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Eagle Eye: The Identity Of The Defense

Posted Jan 10, 2017

Looking back at the Eagles on defense this past season, there were a few points that became very clear to me.

The biggest takeaway, however, is that this defense has an identity. Jim Schwartz installed an aggressive nature that manifests itself in everything the unit does. Whether it’s getting after the quarterback, being physical in the run game at both the second and third levels, competing to the fullest extent on the perimeter or making plays in pursuit from the back side, the mantra is "attack, attack, attack."

The defensive line is an area of strength overall. Could the Eagles use some help in the form of some additional pass rush? Absolutely. But when you get the kind of play the team got from Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham along with Bennie Logan (an impending free agent), you have building blocks to work with. The player who I’m most excited to see in 2017 though is linebacker Jordan Hicks.

There’s been some debate about whether Hicks would be a better fit as an outside linebacker in the scheme instead of in the middle, but I honestly think that’s a bit overplayed. First of all, the Eagles spent most of their time in nickel, meaning they had just two linebackers on the field. Second, in this scheme, there aren’t many issues that pop up at middle linebacker that he wouldn’t face as, say, the weakside linebacker. No matter what linebacker spot Hicks plays in this defense, he is going to have inside run responsibilities. Guards and tackles are going to get right up on you at times depending on the run scheme. Schwartz chose to match up defensive backs on tight ends more often than not in man coverage. The No. 1 zone concept from the season was Tampa 2.

In that coverage, the middle linebacker is asked to drop way down the seam, opening his hips up to the offensive passing strength and running downfield with the most dangerous option to that side. Hicks is best suited to fit that role at MIKE, as the most skilled coverage player at the linebacker spot. Could Hicks slide outside and still be effective? Absolutely! But he does not NEED to slide outside. I thought that as the season wore on, he became more and more comfortable with what he was asked to do. I can’t wait to see him in the second year of the system.

Here’s a play from the team’s final game against Dallas where Hicks is sent on a blitz. When he sees that he isn’t going to get home, he recognizes the screen pass, gets a paw on the football and tips it to himself for the interception. Hicks’ versatility as a blitzer is valuable, but his instincts, athleticism and ball skills are all a major part of why he’s a true three-down linebacker in today’s NFL.

Later in the game, those same instincts and ball skills in coverage get Hicks his second interception of the afternoon against Mark Sanchez. This time, the Eagles play "three over two" in the slot, meaning that three defenders (Hicks, Malcolm Jenkins and Jalen Mills) are responsible for the two slot receivers for Dallas. Hicks is responsible for whomever runs inside, Mills takes the man on the outside and Jenkins is tasked with any vertical route.

If Dallas sends two receivers in the same direction, the defenders work together to overlap in coverage, but that’s not needed here. Hicks picks up the shallow in-breaking route from the No. 3 receiver, baiting Sanchez into a throw and jumping the pass for an interception. This is coincidentally a very similar coverage concept that got Jenkins his pick-six against the Giants just one week earlier, when he was able to get underneath of a route from the No. 2 receiver knowing that he had help from the safety over top.

Hicks has a great ability to fly downhill and penetrate into the backfield, shooting gaps to disrupt running plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. In this one-gap scheme, the defenders at the second and third level are asked to attack downhill against the run and be a part of the fit. They need that short-area burst to close the distance between themselves and the ball in a hurry, something that Hicks certainly has. In the second play above, Jenkins does the same thing from the back side, diagnosing the play immediately and getting downhill for the tackle for loss.

Shooting gaps is important for players at the second level, but staying in your gap is what is most important. In a lot of the breakdowns the Eagles had this year on the ground, there were examples of what coaches call "misfits" up front, where players did not "fit" into their run responsibility correctly. If two defenders are in the same gap, that often means that there is one gap not accounted for. If the ball gets into that alley, it can be a big play on the ground. These examples from Week 17 are exactly what it should look like from a one-gap defense, and it’s what the team needs to see more consistently in 2017.

A big part of the one-gap front is the four-man defensive line, and that group is led by Cox and Graham, the pair of all-star defenders up front. Cox, a Pro Bowl selection, was incredibly disruptive all year long and is one of the best at his position in the entire league. Graham, a second-team All-Pro, took to this scheme extremely well, and his ability to defend the run and rush the passer as well as play like a maniac in pursuit allow him to be a disruptive force off the edge. The key will be improved play around those two. If Logan is back, that’s a huge help because he is a key cog in the group. Players around them need to get better as well, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. Schwartz is not a high-volume blitzer, so getting after the quarterback with just four is a must moving forward to help this defense run efficiently.

Before I move on from Cox and the rest of the defensive line, I had to include this play from the final game of the year when the star tackle made an incredibly instinctive play. Cox quickly feels this screen pass coming, as he stops the running back in his tracks before the play can get set up and the Cowboys are forced to kill the throw. Cox’s athleticism, power, technique and instincts are what make him special, despite the fact that the sack numbers are not always at the level where some fans and talk-show hosts want it to be!

On this play, Cox drop backs in coverage. Why? This is the most popular blitz we saw from Schwartz this year, a concept known as a "zone exchange" where you drop an interior defensive lineman underneath and add a blitzer from the second level. It’s still a four-man rush, but you’re counting on the protection not accounting for that rusher from the second level and you don’t lose much in coverage. That concept here against Dallas helps Marcus Smith get home for a sack, as the tackle loses his footing with both Smith and Jenkins attacking his outside half.

With the Eagles' defense not being a huge blitzing outfit, the usage of stunts to mess with opposing protection schemes is essential. It was a part of their game plan all season long. Here, the line uses a TE (tackle-end) stunt on the right side, while Cox and Graham switch spots on the left. Cox gets great penetration off the edge and forces the quarterback to hold the ball, allowing the stunt to get home for a sack in the backfield. It's another play that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet for Cox.

Late in the game, this is an example of what the front four should look like in 2017 for this defense to hit on all cylinders. Cox gets the initial pressure and the rest of the line gets home for the eventual sack of Sanchez, while seven defenders in coverage hold up in their zone responsibilities to prevent any throws downfield. If you look at the last couple of shots from a pass-rush respective along with some of the run defense shots from earlier in the piece, you can build a tape of what the scheme should look like in a perfect world moving forward. It was a great way for the unit to go into the offseason.

The Eagles' special teams got a strong final send-off as well in Week 17 thanks to this blocked punt by Steven Means. This unit has been incredibly strong for the last four seasons under coach Dave Fipp, and that will continue to be the same in 2017 and beyond thanks to the personnel and his leadership.

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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