The Patriots are all too familiar with the league poaching from their coaching staff to recreate their success, and now the Eagles are realizing the same fate.
As the defending NFC champs, Philadelphia lost both its coordinators in the offseason, former OC Shane Steichen (Colts) and DC Jonathan Gannon (Cardinals), to head coaching positions after a 14-3 campaign that saw them a few plays away from winning the franchise's second Super Bowl title. Although it was a loss on the championship stage, it's not surprising that Philly's blueprint is popping up elsewhere, given their instant success under head coach Nick Sirianni.
Along with building an elite roster, the Eagles are analytics darlings and run systems that make them Football Twitter darlings. Offensively, Philadelphia built a spread-option-based scheme around star quarterback Jalen Hurts, while they're one of a handful of teams that runs a Fangio-inspired defense that relies on a dominant front to play out of two-high safety shells.
Like the Patriots over the years when coordinators come and go in the Belichick era, the Eagles are rolling with an internal promotion on offense to maintain continuity. Philly promoted quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson to offensive coordinator, and with Sirianni also being an offensive-minded coach, the Eagles won't mess with success on that side of the ball.
However, Philadelphia hired former Seahawks associate head coach and longtime Bears assistant Sean Desai to take over for Gannon on defense. Although word is he'll run relatively the same defensive system, which Seattle also adopted more principles from to adapt the Seattle-3 scheme into a more modernized version, Desai will put his own twist on things (more on that later), which brings us to Sunday's regular-season opener between the Patriots and Eagles at Gillette Stadium.
Along with having two new coordinators, most of the Eagles starters didn't see any action in the preseason, including quarterback Jalen Hurts. That could play in the Patriots favor, with Philly's frontline players adjusting to new play-callers and working off the rust on opening day. According to ESPN, 11 starting quarterbacks didn't play in the preseason in 2022, and those QBs had a combined record of 3-8 in Week 1. But with the potential disadvantages for Philly comes the advantage of the unknown, and the same can be said for the Patriots.
Besides three possessions totaling 18 plays in the preseason, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's revamped Patriots offense is a mystery to everyone, including the Eagles. In the second week of the preseason, O'Brien showed his base concepts with quarterback Mac Jones: under-center play-action sequencing, early-down run-pass options, quick-game concepts, and empty/spread elements in obvious passing situations.
However, as you'd expect for a new coordinator in the preseason, O'Brien mostly played things close to the vest, meaning this Sunday's opener is the first time we'll see the entire Pats playbook, which will also incorporate game-plan elements to expose the Eagles defense.
With the Patriots kicking off the regular season with an incredibly challenging first opponent, let's dive into the Pats-Eagles chess match set to take place on Sept. 10 in Foxborough:
Patriots Offense vs. Eagles Defense
There is always a feeling out process on opening day, and nowadays, really for the first month of the regular season, and that will especially be true with three new coordinators in this matchup.
With the Philly defense, Eagles fans had frustrations with Gannon over his lack of blitzing and vanilla schemes in the pass rush last season. Despite having the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL, the Eagles weren't a blitz-heavy or exotic scheming pass rush. Philly ranked middle-of-the-pack in blitz rate (26.4%) and was dead last in stunt and simulated pressure usage. Remarkably, they only used defensive line stunts on 13.9% of their pass plays, which was last in the NFL by over three percent. Instead, it was our front four is better than your offensive line, and we are going to win one-on-one, which they did at a very high rate.
It's anyone's guess how aggressive the Eagles defense will be with Desai calling plays. Although Seattle ranked dead last in blitz rate in 2022, the Seahawks rank near the top of the league in "creeper" pressures, where the defense rushes four, but one of those rushers comes from the back seven, and an on-the-line player drops into coverage. Ultimately, though, the defensive structure will remain the same for Philly, so let's break down the Fangio system.
The hallmark of the Fangio scheme is that the coverage shell almost always starts in a two-high safety structure. The two-high structure is devised to disguise, with the secondary rotating post-snap into primarily different zone coverages such as quarters, cover-three, and cover-six. The idea is to wait as long as possible to declare the coverage structure, spinning the dial when the ball is snapped. Last season, Philly was in zone over 71% of the time, mainly turning into a single-high, cover-three defense (31.7%) but also featuring plenty of cover four (26.2%) and some cover six (7.5%) while mixing in man-to-man on third down (24.5%).
