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Eagle Eye: Defense Rises To The Occasion Against Cam Newton

Posted Oct 15, 2017

The Eagles went into Charlotte and came away with a huge win against the now 4-2 Carolina Panthers that had a distinct feeling of playoff football. This was a hard-fought victory with both teams making plays in every phase of the game. The Eagles' defense had the biggest challenge preparing for Carolina’s diverse offensive attack on a short week. Let's start the All-22 review there.

Limiting Cam Newton's Options

Defending the option was going to be critical for the Eagles' defense on Thursday night. Quarterback Cam Newton will line up under center and the Panthers will come right at you with typical gap scheme football between the tackles. The Panthers also leverage the threat of Newton's legs to keep defenders guessing. It didn’t take long for the Panthers to go with this tactic. They called a simple Inside Zone Read on the very first play from scrimmage.

Newton is "reading" defensive end Brandon Graham on this play. If Graham attacks the running back inside, Newton will keep the ball. If Graham hesitates for even a second, Newton hands it off and gets ready for the next play. Graham slow-plays his rush to remain fully prepared to attack the runner. Linebacker Nigel Bradham scrapes over the top to defend the quarterback keeper, and Graham tackles Stewart for no gain.

Another aspect of the Panthers' offensive attack is the use of the Jet Sweep, and more importantly Jet Sweep-action. This is where the Panthers fake the Jet Sweep and run a play off of it. During my study of the Panthers last week, I actually couldn’t find an example of them handing the ball off to the Jet, even going back as far as the preseason of 2016! But it doesn’t matter. You must respect it because it only takes one time for a receiver with 4.4 speed to run across the formation, take the handoff from Newton, and race 60 yards for a score. The threat often takes the eyes of second-level defenders away from the true target of the play because instead of focusing on their own responsibility; they’re worried about the Jet Sweep. That was not the case for the Eagles on Sunday.

Right before the snap, the Panthers bring a receiver across the formation on Jet Sweep-action. The only defender to run with him is the player who should, safety Malcolm Jenkins. He is responsible for that receiver, and he is in position to defend him if he does, in fact, get the ball. You know who doesn’t fall for the fake? Bradham. Watch how quickly and decisively he fires downhill. He sees the pulling offensive linemen and the initial path of the back, and he reacts quickly enough that the offensive lineman is not able to block him. Bradham gets into the backfield and brings the ballcarrier down for a loss.

The Panthers go back to the option later with a Speed Option look. Newton sprints to his right and has the ability to pitch this ball to Stewart, who flanks him to the outside. There are pulling guards up front, which can further muddy up the reads for the defensive front, but watch how well the Eagles' defense is able to stop this Carolina offense. Everybody is in their gap, and Newton is unable to make a clear read on the play. He’s stopped for a short gain on this perimeter run.

Team Run Defense

The Eagles held Carolina's running backs to exactly 1 yard rushing in this game. It takes a complete team effort to put on a performance like that. On every play, there are several Eagles defenders doing an outstanding job executing their assignment to stop runs behind the line of scrimmage.

This is a crack toss play, where Carolina receivers are asked to block from the outside in against players in the middle of the field as the back gets the ball on a toss with a head of steam to the sideline. Jenkins reads the crack block, beats it, and sprints to the football. It’s not just Jenkins, however, because several Eagles do a great job on this play. Beau Allen fends off a double team and is relentless to the football. Bradham scrapes over the top of his block and gets to the edge, where cornerback Patrick Robinson has already done a nice job of forcing the action back inside. Chris Long and Mychal Kendricks are chasing from the back side. Look at all those white jerseys! This was a run concept that burned the Eagles several times a year ago (and coincidentally is a big part of the Washington Redskins’ playbook), so it was great to see the Eagles stop this play short.

Fletcher Cox had a huge impact on this game in his return from a calf injury, but Tim Jernigan did plenty to affect the run and pass game as well. Jernigan blows this play up right at the jump. He bulldozes the center which forces the back to cut back immediately, right into the paws of Jordan Hicks on the inside.

Here’s Jernigan again. He impacts a play that is intended to take out Cox. Carolina wants to allow Cox to jump right into the backfield to get blindsided by a pulling left guard. Jernigan recognizes this and he flies upfield so quickly that he eats up that pulling guard, delaying him from getting to No. 91. Cox is able to disrupt this play in the backfield, thanks to Jernigan, and he trips the back up enough so that Jenkins is able to knife into the backfield to finish this play up for a loss.

This was one of my favorite plays from the game because a few Eagles did a great job to stop this run play for no gain. Bradham recognizes this play immediately, as he attacks upfield almost right at the snap. That keeps the offensive lineman on the back side from blocking him. Allen holds onto this double team perfectly, which helps keep Bradham clean. Defensive end Derek Barnett does a great job being quick and violent with his hands as well on the play side, beating the left tackle and getting to the ballcarrier.

Affecting The Quarterback In The Pass Game

The Eagles got to Newton twice in this game, and there was a theme on both sacks. Let’s take a look.

The defensive tackles collapse the pocket on both plays, and most importantly the pass rushers clog the throwing lanes on their way to the quarterback. If you can’t get there, get your hand up in the throwing lane and distort the view of the quarterback. Cam Newton is 6-5, but he can still fail to see things if you’re able to create some interference right in front of his face. Cox, Justin Hamilton (who had a great game in a limited role), and Chris Long all did a great job of doing just that.

While the sack count wasn’t extremely high, the Eagles' defensive line pestered Newton all game. Whether it came in the form of hits, getting him off of his spot, or rushing him into a quick throw, the line was extremely effective on Thursday night. Look no further for a prime example of this than the first quarter interception by Rasul Douglas.

The Eagles come out in a five-over-five look, with three defensive ends on the field along with Cox to form the front four. They spread the front out and place Hicks right over the center, giving the offense five potential rushers against five offensive linemen. With two defensive ends (Barnett and Graham) lined up to one side, Carolina will slide the protection that way, seeing that as a bigger threat. The presence of Hicks over the center still occupies that blocker, which essentially creates one-on-one matchups for the Eagles' defensive line. These factors all help isolate Cox on right guard Trai Turner, and he just bench-presses Turner into the backfield, getting a piece of Newton as the ball pops in the air for Douglas’ second interception in four games.

This was no isolated incident, as Cox was disruptive all night long against this Carolina offensive line.

There are three examples of Cox collapsing the pocket and getting pressure on Newton. Whether he got a piece of the football or forced Newton off his spot, that’s a win for the Eagles' defense. This was a consistent factor against the Panthers, but Cox wasn’t alone in this.

I thought this was Derek Barnett’s best game of the regular season. The rookie is still coming along with using his hands to beat blocks off the edge, and he’s had a couple of close calls for sacks over the last couple of weeks. Against Carolina, I thought Barnett consistently put together a few really good rushes against that offensive line. Whether he was winning outside or inside, Barnett was able to generate pressure. He was able to get a half-sack (on a play that he actually didn’t get that great of a rush off the ball), as a reward. This is a sign of good things to come for the rookie first-round pick who exploded onto the scene in the preseason.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the jobs done by the rest of the defensive line in this game against the pass. Graham, Long, Jernigan, Hamilton, Vinny Curry, and the entire front four really did have a huge impact in this win. They got to Newton all night long and while the sacks only showed two; the tape shows a very impactful role in the victory.

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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