For back-to-back years, “picking on the Eagles with passing attacks” has been a DFS staple, as this team A) has forced one of the lowest opponent rush play rates for several years running, as opponents avoid their stout front, and B) has dealt with an apocalyptic stream of injuries in the secondary — with Jalen Mills playing only 11 games since the start of 2018 and Ronald Darby playing only 14. Over the Eagles’ last three games, however (seemingly unnoticed by the field), the Eagles began to get healthy in the secondary and were dealing with injuries up front that led to them facing a pass play rate of only 55.4% (a mark that would be the seventh lowest in the league if it had been in place across the season). As we talk about regularly around this time of year: teams continue to develop, and matchups continue to change.
Coming off the bye, however, the Eagles are as healthy up front as they will be at any point moving forward — and while they are also healthy in the secondary, it isn’t as if Mills and Darby have presented shy-away matchups over the last couple seasons. The Patriots enter this game ranking middle of the pack in pass play rate — but given how poor they have been on the ground (30th in yards per carry), it is a fairly comfortable assumption that they will come off the bye putting the ball in the hands of Tom Brady, who has recent pass attempt totals of 42 // 39 // 42 // 41 // 45 // 36 // 46.
As we are well aware: not all pass attempts are created equal — and with the Patriots notching the fifth shallowest average intended air yards in the league, these high-attempt games have led to yardage totals of 306 // 150 // 348 // 334 // 249 // 259 // 285. Brady has two games in this stretch with zero touchdowns, two games with one touchdown, two games with two touchdowns, and one game with three.
Generally speaking, we think of the Patriots as a difficult-to-predict offense (for good reason — as they aim to be difficult to predict for their opponents), but with limited aerial weapons this year, they have been a more straightforward unit than in the past, with recent target counts looking like this ::
The Eagles are actually shaving a solid 4% off the league-average catch rate and are sitting on the league average in YAC/r — and while they provide a slight aDOT boost, their ability to control the clock this season (fifth in time of possession) has led to them ranking middle of the pack in pass attempts faced, while quietly allowing the 11th fewest catches to wide receivers and ranking middle of the pack in yards allowed to the position. The Eagles have allowed the seventh most touchdowns to wide receivers, but otherwise they have been better at preventing WR production than the perception of this team would have you believe — posting middle-of-the-pack numbers pretty much across the board.
To frame all that another way: there is no reason to be concerned about the matchup — though in order for this to be a true “matchup boost,” the Patriots will need to control the clock more than most teams have been able to against the Eagles. New England ranks fourth in time of possession themselves (in all, the Eagles and Patriots lose over five minutes off their combined time of possession — enough for about 10 total plays to be lost from what these two teams average on offense), so one of these two teams is not going to see the sort of volume they are typically able to see.
“Controlling the clock” could prove somewhat difficult for the Patriots if the Eagles come out of the bye looking to hammer this matchup on the ground. Philly already has the eighth highest rush play rate in the league, and Alshon Jeffery missed practice on Wednesday and appears truly questionable for the week. For as long as this game stays close, it makes sense for Philly to focus on the ground game against a Patriots team that ranks 14th in DVOA against the run (compared to second against the pass) and has allowed 4.41 yards per carry to enemy backs. This still isn’t a “great matchup” (Belichick is going to have spent time during the bye trying to fix this unit’s run game issues, and we’re fully aware of how difficult it has been for years to score touchdowns on the ground against this team), but it’s the best matchup available to an Eagles team that wants to run the ball anyway.
Although Jordan Howard was limited in practice on Wednesday, we’ll head into this portion of our writeup assuming he plays (especially as Miles Sanders — one of the most explosive young players in football, in an expanded role at a depressed price in a matchup he can win — would be a clear and obvious top play if Howard were to miss).
