The Key to a Patriots Victory Is Simple … and Not What You’d Think
New England’s defensive line might be the most overlooked unit in football. And they’ve been silently dominating the playoffs.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Touchdown Tommy deserves a leisurely fourth quarter.
Many of the questions heading into Super Bowl LII revolve around the quarterbacks. Will the Eagles stop Tom Brady? Can Nick Foles deliver Philadelphia its first Super Bowl title ever? But, defensively, it all comes down to the hottest defensive line in football. Entering the final game, one team boasts the most productive defensive front in football — a deep, versatile bunch that will prove crucial in a championship victory. Thing is, it’s probably not the side that you think.
The Patriots have a league-leading 11 sacks in the postseason, with eight different players registering at least one sack — the most by any team.
While both teams entered the playoffs as No. 1 seeds, Philadelphia and New England are two vastly different squads. After quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL and LCL, the Eagles were given no chance to end up in Minnesota. But dominant performances by their offensive and defensive lines, plus a dynamic running attack and strong play from Foles has the 4-point underdog oozing confidence.
Meanwhile, New England matches that confidence in spades because, well, they’re New England. Led by the astonishing Tom Brady, the reigning champs boast not only the league’s most productive offense, but also its most efficient. As has been the case for the past decade in New England, the defense is essentially an afterthought. All they have to do is hold opponents close enough for Brady to stage another epic comeback, right?
[Trey Flowers] is the guy we need to watch. … He’s their most versatile man on defense.
Lane Johnson, offensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles
“We’ve got an amazing quarterback who’s been doing this for years,” says Trey Flowers, New England’s third-year do-it-all defensive end. “As defenders, we know what we’re capable of. We’re not looking for notoriety, we’re just here to take care of business.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia agrees: “[Outside perception] doesn’t matter to us inside,” he tells OZY. “We’re trying to perform at a high level. Our guys are so hard-working, and it’s really important to them to contribute and help this team win.”
But Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and the offense do overshadow New England’s defense, even in the most magnificent of efforts. But that wasn’t always the case. During Brady’s early days in the 2000s, says NBC studio analyst and former NFL coach Tony Dungy, New England’s defense was king. “So much of that first era, that was the defense,” says Dungy. “Tom Brady was excellent, no question about it, but they ran the ball a lot, they played defense.”
Over the years, New England’s offense became exceptionally advanced, but Patricia’s defense has quietly made progress too. Now, a group that was widely criticized during a slow start to the season has allowed the fifth-least points per game all season. And aside from the postseason leading sacks, what’s so impressive about New England’s front-line success is who’s making the impact. Three Patriots — rookie defensive tackle Adam Butler and defensive ends Geneo Grissom and rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. — each have two sacks in the postseason. Still, no one does more damage than Flowers.
At 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, Flowers is an undersized defensive end. That hasn’t stopped him from wreaking havoc all over the field. “[Flowers] is the guy we need to watch,” says Philadelphia’s All-Pro offensive tackle Lane Johnson. “They move him all around — he gives pressure on the outside, then they can move him in and attack up the middle. He’s their most versatile man on defense.”
“We ask [Flowers] to handle quite a lot of responsibility,” says Patricia. “His work ethic is amazing in the way he approaches each opponent. He’s been unbelievable.”
But Flowers and company will have their hands full on Sunday. No offensive line is more athletic than Philadelphia’s. If the Patriots’ defensive line fails to stop the run and put pressure on Foles, New England’s championship aspirations could evaporate. With star linebacker Dont’a Hightower on injured reserve, linebacker is a weak spot for Patricia’s defense. Both Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are athletically limited — exactly the type of opponents that the absurdly mobile Eagles offensive line feasts on between the hash marks. If that happens, Philadelphia could abuse New England on the ground, providing a comfortable Nick Foles ample opportunities to shine through the air. It’s the ideal recipe for a shocking upset, and exactly what Patricia fears. “Philly has big-play ability at all times,” he tells OZY. “They scheme and adapt really well, so we have to be a balanced defense [to win].”
But if New England’s defensive line can continue its strong play up front, they may be able to expose the flaws in Foles’ game. The Eagles backup-turned-starter has been great, of late, but he’s flappable.
Who knows — in the end, Touchdown Tommy might even be able to sit back and relax.