On paper, the Eagles seem well constructed to stop the Patriots’ fearsome passing game. Like most teams that can defend in this league, the Eagles built their pass defense around edge rushers and cornerbacks in order to keep teams from beating them on deeper passes outside the numbers to wide receivers. This approach paid huge dividends in their upset victory over the Vikings in the NFC Championship, as Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum simply didn’t have the time to find his elite wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who also were given less cushion to operate.
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This is all well and good until you consider that the Patriots pass like no other team. No team in the NFL needs to worry less than the Patriots about a defense like Philadelphia’s taking away their wide receivers because no team in the NFL does more damage on throws to running backs and tight ends. Top threat Rob Gronkowski at tight end (health permitting), along with pass-catching running backs James White and Dion Lewis, can consistently abuse vulnerable linebackers and safeties that opposing teams typically try to hide in pass coverage.
So will the Eagles be able to slow the non-receiver receivers of New England? The regular-season evidence looks damning for Philadelphia. The traditional measure of NFL passing efficiency is passer rating. So let’s look at how opponents’ passers fare when the Eagles defend running backs and tight ends in coverage versus when they defend wide receivers.
|Passer Rating Against|
|Team||Tight ends/running backs||Wide receivers||Difference|
The Eagles have the fourth-worst differential between how they defend wide receivers (71.2 passer rating allowed) versus how they defend tight ends and running backs (100.5). And this deficiency has played a significant role in their infrequent struggles this year. In Philly’s lone low point in the NFC Championship, it was tight end Kyle Rudolph who Keenum found for a 25-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive. In the regular season, three of the Eagles’ four worst games in terms of passer rating allowed when guarding running backs were in the team’s three defeats, including a 144.1 passer rating allowed on RB/TE targets against the Seahawks (including two touchdowns), and 134.3 on 13 targets against the Chiefs. While they allowed a 100.0 rating on eight targets in an otherwise sterling defensive effort during a 6-0 loss to the Cowboys in the final week, many starters were sitting for large stretches of that game.1
But there’s also statistical evidence that passer rating may be underselling Philadelphia’s efficiency in defending targets to running backs and tight ends. When we focus only on yards per attempt on these targets, the Eagles defense ranks as the fourth best (6.18 allowed per attempt). Similarly, the Eagles rank fifth-best in Raw Quarterback Rating (Raw QBR) because that statistic is based on expected points and makes an adjustment for yards after the catch.
But before any jubilant Eagle fan starts scaling the “Rocky” steps in a dune buggy, consider that the Eagles didn’t play many teams this season that excel at passing to non-WRs. The Patriots’ offense is No. 1 not just in total yards on passes to RB/TEs but also in Raw QBR on passes to those players, and the only offenses the Eagles faced that ranked in the top 10 in both of those statistics were Kansas City, Washington (twice) and the Los Angeles Chargers. So let’s isolate those games:
|Average vs. all other teams||5.7||0.33||86.3||39.1|
Their average Raw QBR allowed to these teams was 69.1, which is 30 points worse than their average in all other games. And that 69.1 Raw QBR against would rank sixth-worst in the league. Similarly, the Eagles allowed an average of 7.37 yards per attempt to these opponents versus just 5.72 to teams that are not nearly as prolific in throwing to non-WRs.
So when you adjust for tendencies of opponent, all three statistics (rating, Raw QBR and yards per attempt) converge and it’s clear that, on paper, the Patriots have a decided edge against an otherwise sound pass defense. Of course, all this largely evaporates if Gronkowski, who suffered a concussion 10 days ago, is not recovered and can participate in Minnesota. While he’s returned to practice, he’s still in the concussion protocol and has to be cleared to play by an independent doctor. The team’s backup tight end, Dwayne Allen, caught just 10 passes all year and wasn’t even targeted by Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game, though Allen played over two quarters after Gronkowski’s injury against the Jaguars.
If Gronkowski does play, the Patriots will be in an unusual spot for a game of this magnitude. The Patriots have long been famous for their a chameleon-like offense — the team will find your biggest weakness and design a fresh game plan around exploiting it. But based on the Eagles’ defensive splits, the New England offense may not have to morph into something else this time, but instead may be able to simply play to its greatest strength.