To run the scheme at a high level, the defense needs a dominant front to stop the run out of light boxes (check), a shutdown corner to play single-coverage on the backside (Slay), and a solid nickel DB, which the Eagles will need to prove they still have without Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
Although the scheme is highly effective in limiting big plays and causing chaos with disguises, it can be vulnerable with well-timed play calls to flood zones and man coverage beaters that allow receivers to adjust after the snap to beat leverage.
The Chiefs offense put up 31 points in the Super Bowl last February thanks to a superb game plan from head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Before saying there's no way the Pats can replicate Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs prolific offense, Kansas City's big plays were schemed up by their coaching staff rather than individually great moments. Although it might not be as productive, it's possible to recreate it on some levels.
For example, the Chiefs were able to flood the Eagles zone structures by using three-level concepts with motion occupying the flat defenders and vertical routes taking deep defenders upfield. Above, the Chiefs have Kadarius Toney come in jet motion, which forces the flat defender to widen at the snap. At the same time, Marquez Valdes-Scantling runs the boundary defender downfield, opening up the space for Kelce to run an inverted over route into a zone void.
Next, the Chiefs use Toney on a "tear" motion out of the backfield to get the defense to react to a potential screen pass in the flat. Kansas City runs a "bluff" screen where they'll fake the screen and respective blocks, then delay releasing the receivers down the field, and new Patriots wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster catches the pass for an explosive again.
Although it's challenging to decipher Philadelphia's zones, creating openings in between zones with good play design is relatively straightforward. Along with flooding zones, even the Chiefs non-Kelce receivers found success running routes from stacks and in motion against Philly's man coverage.
Here, Kansas City runs a run-pass option with a slant-flat combination out of a two-receiver stack. The receivers utilize a switch release, with the inside receiver breaking on the flat and the outside receiver (JuJu) on the slant. Philly's man coverage defenders hesitate on exchanging the switch release, and Smith-Schuster gets inside positioning to move the chains.
The Patriots featured the third-highest RPO rate in the preseason this summer at over 18 percent. Clearly, showing that's something they'll major in this season under O'Brien.
Lastly, the plays that everyone marveled at were "return" or "boomerang" motions, where the Eagles expected to pass off receivers in motion, but those motion players returned to where they came from. The expectation is Desai will have different checks, so this year's opponents burn them with repeat plays, but if that's how they're going to handle motion, expect the Pats to test the coverage rules like this again.
Obviously, you also need solid pass protection to let plays develop, which we'll see with a reworked O-Line, but O'Brien can dial it up in the passing game.
The key thing to remember in the running game is that the Eagles will base out of two-high shells, leaving them a defender short in the box.
That sounds like the Pats can easily run the ball against light boxes, and Philly was 21st in DVOA against the run last season, so they can be exploited on the ground. But you have to remember a few things. The Eagles have an excellent defensive line with monster run-stuffers like Jordan Davis, Fletcher Cox, and rookie Jalen Carter. Yes, you have a numbers advantage. But those guys are a handful, and they play gap-and-a-half technique to "spill" runs to the outside and then help to secondary gaps — it's easier said than done.
Still, there are vulnerable areas in the Eagles run defense, especially the weak side B-Gap, where they'll have one second-level defender and usually a late-filling safety coming from depth. Remember, those safeties are in a two-deep alignment, and if you can catch them in a "strong" rotation where the safety over the tight end drops down, and the weak safety rotates back, you can hit big plays if you can get the defenders at the first two levels blocked. Kansas City attacked the weak side gaps by running trap runs out of shotgun. Pulling a defender from the backside allowed the play-side guard to work up to the previously mentioned linebacker, and then it's on the running back to make the deep safety miss.
With the understanding that blocking these guys is a big hurdle here, the Patriots have the personnel offensively to expose the weaknesses in Philadelphia's defensive system.
Patriots Defense vs. Eagles Offense
Moving over to the other side of the ball, the Eagles offense presents its own challenge that has been a thorn in Bill Belichick's side for years.
With Hurts as the point man, Philadelphia led the league in expected points added per rush by a mile, more than doubling up the next closest team with a +0.072 EPA per attempt output. Philly's offensive line, like their defensive front, might be the best O-Line in football, while Sirianni and his staff take full advantage of Hurts's mobility. Last season, Hurts led the league by a wide margin with 148 run-pass option plays, gaining 7.8 yards per play on RPO concepts in 2022.