Howard has been operating in a timeshare this year (he played exactly 50% of the Eagles’ snaps in Week 9), but he has been the main piece on the ground for this team, with double-digit carries in seven consecutive games, and with 23 // 19 carries in his last two. The setup beyond those touches points to only outlier paths for a big game, however, as Howard has yet to top 100 yards on the year, he has only 10 receptions all season, and most of his value has come from his seven touchdowns (with touchdowns — again — being difficult to come by against this defense, especially on the ground).
Sanders — in a rare twist for a rookie — actually opened the season with a bigger role than he has seen in recent weeks, with touch counts of 12 // 13 // 15 // 11 // 13 through his first five games, followed by touch counts of 6 // 9 // 6 // 13. As with the Patriots: it’s often difficult to get a feel for the “what” and “why” behind the Eagles’ weekly approach on offense (with this difficulty coming by design), but it is at least worth noting that the Patriots don’t really have the bodies to keep up with Sanders in coverage (or on the second level) if he sees an expanded workload. The Patriots rank near the top of the league in preventing receiving yards to running backs this year, but they have faced hardly any strong pass-catching backs, and they’ve been one of the more attackable units in the league in this area over the last several years.
Nothing else through the air is likely to come easy for the Eagles, as their passing offense ranks 15th in DVOA while (incredibly) producing only two games all year of 80 or more receiving yards (9-103-1 for Zach Ertz in Week 9; 8-107-1 for Nelson Agholor in Week 2). While the Patriots have not dealt with the most difficult slate of opponent passing attacks, this was an elite unit last year as well, and 19 interceptions against three touchdowns allowed is no trivial matter.
JM’s Interpretation ::
With this game carrying an Over/Under of only 44.5 (and both teams priced for higher volume than is available, as these two combine for over 65 minutes in time of possession), there are not any “must have” plays in this spot on paper — though there are a few pieces that can certainly be considered.
Edelman is part of a large group of players carrying “Are you kidding?” price tags on DraftKings (he’s only topped 20 points three times, and he has yet to crack 30 — which is the score you’d ultimately be targeting at his price), and he’s less valuable on FanDuel, where his PPR skill set doesn’t play as well. (Even on FantasyDraft — where players are almost always a bit cheaper than they are on DK, Edelman needs to hit for about 28 points; which — again — has not been his norm.) But if we take pricing out of the equation, he’s a strong all-around play here, with floor and ceiling. Sanu is priced at an “Are you kidding?” level as well on DK, though his is a question of why they made him so cheap. Sanu was a central piece of the Patriots passing attack two weeks ago (14 targets, including two that came 35+ yards downfield) and he has had the bye week to further integrate. It obviously wouldn’t be unexpected for him to see seven or eight looks and go something like 5-50-0 (though…the same could be said for Edelman, who has three games already of 51 or fewer yards), but the Patriots (a team that values draft picks highly) traded a second round pick for Sanu in order to integrate him into this offense for this year’s Super Bowl run.
White has 46+ receiving yards in every game this year, and his 12 red zone targets rank eighth in the league. The Eagles rank middle of the pack in receiving yards allowed to running backs this year, but they allowed the sixth most a year ago. White typically sees higher schemed usage in run-tough matchups, so there are paths to a strong game here. (There are also paths to a multi-touchdown game for Sony Michel — because that’s always the case. But that will likely be necessary in order for him to hit.)
On the Eagles’ side, you could try to capture lightning by picking on the Patriots’ pass coverage (if going there, Dallas Goedert would be the strategic play, as more eyes will flow to Ertz after his big game two weeks ago, and Goedert had been averaging only 1.5 fewer targets per game than Ertz across the four contests leading up to that), but the place to really look is the backfield. If Howard plays (which seems likely, as the Eagles haven’t made a big deal about the shoulder issue), he’ll need some good fortune near the end zone to hit, while Sanders will be only a deeper-tourney option for the upside he can have on limited touches; but if Howard misses, Sanders will immediately step up as one of the more attractive plays on the slate as a talented, all-purpose lead back stepping into a lead role and priced for the shorter end of a timeshare.