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Eagle Eye: Jim Schwartz's Well-Timed Blitzes Help Ignite The Pass Rush

Posted Sep 12, 2017

After looking at the performance of Carson Wentz and the Eagles' offense against Washington, it’s time to look at the Eagles' defensive performance, which was near dominant at times throughout the game. The pressure was consistent, whether it was with four rushers or more. The coverage was tight. And the run defense was stout. The story of the game, however, starts up front with the defensive line, and the complementary blitz packages Jim Schwartz sent at Kirk Cousins.

The Eagles effectively made use of Cover-0 blitzes, where six defenders go all out after the quarterback, leaving five defenders in man coverage with no safety help in the middle of the field. It’s risky, but you’ll guarantee an extra rusher that the offense cannot account for, and you can force an early or off-target throw. On this third down, Cousins gets rid of this pass earlier than he would like and it is overthrown to force a punt.

Earlier in the game, the Eagles created their first turnover of the season off a blitz. It wasn’t a Cover-0 look like the first play, but an overload five-man pressure gets the job done against Cousins.

Defensive end Brandon Graham drops back into underneath zone coverage. He won’t be a part of the blitz. Jordan Hicks and Patrick Robinson attack from the opposite side of the field instead. Redskins running back Chris Thompson recognizes this edge pressure from the slot and steps up in protection. This means the Redskins have six blockers to the Eagles' five rushers. This should be blocked up, right? Well, this is where the fun comes in. When Washington right guard Brandon Scherff sees Graham drop, he intuitively knows that he has pressure coming from the other way. He slides toward the direction of the pressure, passing Fletcher Cox off to right tackle Morgan Moses. Cox uses his athleticism to beat Moses around the corner, and has the awareness to chop the ball out of Cousins’ hands to force the fumble and get the ball back to the offense.

The use of pressure to take the focus away from the All-Pro tackle is a good way to get him freed up for one-on-one matchups. Hopefully, we get to see more of this as the season unfolds.

I thought Jim Schwartz’s use of pressure really kept Cousins on his toes throughout the game, and this third down in the red zone really illustrated that.

Cousins comes to the line and doesn’t like what he sees. The Eagles' defense looks like it’s coming on another Cover-0 blitz. Washington isn’t prepared, and Cousins takes a timeout to talk things through on the sideline. The Eagles show a Cover-0 look after the timeout. Cousins responds by calling for max protection, with seven blockers and just three eligible receivers. Except the Eagles don’t come, they drop seven into coverage in the red zone. Cousins has nowhere to go and delivers a throw short of the first-down marker to settle for a field goal attempt. Washington was a top-five team last year on third down, but the Eagles held them to 3-of-11 on Sunday, a huge accomplishment considering last year’s résumé.

This is one of the critical points in the game. It’s third down in the red zone in a one-score game. Schwartz goes all out after Cousins this time with another Cover-0 blitz. Jordan Hicks comes free at Cousins, and he feels the heat. Falling away from the throw, Cousins gets rid of the ball earlier than he’d like. The result is an erratic pass that skies over his intended target, Jamison Crowder, and into the hands of Jalen Mills. The Eagles get the ball, punt the ball to the Washington 1-yard line, and set up a field position change that results in Fletcher Cox’s fumble recovery for a touchdown late in the game.

Next to Cox, Tim Jernigan was a load all afternoon for Washington up front. Stout against the run and disruptive against the pass, Jernigan worked left guard Shawn Lauvao throughout the day. He wins here with an inside move and explodes into Cousins for his first official sack as an Eagle.

The Jernigan sack came off a four-man rush, and so did the game-clinching sack by Brandon Graham late in the fourth quarter. Both Cox and Graham win their one-on-one matchups. Graham gets to Cousins on the outside, and gets the ball on the ground. Cox, the athlete he is, scoops up the rock on the run and takes it to the house to seal the win.

If the Eagles can get pressure on opposing quarterbacks by winning their one-on-one battles AND by sending select pressure, then this defense has a chance to be one of the very best in the entire league. On the play above, Graham and Curry work together to force Cousins out of the pocket. Curry bull rushes his man into Cousins’ lap, and Graham closes from the back side. I am pretty sure the ball is loose before Cousins hits the dirt, but I suppose the one forced fumble was enough in this contest.

Graham and Curry weren’t just wrecking balls against the pass, because on the very first run play the two defensive ends disrupted the action in the backfield as well. Curry sets a hard edge on this play against Trent Williams, while Graham knifes into the backfield to bring Thompson down for no gain.

Quality team run defense was a hallmark of this unit on Sunday. Graham sets another hard edge above, with Nigel Bradham filling this play on the front side. Jernigan, Cox, and safety Malcolm Jenkins all converge on the ball at the point of attack, while Curry closes from the back side. Look at how many defenders are at the ball on the last frame. That’s how it should look on every play. You see that kind of effort from Curry on the second rep as well, chasing the run down from the back side for a stop.

This is a great stop here by Rodney McLeod, who comes from distance and finishes against Rob Kelley one-on-one in the alley. McLeod was viewed by many around the league as one of the top free agent signings in the 2016 offseason, and he showed off his versatility in this game against the run as well as in coverage. Whether it was as a blitzer or in man coverage in the Eagles' pressure schemes against Washington, he was used in a lot of ways on Sunday.

Eagles fans were hoping to hear more from Derek Barnett. He did almost come up with a sack late in the game, but this play was more impressive. Watch the rookie fly into the backfield here and attack this pulling lineman head on, blowing the play up in the backfield to create a tackle for loss. Barnett is a relentless player (his effort was on display against the Redskins on a few reps as well), and while he had a couple of "welcome-to-the-league" moments against Trent Williams, I thought he fared well in his first official outing. This play was definitely my favorite.

It's one thing for a 259-pound defensive end to battle Scherff, but not a 191-pound cornerback. Watch Jalen Mills come downhill here and fight off Scherff in the run game, work through contact, and get to the football. I love watching Mills play. His competitiveness shines through in everything he does.

With the loss of Ronald Darby, the Eagles' secondary will have to make some adjustments. In base, I expect we’ll see more of Patrick Robinson on the outside at left cornerback while Mills sticks on the right side. Robinson wasn’t challenged much on Sunday, but on the one vertical route he saw was defended perfectly.

Robinson pins his man to the sideline and runs step for step downfield with his head turned to find the football. This is exactly how it should look. In nickel, I’d expect Robinson to slide inside to the slot, allowing Jenkins to stay at safety. The question this week will be whether Jaylen Watkins or Rasul Douglas comes on to play at left corner in those situations. Watkins is a versatile, savvy defensive back who I thought had a good showing against Washington. Douglas, the third-round pick this spring, was inactive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s at the bottom of the totem pole with the new depth chart. I’ll be intrigued to see how this defensive secondary looks when the Eagles take on the Chiefs on Sunday.

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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