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Eagle Eye: Ronald Darby, Secondary Dominate Cowboys Offense

Posted Nov 22, 2017

I looked at the explosive run game and the extremely impressive performance by Carson Wentz against the Dallas Cowboys, and now it’s time to turn my attention toward the Eagles' defense. This unit went into Dallas on Sunday night and kept quarterback Dak Prescott and the opposing offense out of the end zone. It was the first time all season that Prescott failed to produce at least a 20-yard completion, forcing the second-year quarterback into the worst game of his career. Prescott turned the ball over four times, was sacked just as many, and missed a lot of throws in the game both physically and mentally. I want to lead off this piece with how the Eagles were able to impact Prescott, starting with his three interceptions.

The first pick of Prescott came courtesy of safety Rodney McLeod, but the veteran defensive back was far from the only Eagles defender involved with the turnover. First, look at fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins. He’s lined up in the box, playing man coverage against tight end Jason Witten. When Witten crosses the formation at the snap, as if he’s executing a block in the run game, Jenkins transitions into his responsibility in the run fit. He knifes into the A gap and is in position to tackle Alfred Morris, but Morris doesn’t get the football. Instead, this is a play-action pass to the left on a quick slant route. Jenkins realizes this and gets his hands up to cloud the passing lane, and he ends up getting a tiny piece of this throw. In the secondary, Ronald Darby makes a great break on this play. He reads the route from off coverage, drives on a 45-degree angle, and arrives at the catch point right on time to rake his hands through the receiver's to help knock the ball in the air. McLeod comes from his spot in the deep middle of the field, tracking the throw as a post player, and finishes for the interception.

Darby helped create the first interception, and he gets one of his own later in the game. The Cowboys are facing third-and-extremely long back in their own territory. They stay aggressive rather than take the "L" and play for the next drive. Prescott tries a throw in the deep middle of the field to wide receiver Dez Bryant on a post route. With the secondary playing so deep downfield thanks to the down-and-distance situation, Darby is able to track this ball the entire way and he does a great job finishing in the air for the pick.

The Cowboys are down in the red zone for Prescott’s third interception late in the game. This turnover starts up front, where defensive tackle Fletcher Cox wins right off the snap and penetrates into the backfield. This pressure forces Prescott to bail out of the pocket and roll to his right. Linebacker Nigel Bradham, playing as a hole player underneath while also spying Prescott, shadows the quarterback to the sideline before taking off to force the issue. Prescott tries to squeeze this throw into the end zone, and that’s where Jenkins comes into play. The veteran safety was in press man coverage on the right side, and when his man gets to the top of his route, Jenkins peeks at Prescott. He sees what’s happening and is able to get to the football for the interception.

That play by Bradham was an example of keeping Prescott under wraps on the perimeter. That was something that, entering the game, had to be a point of emphasis for this defense. The Cowboys love to get Prescott on the perimeter in the bootleg pass game, using play-action to draw the defense one way before he pulls the ball and rolls in the opposite direction. Prescott is very good at making throws on the run, and his ability to make plays with his feet is undeniable. That’s what makes Derek Barnett’s first sack so impressive.

On this play, Prescott looks like he will hand the ball off to the right, and that action is enough to potentially suck in a defensive end crashing from the back side. Against a rookie like Barnett, you’d expect that to be the case. On this play, however, Barnett does a great job staying home and playing the bootleg. He’s able to meet Prescott in the backfield, but that’s only half of his job. Now, he has to get the quarterback to the ground. Prescott is a strong kid, and he’s able to fight through contact in the backfield. He’s not easy to bring down one-on-one, but Barnett wrestles him down to the ground for the sack.

That first sack was a great individual effort by Barnett, but his second sack had a number of layers to it. The Cowboys are just shy of midfield, and the Eagles line up in one of their five-over-five looks up front. Cox is lined up directly over the center. Bradham is right near the line of scrimmage over the left guard. Barnett has his hand in the dirt over the left tackle. Dallas is hoping to use their running back to chip Barnett, providing help to the left tackle Byron Bell (starting in place of an injured Tyron Smith).

