One of the most fascinating things about football is that even with 22 players on the field at a time, one singular matchup often decides the outcome of a play or even a game. Your right tackle getting dominated can force an offense to alter their entire protection scheme, while a slow cornerback getting matched up with a speedy receiver can force a defensive coordinator to not call certain coverages.
While New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a reputation as a master of exploiting favorable matchups, his counterpart in Philadelphia, Doug Pederson, is no slouch himself. Here are the five biggest mismatches that both coaches will have to account for heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Eagles DE Brandon Graham vs. Patriots RT Cameron Fleming
Graham is a mismatch for nearly any right tackle, let alone the Patriots’ third-stringer. New England has done a great job of providing chips and other types of help for Fleming over the second half of the season, but Graham is uniquely suited to thwart those tactics. A chip really only helps versus pass-rushers trying to win the edge, whereas Graham tends to win directly through the chest of an offensive tackle. His 60 total pressures were 18th-most among edge defenders, but over half of those came via the bull rush or an inside move – a very high rate for an elite edge rusher.
Patriots WR Brandin Cooks vs. Eagles CB Jalen Mills
This is the other matchup alluded to in the introduction. Mills ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 4.61 seconds. Cooks ran it in 4.33 seconds. That’s about as wide a gap as you’ll see in the league, and could almost force the Eagles to have Ronald Darby, who ran a 4.38, match up with Cooks all over the field. The Eagles have only had a cornerback track a wide receiver twice all season. One was Mills tracking Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 3, when he gave up seven catches on 11 targets for 52 yards and two touchdowns. The other was Rasul Douglas in a meaningless Week 17 game. It might be time to employ that strategy a third time.
Eagles G Brandon Brooks vs. Patriots LB Elandon Roberts
These two may not get matched up very often in the run game, but when they do it’s definitely an advantage for Philadelphia. Roberts is all of 6-0, 235 pounds with short arms for the position. He also ranked 77th out of 90 qualifying linebackers in run defense grade this season. Brooks, on the other hand, is 6-foot-5, 335 pounds, with tree trunks for arms, and owns PFF’s fifth-highest run-blocking grade among guards. Dominant blocks at the second level are often the difference between a medium gain and a big gain, and Brooks could very well spring one on Sunday.
Patriots edge defender Trey Flowers vs. Eagles LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai
While the Patriots have their liability on the right side, the Eagles’ exists on the blind side. No tackle allowed his quarterback to get taken to the ground more than Vaitai. He allowed nine sacks and 10 hits during the regular season along with two more hits this postseason. Meanwhile, Flowers has made a living racking up quarterback hits this year. His 31 combined sacks and hits including the postseason are the third-most of any player in the league, and he’s been on a tear with six in two postseason games. Flowers has only spent 46.5 percent of his snaps lined up over left tackles this season, but that could still be enough to change this game.
Patriots CB Malcolm Butler vs. Eagles WR Torrey Smith
This is sort of the inverse of the Cooks/Mills matchup, as Smith has been a one-trick pony with his speed throughout his career and Butler has the wheels to keep up. From Week 10 on this season, the Patriots have played matchups in every single game with their cornerbacks. Butler takes the quicker, shiftier receiver, while Stephon Gilmore takes the taller, more physically imposing wideout. That means it’s very likely Butler spends his day following Smith, and could very well shut him down. The Eagles receiver ranked 84th out of 93 qualifying receivers averaging 0.97 yards per route this season, while Butler allowed catches at the 28th-lowest rate among 86 qualifying corners this year.