Football is arguably the greatest team sport. Twenty-two players on the field each with a role on any given play. But it’s also a game of matchups. Super Bowl LII between the Eagles and Patriots will provide plenty of intriguing one-on-one battles. Here are five to watch:
MALCOLM JENKINS VS. ROB GRONKOWSKI
Gronkowski, who suffered a concussion in the AFC championship, cleared protocol this week and he will play Sunday. Aside from Tom Brady, of course, he will draw the Eagles’ most attention. Gronkowski is not only the best tight end in the NFL today, he may be the best all time.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will scheme many ways to cover Gronk, who the Patriots line up all over and employ in a variety of ways. But Jenkins will likely get the call in man-to-man situations.
Schwartz: What makes Gronk so different … is he’s so tall, he’s so big, he’s so strong that he has the ability to create some space even if there’s no real room as far as coverage goes.
Here’s Gronk (No. 87) lining up in the slot. He gets chipped off the line, is grabbed before his release and he still creates separation.
Here he is at the end of the line in a three-point stance. The Jaguars bit on play-action and Gronk found space at the second level.
Jenkins: He, in himself, is obviously a huge target, big body, knows how to use his body to get between you and the ball. And then, for a guy who’s that big, he’s running a ton of vertical routes, so he’s stretching the field.
Gronkowski can also split wide, which often singles him up against a safety.
Schwartz: They move him around so much that it makes it hard to [double]. A lot of times when you’re a tight end on the inside part of the field, whether it’s two-deep safety or middle-of-the-field safety or even a quarter safety, you sort of have a safety over top. But they line him up as a No. 1 wide receiver a bunch of times, too.
As the above gif shows, Brady can throw to Gronk even if the coverage is good, whether it’s on back shoulders or jump balls.
Jenkins: When all else fails, Tom Brady can throw him open, and he catches anything that comes in his wingspan. It’s going to be a tough matchup, one that I’m looking forward to.
Jenkins is a jack of many trades. Schwartz isn’t going to have him trail Gronk. But it’s a matchup the ultra-competitive Jenkins will want. It’s going to be his toughest test since facing off against the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce in Week 2.
Kelce got the better of Jenkins (No. 27) on the outside with this double move.
But Jenkins fought back a few plays later and had good coverage on this crosser from the slot.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski has a considerable size advantage over 6-foot, 205-pound Jenkins and the Patriots will likely use that edge the most in the red zone. Six of Gronkowski’s eight touchdowns came inside the 20 this season.
Brady loves to go to him near the goal line on quick outs.
There’s almost no defending it.
The same goes for the corner fade.
MYCHAL KENDRICKS VS. JAMES WHITE
Schwartz: We talked about the Gronkowski matchup, but I think every bit as key in this game is the matchup on the running backs, and not just in the run game, but the passing game. Using those guys are receivers, free releases from the backfield, screen game.
The Patriots have six running backs on their roster, including a fullback, but they basically go with Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. All three can catch the ball, but Lewis and White are the most dangerous.
Kendricks: I really honestly think that they’re pretty much the same guy. They’re agile. They’re small. Quick as [heck]. Out of the backfield they’re really effective.
White specializes in the passing game, however. Last year, he caught a Super Bowl record 14 passes.
Schwartz: He’s a little bit unique. He was obviously a big part of their win last year. … We like our pass rush and I think our pass rush can be effective. But they’ll try to neutralize that by trying to get the ball out quick to the running backs and to use it as an extension of the running game. He’s not the biggest guy in the world but I think sometimes that works to his advantage.
Two years ago, when the Eagles faced the Patriots, Kendricks (No. 95) was often tasked with covering White (No. 28). He struggled. The linebacker is a different player playing in a different scheme now, but Brady went at him in that game.
On both these plays his recognition was late and he was picked out of coverage.
Nine of White’s ten catches that day came after the half as the Patriots rallied. The Patriots will have their share of rub route concepts against man defense. But if Schwartz runs a lot of zone (unlikely) Brady loves to dump to White, who is good after the catch, in part because his quarterback is so precise.
White: We’ll see how they declare how they’ll play us after the first one or two drives.
Kendricks had a difficult time covering running backs in Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme. But Schwartz has cut down on his responsibilities and allowed him to play more instinctively.
Lewis: He’s always been an athletic linebacker. From when I was there I remember he was always fast, ran a 4.4 something. … He’s one of the guys they use in man-to-man situations.
JASON KELCE VS. MALCOLM BROWN
The Eagles will likely need to control both lines of scrimmages if they want to win. I broke down their defensive line last week, but the o-line will be just as important, especially establishing the run.
