The Patriots have gained a reputation for ruthlessly acquiring information, whether it’s the infamous Spygate investigation into illegal filming of an opponent’s practices or this midseason’s signing of ex-Steelers linebacker James Harrison. That addition came while New England and Pittsburgh were headed toward the AFC’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the playoffs.
This time, the Eagles — the Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent on Sunday — have an inside edge thanks to two signings made last spring, well before either team anticipated this matchup. Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Chris Long were part of the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Atlanta Falcons a year ago.
Long and Blount have been mined by the Eagles for information on the Patriots, their former employer.
“You can ask them how the organization is run over there, how they scheme, what they do,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said. “Obviously they’re going to change stuff up.”
Assumptions are quickly made about the Patriots, five-time Super Bowl champions of this millennium. Those assumptions about the Patriots’ signing of Harrison came from former Jets and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, now an analyst for ESPN.
“[Bill] Belichick is the coach who plays the game within the game,” Vilma said on ESPN at the time. “He wants to not just look at the scheme, but what player is going to give away the defense? What player is going to give away the run or pass on offense? He wants to know each individual person, and who’s been [in Pittsburgh] the longest? James Harrison.”
Harrison, who has played only 27 snaps for New England, has denied giving intel about the Steelers.
The Eagles aren’t so shy about addressing the NFL’s insider trading. Blount appeared in 57 games for the Patriots between the 2013 and ’16 seasons. Long appeared in all 19 games last season for New England.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of them,” Long said. “They’ve got a pretty good idea of me. Listen, they’re as good of a coached team as any, especially on the offensive line. [Patriots offensive line coach] Dante Scarnecchia is an amazing coach, he gives them an edge on the offensive line as far as always being on the same page and technically sound.”
Since Long shared a locker room with four of the Patriots’ most-used front defenders — defensive end Trey Flowers, defensive tackle Malcolm Brown and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts — he also might have some insight useful to Eagles offensive linemen like Johnson. “You have an idea what they’re all about,” Johnson said without providing specifics. “From what I’ve got, they’re pretty much all business. Moving forward that will be to our advantage.”
As early as last summer, Eagles teammates simply were curious about Long’s experience in New England.
“I remember sitting back in training camp asking him questions about what it was like in the Super Bowl last year,” Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry said. “Now here we are.”
It’s a flip of the typical Patriots script. In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons had only one role player, defensive tackle Joe Vellano, who previously played for the Patriots.
New England didn’t sign any former Eagles in the past two weeks. They will still field a few former Eagles on Sunday, including defensive back Eric Rowe (2015), safety Patrick Chung (2013) and running back Dion Lewis (2011-12).
So, the inside information can flow both ways.
Leader among the insightful Eagles minds might be Blount, who played in four seasons for the Patriots and led the NFL with 18 touchdown runs last season. The Eagles wanted a “bruiser,” Johnson said, and got one with Blount, who was third in the NFL this season in averaging 3.56 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus.
Talk aside, Blount’s play near the goal line will be a key for Philadelphia.
“We just have to make sure we have all the right game plans,” Blount said, “and all the right things to maximize our opportunities in the red zone.”
The Patriots defense, which Blount practiced against for years, is a bend-but-don’t-break group. That’s evident when looking at the numbers. New England allowed only 3.94 points per opponent red-zone trip, according to Football Outsiders, which ranked second in the league.
Natural hurdles remain for Philadelphia, despite any inside looks from a previous season.
Assumptions also should be made about New England’s counterintelligence with Belichick, considered one of the all-time greats in the weekly chess match.
While chasing his first Super Bowl ring last season in New England, Long noted his mind obviously wasn’t on collecting information for future use.
“I go back and go, ‘I wish I took more notes on that guy,’ ” Long joked.