- By D. Orlando Ledbetter The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In two Super Bowl losses against the New York Giants, New England quarterback Tom Brady was harassed by a relentless pass rush.
In a 17-14 New York win in February 2008, Brady was sacked five times and hit nine times. In a 21-17 New York win in February 2012, Brady was sacked twice and hit eight times.
The Eagles, with a pass rush led by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, plan to follow the New York blueprint in this year’s Super Bowl, which is set for 6:30 p.m. Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We like our pass rush, but those guys will try to neutralize it by getting the ball out quick to the running backs,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Wednesday. “Trying to use them sort of as an extension of their running game.”
Schwartz, a long-time defensive coordinator and former Detroit Lions head coach, has coached several star defensive tackles including Albert Haynesworth, Kevin Carter, Ndamukong Suh and Marcell Dareus at other stops around the NFL.
He contends that Cox compares favorably with each of them.
“Fletcher is a great athlete, and he’s got great size,” Schwartz said. “He’s good in the run game and the pass game. All those guys are similar in that they are not one-trick ponies. He’s not just a run-stopper. He’s not just a pass-rusher. He can do it all.”
The Eagles had one sack and eight quarterback hits against the Vikings in their 38-7 victory in the NFC title game. The week before, the Eagles had three sacks and 11 quarterback hits against the Falcons in the 15-10 win in the divisional round.
During the regular season, the Eagles used a committee approach, as four players had five or more sacks. Graham (9.5), Cox (5.5), rookie Derek Barnett (five) and Chris Long (five). The Eagles totaled 38 sacks, which ranked 15th in the NFL.
The Patriots’ offensive line, which is anchored by center David Andrews, a former Georgia standout, and guard Shaq Mason, a former Georgia Tech standout, gave up 35 sacks during the regular season, which ranked 18th in the league.
In addition to Cox, the Eagles’ defensive ends appear to have an advantage over New England tackles Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming. Graham and Vinny Curry start, while Barnett and Long play in the rotation.
“We match up well because everybody has a different skill-set,” Graham said. “Some people are speed. Some people are power. Some of us can switch up and go speed-to-power. There are so many different guys that you have to plan for because all of us have different games.”
Schwartz expects Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to play and be a major factor. He’s been in the league’s concussion protocol since taking a big hit in the AFC title game against Jacksonville on Jan. 21.
“They move him around so much that it makes it hard to (double-team him),” Schwartz said. “A lot of times when you are a tight end, the inside part of the field, whether it’s a two-deep safety or a middle of the field safety, or even a quarter safety, you have to be sure to have a safety over the top of him. But they line him up as the No. 1 wide receiver a bunch of times, too.”
Philadelphia safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod will spend plenty of time defending Gronkowski and buzzing around his routes.
“The thing that makes Gronk different is that he’s so big, so tall and so strong that he has the ability to create some space even if there is no real room as far as coverage goes,” Schwartz said. “That’s probably the biggest challenge, his size, especially on the outside.”
The Eagles plan to mix up their coverages.
“He’s a high-percentage target for Tom,” cornerback Jalen Mills said. “He’s a guy who has strong hands. He can catch the ball. You have to know where he’s at all time.”
The Eagles expect Brady will rely on his running backs on short routes.
“The running back matchup is a big thing,” Schwartz said. “(James) White, (Dion) Lewis and (Rex) Burkhead, all of those guys do a good job of lining up in different formations and being active in the passing game.”
Last season, White caught 14 of 16 targets for 110 yards in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons.
“He uses those guys as receivers out of the backfield and in the screen game,” Schwartz said.
The Eagles know that beating Brady will be difficult.
“We just want to show Tom different looks,” Mills said. “You can’t give him the same looks. He picks up things really, really quick. That’s when he starts to shred you.”
The Falcons attacked Brady while building their 28-3 lead last season. They registered sacks and jumped routes, but couldn’t close the deal. Brady adjusted and out-flanked the Falcons’ defensive coaching staff.
The Eagles think they learned a lesson from the Falcons’ collapse.
“You have to be able to adapt quickly,” Mills said. “Something that can be working, but then they’ll switch their game plan up and you have to be able to adapt. See how they are attacking you and adapt to it.”
The Eagles remember how the Giants beat the Patriots, too.
“I remember David Tyree,” defensive tackle Tim Jernigan said. “I’ll never forget that catch. I haven’t gone back to watch those Super Bowl games. We have to control us. It’s the Eagles against the Patriots. We have to control what we do better than what they do.”