The problem for the Cowboys is that Mychal Kendricks, who is lined up in man coverage against the running back, "green dogs." This means he becomes a blitzer since there’s no threat of his man catching a pass out in space. When Kendricks takes off toward Prescott, he draws the attention of the running back, who steps up to block him. That means that the tackle, who was expecting help on his outside gap from the running back, now has no help. Barnett wins on the outside, looks like a freak of nature with his flexibility turning the corner, and attacks the throwing arm of Prescott. Barnett gets the ball on the ground, Bradham picks it up and races it back for a touchdown. Give a ton of credit to Kendricks who helps escort Bradham down the sideline and does what he can to avoid a block-in-the-back penalty at the end of the play.

The other two sacks for the Eagles were great examples of complementary football. Tim Jernigan gets the first one, and this ball 100 percent should have been thrown by Prescott. The play is designed to go to that crossing route over the middle. He does not pull the trigger because of the amount of pressure he’s seen throughout the day and how the Eagles have mixed some things up from a coverage standpoint. The Eagles pass this off beautifully in the secondary, with Bradham and McLeod picking up the short crosser and Jenkins falling off to defend the deep post. Jernigan gets home and Prescott goes down.

The second sack comes from defensive end Brandon Graham, lined up at left defensive end. The play starts on the opposite side of the formation, however, when Vinny Curry bull-rushes the left tackle right into Prescott’s lap. That forces him to hold the football and roll to his left. Graham wins on the outside and chases Prescott down from behind for the sack.

The defensive line was great in this game, but let’s get back to the secondary. The defensive backs as a whole have been very impressive all season long, and needless to say they have surpassed most people’s expectations with their performance this year. A few themes have popped up consistently when watching this secondary. The players are instinctive, physical, and extremely competitive. Here are all three of the Eagles' top cornerbacks - Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Patrick Robinson - and those traits emerge in all three of the plays.

My three favorite plays from those three clips? Darby’s pass breakup on the opening drive (they went at him twice in a row down in the red zone with Bryant and Darby came through in his first reps since Week 1), Mills’ tackle against Bryant in the flat (where Bryant tried to use his violent stiff arm with absolutely no effect), and Robinson’s first pass breakup (where you see his instincts and ball skills come into play). I’m really excited about this group of defensive backs moving forward, and truly believe that this group will turn into one of the best in the league in a couple of years as the young players behind them develop.

Despite getting gashed on a couple of plays on the ground, the Eagles still maintain the No. 1 run defense in the NFL, allowing just 71 yards per game. There are two areas where the Eagles excel in the run game - the point of attack and in pursuit.

At the point of attack, it doesn’t get much better than Cox and Jernigan, one of the best interior defensive line duos in the league. Here are a handful of plays from Sunday where those two destroyed plays at or beyond the line of scrimmage. They’re a challenge for any offensive line they face in the NFL.

In pursuit, the defensive line is incredibly impressive. In every game, I can pick a handful of plays where the defensive ends come from the back side and make plays chasing the action from behind. Here, you see Barnett, Graham, and Chris Long all make great plays in pursuit. If you’re not blocked off the snap, these defensive ends are conditioned to chase the play and find the football.

I’m going to look at one final play, and it comes on special teams. Linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill got a lot of press this week after his role as the backup kicker on Sunday night, and rightfully so. It was a really impressive performance. We shouldn’t lose sight, however, of the impact he’s had on special teams this season.

Grugier-Hill is a phenomenal athlete, and you can see how explosive he is on this punt play. For a guy his size, Grugier-Hill can fly, and people don’t really realize how hard it is to get downfield at full speed, come to balance, and then finish as a tackler one-on-one in space. That’s an outstanding rep there in coverage by Grugier-Hill, who has really helped maintain the Eagles' special teams coverage units this year, even after the injury to safety Chris Maragos.

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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