Jesse Pantuosco

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Super Bowl Rundown

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


We did it, guys. We survived. All of us—you, me, Little Moe with the gimpy leg—we all made it through a week without football. Well, I suppose that’s not ENTIRELY true. Drew Brees and a few of his pals got together for a rainy game of two-hand touch in Orlando while our own Josh Norris was in Mobile covering the Senior Bowl. But those were mere appetizers, the cheese and crackers before Sunday’s main course: Super Bowl LII. Let’s discuss.

 

Evan Silva will have a thorough overview of the big game in his upcoming matchups column while Connor Allen also wrote a comprehensive analysis earlier this week. But, while I have you here (Welcome back to Bump and Run, by the way. It’s been a minute.), I may as well give you my breakdown of Super Bowl LII. You ready? Let’s go by position.

 

Quarterback: Bit of a mismatch, huh? In one corner of the ring you have the greatest living American Tom Brady and in the other you have the guy from Napoleon Dynamite. In all seriousness, Nick Foles deserves credit for leading the Eagles, who were underdogs to both Atlanta and Minnesota, to its first Super Bowl in 13 years. Certainly, you’d like the Eagles’ chances a bit more with All-Pro Carson Wentz under center but Foles more than held his own against the Vikings, blowing up one of the league’s best defenses for 352 yards and a trio of touchdown passes. Foles stills fits the mold of a game-manager but because of the elite weapons the Eagles have surrounded him with (Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Jay Ajayi), he has the ability to be much more than that. And he’ll need to be if the Eagles plan on keeping pace with the high-octane Patriots.

 

Matchup-wise, the Patriots are the definition of a “bend, don’t break” defense. They allowed the fourth-most yards in the league during the regular season, but somehow yielded the fifth-fewest points per game (18.5). Weird, right? Marcus Mariota had a hard time against the Pats in the Divisional Round (59.5 completion percentage, eight sacks) but Blake Bortles, who is not exactly the torch-bearer for excellent quarterback play (though the Bortles Facts Twitter account would have you believe otherwise), hung almost 300 yards on New England in the AFC title game.

 

That bodes well for the Eagles, but let’s not act like Foles has been Mr. Consistency. Since taking over for Wentz he’s proceeded to 1) tear up the Giants (as he should), 2) face-plant against the Raiders, 3) struggle in a cameo against Dallas (the Eagles had already locked up home-field advantage and were resting their starters), 4) do just enough to squeak by Atlanta and finally 5) have his best game of the year against a Vikings squad still delirious from the Minneapolis Miracle. Translation: it’s anyone’s guess which Foles will show up Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

 

As for Brady, there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said already, although I do have a juicy conspiracy theory involving his recent beef with WEEI. Insulting a five-year-old is a low blow, but does anyone else think WEEI may have triggered Brady on purpose? Somewhere there must be a table charting the correlation between Brady’s anger level and his number of touchdown passes. The last time we saw Brady he was leading a fourth-quarter comeback against the league’s best defense with 12 stitches in his throwing hand. That would be a career high-water mark for most players, but for Brady, that probably wouldn’t even crack his Top 20. Philadelphia’s defense is terrific but this is Touchdown Tom we’re talking about. He’ll get his.

 

Running Back: Both teams quietly excelled on the ground this year with Philadelphia ranking third in rushing yards per game (132.2) and New England finishing sixth in rushing touchdowns with 16. Neither team employs a true workhorse, though Jay Ajayi is certainly 1A to LeGarrette Blount’s 1B in Philly. Ajayi stagnated early in the year with Miami but played well down the stretch, averaging a robust 5.8 yards per carry after his midseason trade to Philadelphia. The 250-pound Blount is rather one-dimensional but he’s scored in back-to-back games and remains the Eagles’ preferred goal-line back. The Patriots know both players inside and out. Ajayi went against New England twice a year when he played for the Dolphins while Blount won two Super Bowls with the Patriots and set a New England record with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement has been used sparingly in the postseason but impressed with six touchdowns (four rushing, two receiving) during the regular season.

 

Dion Lewis turned in a career year in 2017, visiting the end zone nine times while finishing third in the league in yards per carry. Among running backs, only Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara earned higher marks from Pro Football Focus during the regular season. He’ll function as the Patriots’ lead ball-carrier but the Eagles shouldn’t sleep on Rex Burkhead. The former Bengal was on a roll (six touchdowns in his previous four games) before a knee injury knocked him out of commission in Week 15. He was limited to just three snaps in his return against Jacksonville, but should be more involved this week, particularly in the red zone. And let’s not forget that pass-catcher James White has scored six touchdowns in his past three playoff games including three in New England’s come-from-behind win in Super Bowl LI. New England’s backfield is an embarrassment of riches but if any team is equipped to stop them, it’s the Eagles, who allowed a league-low 79.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season.

 

Pass-Catchers: We’ll lump the tight ends into this category because why not? Speaking of tight ends, Rob Gronkowski resumed practicing on Saturday and should clear the concussion protocol well in advance of Sunday’s 6:30 PM ET start. Gronkowski, who might also be the league’s best blocking tight end, led all TEs in receiving yards this year despite missing two games. Prior to the AFC title game (the concussion limited him to just 26 snaps), Gronk had scored in six straight postseason appearances. He’s too fast for linebackers, too big for safeties—there’s just no stopping him. Gronkowski remains the NFL’s unsolvable riddle.

