The Eagles complete performance in the NFC Championship shocked not only the city, but the entire NFL community. Sure, every fan base expects to win. However, the way the Eagles demolished the Vikings after the first possession was astounding. Nick Foles is receiving a ton of the love, and deservedly so, but other under-appreciated players have stood out for this team during their playoff run.
On the Vikings’ 9 play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open up the NFC Championship, the defense simply looked confused. With MLB and mid-season signee, Dannell Ellerbe, nursing a hamstring injury, Najee Goode got the start. The communication between the linebackers and secondary was not there, and Kyle Rudolph burned Goode (#52) on straight flag route for a 25-yard touchdown.
Goode got the hook after that drive, and Jim Schwartz used his base nickel defense for the majority of the game. That puts a lot of pressure on two linebackers: Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham. Not only are they responsible for stopping the run, but also must be lights out in pass coverage and diagnosing plays. Kendricks is tied for second on the team in tackles with 12 this postseason and continues to fly all over the field. Bradham has elevated his coverage ability this season and was one of four defensive players to stay in for 100% of the snaps.
The pressure will be on these two once again in Minneapolis, as the Patriots’ offense tends to target linebackers in the pass game. Tom Brady is a master of looking off safeties and deep linebackers with his eyes, allowing Danny Amendola, James White, and Dion Lewis to get open on crossing routes or find gaps in zone coverage. In fact, the running backs in New England are potentially their most dangerous and versatile weapon. Dion Lewis is second on the team in receptions with 16 in the playoffs, and has been severely underrated as a runner-receiver throughout his entire career. James White continues to rack up postseason touchdowns, recording 7 total (4 receiving) in the Patriots’ last 5 playoff games. I expect Jim Schwartz to utilize his nickel defense a ton in the Super Bowl in order to impede both the running backs receiving abilities, and the freak that is Rob Gronkowski.
Man, I’m Glad We Signed That Guy
I mentioned last week during my skill position preview that the Eagles wide receivers and tight ends had to excel in separating from defensive backs to give Foles options in panic time. They did exactly that, and Alshon Jeffery’s 53-yard touchdown exemplified that to perfection. He abused the elderly Terence Newman on a double move while the pocket collapses around Foles, who is somehow able to hit Jeffery in stride with a dime.
Alshon has been stellar this postseason. He leads the team with two touchdown receptions (both in the Vikings’ game) on 9 catches for 146 yards (team high) with a 90% catch rate in the playoffs. If there is one man that can burn the Patriots ‘defense, it’s Alshon. The Patriots’ secondary is definitely exploitable, and one name might stand out to Eagles’ fans. Patrick Chung has enjoyed a career revival in New England, like most players who fail expectations on another team. However, he still displays some of the same basic mistakes that he was making in Philadelphia: in particular always being one step late on a deep passes. If the running game can’t get going, and Doug Pederson’s misdirection plays aren’t working out, look for Alshon to break this game open.
Stephon Gilmore has been fantastic in coverage this postseason, as seen on his game-clinching pass deflection against the Jaguars. But Super Bowl 49 hero, Malcolm Butler, can be exploited on double moves or against a bigger target in the redzone. Bill Belichick is known for taking away the opposing team’s top threat. However, if you sell out on taking away Alshon, it opens up the field for Zach Ertz, Jay Ajayi, and Torrey Smith, who have all proved they can step up in big moments.