BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Watching a lot of film on an opponent is a big part of how Jalen Mills prepares. Worrying about it is not.
Nobody at Super Bowl LII seems to be having a better time than Mills, the Eagles’ second-year starting cornerback, the guy who has kept the top of his head looking like a swath of 1970s bright, lime-green shag carpet since shortly after he was drafted in the seventh round in 2016.
There might be no one who better embodies the spirit of this Eagles team, the brashness, the aggressive approach, the resilience. Asked to sum up the Patriots, Mills talked about how well they execute. Asked the same question about the Birds, he said: “I’d say we had a lot of swag.”
At Monday’s Super Bowl opening night, which was held indoors, as will be everything else connected with this venture into the frozen North, including the game, Mills sported a pair of funky sunglasses, pushed halfway down his nose. Right tackle Lane Johnson, also not known for inhibition, wore a similar pair, which Johnson said he’d borrowed from running back Jay Ajayi.
“Mine were a little bit cheaper. He’s got a little more money in his pocket,” said Mills, whose base salary in 2017 was $540,000. Johnson’s was $7.75 million.
Mills said he definitely is enjoying himself.
“You got to. You don’t work this hard, all the way from April, to get to this point now to be uptight,” he said. “I think you work this hard to enjoy this experience.”
Safety Rodney McLeod spoke Tuesday at the podium next to the one Mills occupied. McLeod said the same traits that make Mills an up-and-coming young player also inform his off-field persona.
“He’s going to be a great player for some years to come. His energy and his passion that he plays with, you see on and off the field,” McLeod said.
Mills typically studies everything he can on both the receivers and the quarterback he will be facing in the next game. When the opposing QB is Tom Brady, how do you get your arms around that? How do you even approach the task?
“You don’t really focus on the player,” Mills said. “You focus more on how they’re trying to attack different types of defenses. You focus on who he’s keying in on, and what side of the field he’s keying in on.”
But even if you focus on what he’s doing rather than who he is, the bottom line isn’t any easier – you have to find a way to stop or limit what he’s doing.
“It all starts with No. 12, just trying to get him off the spot,” Mills said. “He’s really good at the line of scrimmage, making corrections and putting guys in motion and putting them in the right places. … [The important thing is] giving him different looks. You can’t give him the same look. Once you do that, he starts shredding you.
“He’s putting guys in the right position. He knows matchups very, very well, and he’s trying to put his guys in the best matchup possible. You don’t see that from a lot of quarterbacks. You see a lot of quarterbacks get the call [from the sideline], they make a few changes at the line of scrimmage. He’s doing it with the whole offense. … The running backs, the receivers, the tight ends – he’s a guy who has full control of the offense.”
To an outsider, this matchup might look unsettlingly like the Dec. 17 game at the New York Giants, in which an experienced, accomplished, immobile quarterback, Eli Manning, negated the Eagles’ pass rush with excellent touch and timing off three-step drops. The Eagles won, 34-29, but Manning threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns.
Eagles defenders said afterward they didn’t read the three-step drops well and didn’t tackle well in space. Given Brady’s limited mobility at 40, three-step drops and tackling in space might become an issue Sunday.
“They’ve got a lot of guys over there who are really good in open space. We’re going to have to cover the whole field. He’s a guy that can throw it from the left side of the field all the way over to the right,” Mills said.
Mills resisted the Giants comparison. He said the Pats undoubtedly chose that tape in their preparation because they’d want to see what worked against the team they’re playing. But the offenses are different, he said.
“Two different quarterbacks. Two way different systems, for sure,” Mills said.
Also, the Eagles’ defense seemed to gather itself after that game, the third in a string of uncharacteristic efforts, all on the road. In the four games the team has played since, all at home, the defense hasn’t allowed more than 10 points.
Super Bowl LII won’t be a road game, exactly. Whether it’s like a home game might depend on how many Eagles fans were willing to spend thousands of dollars, and how many Vikings fans, many of whom have adopted the Patriots, held on to their seats.