 

The Eagles also have a difference-maker at tight end in Zach Ertz, who led the Birds in catches (74) and receiving yards (824) during the regular season. It’s true Ertz has only scored once since Wentz’s injury, but he looked unstoppable in the NFC Championship, corralling all eight of his targets for a game-high 93 yards in the win over Minnesota. He’ll be a tough matchup for both Devin McCourty and Pat Chung.

 

At receiver, the Eagles are sitting pretty with Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, who combined for 17 touchdowns during the regular season. Jeffery isn’t the most efficient receiver in the league—he caught just 57-of-120 targets during the regular season—but he’s coming off an 85-yard, two-touchdown performance in the NFC title game and I suspect he’ll see a lot of Stephon Gilmore on Sunday. This was the year it all clicked for Agholor, a former first-round pick who underachieved in his first two seasons. Filling the role once occupied by Jordan Matthews, Agholor carved a nice niche for himself in the slot this year, more than doubling his career-high in receiving yards (768) while tying for eighth in the league with eight touchdowns. Torrey Smith remains your prototypical boom-or-bust deep threat, but that’s not a bad thing to be against the Patriots, who have shone a tendency to give up big plays in the passing game. Smith’s yardage totals were abysmal during the regular season—he topped 30 yards on just three occasions—but he was firing on all cylinders against the Vikings with five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown.

 

New England can beat you any number of ways—no coach is better at exploiting weaknesses than Bill Belichick. But I’ve always felt that the Patriots are at their best when they work quickly, and the way to accomplish that is by getting the short passing game going. The Pats can’t rely on Julian Edelman (author of this Tyree-esque gem in last year’s Super Bowl) this time around, but Danny Amendola might be the next best thing. He’s been a horse in the playoffs, totaling 18 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns in wins over Tennessee and Jacksonville. I expect Amendola to be similarly involved this week, though he gets a tough draw against Patrick Robinson, who was one of the best slot corners in the league this year.

 

If there’s one thing Brady loves it’s throwing to slot receivers. If there are two things he loves, it’s targeting running backs. So expect a heavy dose of James White, Dion Lewis and, health permitting, Rex Burkhead in the passing game. As for downfield weapons, Brandin Cooks is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season and, despite tangling with the likes of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, still managed 100 yards against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship. Drops come with the territory—Cooks tied for eighth-most in the league in that category during the regular season—but he’s usually a lock to draw at least one big pass interference call per game.

 

Cooks will probably spend much of the day battling Ronald Darby, meaning Chris Hogan should have a relatively favorable matchup against left corner Jalen Mills. While Mills has made strides—he moved up from 120th in PFF’s cornerback grades (dead-last) in 2016 to 71st this season—the 23-year-old is still the weak link in Philadelphia’s secondary. Of course, Hogan has been a ghost since his shoulder injury, so who knows if he’ll be able to take advantage.

 

In the Trenches: Even without Jason Peters, who was lost to a season-ending ACL tear in Week 7, I think the Eagles have a noticeable edge up front. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson were all absolute studs this year. Combined, those three allowed just six sacks during the regular season. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been a liability filling in for Peters—he earned PFF’s fifth-worst tackle grade this year—so if the Patriots want to make Foles sweat, targeting Vaitai would be their best bet.

 

Though no Patriot eclipsed seven sacks this year—Trey Flowers led the team with 6.5 takedowns—New England quietly tied for seventh in the league with 42 sacks during the regular season. They’ve really turned it on in the playoffs, sacking Marcus Mariota eight times in the Divisional Round before bringing Blake Bortles down three times for a loss of 20 yards in the AFC title game. Former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison has been a rock since defecting from the hated Steelers last month (11 tackles, two sacks on 89 defensive snaps) and has a chance to be a major ex-factor in this game.

 

There’s no proven formula for beating Tom Brady. If there was, more teams would beat him. But the few teams that have fared well against Brady usually have one thing in common—they bring the heat. Blitzing Brady is always risky because he has such a quick release and has no problem hitting receivers in the short passing game. However, In Brady’s most recent playoff loss against Denver in 2015, he was sacked four times for a loss of 18 yards. Similarly, he was dropped five times against the Giants in Super Bowl XLII and twice more in Super Bowl XLVI (also a loss to the Giants). The Eagles weren’t among the league-leaders in sacks during the regular season—they finished middle of the pack—but Philadelphia still has plenty of pass-rushing talent on the edge with Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Chris Long (a former Patriot) while DT Fletcher Cox has also shown a knack for getting to the quarterback. That puts enormous pressure on LT Nate Solder to protect Brady’s blind side.

 

Special Teams: Stephen Gostkowski is perennially one of the league’s best kickers and continued that trend by drilling 37-of-40 attempts (92.5 percent) during the regular season with a long of 62 against Oakland in Week 11. Jake Elliott doesn’t have the experience Gostkowski has, but the rookie certainly has a big leg, which he showed by booting a walk-off, 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants in Week 3. Sunday should be a breeze for both kickers with no weather conditions to contend with indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium.

 

Dion Lewis averaged 24.8 yards per return on kickoffs this year, which was fourth-best in the league. The Patriots also have stud special teamer Matthew Slater, who earned his seventh-straight Pro Bowl nod as a gunner this year.

 

Well, that about covers it. I’ll have my prediction for you later in the week, but until then, enjoy all the festivities at Mall of America, the site of this year’s Super Bowl media junket. 



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
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