Chiefs vs Eagles Super Bowl Analysis: Can Philadelphia’s Defense Slow Patrick Mahomes

Chiefs vs Eagles Super Bowl Analysis: Can Philadelphia’s Defense Slow Patrick Mahomes article feature image

Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images. Pictured: Kyzir White (left), Haason Reddick (right).

The Eagles were the best team in the NFC throughout the season and deserved to make it to the Super Bowl.

Eagles fans and some commentators have taken offense to the idea that Philadelphia’s Super Bowl appearance was aided by a very friendly schedule of opponents — especially quarterbacks. It’s true that you can only play and beat the teams on your schedule, but we’re now trying to project and figure out how the Eagles defense will fare against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

The NFC Championship Game against San Francisco was supposed to be a real test for defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and his defense, which ranked No. 1 in DVOA against the pass. But once Brock Purdy tore his UCL on the first drive of the game and Josh Johnson suffered a concussion on the first possession of the second half, the 49ers had no chance of moving the ball or competing.

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Credit Gannon for his scheme versatility — the Eagles jumped in-breaking routes early and trusted their pass rush to get to Purdy before vertical downfield throws could be completed. On the play Purdy was hurt, Brandon Aiyuk broke open behind the Eagles defense on play action, but Haason Reddick got to Purdy in time to force the fumble (and knock him out of the game).

As good as Philly's defensive line was in the game overall, it should be noted that play was Purdy’s third dropback of the entire game. We'll never know how the chess match between Kyle Shanahan and Gannon would've played out with a healthy Purdy.

There are a few things we know about the Eagles defense since Gannon became coordinator at the start of the Nick Sirianni era in 2021:

He’s pretty passive and trusts his defensive line to generate pressure without bringing extra rushers. He’s a zone-first defensive coordinator. He looks to take away explosives at all costs — a trend of modern and new-age defensive coordinators. This no-blitz and passive approach has drawn the ire of some in Philadelphia, but the results have mostly been good.

There are a few exceptions, and they all have one thing in common — Philadelphia has struggled to defend great pocket passers and elite processors.

The Eagles had their way against middling quarterbacks and below. They shut down Daniel Jones on two occasions this season. They sacked Carson Wentz six times, made Kenny Pickett look like an overmatched rookie and overwhelmed the hapless Colts with Matt Ryan.

The games against good passing offenses and quarterbacks, however, have been significantly more worrisome. The sample is small, but the Eagles only played three quarterbacks that finished the season in the top 10 in EPA per play (min. 320 attempts).

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The three games against top-10 quarterbacks:

  1. In Week 1, Jared Goff and the Lions scored 35 points (indoors) and had a 82% series success rate. That means Detroit converted a new set of downs from 1st and 10 at a rate more than 10% above league average.
  2. The Eagles faced Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville in a heavy rain storm (Week 4). Lawrence fumbled the ball five times and neither offense was able to effectively pass. I’m willing to claim that as an outlier.
  3. Dak Prescott hosted the Eagles on Christmas Eve (Week 16) and completely torched the the secondary. Prescott had enough protection for the most part and threw a ton of seams and in-breakers that torched Gannon’s zone scheme. Prescott did throw an early pick-six, but then he led Dallas to 40 points in one of the most efficient games of his career. Dallas had a 57% success rate on early down pass attempts.

Here’s the most troubling statistic from that showing against Prescott — the best quarterback Philadelphia has faced this season:

Prescott's final numbers vs #Eagles:
vs zone: 24/24, 300 yards, 12.5 ypa, 3 TD
vs man: 3/11, 47 yards, 4.3 ypa, 1 INT

— Deniz Selman (@denizselman33) December 25, 2022

The Eagles play in the NFC, which is a major reason why they didn’t face guys like Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson.

The concerns extend beyond this list when considering Aaron Rodgers and the Packers put up 33 points in Week 12 and pretty much got whatever they wanted on early downs.

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This isn’t a specific problem for the Eagles defense this year, either. The story of the 2021 Eagles was pretty simple: If they played a good quarterback, they usually lost. If they played a mediocre or bad one, they usually won.

The Eagles' losses in 2021 came to Prescott (twice), Mahomes, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady (twice), Derek Carr, Justin Herbert and a fluke 13-7 loss to Daniel Jones in Jalen Hurts’ worst career game.

Gannon has the benefit of improved talent across the defense to overcome his potential schematic issues against the best quarterbacks. The Eagles signed a premier pass rusher in Reddick and added C.J. Gardner-Johnson at safety, along with James Bradberry to play corner opposite of Darius Slay. The upgraded talent allows Gannon to do more than just sit in passive zones that enabled Mahomes to torch his defense last September.

The advanced box score from that game shows how little resistance the Eagles offered against Mahomes. The Chiefs converted a first down on 31 of their 32 series, with an interception as the only time the Eagles made a stop. Kansas City had the ball seven times and scored six touchdowns without punting.

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It’s not the only time Gannon has faced Mahomes. Gannon had decent success in 2018 and '19 when he was the defensive backs coach under Matt Eberflus in Indianapolis.

On the aggregate, there are some concerns about how the Eagles' supposedly elite secondary will fare against the best quarterback in the NFL.

The Eagles' defense and their strength of schedule will be talked about a bunch this week.

Are the concerns valid?

The splits are interesting to say the least…

— Connor Allen (@ConnorAllenNFL) January 30, 2023

Mahomes had his issues against the two-high look in 2021, but he’s moved beyond that and improved from the pocket in '22. He was the No. 1 quarterback against zone this season and will face a zone-heavy scheme in the Super Bowl.

You also can’t really blitz or truly rattle him with pressure. Here’s Mahomes’ splits this season when pressured, when blitzed and when kept clean, per Pro Football Focus.

Image via Pro Football Focus.

Entering the NFC Championship Game, I wrote about how neither San Francisco nor Philadelphia had been truly tested against other elite teams because of weak strength of schedule.

The Eagles won the NFC Title and that can’t be taken away from them, but the manner in which the game played out didn’t give any inclination of how they’ll defend the league’s best pass offense and quarterback on Super Bowl Sunday.

If the elite 49ers defense wasn’t able to slow Mahomes when the two teams met in the regular season, maybe there really was a gulf between the top of the NFC and AFC. The Eagles certainly have the offensive firepower to stick with the Chiefs if Hurts is effective as a passer.

The Eagles also have the unquestionably more talented roster overall, but the modern NFL is all about pass offense.

Kansas City is expecting to have almost all — or all — of its pass-catchers healthy. Mahomes has two extra weeks to rest his ankle and now Andy Reid has two weeks to scheme up some wrinkles to beat a good defense that has blinked when facing great competition.

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