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Eagle Eye: How The Defense Won The Day

Posted Nov 14, 2016

Jim Schwartz and the Eagles' defense came through for the team on Sunday in a big way, limiting the top-ranked scoring offense in football and the league’s most dynamic passing attack to just 15 points. How did they do it? Let’s go to the tape.

From the very start of the game, Schwartz showed confidence in his secondary to do the job. On four of Atlanta’s first six passing plays, the Eagles manned up on star receiver Julio Jones with no immediate safety help (two plays for Nolan Carroll, two for Jalen Mills). In fact, by the end of Sunday’s action, Jones was on the field for 32 pass attempts, and the Eagles manned up on him 16 times with no safety help. The biggest surprise in my mind was the fact that there was just one "designated double team" called in the secondary on a Matt Ryan pass attempt, a checkdown throw that went to Devonta Freeman for 15 yards. Schwartz trusted Carroll, Mills and to a lesser extent Malcolm Jenkins and Leodis McKelvin, to match up with Jones and keep him corralled in the secondary.

Here is the first third-down pass of the afternoon. It’s third-and-7, and the Falcons line up Jones to the left outside the numbers. Carroll is in press man position with Rodney McLeod in the deep middle of the field. Against an outside release, Carroll will be on his own on this play, and he knows it. Jones breaks outside on a deep fade route, and Carroll runs step for step with him down the sideline. Carroll impacts Jones enough to not allow him to make a play on this pass from Ryan, which was well placed down the field.

Late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, the Eagles lined up in Man Free coverage, this time with Jenkins covering Jones in the slot. On a similar route that Jenkins gave up a touchdown on the week before, Jones breaks inside before bending this route back toward the sideline. This time, Jenkins is in perfect position to defend this throw for an incomplete pass and a turnover on downs.

The Falcons would get the ball back for one more possession, but the play that would seal the victory was a coverage that was effective for the Eagles all day long - Cover 2. The Eagles have two safeties deep, two corners in the flats, three defenders underneath in the middle of the field and a four-man pass rush. What’s great about Cover 2 is that the corners can be a little more aggressive at the line of scrimmage, since they have safety help over the top. They are also in position to defend the first-down marker in the quick passing game. That’s exactly what happens here, as McKelvin picks off Ryan, stepping in front of Jones for what would’ve been a first down.

The Eagles ran a version of Cover 2 on 13 different occasions Sunday when Jones was on the field. He caught five of eight pass targets for 47 yards, with one of those three incompletions being that game-ending interception.

The key to playing successful zone coverage, especially against a dynamic receiver like Jones, is that you have to rally to the football. Jones is a monster after the catch, not just because of his speed in the open field, but because of his physicality and stubbornness with the ball in his hands. The guy just refuses to go down. As you can see in the shots above, that simply was not the case on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

Against the Eagles, Jones was held to just 38 yards after the catch, or 3.8 yards after the catch per reception. His numbers coming into the game? Jones had gained 315 yards after the catch on 51 receptions, or 6.1 yards after the catch per reception. The Eagles nearly cut that number on half, getting him to the ground almost immediately after the catch more often than not.

Early in the game, the Falcons tried to attack downfield against the Eagles on first down with a Kyle Shanahan staple, the Post-Cross. With two high safeties in this Cover 2 defense, there was enough help to take away throws over the top. However, it was a rush from Vinny Curry that helped deter the throw even more. Ryan’s second and third progressions were also taken away by Jordan Hicks, Mills and Nigel Bradham on what ended up being an incomplete pass to bring up second-and-long.

The pass rush was a big part of why the Eagles were able to play as much Cover 2 as they did. Sure, the Eagles did blitz Ryan a fair amount (10 times on 37 passes), but for the most part they rushed the veteran quarterback with four linemen and focused on covering with seven defenders. Brandon Graham was again a huge part of the problem for opposing offenses. On the first play above, he sets up Connor Barwin for the sack with a great outside rush. Fletcher Cox does the same for Graham later in the game. The Eagles' front four was disruptive against Ryan, a quarterback who wants to get the ball out quickly but was consistently impacted by the rush on Sunday afternoon.

When a defense is able to create persistent pressure on a quarterback, it starts to build up. The rush certainly began to affect Ryan in the second half. He was still able to make some ridiculous throws downfield to Jones, but he missed some as well. This was a third-and-10 play where the Eagles allowed a receiver to get open right over the middle of the field for what certainly would have been an easy first down, but the Eagles generated quick pressure and Ryan felt he had to get rid of the ball quickly. The pass fell incomplete, as the Eagles used a stunt from a Bear front to get to the quarterback early in the down.

When you play Cover 2 against a team that ranked 10th in the league in yards per game on the ground, you MUST be able to hold up in the run game. If the Eagles were going to play with two safeties deep, the front seven had to be able to handle themselves against Freeman and the Atlanta offensive line. I thought they did a great job at just that.

A player who really stood out in his return to the field was Bennie Logan. He missed the last three games due to injury and was back with the starters against Atlanta. While he may have finished with zero tackles in the box score, he helped disrupt plays in the backfield and was an impact player in the run game.

The other two players who really stood out in the run game were linebackers Hicks and Bradham. Hicks has really taken to this one-gap scheme well as we sit here just beyond the midway point of the season. His athleticism allows him to play sideline to sideline in the run and pass game, but more importantly his decisiveness and aggressive nature really make him a great downhill player against the run for Schwartz. Bradham has shown that he is every bit as good a fit for Schwartz as people thought when he was signed in free agency. These two players have really held up well inside for the Eagles' defense.

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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