BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — There is a very good chance that Super Bowl LII will come down to the Patriots' passing attack against the Eagles' defense. You've read and heard a lot about New England's transcendent weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, but keeping Gronk under control isn't the only difficult task facing the Birds' secondary Sunday.
Thirty-two-year-old Danny Amendola is one of the NFL's smartest, toughest slot receivers. In some ways he epitomizes the outwardly unimpressive cast of characters the Patriots have assembled around Tom Brady, a group that stands on the threshold of three Super Bowl wins in four seasons. Since Amendola arrived in New England in 2013, he has been more productive in the playoffs than during the regular season.
Playing a little less than half the offensive snaps this season, Amendola caught 61 passes for 659 yards and two touchdowns. That's OK, not great. The Eagles' slot receiver, Nelson Agholor, bettered those numbers in every category (62, 768, and eight). But in the Pats' two postseason games this year, Amendola has 18 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns. In 69 career regular-season games with New England, Amendola has a dozen touchdown catches, a little better than one every six games. In 12 playoff games, he has six TDs. Gronkowski has taken to calling him "Danny Playoff."
Though one never knows, with the way New England shifts people around to manipulate matchups, Amendola ought to face off against Eagles nickel corner Patrick Robinson on Sunday, Robinson having emerged this season as one of the NFL's top slot defenders at age 30.
"He's a very shifty guy. He's in and out of his breaks very quick, very explosive," Robinson said this week, when asked about Amendola. "For me, I really have to stay square, stay focused on him, not let my eyes wander. Sometimes in the slot, as the slot corner, you have a lot of things going on. The main thing for me is to focus on my assignment, what I'm supposed to do."
Amendola said of Robinson: "He's one of the guys that I've been studying a lot. He's incredibly athletic. He's fast, he has long arms, he's strong. He seems to be very instinctive, too."
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, soon to be named the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, talked the other day about the Eagles' secondary, and about Robinson.
"Aggressive, physical. Their corners are going to be right there, they're going to be tight. They put 'em on an island a lot," McDaniels said. "Patrick Robinson has been unbelievable in the slot. He's been as good as any other nickel corner we've seen. … They're deep, talented … they have a great feel and sense for the rush, which I think all good secondaries need to understand how good the guys in front of them are, because it gives them an advantage, a tipoff of where they might be able to sit on routes and those types of things."
Eagles rookie corner Sidney Jones has pretty much spent the season watching and learning – he didn't make it all the way back from Achilles tendon surgery until December. Jones has developed a strong appreciation for Robinson, who is finishing up the best – and healthiest — season of an eight-year NFL career that began as a first-round draft pick in New Orleans.
"It starts off with how professional he is, in general. He does everything right. Pays attention to all the details," Jones said. "He's very technical. Very athletic, fast, and has great ball skills."
Eagles secondary coach Cory Undlin said Robinson is all about the details.
"From my perspective, what Pat has done is he has perfected as closely as he can, and worked relentlessly on, his technique in the slot as the nickel," Undlin said.
Undlin also said that down the stretch, Robinson has benefited from the stability of having Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills man the outside, which has allowed him to focus exclusively on the slot.
"I think it can be a little hard on the guys when you have guys that play [outside] corner for 38 snaps in the game, and then all of a sudden it gets to third down and you have to play nickel," Undlin said. "Everything is completely different. Those two positions are not even close to the same, as far as technique and coverage.
"So, I think it's been a combination of, we have two very good players on the outside, which allows him to stay in there; now you're talking about taking practice reps as the nickel, that's it. Now, he obviously goes outside and plays on the corner if something happens. … But his commitment, and his relentless work ethic to perfect everything that goes on in there, for me it would be the biggest thing.
"Obviously, he's a smart guy, he understands the game. So you can play fast in there. You could be the best athlete on the field, but if you don't know what's going on in there, you can't unwind a short motion, or a shift, or a coverage change like that? It ain't going to be good."
Amendola, undrafted out of Texas Tech, scraped along the first few years of his NFL career, cut by the Cowboys, plucked off the Eagles' practice squad by the Rams in 2009 after Pat Shurmur left the Birds to become the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. Like Robinson, Amendola has succeeded by perfecting his craft, focusing on details.
Former Eagles corner Eric Rowe, now a Patriot, said Amendola is hard to read when you're trying to cover him.
"I feel like he has every route in the route tree that he runs. I mean, usually, with certain guys, you're like, 'He does these couple routes.' With Amendola, he does everything," Rowe said. "His route technique is real good. He doesn't show when he's about to break down or break out. A lot of receivers, they kind of raise up, and you can tell, OK, he's slowing down. Amendola's going full speed, and it's one cut and he's out. Man, it's tough to cover."
Robinson is aware of this.
"For a guy that doesn't give you a lot of tips, you've got to really focus on your technique … playing your assignment perfectly," Robinson said. "A lot of guys can kind of be focused, and then toward the end of the game they kind of lose focus, and that's when things start to happen. That's when those big plays come up."