket, he's a different guy. Trey Flowers on the interior is probably New England's best bet to do that. Foles struggled in making his reads with Cover 2, but the Patriots are more of a man-to-man team. Foles is smart enough to recognize coverage, but how accurate can he be against a man defense? He played terribly late in the season, but he runs hot and cold and he has the ability to throw a good deep ball. Who will we see Sunday? It'll probably be the cold version if the Patriots can pressure him.
- The RPOs are real. And they're effective. But the Patriots can try to take them away in a few of different ways. One is by changing their fronts from snap-to-snap and by disguising their fronts after lining up. That makes it hard for Foles to figure out who to read. Is it a 4-3 or a five-man "bear" front? Is his read the front-side linebacker? Is it the end? Is the end coming or is he part of the coverage equation? The other thing the Patriots could do is press at the line of scrimmage and playing man-to-man. Cover 1, which the Patriots play often, is the best answer for RPOs because it crowds the quick passing game. The Eagles can answer that by reducing their receiver splits and forcing defensive backs to play off, even if it's man. The Patriots may use a "rat" in the middle of the field if that's how the back-and-forth RPO chess match plays out. Having a free player in the middle of the defense may stop Foles from looking for those easy, rhythm-building passes.
- For all the talk about Foles, it almost doesn't matter who the quarterback is. It's all about the running game. Jay Ajayi is the all-purpose back. LeGarrette Blount is the hammer. Corey Clement is the third-down guy. Their intention is to run the ball. The Patriots committed to stopping the run against Tennessee and Jacksonville, and they succeeded. But the Philly's passing game will give Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia more to think about.
- Many link the Eagles and Chiefs offenses because of the relationship between Andy Reid and Doug Pederson. The Eagles will use some strange formations, but they're not quite as gadgety as the Chiefs. Philly wants to run, control the clock, and be a ball-control team. Reid can be deterred from sticking with the run if it got stopped early. Pederson may not be as willing to completely turn the game over to Foles. Like Kansas City, though, the Eagles love certain West Coast-style routes. And they'll run them out of any package. They're about a 60 percent run team out of 11-personnel. Out of heavier looks, 12 and 13-personnel they're about a 60 percent pass team. When they use 12 and 13 personnel, the Patriots can treat it like 11 or 12-personnel if tight end Trey Burton is on the field. He's more of a big receiver than a true tight end. How Patrick Chung matches up with Zach Ertz will be key because Ertz is is the money-down guy for Foles.