Malcolm Jenkins keeps spiral notebooks in his locker with handwritten notes about every offense and quarterback he’s faced. Jenkins has played Tom Brady and the New England Patriots three times in his nine-year career. He’ll study those past notes this week, although he realizes they might be for naught come Super Bowl Sunday.
Jenkins, who called his information on the Patriots “pretty detailed,” is impressed by the way the Patriots and Brady can make adjustments during the game. They’re creative with personnel and formations to exploit favorable matchups, but they can adjust what they’re doing based on what the defense presents – and it’s not even at halftime, but also “mid-drive” and “mid-quarter.”
“So everything that my book might say going into the game, three drives in, you’ve got to throw it out because they’ve all been changed,” Jenkins said. “You have to have that flexibility on defense.”
The defense has been the catalyst of the Eagles’ success during the past month, and it could be their best hope of upsetting Brady and the Patriots. It’s the toughest test the Eagles will have all season – the Patriots finished No. 1 in total offense (394.2 yards per game) and were in a virtual tie with the Eagles for No. 2 in scoring offense (28.6 points per game; the Patriots scored one more point). But the Eagles have a confident group after keeping opponents to 8.25 points per game over the past four games, when they haven’t allowed more than 10 points in a game.
“I think we’re playing some of our best ball we’ve played,” Jenkins said. “As the season’s gone on, we’ve figured out what we do best, we figured out what individual guys do best, and how to manipulate the defense to always put us in good spots. We’ve had to learn those lessons as the season’s gone on. The more people tried to attack us different ways, we’ve learned about the defense. Now we’re experts.”
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As potent as Brady and the Patriots’ offense could be, the equalizer is always the pass rush. Brady and coach Bill Belichick have five Super Bowl wins and two Super Bowl losses. The two losses came against the New York Giants when the Giants’ pass rush was the difference.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who is the Eagles’ best defensive player, met with his fellow linemen Wednesday morning. He told them in order to win, they must be disciplined with their rushes and stop the run. If they don’t make Brady uncomfortable, it could be difficult for the back end of the defense.
And if the Eagles have early success, the defense cannot relent. Last year’s Super Bowl, when the Patriots recovered from a 25-point deficit in the second half, remains a fresh memory. Cox remembered a 2015 win at New England when the Patriots cut a 35-14 Eagles lead to 35-28 in the last 5 1/2 minutes. Teams can never count Brady out of a game.
“You’ve got to play 60 minutes against them,” Cox said. “You can’t play just play three quarters. .,.What makes him so unique is he gets rid of the ball fast. He’s not going to take a lot of hits. He knows where he’s going when the ball is snapped. As I say every week, it’s going to come down to front four guys getting after the quarterback, making him uncomfortable in the pocket.”
The Patriots didn’t have star tight end Rob Gronkowski in that 2015 matchup. He suffered a concussion in the AFC championship game and has not yet been cleared to return, although the extra week could allow him to play in the Super Bowl. Gronkowski doesn’t yet have a prominent place in Jenkins’ notes because he hasn’t played in any of the games Jenkins played against New England. Jenkins is often tasked with covering tight ends for the Eagles, so that could be a matchup to watch.
“This is my first-time opportunity,” Jenkins said. “I’ll be looking forward to the matchup. He’s the top tight end in the league for a reason.”
Add in wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan along with running back Dion Lewis and last year’s Super Bowl hero James White, and the Eagles don’t need to be reminded about the challenge ahead of them. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said the Eagles cannot scheme for one player when playing against the Patriots’ offense.
But the Eagles’ defenders are not lacking confidence after the past four games. Of course, all four games were at home, where the Eagles allowed 11 fewer points per game than on the road. And when the Eagles last traveled, they allowed 29.3 points per game during a three-game trip.
The bad news for the Eagles’ defense, in addition to facing Brady and the Patriots, is they’re not playing in Philadelphia. But the good news is it’s not a true road game because it’s at a neutral site. And the Eagles’ euphoria around the region could mean there are E-A-G-L-E-S chants in Minneapolis and the team will be serenaded with “Fly, Eagles, Fly!” on Super Bowl Sunday.
“I think that the fans that are able to make it to Minneapolis, just like the fans that made it to Los Angeles and so many other places along the way for us, they will turn it into a home crowd for us,” Schwartz said. “Our Eagles fans travel. It’s tough travel. The Super Bowl’s a tough ticket. But I think that we’re going to see a lot of green and we’re going to hear a lot of people singing our fight song, as opposed [to the Patriots’ fight song]. So I’m hoping that it’s not a neutral site.”