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Eagle Eye: This Eagles Defense Brings Back Memories Of Buddy Ryan

Posted Sep 20, 2017

After taking a closer look inside the numbers of the Eagles’ run game and the continued development of Carson Wentz on Monday night, it’s time to look at another impressive outing from this Eagles defense against the Kansas City Chiefs. Everyone knows how disruptive this defensive front has been, and after watching the unit all summer and through the first two games, one thing stands out. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his staff have made it a point to create one-on-one matchups for their best player, Fletcher Cox, and it’s paid big-time dividends for them. The best part is that they do this in a lot of different ways. It began Sunday on the opening series.

It’s third-and-4 on the 16-yard line. The Chiefs line up in an 11 personnel set with one back and one tight end (Travis Kelce) to the boundary by himself. The Eagles are in their nickel package featuring a new look for the group this year. Cox lines up on the nose of the center with Brandon Graham lined up as a 3-technique to his left on the inside. Outside, Chris Long stands up over the right tackle and Derek Barnett lines up wide off the edge. This four-man front has been a popular look in their subpackages.

Linebacker Jordan Hicks comes down and lines up directly over the left guard on this play. His pre-snap alignment makes this whole thing go. Hicks occupies that guard by stepping up as if he’s blitzing at the snap of the ball. The guard must respect that, and works to block Hicks. With two edge rushers lined up on the same side (Graham and Long), the right guard and right tackle are also occupied. This leaves the center one-on-one with Cox, who collapses the pocket and forces Smith into an uncomfortable throw where he’s unable to step up. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is able to help force an incompletion and a field goal attempt. This was done with a four-man rush because Hicks actually falls back into coverage underneath, leaving the left guard blocking nothing but fresh air on the play.

In last week’s preview of the Chiefs’ defense, I explained how Bear fronts were tough to block because they made it hard to double-team defensive linemen. When you have three defenders lined up over three blockers (the center and both guards), it’s very hard to devote more than one of those blockers to any one defender and still give proper attention to any of the rushers off the edge. What did we see this week from the Eagles? A little Bear front!

It’s second-and-8 in the second quarter, and the Eagles come out with a "reduced" look with Cox head up on the center, Graham covering up the right guard, and Tim Jernigan covering up the left guard. With all three blockers covered up like that, you have the Bear front.

For a fun side note, Reggie White used to line up in the same exact spot as Cox did in many of these Bear looks under former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan.

On this play, the Eagles bring heat right up the gut at quarterback Alex Smith. I love this pressure concept. Both Graham and Jernigan expand their rush, taking an outside path on the way upfield. This, in turn, takes both guards away from the center. Just like in the last play, Cox is matched up on an island with one blocker, but that’s not the only threat inside. Both Hicks and Jenkins are screaming into their respective "A gaps" on either side of Cox. The running back can pick up one defender (Jenkins), but he can’t account for Hicks. This is one of my favorite blitzes that I’ve seen from the Eagles in a long time. The Triple A-gap element isn’t something we saw from the Eagles last year (though it didn’t stop me from writing about it). This is a wrinkle that I’m really excited to see more of in this scheme.

Last week, I showed you a zone exchange blitz from the Eagles and how it helped create a one-on-one look for Cox. They were able to accomplish something similar this week, except out of this Bear look. Jernigan lines up on the nose, and he and Hicks rush the A gaps together. Cox, lined up as a 3-technique, expands his rush to the outside. Graham drops out (as does Nigel Bradham on the other side) and Cox is manned up on the right tackle, beating him for a sack on the play.

I mentioned the term zone exchange above, and I wanted to quickly define that. A zone exchange is a type of blitz where you still end up with a four-man pressure, but you have a defensive lineman drop out in coverage with a second-level defender becoming a part of the pressure scheme. In order to do that, you need to be able to trust your linemen to drop and hold their own in space. Lucky for the Eagles, they have more than a few athletic linemen.

Watch rookie defensive tackle Elijah Qualls drop underneath on this zone exchange on third-and-long. The former high school running back matches Smith in pursuit and forces the quarterback to throw the ball away. Do you need those linemen to be Derrick Brooks or Ray Lewis or Kam Chancellor in the middle of the field? Of course not, but Qualls does his job on this play and helps forces a punt.

The Eagles haven’t always had to bring exotic looks to generate pressure because a lot of the time a plain four-man rush will do the trick.

On the first sack, Long gets home to the quarterback by playing off of Graham inside (this is out of the new-look nickel package with those two, Cox, and Barnett). Graham in his relentless pursuit of the quarterback off the edge on the next play. Graham’s motor consistently shows up time and time again, not just after the quarterback, but in the run game as well.

Graham was impressive, and Cox was too in this game, but Jernigan was the guy who jumped off the film more than a few times. He was downright mean in this game, and his play against the Chiefs’ trap run was one of the most physically dominant plays I’ve seen from a defensive lineman in some time.

The Chiefs leave the 3-technique (in this case, Jernigan) unblocked on this trap play. This gives the defender almost a sense of comfort because he thinks he’s blown through the line untouched. The offense is planning on blocking him, however, with a guard pulling him from the back side. It’s tough to always see these trap blocks coming, but Jernigan feels this, takes on the block, doesn’t give up an inch of ground, tosses the lineman to the side, then corrals running back Kareem Hunt with one arm and throws him to the ground. Wow.

The Eagles' aggressive nature on defense manifests itself not only in the pass rush, but in everything the players do. There’s a fearlessness and a relentlessness in the way they play that just oozes out of the film. Watching this defense attack the screen game sideline to sideline is just plain fun to watch.

What I love about this play, and the Graham pursuit plays before, is that the effort is not only contagious, but it comes from the unit’s best players up front. With Cox, Hicks, Jernigan, and Graham all possessing some of the highest motors on the defensive front, that effort permeates down. It’s no wonder you see players like Barnett, Qualls, Means, and others continuing to chase the action on a consistent basis. Effort is coached, but with this group, it also seems to come naturally. It’s something they take pride in.

Was it all positive for the Eagles? Of course not. As hard as they fought against an offense that can beat you in a lot of different ways with a lot of moving parts, a couple of late breakdowns led to big plays and sustained drives that resulted in touchdowns. Let’s look at the go-ahead score, the shovel pass to tight end Travis Kelce.

I showed how the Chiefs use so much backfield action and misdirection to keep defenders guessing last week. They use complementary plays really well and head coach Andy Reid isn’t afraid to run something early in the game that helps set things up for crunch time. That’s exactly what happened on the shovel pass to Kelce.

Fans and media wondered why the linebackers, Bradham and Hicks, were not in position to defend this shovel pass. Well, part of it is the backfield action. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill comes in motion, and before the snap it could very easily be the same jet sweep we saw earlier in the first half. Not only that, but you have the outside zone action going back the other way. This misdirection causes second-level defenders to hesitate, and who can blame them? Kelce comes through the back door behind a lead block, and he makes an amazing play to reach the end zone to put the Chiefs up by seven. Overall, I thought the Eagles' defense had a really impressive outing against a dynamic offense, especially considering the bad field position after two turnovers. I’m excited about the overall direction of this unit.

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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