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Five Eagles Defensive Tendencies That Could Define Super Bowl LVII

Only two teams in NFL history produced more sacks in a single season than the 2022-23 Eagles. How will the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs respond?

For 20 consecutive weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense has known no equal. From naysayers to nose tackles, Andy Reid’s group has had answers to every question on the test that was the 2022-23 NFL season. The biggest of them all, fittingly, comes against a dominant Philadelphia Eagles defense.

Philadelphia comes in riding high after allowing just 14 points total over two postseason games. For reference, this level of defensive brilliance hasn’t been seen since the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. On one side, there’s the argument that Patrick Mahomes hasn’t yet faced a defense of this magnitude; on the other, there’s the case that the Eagles haven’t lined up against a quarterback quite like No. 15.

Which side wins out? Last week, we took a glance at five Eagles offensive tendencies to consider ahead of Super Bowl LVII. Here, let’s take a look at five defensive tendencies.

The Eagles' secondary is second-to-none

No team allowed fewer passing yards per game (179.8) to the opposition than the Eagles did this season. Boasting a three-headed monster of Darius Slay, James Bradberry — who, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap of any perimeter corner (min. 250 snaps) — and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, the Eagles will have versatility. Slay’s containment of Justin Jefferson in Week 2 immediately comes to mind.

This isn’t to say that the Eagles’ secondary isn’t exploitable. Per Football Outsiders, they had the second-best DVOA against No. 1 receivers and the fourth-best against No. 2 receivers. But against all other wideouts (No. 3 and beyond), they ranked No. 22, which introduces one of the ways Kansas City can potentially attack.

As some have noted, if the Chiefs can keep the Eagles out of their sub-packages, there are enticing matchups for the likes of Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon, whose receiving yards (512) ranked fourth-most among RBs this year.

One way to keep Philadelphia in a base defense is through a Chiefs staple: multiple-TE sets. The first clip shows an example of how that might look, with Kansas City in 12-personnel (one RB, two TEs). Utilizing Kadarius Toney with a quick orbit motion to both shift the second level to the left and gain intel on coverage, the Chiefs get McKinnon against a late-reacting linebacker on the way to a score. Plays like this could make him a player to watch. 

There’s no stopping Travis Kelce, but...

In the Chiefs-Eagles game from Week 4 of 2021, Philadelphia provided its best effort in doing so.

The future Hall of Fame tight end would need a fake mustache and a sombrero to somehow go unnoticed during Super Bowl LVII. It’s certainly no hot take, but No. 87 will command the lion’s share of the Eagles’ defensive attention. One look at Kelce’s box score statistics — four catches (on six targets) and 23 yards — might suggest that the Eagles had him completely under wraps, though this isn’t completely accurate. It’s important to remember that during that game, the Eagles went with that once-classic “eliminate one” strategy, bracketing Kelce while allowing Tyreek Hill to explode for an 11-catch, 186-yard game.

Even without the All-22, you can sort of see an example here. The Eagles committed three(!) defenders to Kelce’s route — one inside, one outside, and another over the top.

Containing tight ends is nothing new to the Eagles; they have the sixth-best DVOA against the position. Interestingly enough, a few weeks later on Monday Night Football, the New York Giants went to a similar strategy of bracketing Kelce and putting Bradberry — whom you might recognize as an Eagle now — on Kelce. Patrick Graham’s quotes on defending Kelce were particularly interesting. It’s unclear whether the Eagles would attempt this again, but it is something to consider.

Don’t mistake this for thinking Kelce wasn’t brilliant in his own right. This was the game infamous for his personally-designed “Tom & Jerry” play, where he took advantage of Philadelphia’s belief that he would get the underhand pass as he’s known to do. Throughout that afternoon, Kelce’s gravity and man-zone IDs with his motioning played a key role in opening the offense up.

No answer for No. 15?