Brown (No. 90) is force inside for the Patriots, who are multiple up front. The defensive tackle has increasingly lined up over the center in run situations. Guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski will sometimes see Brown when he’s a three-technique, but Kelce (No. 62) will likely face him the most.
Kelce: He’s a really good player. He’s athletic. He bends well so he plays with good leverage. Watch him two-gap a center – it’s like he’s mirroring him, he’s not behind him the way a lot of guys are in some situations.
Kelce: And on double teams he plays with good technique. He holds the center, prevents him from getting to the second level so the linebackers can run free. He does a good job of eating up two guys.
The Patriots allowed 4.7 yards per carry during the regular season, which was second to last in the NFL. But they’ve been more sound in the postseason (3.5 avg.).
Kelce: When they’re going up against a good run team, they do a lot of jam front where they line him up right over the nose of the center and then two three-techniques.
A two-gap 3-4 front accounts for the extra gap that a one-gap 4-3 front, like the Eagles have, doesn’t.
Eagles running back Jay Ajayi: They’re stout up front. They got a lot of big guys on their defensive line that they try to stay within their gaps and stay gap disciplined.
Kelce hasn’t seen many 3-4 nose guards this season. In the past, he struggled against big-body types. The 319-pound Brown will have a 20-pound advantage, but Kelce has been maybe the best run-blocking center in the NFL this season. He’s done just fine against zero-technique run stoppers.
Brown: He’s quick and he’s smart. Athletic. Knows what he has to do on each play and gets the job done.
Kelce didn’t see much of Brown two years ago, and never against him from the nose, but the defensive tackle did get penetration vs. the center on this Chip Kelly outside zone run.
ZACH ERTZ VS. PATRICK CHUNG
Chung is the Patriots’ Jenkins. He has several roles. But Ertz is likely to see the former Eagles safety the most on Sunday. Chung had his issues during his one year with the Eagles. But he works in New England’s scheme because he’s physical and versatile.
Ertz: The scheme is great for him. He’s extremely versatile. He’ll line up as a dime linebacker, he’ll line up at safety, he’ll line up at nickel. So as a team we got to identify where he’ll be at in their scheme.
The Patriots play a ton of Cover 1 and Cover 2 man defense and Chung (No. 23) like to press.
Ertz: We got to start by getting off the line of scrimmage. He’s extremely good at kind of pressing and holding at the line of scrimmage. So we have to get off the jam.
Chung: Those guys are big. I kind of want to get my hands on them a little faster. But sometimes you got to play off.
Chung will sometimes struggle with pattern recognition.
In the meeting two years ago, the Patriots switched up safeties on Ertz. On this touchdown catch, he beat Devin McCourtey on a post.
Chung: He’s a savvy player. Good route technique. Good hands. Big dude and he can run for a big dude. He’s just a really good player.
Ertz did a great job of fending off the jam. But he typically has more trouble against physical safeties. Give him space, however, and he’ll likely win.
NELSON AGHOLOR VS. ERIC ROWE
Agholor could be the X-factor for the Eagles. He should have the edge vs. Rowe. But he won’t exclusively face the former Eagles cornerback. The Patriots have their regular nickel package (Rowe in the slot) and their big nickel (Chung in the slot).
And when Rowe’s on the field, he isn’t always inside.
Rowe: Obviously, I would prefer [outside] because it’s more [my] body type.
Rowe was the odd man out, so to speak, after the Patriots acquired Stephon Gilmore. So he asked to move inside during training camp.
Rowe: It was tough. Techniques I would have on the outside don’t work on the inside. … On the inside sometimes I would push them into their route.
He still has trouble against two-way goes.
But Rowe, who was traded to the Patriots just before the 2016 season, has size and closing speed.
He’s physical, too. Here he sheds a rub route and teams up with McCourty to thwart a third and long conversion try.
Agholor and Rowe were the Eagles’ top two drafts picks in 2015.
Agholor: I kind of have a feel for his mannerism. We spent a good amount of time together. And I feel he probably has a good feel for my mannerisms.
Coincidentally, both started their careers outside only to move more predominantly inside this season. Agholor has flourished in the slot.
Rowe: I even thought the slot was more for him. He’s very good in space. He’s obviously quick. Great route running skills. Change of direction. Outside you don’t really get that much space to work with.
The Eagles have increasingly lined Agholor up in a variety of locations.
Rowe: He’s kind of the gadget guy. If we see him in a different spot everybody will have their antennas up.