New England Patriots

The Patriots’ loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2015 regular season has no real bearing on what will happen in Super Bowl LII. But in one particular aspect, the Pats face a similar problem up front to what they dealt with in that stunning letdown two seasons ago.

That’s with the Eagles’ ferocious defensive front, which brings back three players who helped key the Eagles’ 2015 upset. Namely, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, and defensive ends Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry.

Although special teams mistakes and a pick-six by Tom Brady played the biggest roles in the Patriots’ loss that day, the Eagles defense also gave the Patriots trouble in the trenches all afternoon. Graham grabbed two sacks and Cox consistently pushed through the interior.

Those two are arguably playing even better now as they enter the Super Bowl. And it only gets harder with rookie defensive end Derek Barnett, former Patriot Chris Long, and others thrown into the mix.

Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles attempts to tackle Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 6, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles attempts to tackle Tom Brady at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 6, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick knows the challenge ahead of him with the Eagles’ front-four as much as anyone. If only he had literally just four guys to worry about.

“Yeah, it’s a lot more than four. I wish it was just four,” said a surprisingly animated Belichick in his Wednesday press conference. “Yeah, it’s about eight, nine. Again, it’s a very disruptive group.”

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Cox has more than lived up to his first-round status. He emerged as a premier force in the NFL in the 2017 season, earning AP Second Team All-Pro honors at interior lineman, behind only the Rams’ Aaron Donald. The Pro Football Writers Association and Sporting News named him to the First Team. And Belichick already sounds like neutralizing Cox is a top priority.

“I mean, Cox is as good as anybody in the league at his position,” said Belichick. “He’s a very disruptive player. Hard to block, run, pass, no matter what it is.”

Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles walks of the field after his teams win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-7. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles walks of the field after his teams win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-7. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

He continued, complimenting the rest of their deep group: “These guys really play hard. There’s no plays off, so you’re going to have to block them on every play. You can’t get away from them. There’s nowhere to go. You have to deal with that front down after down and they wear you down. It’s a great group. That’s a huge strength for their defense.”

A Real Problem

It’s always worrisome when Tom Brady and the offense have to deal with such a disruptive defensive front. It’s historically a problem when Brady plays poorly, especially with the kind of pressure up the middle that Cox could generate. And it was certainly an issue in that game two years ago, from several of the same Eagles players.

But for the Patriots, the big difference this time is a greater semblance of health on the offensive line. Here’s the Pats’ starters in that 2015 game:

LT Sebastian Vollmer
LG Josh Kline
C Bryan Stork
RG Tre’ Jackson
RT Marcus Cannon

Cannon is the only major injury on the offensive line in 2017. Left tackle Nate Solder is back, while center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are both upgrades. So there’s reason to feel confident that the Patriots can handle these Eagles pass-rushers better in their second meeting. They’re certainly a bit better equipped to handle Cox and others on the interior.

What To Expect from The Eagles’ Defensive Line In The Super Bowl

But at the same time, as Belichick mentioned, there’s also that depth. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to use a deep rotation to keep guys fresh. In the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, the highest snap counts up front went to Graham and Cox with 53 out of a possible 67 (79 percent). Curry, Barnett, Long, Tim Jernigan, and Beau Allen all played an average of about 30 snaps in that game.

Schwartz will need to hope that the defensive linemen can stay fresh for 60 minutes (or more?) against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Conditioning played a big role in the Pats’ big comeback against the Falcons’ speedy front in last year’s Super Bowl.

Belichick and the Patriots offensive line, meanwhile, have a lot of preparing to do for this matchup.