Back in Week 4, the Buffalo Bills blitzed the Patriots an incredible 46 times in 56 plays, an alarming rate for any team. The Patriots handled the rush relatively well that day, converting 54 percent of their third downs while quarterback Tom Brady completed 15-of-26 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions while being sacked twice.
The Philadelphia Eagles defense, under the guidance of coordinator Jimmy Johnson, has a reputation as a blitz-heavy group, but it's almost implausible that Philly would blitz Brady with such regularity this week in Super Bowl XXXIX.
In fact, Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said this week that the Eagles don't blitz as much as people think. That may be true, but the perception is probably created by the fact that their blitzes are so successful and they will run them at any time in any situation.
Philly will bring safeties, corners or linebackers. They will put eight men on the line of scrimmage and back some out while rushing others to make it difficult for the quarterback and protection to identify their responsibilities and execute their assignments. It offers a difficult challenge for the Patriots offense, and New England's ability to execute under duress might determine its offensive success on Sunday.
"The Eagles are extremely disciplined [when they blitz]," Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said. "There are very few times where they screw it up. Whoever is supposed to be blitzing is blitzing and whoever is supposed to be covering is covering. As a result, they are able to put as much stress as they possibly can on you with a minimal amount of risk."
Risk and blitz are often synonymous. With extra rushers, there are fewer defenders in coverage and a defense can be susceptible to a big play if its blitz doesn't achieve its goal. But the Eagles have a Pro Bowl-laden secondary and a well-conceptualized blitz package that they run efficiently, which limits the risk and ups the pressure on the protection and the quarterback to make the right decisions.
"We have to be as disciplined in our approach to identifying it and picking it up and be rock solid in our assignments and not only make sure we have a hat on everybody that we're supposed to have a hat on, but that we're between them and the quarterback. Our challenge is to recognize what they're doing, cover them up and get a hat on everybody that we can and allow the quarterback to throw with the comfort of knowing its blocked."
Patriots center Dan Koppen pointed out that the Eagles personnel helps them execute their scheme proficiently. "It's not like they invented what they're doing," Koppen noted. "But they just have the right guys in the right places that know how to run it and they run it really well. They time it, they disguise it, and they do all the things necessary to be effective. We have to recognize it, know our responsibilities and assignments and get hats on hats."
That's something Scarnecchia said the Patriots didn't do all that well in last year's meeting with Philly, a game the Patriots won 31-10 back in Week 2 of 2003. That assessment does not show up in the game stats from that afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field. Brady completed 30-of-44 passes for 255 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against an injury-depleted Eagles secondary that day. He was sacked just twice for minus-8 yards.
"We've done alright this year," Scarnecchia said about the team's ability to handle blitzes. "The last time we played these guys, we didn't do very well. We had a lot of free rushers. We had a lot of assignment mistakes and just didn't do a good job of picking things up. Hopefully we'll do it better this time."
That won't be easy. It's not as if New England has been the only team to have trouble with Philly's rushers. Jevon Kearse has long been considered one of the league's premier pass rushers when healthy, and the Eagles blitzes often create one-on-one matchups for Kearse and the team's other defensive ends, Jerome McDougle, Hugh Douglas and Derrick Burgess. Those are matchups Philly likes against any offensive line.
Proof of the Eagles effectiveness is in the numbers. Their 47 sacks were second in the NFL to Atlanta's 48, and 17 different players recorded sacks while the team was credited with two. Kearse led the group with 7.5 and the defensive line as a unit had 32, including 16 from interior linemen. The linebackers had just five while the defensive backs had eight, including three each by Dawkins and starting cornerback Sheldon Brown. New England, incidentally, allowed the fifth fewest sacks in the league (26).
"They'll bring anybody and try to disguise it and confuse you and disrupt you in different ways," guard Joe Andruzzi said.
The pressure to identify the blitz and execute against it goes beyond the offensive line. The tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks all have to mentally sharp to perform well under the pressure of the Eagles blitz package. Brady can also use his cadence to disrupt the timing of the blitz.
"We put a lot of responsibility on our quarterbacks," Patriots QB coach Josh McDaniels said. "They're involved in protections and route adjustments. [Tom] has to be ready to handle whatever they give us and obviously this team is one of the more multiple blitzing teams we've faced. It's a big challenge, but he has to deal with it and be ready to go. They do everything. They bring linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks. We'll have to deal with it well in order to win."
That means not only identifying and picking up the blitz, but also adjusting routes, identifying any uncovered rushers and hitting the hot receivers. It also may mean hitting the Eagles for a big play or two that could force them out of any extensive blitz plans. That's easier said than done against the best secondary the Patriots have faced this season. But it will be another critical aspect to the Patriots success.