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Eagle Eye: An Epic Defensive Performance

Posted Sep 26, 2016

In this week’s All-22 Review, Greg Cosell recapped the Eagles’ offensive performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a lot of ways, however, the defense was even more impressive. All anyone could talk about last week, and for good reason, was the Steelers’ offense led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. The outing on Sunday from Jim Schwartz’s unit was outstanding, and helped to show why this scheme is working to a T right now in Philadelphia.

The Eagles were able to make the Steelers a one-dimensional offense on Sunday afternoon, and it took a team effort to do so. By pulling away early in the second half, the Eagles’ offense did its part in forcing them to throw the football in catch-up mode, but defensively the front seven absolutely stifled the ground game.

Pittsburgh ran the ball 10 times on Sunday for just 29 yards (2.9 yards per carry). Keep in mind that one of those runs was a Roethlisberger scramble for 7 yards. Another was a 13-yard scamper by DeAngelo Williams. You take those two runs away, and you have eight carries for 9 yards against this Eagles defense.

Here, you can see just how disruptive this Eagles front was against the Pittsburgh rushing attack. Watch how quickly linebacker Jordan Hicks recognizes this Power scheme by Pittsburgh, pressing the line of scrimmage and taking on the pulling guard in the hole. This creates a wall that resulted in no gain on first down. Later in the same series, defensive end Brandon Graham penetrates into the backfield and takes not one, not two, but three Steelers blockers out of the picture on their go-to Counter scheme. Nigel Bradham finishes in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. The Eagles stymied the rushing attack early and often on Sunday afternoon, resulting in the Steelers calling just two run plays in the second half (including one on the final play to run the clock out).

I simply could not wait to rewatch this game to see just how well the Eagles executed the game plan installed by the coaching staff last week. It did not disappoint. There were so many great examples of the pass rush complementing the coverage or vice versa to help come up with a big stop. Several players had outstanding performances (Hicks, safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll stood out most to me).

The real kicker in my mind, however, was the need to win in the battle of situational football. This was featured on Eagles Game Plan last week and I highlighted it in last week’s preview of the Steelers’ offense, but Pittsburgh was excellent in the red zone (No. 1 in the NFL entering Sunday with five touchdowns on five trips inside the 20-yard line) and on third down (No. 3, converting at a 51.6 percent rate). On Sunday, the Steelers were 0 for 2 in the red zone and limited to just 36 percent on third down (4-of-11).

Perhaps most impressive out of all of this was that Antonio Brown was the most productive and most targeted receiver in the entire league on third down entering the game. Brown had six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets on third down prior to Sunday.

Against the Eagles?

One target.

Zero catches.

Defensive success on third down was one of the big storylines coming into the week, and the Eagles really came through in that facet of the game. Now, let’s go to the tape and see how they did it.

The Eagles used a lot of different coverage schemes against Brown and the Steelers’ receiving corps. There was man coverage. There were dedicated double teams. There were also examples of just shading safeties over top of Brown on the perimeter. The Eagles spent a lot of time in basic Tampa 2 coverage in the second half. Regardless of what they did, it was successful. I think equal credit should be given to the secondary as well as to the pass rush because both facets of the defense had a huge impact on the game.

On the second series of the game, the Eagles faced third-and-5 and were playing a form of man coverage called “Cover 1 Man Free.” This coverage scheme calls for one high safety in the middle of the field and straight man coverage from five defenders underneath, pitting rookie Jalen Mills against Brown one on one on the outside. Jenkins, the high safety here, slightly shades to Mills’ side to offer extra help, but the rookie is still pretty isolated here. To Mills’ credit, he competes very well. Mills receives an extra boost from the pass rush, as both Graham and defensive end Vinny Curry impacted the throw from Roethlisberger. Hicks adds to the rush late and affects the eventual throw from Big Ben, as he unleashes an errant pass that falls incomplete to Eli Rogers down the middle of the field.

Roethlisberger had 51 dropbacks on Sunday. By my count, the Eagles’ defense affected him on 23 of them. What do I mean by “affected?” I mean that they were able to sack, pressure, hit, force him to move in the pocket or take away a throwing lane on 45 percent of his dropbacks. Considering how many quick, three-step concepts and the amount of screen passes the Steelers threw, that was a very impressive number from a relentless defensive front.

It’s third-and-7 down in the red zone (a huge down for the Steelers, who again had been great in both of those areas). The Eagles essentially double team Brown and eliminate him. The Eagles’ zone coverage in the middle of the field takes away where Roethlisberger wants to go with the football. The rush begins to clamp down on the veteran as defensive tackle Fletcher Cox comes up with the sack.

