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Eagle Eye: How The Defense Grounded The Falcons

Posted Jan 16, 2018

The Falcons presented the Eagles' defense with a number of challenges going into this Divisional Round showdown on Saturday. Between a dangerous run game, a truly dynamic receiver in Julio Jones, and veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, there was a lot that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his staff had to account for in a week’s worth of preparation. Simply put ... their plan worked.

At the forefront of the Eagles' success on defense was their own star player, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Whether it was against the run or the pass, Cox was incredibly disruptive against the Falcons. Offensive linemen couldn’t block him one-on-one, and even against double teams the veteran held the point of attack well in his second career playoff game. He flashed on more than one occasion on the opening possession providing a sense early on of the kind of performance Fletch would have.

Note that there is audio commentary for each of the video clips.

That relentless style of play continued throughout the game, where No. 91 wreaked havoc on both sides of the line of scrimmage as well as outside the numbers.

Your best players need to step up in the playoffs, and Cox followed through with that against Atlanta. The team will need a similar effort from him on Sunday night against Minnesota.

One of the other big takeaways from this game was the fact that the defense stood tall in a game where it needed to. The offense cannot be relied on to score 30 points per game in the playoffs. It certainly could happen, but you can’t count on it going in. The defense has to be a lockdown unit in the postseason. That was absolutely the case on Saturday. The Eagles didn’t force any turnovers, but they peppered Ryan all night long with consistent pressure. Most importantly, the Falcons were just 1-for-3 in the red zone. That’s huge when you’re talking about a one-possession game.

In games like that, every drive matters, and so in this piece I wanted to take a look at specific drives where the Eagles were able to force an Atlanta punt - the Falcons punted six times - and focus in on the details of plays that may have gone under the radar during the broadcast. All of these small factors helped keep the Falcons at bay and helped lead to an Eagles victory.

This was a pivotal drive at the end of the second quarter. The Eagles were down by a score of 10-6, and the Falcons had just crossed midfield. Three plays later, they’re forced to punt. First, Cox backs them up into their own territory with a sack of Ryan (again, No. 91 making a big play). Next, cornerback Ronald Darby was in coverage on a pass to Jones that fell incomplete. What I loved about that play was that Jones had beaten Darby on the same route earlier in the game for a first down.

This time, Darby sat on the throw and prevented Julio from getting to the catch point. On third down, a full team effort brought running back Devonta Freeman down for no gain on a screen pass. It was a great three-play sequence that got the ball to the offense late in the quarter. The offense responded by marching down the field and putting Jake Elliott in position to kick a 51-yard field goal just before halftime. Those three points were crucial! If he doesn’t hit that kick, Atlanta only needs a field goal on its final drive to take the lead instead of needing to cross the goal line. Every drive matters in games like these.

Before we continue, I want to give love to another player in Brandon Graham. The Eagles' right defensive end consistently shows up on film week in and week out both as a pass rusher and as a run defender. Here a few highlights from him in this game, including some key plays on the final drive that helped keep Atlanta out of the end zone.

Those plays don’t always show up on the stat sheet, and if they do they may not seem impactful, but things like bumping the running back outside on a toss play (a concept that hurt the Eagles on Saturday) or getting Freeman down by his shoestring could mean the difference between winning and going home for the winter. Now let’s get back to the game.

Here’s a sequence from another key possession. This time, it was the Eagles' two starting linebackers, Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks, who stood out most.

First, Bradham triggers downhill on a toss play and brings the ballcarrier down at the line of scrimmage, evading a block from the left tackle in the process. Next up, Kendricks drops back in zone coverage and nearly makes a masterful interception against Jones in the flat, but gets the football on the ground. On second down, Kendricks gets a really good looking tackle in on Freeman in the hole, bringing the slippery ballcarrier to the ground one-on-one. Lastly, Bradham wraps the drive up with a third-down sack.

The Eagles placed Bradham right over the center, Alex Mack, on this play. Rather than use Mack to block him, however, the Falcons felt it was more important to slide the protection toward Cox (again, the effect from Fletcher is apparent on the rest of the defense), leaving the running back one-on-one with the linebacker. Most defensive coordinators will take that every time, and that’s what the Eagles get here. The back isn’t able to square up to Bradham, and he forces Ryan to tuck the football. He eventually gets him down for a sack to force a punt.

