Before the Patriots’ season-opener against the Eagles, I detailed three keys to their versatile defense slowing down Philly’s loaded offense.
Here, I’ll be reviewing each of those keys to determine whether the defense succeeded, failed, or if the teams came to a draw in a tough 25-20 loss.
1. Smother RPOs
The Eagles’ top-tier rushing and passing attack make them one of the league’s toughest offenses to defend. That challenge gets even tougher when they can do either on the same play. That’s why I was surprised to see Philly call just one RPO after the 1st quarter, using nine in total with six being runs.
The Patriots were usually playing Cover 0 and split-safety defenses on these plays, creating lighter box counts that encouraged handoffs. These looks also allowed the defense to read and react to throws from depth while being aggressive up-front.
New England’s defensive front built a wall in the Red Zone, stopping all three of Philly’s rush attempts. They also dialed up Cover 0 to generate a drive-ending sack on the opening series.
The Patriots send six rushers against five blockers for the Eagles, who call a QB draw attached to quick concepts on both sides. Kyle Dugger’s late blitz catches the attention of both right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Cam Jurgens, allowing Matt Judon to take down the quarterback unblocked with Christian Barmore close behind.
Though the Patriots dominated in scoring territory, the Eagles had success with RPOs in the open field, completing both of their pass attempts for good gains.
On each of Jalen Hurts’ attempts, the quarterback punishes Myles Bryant for having his eyes in the backfield, illustrating the conflict created by putting defenders in no-win situations.
The Eagles also converted on two runs, including a QB draw that caught the Patriots off-guard to convert a 3rd & 11 on the opening drive.
Center Jason Kelce pulls to kick out Ja’Whaun Bentley, left tackle Jordan Mailata seals off Matt Judon, and Hurts follows a lead block from Keneth Gainwell to set up a Red Zone opportunity.
Despite this success, the Eagles called just one RPO after the 1st quarter. Considering both teams traded blows and first-year offensive coordinator pulled up early, I’m calling this one a tie.
2. Watch Out for the Deep Ball
Hurts had a lot of success attacking 1-on-1 matchups deep last season with stud receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. The Patriots were highly competitive on these plays last season despite being an undersized group, so the addition of rookie Christian Gonzalez made this an interesting matchup.
The Patriots safely dominated in this area on Sunday, with Hurts going 0-3 on passes that traveled 20 or more yards. Jonathan Jones was targeted on two of these passes, both of which showed his ability to recover and finish.
The first attempt came with New England showing press coverage against Philly’s receivers on 1 & 20.
Hurts reads Jabrill Peppers’ drop to centerfield and looks left toward Smith, who swipes away Jonathan Jones’ jam attempts to stack the corner. Peppers lets the quarterback’s eyes take him to the play, shows great range getting to the sideline, and combines with Jones to break up a slightly underthrown ball.
Jones’ next test came midway through the 4th quarter, this time against A.J. Brown.
The Patriots dial up quarters with each deep defender carrying vertical routes into their leverage. Gonzalez runs stride-for-stride with Smith and Dallas Goedert stumbles over the middle, prompting Hurts to buy time for someone to get open. Brown spots this and takes off downfield, but Jones stays on his hip and provides tight coverage on an insane near-completion along the sideline.
Hurts’ other deep pass was an attempt to exploit New England’s rookie corner to open the 4th quarter.
With the Patriots playing Cover 3, Gonzalez knows he has inside help against a deep route from Brown. So even when the veteran breaks inside on a post-corner, he shows great discipline staying outside and smothering Brown’s final break. Marte Mapu also shows his athleticism closing in from centerfield.
Containing the Eagles’ deep passing game is hard, but shutting it down is downright incredible. This one’s easy.
Verdict: Success (in dominant fashion)
3. Don’t Let Jalen Hurts Run Wild
The Patriots were one of the league’s least efficient defenses against designed quarterback runs last season, getting torched by Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields. Jalen Hurts was one of the most productive rushers at his position, so this seemed like a big mismatch in Philly’s favor. But equipped with a full offseason to prepare, New England had its best performance against a dual-threat quarterback in recent memory.
Hurts carried the ball on seven designed runs, gaining 27 yards, converting once (the aforementioned quarterback draw), and losing a fumble. The turnover was a major turning point and gave the Patriots offense a chance to close the game late in the 4th quarter.
The Eagles call their bread-and-butter QB draw and get a hat on a hat at the point of attack, similar to his 3rd & 11 conversion. But unlike that play Hurts doesn’t have a lead blocker to take on Jabrill Peppers, who gets a helmet on the football to pop the ball loose for a Marcus Jones recovery.
The Patriots also did a great job keeping Hurts hemmed in on scrambles, marrying coverage and pressure to hold the quarterback to without a completion on five pass attempts.
They’d often pinch their defensive tackles to prevent a run down the middle, collapse the edges or knife inside to flush him laterally, then rally before he could get loose. Along with established pass rushers Christian Barmore, Matthew Judon, and Josh Uche, rookie Keion White managed to pressure Hurts three times. Uche even managed to log a sack after pressure from his teammates flushed Hurts from the pocket.
Barmore gets into left guard Landon Dickerson’s lap to put him on skates, while White does a great job ripping around Lane Johnson to bring heat off the edge. Uche initially gets caught inside and gives up the edge, but recovers to push the quarterback out of bounds.
By the end of the game, Hurts had just one conversion on two scramble carries.
Verdict: Success (in dominant fashion)
The Patriots’ defense did everything I highlighted above and then some on Sunday, which led to a pedestrian 18 points from a stellar Eagles offense.
There were certainly areas for improvement, with fewer penalties being at the top of that list, but the talented unit exceeded already high expectations with their efforts. A promising start for a group that will be tested weekly against a gauntlet of tough offenses.