You’ll notice Barwin highlighted as he jumps into the passing lane. The Eagles’ defensive front did a phenomenal job all afternoon of clogging passing lanes by getting hands up. When you have a four-man rush like the Eagles did on most of the night (just four blitzes on 51 dropbacks), you want to be able to affect the quarterback any way you can. The Eagles did just that.

Very often throughout the afternoon, the Eagles played different combo coverages with a safety rolled over the top of Brown. This allowed the corner covering Brown to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. This is a completion against Mills for 5 yards, but really tight, competitive coverage on the outside from the rookie against one of the best receivers in football.

As tight as the coverage was on the back end at times, you really also have to give a ton of credit to the big guys up front. When you can get pressure with a four-man rush on a consistent basis, defensive coordinators are able to put safeties over top of receivers or make calls with designated double teams in the secondary. That’s the wild card for this Eagles defense.

Just look at Curry here. Lined up as a 9-technique outside the tight end, Curry rips past the block of the right tackle and gets two hands square on Roethlisberger’s throwing arm. For pretty much any quarterback in the NFL, this is going to be a fumble. But Big Ben is strong enough to shrug this off. Curry’s second effort results in a hit from behind, helping to force this incompletion. Give a lot of credit to Hicks in the middle of the field as well, hugging up on the running back out of the backfield as the ball gets to the ground. Hicks was all over the field on Sunday.

A couple of plays later, it’s third-and-10 for the Steelers. Roethlisberger is looking for Brown on the outside. Shocker. The Eagles have Brown doubled up, however, with Mills and Jenkins taking away Ben’s favorite target in the progression. Big Ben checks back into the middle of the field to Rogers, and look at Rodney McLeod break on this throw. The safety isn’t expecting the receiver to fall coming out of his break, but it’s another third-down stop for this Eagles defense.

Instincts from this safety tandem were on full display against the Steelers. On this fourth-and-5 play, look at how quickly Jenkins reads the drive route from Brown (a favorite for the Steelers in short-yardage situations). Whether this was a double team, a pass-off from Mills to Jenkins or just pure football instinct, it was a remarkable play by the veteran leader on this team covering a ton of ground to get this ball on the carpet.

Here’s another example where the coverage and the rush work together. You get a double team from Jenkins and Mills over Brown on the outside, and you get a great rush from the defensive front. All four players do a great job getting to their landmarks in the pocket, pushing Roethlisberger up and into a sack as he was forced to hold on to the football.

On the very next play, the Eagles line up in Tampa 2 with two high safeties and five players underneath in zone coverage. More great pressure from a four-man rush up front, as defensive end Connor Barwin and Graham both get great rushes outside while Cox dominates Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro inside on his way to a sack. This is a great speed-to-power move inside from Cox, who may not have lost a single one-on-one block all night.

The Eagles haven’t played much dime package (four down linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs) this season, but that’s what they were in on the final drive of the third quarter. This was the lone time that Brown was targeted by Roethlisberger on third down. Brown was open for a first down, except the ball could not come out on time. Great rushes by Cox, Graham and Curry forced Roethlisberger to hold the ball and step up in the pocket, as he threw an incompletion out of bounds to bring up fourth down.

I loved watching Jenkins in what may have been his best game as an Eagle. The veteran was all over the place, whether he was making plays on the ball in coverage, helping to lock down one of the best players in the league or coming down to lay a hit in the run game. He was arguably the best player on the field.

Look at this play from the second quarter. Off a play-action fake after a shift, Jenkins gets isolated on Brown one on one. This is probably the matchup the Steelers wanted. It’s a great route by Brown, who fakes upfield to get Jenkins’ hips turned before breaking back toward the opposite sideline on a deep over route. But look at the effortless transition from Jenkins, as he gets his eyes back to the football, stays step for step with Brown and undercuts this throw for a near interception. What an unbelievable play by the veteran safety.

I’ve harped on and on this year about how it is imperative for the Eagles’ defense to be able to properly defend the screen pass. The aggressive nature up front is always going to call for opponents to counter that with a variety of screen packages. Whether it’s pursuit from the defensive line or making one-on-one tackles in the secondary, the Eagles need to be able to defend them soundly. Overall, the defense did an outstanding job of “tackling the catch” on Sunday, limiting the Steelers’ yards after catch. Just how good were the Eagles on Sunday? The Steelers averaged just 3 yards after the catch, the third-best outing by a defense in any game all season long to this point. This is the type of effort this unit will need to repeat as the season progresses.

On this play in the third quarter, watch Jenkins’ range here as a split safety in a form of quarters coverage. The Steelers find the void in the middle of the field, but Jenkins meets the ball at the catch point and dislodges the ball for an incomplete pass.

To wrap this up, I couldn’t NOT include this in here. What a great example of range and ball skills from the safety position from Rodney McLeod here. He covered 40 yards of ground here! Outstanding play to tie a bow on an epic defensive performance from the Eagles.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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