The Bradham sack was one of eight blitzes on the night. On those eight plays, Ryan was 3-for-6 for 46 yards and two sacks. The Eagles didn’t use any all-out Cover 0 blitzes in this game, instead going with a variety of five-man pressures to get after Ryan with safety help in the deep middle of the field. My favorite blitz, however, came on the defense’s next drive.

The Eagles kicked off and the ball went out of bounds in what was now a 12-10 game. This gave Atlanta good field position at its own 40-yard line. Schwartz went on the offensive, calling a safety blitz on the very first play of the drive.

Rodney McLeod, usually the deep safety for the Eagles, rolled into the box and came off the edge from Graham’s side. Just before the snap, Graham slanted inside, crossing the right tackle’s face. This kept the tackle away from McLeod, giving him a nice, clean runway to the quarterback. The only person who could stop the blitzing safety now was the running back, Freeman. The Falcons had a shot play called to attack downfield off play-action. Freeman either did not see McLeod or chose to try and block him after the play-fake, but either way, he was wrong. He could not get in position to block him and Ryan went down hard for a 10-yard loss. This put the Falcons well behind the sticks and they would be forced to punt after such great field position to start the drive.

Staying in the secondary, one player who I feel needs to be applauded for his effort is cornerback Jalen Mills. The Green Goblin was really, really good in this game, making a number of key plays in coverage that could’ve changed its outcome.

On the first play above, the Eagles are trailing 3-0 and the Falcons are looking to attack deep downfield in a "max protection shot play." The Eagles are in two-deep coverage, with Mills responsible for one half of the field and Darby responsible for the other. The Falcons run a deep curl route right at Mills, to hold his attention there. Why? Because Jones is running a deep post route into his side of the field, way behind him. As long as the Falcons can keep his vision forward, this should be a big play over his head. Jalen would have none of that, however, as he recognizes what the Falcons are doing. He gets on his horse and runs back into the secondary, where he’s able to make a play on an underthrown pass into the wind and get the ball to the ground. Darby was taking the safe route and playing over the top of Julio, so this ball would have been caught for a huge gain, and perhaps even a touchdown, had Mills not recognized the concept and left his man. Instead, the Eagles live to play another down.

On the second play, Mills is in man coverage on a crossing route, and he gets picked off in traffic, which tends to happen on those kinds of plays. The Eagles got beat on a similar type of play earlier in the afternoon, and the cornerback in coverage on that play turned looking for a flag instead of focusing on his man. On this one, Mills keeps his head in the play, peeks at the quarterback, gets back on his man, and is able to knock away a floater down the field to save a sure touchdown and force a punt. This was a great effort play from Mills.

On the third snap, Mills sits on a double move perfectly to force an incompletion. The Falcons scored a touchdown on the same exact play in the matchup last year, and they saw how many double moves the Eagles have allowed for big plays in 2017. This time, however, Mills stays disciplined in coverage, doesn’t buy on the stutter-go, and stays over the top of the route as the ball hits the ground.

I’m a big fan of Mills and the way he approaches the game, so it was good to see him make these plays down the field. He’ll get a lot of credit for the final fourth-down stop, and rightfully so, but be sure to give him love in these situations as well!

One of the most impressive stats to come out of Saturday’s win was the Eagles' defensive success on third down. At the end of the regular season, Atlanta finished No. 1 in the NFL with a third-down conversion rate of 44.7 percent. Ryan completed 61 percent of his passes on third down. That was not the case against the Eagles. The Falcons finished 4-for-13 on third down (31 percent), which doesn’t include two fourth-down attempts (1-for-2).

Here are two plays where the Falcons targeted Jones and he was unable to pick up a first down. Each one offered an example of the Eagles’ man and zone coverage concepts, and you’ll notice that there’s nothing special or exotic here. The Eagles didn’t plan anything to specifically try and take Julio out of the game. They lined up and let their corners play him straight up, regardless of which side he lined up on. You can’t argue with the strategy. Jones got his share of touches (nine catches for 101 yards on 16 targets), but he failed to reach the end zone. All in all, here’s how the coverage charted out by my eyes.