During their playoff run, touchdown drives like this one became routine. Nine plays, eight runs, only one third down (a third-and-3), and six points on the board en route to a 38-7 beatdown of their division rival New York Giants. They make early-down read option/RPO sequencing look easy, while the offensive line helped produce runs of nine, 12, four, 11, two, five, seven (third down), and a three-yard touchdown. As easy as it looked, it's pretty advanced stuff.
For example, the Giants use a scrape exchange here to get a first-down stop in the high red zone. Scrape exchanges are where the play-side edge defender automatically crashes down to take the inside run, usually signaling for the quarterback to pick the outside run, but the off-ball linebacker to that side "exchanges" responsibilities by angling over to set the edge of the defense.
Although that seems like a neat trick, Sirianni and his staff had an answer for a scrape exchange in a similar situation later in the game. This time, Philly has DeVonta Smith "crack" block the exchanging linebacker while motioning tight end Dallas Goedert across the formation to kick out the corner over Smith, giving the Eagles an easy first down.
The Giants found out the hard way in their divisional-round matchup with the Eagles that if you don't stop their early-down option package, you're in for a long afternoon. Philly took a 28-0 lead into halftime in a playoff game that wasn't competitive, advancing to the NFC title game.
By being efficient on early downs, the Eagles stay ahead of the chains, sometimes never facing third down or keeping it at third-and-manageable. In those third-and-manageables (six yards or less), Philly had the second-highest conversion rate in the NFL a year ago (59.1%), and we've all seen their rugby-style QB sneaks that are tough to stop.
However, if you can get them into drop-back passing situations or third-and-longs, Hurts and the Eagles offense becomes human. That's not to say they can't burn you that way, because they certainly can, but their third-and-seven-plus rate dropped to 14th in the NFL at 25.7%.
My answer to getting the Eagles off-schedule would be to base out of a 5-1 or 4-2 fronts to cover as many gaps as possible. Then, play man coverage on the outside with a post-snap safety rotation to get a defender into slant passing lanes while also serving as a force defender to set the edge against outside runs (Commanders example above).
Most successful defenses against RPO-based offenses play mostly man or pattern-match zone rather than traditional spot-drop zone. The reason is that zone coverage puts second-level read defenders in conflict. If you have a run and pass responsibility, you can never be right against an RPO; play pass, and they'll run it, and vice versa. Man principles allow run defenders to defend the run and coverage players to play pass.
The Patriots will hopefully also be aggressive in their front mechanics rather than trying to read and react to option plays by attacking the mesh point and using a QB spy (Mapu?) to unlock the pass rush. Playing cat-and-mouse puts the defense on its heels trying to chase, allowing Philly's highly skilled ball carriers to win foot races. Instead, challenge them.
After historically struggling with mobile quarterback elements, the Patriots selected athletic rookies Christian Gonzalez, Keion White, and Marte Mapu, who can all play big roles, while Belichick and his staff had all offseason to prepare for this matchup. It's time to start seeing better results against dual-threat QBs.
1. Pats Right Tackles vs. Eagles | EDGE Haason Reddick
It's anyone's guess how the Patriots will handle the right tackle position this Sunday. However, Calvin Anderson is a strong candidate to start, with newcomers Vederian Lowe and Tyrone Wheatley potentially rotating in to spell Anderson. Whoever is out there will need to deal with Reddick, who had 16 sacks a year ago as Philly's "finisher" in the pass rush. Reddick's lightning-quick first step is foundationally how he wins, but he has added better hand technique in recent years, relying heavily on a cross-chop move in 2022. His skill set and development as a pass-rusher is similar to Josh Uche's in New England.
2. Pats CB Christian Gonzalez vs. Eagles WRs A.J. Brown/DeVonta Smith
The rookie will be thrown right into the fire by facing an explosive/smooth route-runner (Smith) or a physical specimen in Brown. Although the Pats should play some man-to-man, you can envision a world where they play sides rather than specific matchups. Either way, Gonzalez will see plenty of the Eagles prolific WR duo, and we'll learn if he's ready for primetime immediately. The physicality, hand-fighting, and subtle gamesmanship with Brown will be a huge challenge if that's the matchup for Gonzo.
3. Pats DT Davon Godchaux vs. Eagles C Jason Kelce
If you're going to stop the run, your nose tackle will need to have himself a game against the league's best center. Kelce's movement skills are exceptional for a center, moving more like a tight end or fullback than an offensive lineman. Philly uses his athleticism often, where he'll pull or work to the next level as a lead blocker. My guess is the Patriots will make it challenging for Kelce to get moving by lining up Godchaux right over him to engage him immediately.