All season long, defensive coordinators have been faced with sleepless nights in determining how to defend both Mahomes and Jalen Hurts. For as great as the Eagles have been, Sunday’s matchup will be by far their most difficult. As noted by The Ringer’s Sheil Kapadia, Mahomes ranks No. 1 in EPA/play against man coverage, zone, blitzes, no blitzes, and two-high.

Playing the game of elimination, the Eagles could feasibly attempt to go with a strategy that we’ve seen at least slow down past versions of Mahomes. With their record-breaking pass rush, it allows them the luxury of dropping seven (or more) players into coverage whilst still getting pressure.

What’s noticeable on a lot of these sacks — take this one on Trevor Lawrence for example — is just how quickly the Eagles’ edge-rushers are off of the line of scrimmage. This is evidenced in their pass rush win rates, where they’re one of just two teams with multiple players among the top-10: Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat. The simple four-man rush allows Philly to play quarters (or quarter-half) at one of the NFL’s highest rates, thus opening the door for coverage sacks.

If there’s anyone capable of overcoming this, Mahomes would likely be the one to do it.

It takes one to know one

For as dangerous as the Eagles’ rushing attack has been, their run defense has been arguably just as much of an X-factor. There are few holes to exploit as it relates to their defense as a whole, but the Chiefs could take advantage of a Philadelphia front that allows 4.6 yards per carry (eighth-worst in the NFL).

The Eagles have re-tooled their defensive trenches and gotten healthier, acquiring the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph. A loss on Monday Night Football to the Washington Commanders, though, revealed a blueprint worth considering. That night, the Commanders ran the ball 49 times, winning the time of possession 40:24 to 19:36. The biggest message:

It’s easier said than done and won’t guarantee a victory; the Eagles won the time of possession battle in nine of 17 regular-season games. Pounding the other team through the ground game is also not something we’ve come to perennially associate with Reid-led teams.

The vulnerabilities are there, though. The Eagles bring in a defense that ranked No. 21 in rushing DVOA and one that was the NFL’s second-worst in the red zone. Prior to the NFC Championship Game, they had allowed 115-plus rushing yards in their last six games. Mahomes will undoubtedly be the star to watch on Sunday but for Kansas City to win its second Super Bowl in four years, he can’t be the only star.

The unstoppable forces meet immovable objects:

Much has been made of the trench battle, and rightfully so. Factoring in both the offensive and defensive lines, there are six All-Pros (three from each team).

These two teams are infinitely similar in that they struggled mightily to get to the quarterback last season before turning the game sliders up in 2022-23. Last year, the Eagles and Chiefs both ranked among the bottom-four. This year, fittingly, they are Nos. 1 and 2.

The Eagles, in particular, came two sacks shy of tying the NFL’s all-time single-season record and became the first team to have four players with double-digit sack totals on a single team. The head of the snake, Reddick, led the NFL in sacks and earned this description from ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio: 

“Reddick has emerged as a pass rushing sensation, capable of setting the tone early and closing it out late. He's Justin Verlander and Mariano Rivera combined.”

That sounds intimidating until you remember that the Chiefs’ pass protection was statistically the NFL’s best with a 74.7 pass-block win rate. While acknowledging that much has changed since that Week 4 game in 2021, Orlando Brown Jr. was the only lineman to allow more than one pressure in that 42-30 win.

There are counters to be exploited, and Reid and Eric Bieniemy won’t be shy about bringing those about immediately. Brown and Andrew Wylie are likely to have some assistance in the form of McKinnon’s underrated blocking or some variation of screen passing to keep that aggressiveness honest.

The storylines are endless. From Chris Jones’s opportunity to again stake his claim as the NFL’s best interior defender to Fletcher Cox looking to add to his Canton-caliber résumé, the two Mississippi-born pass rushers will have their eyes set on getting to the opposition’s quarterbacks.

If their decorated careers have taught us anything, it might not even take three Mississippis for them to get there.