MINNEAPOLIS – The Eagles’ defensive linemen knew all week what their primary mission was going to be against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Pressure Tom Brady.
Make him uncomfortable.
Knock him off his spot.
Get in his face and don’t allow him to step up and throw.
But for much of Sunday night’s game, they weren’t able to do any of that. The GOAT sat in the pocket and was as snug as a bug in a rug.
He was pressured just 10 times on 38 dropbacks on the Patriots’ first nine possessions. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 470 yards and three touchdowns on those nine possessions. The Patriots scored on six of them.
He came out in the second half and completed 13 of 15 passes on the Patriots’ first three second-half possessions and threw three straight touchdown passes.
“We couldn’t get frustrated,’’ defensive end Chris Long said. “Tom does a good job of getting the ball out. They used seven-man protections against us. We got chipped a bunch.
“I know people were probably watching at home going, ‘Where’s that Philly rush? Where’s that Philly rush?’ But we kept the faith in our rush, and it came through when we needed it most.’’
It came through after the Eagles recaptured the lead, 38-33, on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz with 2:21 left in the game.
On a second-and-2 at the New England 33, defensive end Brandon Graham lined up to the inside of Long on the left side of the defense, beat Patriots right guard Shaq Mason and stripped the ball out of Brady’s throwing hand as he prepared to pass. Rookie Derek Barnett recovered the loose ball, and just like that, momentum shifted and the Eagles were on their way to their first league championship in 57 years.
“It’s all about one-on-one matchups,’’ said Graham, who had a career-high 9½ sacks this season. “Whenever I can get a one-on-one, I feel like I’m going to win it.
“We just kept working and working. We kept talking to each other and encouraging one another. We said we can’t get frustrated. We have to make a play and win this thing.’’
The Eagles turned Graham’s sack and forced fumble into rookie Jake Elliott’s third field goal of the game, a 46-yarder that gave them an eight-point lead with 1:05 left.
Then they teed off on Brady on the Patriots’ final desperation possession, pressuring him on six of his last eight dropbacks.
“We knew, in a two-minute situation, they weren’t going to run the ball. So our d-line could finally cut it loose,’’ safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “The whole game, they kind of had us on our heels a lot. We knew it was just a matter of time before we could cut those guys loose.’’
Two months ago, in a game that will be remembered largely for Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury, it was Long who came through with a big fourth-quarter strip-sack of Jared Goff that shifted momentum back to the Eagles and ignited a 43-35 win over the Rams.
This time, it was Graham, the Eagles’ 2010 first-round draft pick whose biggest sin has been that he’s not Earl Thomas, who went to Seattle at No. 14, the pick after Graham. What he is, what he has developed into, however, is a relentless pass rusher and run defender who can line up inside or outside and make big plays.
They will never come any bigger than the one he made Sunday. It will be the piece de resistance of his career.
“We had to make a stop on defense,’’ Graham said. “We hadn’t been doing it all game. We let the offense carry us. But we kept coming and it finally opened up for us.
“Basically, I had a one-on-one [with Mason]. I won my matchup. The guys on the back end took away [Brady’s] first read and he had to hang onto the ball a little longer and I was able to just swipe at the ball. It came out. I didn’t even know it had come out until D.B. picked it up.’’
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz moved Graham inside on passing downs a lot this season, and he was very effective against interior linemen.
“You get me one-on-one with those guys, they don’t like to move too much,’’ Graham said. “I try to stretch them as much as I can. All game, they were pushing me up the field [on the outside].
“On the strip-sack, I faked him like I was going to bull [rush] him. I sat down and carved the edge and was able to get by him and get to Brady.
“All game, we were one step away, one step away from Brady. But he kept getting the ball out. He started making some plays. But we didn’t get frustrated. We kept coming. We knew sooner or later something was going to open up.’’
The Eagles didn’t produce a lot of sacks this season. Their 38 sacks ranked only 15th in the league. They finished 22nd in sacks per pass play, and got only five in their three playoff wins.
But they got pressure when they needed it, particularly on third down.
Graham will turn 30 in April. He has one year left on his contract. His cap number for next season is $7.75 million.
“I feel good,’’ he said. “Eight years in. My ninth year coming up. I feel young. Fresh legs. I’ve got a lot of miles left and love the position we’re in right now. I want to keep that going.’’