By Steve Silverman
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Jim Schwartz has a somewhat shaky reputation in the NFL when it comes to leading a team because of his erratic behavior when he was the head coach of the Detroit Lions from 2009 to 2013.
However, when it comes to building a defense and designing a winning game plan, Schwartz, now the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator, is widely respected. He is facing his biggest test and perhaps the greatest opportunity of his career when the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday.
The Eagles clearly have an excellent defense that ranked fourth during the regular season in yards allowed. Schwartz wants his defense to attack the pocket and pressure the quarterback, and he has excellent weapons on his side.
Defensive end Brandon Graham, who 9½ sacks in the regular season, has the speed and power to take on the role of Denver’s Von Miller in the Philadelphia defense. He may not be quite at Miller’s level, but he can come around the corner and win the battle against opposing right tackles.
Graham will be a challenge for Patriots tackle Cameron Fleming. He is going to need assistance in keeping the talented Eagles defensive end from getting in Tom Brady’s face.
Additionally, Fletcher Cox and Chris Long are capable of providing additional interior pressure, and that’s why the Eagles have an excellent chance of disrupting the New England offense.
However, the big test is not whether the Eagles are going to slow Brady, Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski down. That is likely to happen. It’s difficult to see the Patriots running roughshod over this unit.
The issue is what will Schwartz and the Eagles defense come up with in the late stages of the game? That’s when Brady has earned his reputation as perhaps the best quarterback in the history of the game. He led the Pats back from a 28-3 deficit in last year’s Super Bowl against the Falcons and from a 10-point impost in the AFC title game against Jacksonville.
Is Schwartz capable of winning the battle against Bill Belichick and Brady when the Vince Lombardi Trophy is on the line?
It will be difficult, but Schwartz and the defense should at least have a chance.
The New England defense, meanwhile, appears to be in a more difficult position. While the Patriots have improved since a miserable start in their first four games of the season, they ranked 28th in yards allowed this season and are vulnerable against versatile offensive teams.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is not concerned about yardage his team gives up between the 20-yard lines. That’s a sharp philosophy for the soon-to-be head coach of the Lions because his team is incapable of playing shutdown defense.
Patricia is concerned about points allowed, and the Patriots have given up 17 or fewer points in 11 of their last 14 games. While that’s fairly remarkable considering the talent level the Pats have on defense, they may not be able to stop the Eagles.
If the moment is not too big for quarterback Nick Foles – certainly not a given – just how are the Patriots going to slow down Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith and Zach Ertz?
The Patriots must pressure Foles with Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy, and while both are winning players, neither one is a dominant pass rusher who can be expected to take over the game.
The Patriots will depend on safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung for leadership and big plays from the back end, but that’s a dangerous way to go about your business in the NFL. If your safeties are making the majority of the tackles, that means they are cheating and likely to leave the deep part of the field open for Foles to make big plays with Jeffery, Agholor and Smith.
If Patricia plays it safer, the Eagles may be able to tear the Patriots up with short- and mid-range passes.
The Pats may need an X-factor on defense to slow down the Eagles, and it could be former Steeler James Harrison. He has six tackles in two postseason games, but he appeared more dangerous in the AFC title game than he did the week before against the Titans.
If he continues to ascend, he may be able to make a big play and put fear in the minds of Foles and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson.
It will always be difficult to find a way to slow down Brady at the game’s most crucial moments, but the Philadephia defense appears to be far more capable than New England’s.
It will come down to fourth-quarter execution, and that’s when Schwartz must be at his best if the Eagles are going to win their first Super Bowl.
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