The Falcons dropped back 41 times in this game, and on 23 of them, the Eagles played a form of single-high man coverage (Cover 1 or Man Free). On 13 snaps, they played a type of single-high zone coverage (Cover 3). On three snaps, they played some version of Cover 2. On two snaps, both on third-and-long situations, they played what is widely referred to as Sticks coverage (where the entire second and third levels of the defense line up at the first down marker and defend it). They played a "bracket" coverage on the final snap, but it came against Sanu down in the red zone. Mills manned up Julio one-on-one on the goal line with the sideline as his help, a common tactic utilized in the red zone by defenses across the sport.

So we didn’t see any true "double teams" by the Eagles' defense against Julio Jones in this game (which is basically what we saw the last time these two teams met in 2016). Against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on Sunday, it will be interesting to see if the game plan remains somewhat similar.

In crunch time, the Falcons marched down the field with a chance to take the lead. They had first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. The Eagles lined up in straight man coverage in this situation, with Darby drawing the assignment on Jones based on how the Falcons lined up.

Darby did a great job on both of these plays, first playing the fade as well as he possibly could to force an incompletion, and then keeping him out of the end zone against a slant route on third down. It’s the most you could ask from the third-year corner on what was basically an island inside the 10-yard line against one of the top playmakers in football. On fourth down, however, it would be Mills who would get the nod against Jones with the wide receiver going to his side of the field, but there were a lot of factors to consider on this play.

The Falcons came out in 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end), choosing to put the fullback to the back side as a receiver. For Ryan, this likely signaled zone coverage. For the Eagles, it helped cement the fact that this would likely be a sprint-out because the quarterback probably wouldn’t be looking to throw the ball to his fullback out in space with the season on the line.

The Eagles were in a form of "bracket" coverage, a common concept in the NFL and in college football against 3x1 sets.

To keep it as simple as possible, Mills is on an island against the No. 1 receiver outside, Jones, and should play with inside leverage to push him to the sideline. That is Mills’ help on this play.

The slot defender, in this case Malcolm Jenkins since the Eagles are in base defense, paired with the safety to that side, McLeod, will "bracket" the No. 2 receiver, Sanu. Watch Jenkins at the snap as he plays Sanu outside in, forcing him to McLeod. Those two take him out of the progression entirely. One of the linebackers, Bradham or Dannell Ellerbe, has the tight end in man coverage. Kendricks has the back in coverage. Darby has the backside X-receiver - in this case, the fullback.

Ryan rolls to his right, and he wants to hit Jones on a comeback route to the front pylon.

The Eagles have seen this concept on film, and they’ve seen it from other teams. Mills actually had a pass breakup against the Raiders on Christmas night on the same route.

Ryan sees Jones slip coming out of his break. His eyes move over to Sanu, who is being erased by the two safeties.

Panic has set in because Bradham has done an outstanding job of pressing the line of scrimmage and containing Ryan’s sprint-out. The pressure is on the quarterback to make a play, and make one immediately. Taking a sack is obviously not an option.

Ryan throttles down and looks to the back side of the play. His running back chipped a defensive end on his way into a route and the defender is still on the ground. He could throw it back to him, but Kendricks did a great job of staying with him. Kendricks very easily could’ve tried to be aggressive and follow the football, but he remained disciplined and did his job on the play, staying home against the running back in coverage.

The fullback is covered by Darby. Ryan knows he can’t go down throwing the ball into tight coverage to his fullback on a slant against a talented cover corner like him.

So he goes back to Julio, who is pressed against the sideline by Mills. Remember, NFL rules state that a cornerback can contact the receiver down the field legally if a quarterback breaks the pocket, as he does here, so Mills is perfectly fine being as handsy as he is at this point in the play.

Ryan throws it up, Mills and Jones attack it, and the ball lands out of bounds. Eagles win and advance on what was a full team effort, and a really fun game to break down on the defensive side of the ball.

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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