Case Keenum played the NFC Championship in a straitjacket. Not literally, of course. He just looked claustrophobic any time he dropped back to pass.
The Philadelphia Eagles pressured him on 48 percent of his pass attempts. They smothered him. They made him dance around the pocket. They forced him into two critical turnovers.
The script looked familiar. The Eagles D-line dominated the trenches and made a quarterback look jumpy in a 38-7 thrashing of the Vikings.
Rinse and repeat.
“Those guys have been doing that all year,” said Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had a pick-six as a result of that pressure. “It didn’t surprise me.”
Nor will it surprise the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Dissect all the different matchups and that one stands out: Can the Patriots protect Tom Brady against what might be the NFL’s most complete defensive line in depth and talent.
Their line serves as the headliner, but the Eagles defense as a whole packs a heavy punch. Even if they believe that they haven’t received proper credit from the outside.
“We never get talked about,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “That’s our story. Nobody talks about the Eagles defense. But at the same time, we finished top five in a bunch of categories.”
Especially the important ones. They finished No. 4 in total defense and scoring defense, and No. 1 in rushing defense.
So sorry to rain on their underdog parade, but the NFL knows about the Eagles defense, most notably the All-Pro Cox and his linemates.
Opposing quarterbacks certainly sing their praises. The Eagles created pressure on 40.8 percent of dropbacks this season, the highest rate in the NFL, according to analysis by ProFootballFocus.
What makes that even more impressive is that they effectively harass quarterbacks despite being middle of the pack leaguewide in blitz frequency. Their front line doesn’t require much help in chasing quarterbacks.
“If we’ve got to blitz then we’ve got a problem,” Cox said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to those four guys up front.”
Actually, the generic term “front four” sells that group short.
“It’s a lot more than four,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I wish it was just four. It’s about eight, nine.”
Eight of their linemen played at least 22 percent of the defensive snaps this season. Defensive end Brandon Graham led in playing time at 65 percent.
Their ability to roll players in waves keeps everyone fresh, hungry and highly productive. Competition for playing time becomes a daily motivation.
Starting tackle Tim Jernigan played only 48 percent of the defensive snaps. Jernigan’s backup, Minnetonka native Beau Allen, played 41 percent.
Defensive ends Derek Barnett and Chris Long tied for third on the defense with five sacks each and combined for 70 pressures — as backups.
Few, if any, teams can match their depth along the line.
“These guys really play hard,” Belichick said. “There’s no plays off, so you 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. They wear you down. It’s a huge strength for their defense.”
If constructing a pecking order, Cox belongs at the top. His ability to collapse the pocket up the gut makes him one of the NFL’s most dominant interior rushers. He’s been named second-team All-Pro three consecutive seasons.
“Cox is as good as anybody in the league at his position,” Belichick said. “He’s a very disruptive player. Hard to block — run, pass, no matter what it is.”
Their aggressiveness often leads to mistakes by the offense. The Eagles finished fourth in takeaways with 31.
They forced two critical turnovers by the Vikings in the NFC title game. Long’s pressure and hit on Keenum led to an easy interception for Robinson. Barnett’s sack-strip in the red zone prevented a scoring chance.
“We play fast,” Robinson said in explaining their high takeaway rate.
Some of that can be attributed to comfort with the scheme. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz noted that his system is not overly complicated.
“It’s no secret that we’re not brain surgery on defense,” he said.
“Rather than having a lot of layers there with what they need to do,” he added, “they’re able to concentrate a little bit more on the opponent.”
A simple, catchy credo acts as their compass.
“Stop the run and you’ll have fun,” Cox said. “We do that and we get a chance to go out and exploit and take advantage of different matchups. Just go out and dominate.”
The Eagles have allowed only 17 points in two playoffs games, both at home. Now they face a dynasty organization with the second-highest-scoring offense in the NFL and an all-time quarterback on the game’s biggest stage.
If they pass this test, that whole underdog rallying cry won’t apply anymore.
“We’ve been solid all year,” veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “When you look at the Patriots and what they do offensively, I think we match up well. We feel confident about being able to take this defense on the road.”