The Philadelphia Eagles have contained opposing top wide receivers and tight ends well throughout the 2022 season and in their two playoff victories. However, they rank 24th in the NFL in the DVOA metric in pass defense against opposing running backs.
Jonathan Gannon’s unit will face one of the NFL’s best pass catchers out of the backfield when the Eagles face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII. Jerick McKinnon finished fourth in receiving yards among running backs this season behind only Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, and Leonard Fournette.
Media members have repeatedly emphasized the role of McKinnon as much as any other matchup against the Philadelphia defense, outside of the obvious and justified gushing over Patrick Mahomes.
Respected ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi emphasized McKinnon as a key x-factor. Countless prop bettors have picked McKinnon’s over on receiving yards as a “sleeper bet” (although it defeats the purpose of a sleeper if too many people say it). The New York Times even called him “Patrick Mahomes’ Little Helper” just before the AFC Championship Game.
Should Eagles fans worry about McKinnon as a game-breaker in Super Bowl LVII?
Eagles Against Screen Pass
Despite the 24th-place finish, it’s a stretch to say the Eagles got gashed by opposing backs in the passing game this season. The most productive individual performance they allowed in the first 10 games of the season was D’Andre Swift’s solid Week 1 performance with 3 catches for 31 yards.
The Eagles shut down the screen game against talented backs like Dalvin Cook in Week 2, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard in Week 6, and Jonathan Taylor in Week 11. While the run defense looked like a weakness on an otherwise complete team, the screen pass hadn’t been a major factor.
The three best receiving performances by opposing running backs came over a five-game stretch between Weeks 12-16. Aaron Jones caught 3 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown while his teammate A.J. Dillon added 3 catches for 24 yards against the Eagles in Week 12. David Montgomery finished with 3 receptions for 38 yards and a touchdown in Week 15 in Chicago, and Pollard added 6 catches for 61 yards in the second matchup against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16.
However, even during their worst stretch of the year for this statistical weakness, the Eagles neutralized two of the most athletically-gifted backs in the NFL on the ground and in the screen game. Derrick Henry finished with 2 receptions for 8 yards and just 30 rushing yards in Week 13. Saquon Barkley caught 2 passes for 20 yards and rushed for only 28 against his hated divisional rival in Week 14.
Alvin Kamara finished fifth in receiving yards among running backs in 2022, but he finished with only 1 reception for 8 yards on New Year’s Day at Lincoln Financial Field. Christian McCaffrey finished in the top spot with 741 receiving yards, but he caught just 3 passes for 22 yards in the NFC Championship Game.
The Eagles faced 12 of the top 18 running backs who finished the 2022 season with the most receiving yards. They allowed a few solid performances, but they didn’t get gashed by the screen pass at pivotal moments.
Andy Reid, Jerick McKinnon, and the Chiefs
Any conversation about the screen pass needs to involve Andy Reid. The 24-year veteran head coach developed his play-calling philosophy from the West Coast offense utilizing the short passing game. He learned from Mike Holmgren, a disciple of Bill Walsh during a legendary run in San Francisco in the late 1980s.
Reid utilized the screen game fantastically during his 14-year tenure as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Duce Staley became the first running back to break out as a pass catcher under Reid with 626 receiving yards in 2001 and 541 in 2002.
The franchise’s all-time leader in wins brought in Brian Westbrook in the 2002 NFL Draft, and the Villanova legend made his career as a receiver out of the backfield. He transitioned into a valuable rotational role with 332 receiving yards in 2003 while Staley led the team with 382.
Westbrook quickly proved he was up for the task of replacing Staley as the starter and the steady pass catcher Donovan McNabb needed out of the backfield. He finished with 704 receiving yards in 2004, 616 in 2005 (in 12 games), 699 in 2006, and 771 in 2007.
Reid also successfully plugged LeSean McCoy into the same role where Staley and Westbrook flourished, and he didn’t stop when he moved to Kansas City in 2013.
Mahomes has effectively thrown the screen to different backs on the way to five consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, and a retread McCoy in addition to McKinnon have all found a rhythm at some point with Mahomes. The Chiefs have finished in the top five in the NFL in receiving yards by running backs in three of Mahomes’ five seasons as a starter.
Eagles in Super Bowl LVII
McKinnon deserves the attention of any defense. He led NFL running backs with 9 receiving touchdowns this season, and he finished fourth in yards per catch. None of the three backs with a higher average came anywhere close to him in receiving yards.
However, Jonathan Gannon has faced every criticism in the book in his two seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Eagles, and he has passed every test with flying colors so far.
The top goal of his defensive scheme is to eliminate explosive pass plays, and he succeeded this season when the Eagles finished third in the NFL by allowing just 40 completions of 20 or more yards.
The NFL has changed since Jeffrey Lurie hired Andy Reid to lead the Eagles in 1999. The focus on explosive plays has minimized the use of running backs in the screen game and the traditional West Coast offense.
At least one running back finished with over 800 yards receiving from 2016-2019, and McCaffrey eclipsed 1000 in 2020. However, the totals have dropped. No back has gained over 800 receiving yards in a single season in 2021 or 2022.
McKinnon certainly poses a threat in Super Bowl LVII. However, it’s not because the Philadelphia defense ranks 24th in DVOA against running backs in the passing game, and it’s not because he enters the game on a scorching hot streak. He has caught 2 passes for 17 yards in Kansas City’s two playoff victories.
The former Minnesota Vikings back has had some big performances this season, and the Eagles don’t always contain plays underneath because of their focus on preventing explosive plays. However, Gannon’s defense benefits from excellent personnel who have executed with key plays in susceptible areas of the field to stifle opposing offenses all season long.
Everyone is looking to predict the next Corey Clement as a bold Super Bowl sleeper. However, Jerick McKinnon is not the game-breaking back that will destroy a successful season for the Philadelphia defense.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin