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Eagle Eye: When The Numbers Do Lie

Posted Dec 26, 2016

The Eagles got a huge win over the New York Giants, their first division victory of the season, last Thursday night. After looking closely at Carson Wentz, Lane Johnson and the rest of the Eagles' offense, I now want to give you a peek inside Jim Schwartz’s game plan against Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants. It starts with those two outstanding players.

If you want to stop New York, you have to find a way to keep those two from reaching the end zone. There are number of ways to accomplish this. You want to pressure Manning and force him into throwing the ball quicker than he’d like. This is something that wasn’t always the case when these two teams met a couple of months ago. When it comes to Beckham, you have to mix things up. There are lots of ways you can game plan to stop a receiver, but mixing up your looks to keep the offense guessing is the best way to do it. That’s exactly what Schwartz did.

Beckham was targeted on 20 of Manning’s 63 pass attempts against the Eagles on Thursday Night Football. I charted all of those throws to see what coverage the defense was in and how successful it was. There were different things that the Eagles did to deter Manning from throwing the ball on the other 43 pass plays, but I want to simply focus on the 20 pass attempts.

Odell Beckham Jr.'s Targets Vs. Eagles
Coverage Man/Zone Targets Catches Yards
Tampa 2 Zone 5 4 50
Cover 1 Double Man 4 1 10
Quarters Zone 3 1 33
Quarter-Quarter-Half Zone 2 2 19
Cover 2 Man Man 2 1 3
Cover 1 Man Free Man 2 1 5
Cover 1 Man 1 1 30
Box and One Man 1 0 0

Let’s take some time to go through a few of these scenarios - some good and some bad - and what the thought process was in the calls and with the on-field execution between the lines.

On the second play of the game, the Eagles' defense faced second-and-3 at the Giants' 28-yard line. The defense plays a basic form of Quarters coverage, with the four defensive backs covering the back end and three linebackers in underneath zone coverage. It’s very common for Quarters coverage to look like straight up man defense, and that is definitely what it looks like when you watch cornerback Nolan Carroll against Beckham at the bottom of the screen. The wideout gets on top of Carroll quickly. Safety Malcolm Jenkins recognizes that the No. 2 receiver is not a threat vertically, so he opens up to the sideline and takes a great angle to the ball. Jenkins meets Beckham at the catch point and forces an incomplete pass to bring up the first third down of the game.

One of the biggest third-down coverages for the Eagles all season long has been some form of Cover 2, with two safeties splitting the deep part of the field in half and five underneath defenders in zone coverage. The Eagles' favorite form of Cover 2 is Tampa 2, where the middle linebacker, Jordan Hicks, drops deep down the field between the hashes. Hicks then opens up to the passing strength and picks up the most dangerous offensive player in the middle of the field or down the seam. The advantage to playing Tampa 2 against a receiver like Beckham is that you have a safety over the top of him, and the corner can get pretty aggressive with him at the line of scrimmage if he lines up outside.

The Eagles are in Tampa 2 on this play, except with a small twist. This is actually a zone-exchange pressure concept here from Schwartz’s defense. Bennie Logan will drop as an underneath defender, and Jenkins blitzes off the edge. The blitz doesn’t get home, and the Giants hit Beckham for a 13-yard gain and a first down on what was a really good play call to attack the Eagles' underneath defenders. Hicks was taken away from Beckham’s side of the field by slot receiver Sterling Shepard. Nigel Bradham was held in place by tight end Will Tye. This created a perfect throwing lane for Manning to Beckham over the middle of the field to move the chains.

Whether it’s Cover 2 or Cover 4 (Quarters), the Eagles are a big "split safety" (meaning two high safeties) zone coverage team. Another common coverage concept is Quarter-Quarter-Half, where on one half of the field you’ll see defenders in Quarters and on the other is Cover 2. On two of Beckham’s targets, the Eagles played Cover 2 to his side with Quarters on the opposite side of the field. He was able to catch a pass on both throws because he ran quick, in-breaking routes. On this third-and-6 play, the Eagles had a shot to bring him down just short of the sticks, but were unable to do so as he crossed the plane for the first down.

The first three shots above came against zone concepts. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called a zone coverage concept on 10 of Beckham’s 20 targets, resulting in seven catches for 102 yards. Conversely, the Eagles allowed Beckham to catch four passes for 48 yards on 10 targets of man coverage. Here’s the lone big play that they allowed in man, and it happened late in the first quarter.

The Eagles run a nickel blitz here with Jenkins coming off the edge from the right as a slot defender. A five-man pressure means that you have five defenders in man coverage and one deep safety in the middle of the field. That safety is Jaylen Watkins, and he is tasked with the tough assignment of trying to make a play outside the numbers against a quickly thrown fade ball. Leodis McKelvin gets no jam on Beckham at the line, and Watkins is not at the catch point quick enough to make a play on the ball, as Manning drops in a pass for a 30-yard gain.

Watkins has received a lot of criticism from media and fans alike for his play the last two weeks against both New York and Baltimore. It’s not completely unwarranted. However, it should be noted that when a safety is helping over the top you need some of kind disruption from the cornerback underneath to delay the release of the receiver. Giving a wide receiver a free release down the sideline is a recipe for disaster for any safety over the top, whether that safety is playing one- or two-high down the field. Early in the season, I thought Watkins played those types of throws as a two-high player as well as you can play them, particularly in the first matchup against New York, but he’s gotten burned by them the last couple of weeks.

Here’s a shot of man coverage down in the red zone on third-and-9. The Eagles are in a Man Free concept, meaning there’s a high safety in the middle of the field (Rodney McLeod), a hole player underneath (Hicks) and five man coverage players. Beckham slow-plays this route, and Carroll reacts to this as well as one possibly can, forcing an incompletion and turning a possible touchdown into a field goal for the Giants.

One of the things that stood out to me was the amount of times that the Eagles doubled Beckham on Thursday night. He’s obviously the most dangerous player on offense for New York. He did catch one pass against a true double team (for 10 yards in the fourth quarter), but these calls were very effective overall. One pass against almost 10 designated double teams (on four targets) is a pretty impressive day for the Eagles' secondary.

On the first third down of the game, the Giants needed 3 yards and lined up Beckham in the slot. This is going to be a simple "rub" concept with Sterling Shepard setting a pick on Jenkins in the slot. If you watch Watkins at the safety position, his eyes are on Beckham immediately to take away any in-breaking route. This means Jenkins is responsible for any out-breaking route toward the sideline and should be trying to force Beckham inside. The Pro Bowl receiver is just too quick, however, and releases outside the numbers to get vertical. Jenkins does an outstanding job of fighting over top of the rub and disrupting the pass at the catch point to force a punt on the first true double team of Beckham on the night.

When a defense chooses to double team one player on offense, available resources are pulled away from somewhere else. Sometimes it is the loss of a pass rusher, a safety away from the deep part of the field or the removal a hole player away from the short area near the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field. When a double team is placed on a receiver, there is added stress on the rest of the defense. The other players MUST WIN their one-on-one matchups. More often than not, the Eagles were able to do that on Thursday.

It’s third-and-5 in the first quarter, and the Eagles are calling for another double team on Beckham. This is what I would call Cover 1 Double, which features a four-man rush, one free player in the middle of the field, four defenders in one-on-one man coverage and two defenders in your designated double team.

The double team on this play comes from Carroll and McLeod on Beckham.

Hicks is the free player underneath.

Jenkins is manned up on Shepard in the slot and Watkins is responsible for Tye, the tight end. Focus on the matchups inside because what happens at the snap of the ball is really cool.

The Giants are running a Levels concept over the ball. Shepard runs a shallow crossing route and Tye goes out on a dig route. When Shepard starts his inside stem, Jenkins passes the rookie off to Hicks in the middle of the field. Hicks is now matched up on Shepard, and Jenkins becomes the free player in the middle of the field. He starts to run with Tye, down the seam, and you can tell that the veteran defensive back knows what concept is coming. Jenkins gets his eyes back to the quarterback when he sees Tye break inside, and he jumps this throw for a pick-six and a huge play on third down to put the Eagles up 14-0. This was a huge "tape study" play by the veteran defender, and a big momentum swing for the Eagles to jump out to the early lead. It was also important for this unit to make a play away from the double team on Beckham early in the game.

Jenkins wasn’t done, however, because he’d get his second pick of the night in a similar situation. Again, it’s third-and-5, this time in the fourth quarter. McLeod and Carroll are again doubling Beckham. This time, Jenkins starts the play as the free player as the safety on the other side of the double team, with three of his teammates in straight man coverage in front of him. Shepard runs a slot fade here against Jalen Mills, and Jenkins reads this route all the way to pick Manning off just short of midfield.

I thought the Eagles' secondary had one of its better games of the season against New York, and not just because of the three interceptions. Manning finished the night 10-of-20 on third down, throwing for 125 yards, a touchdown and the three picks. The defense, as a whole, allowed Manning to average just 5.65 yards per pass attempt, which was the second-best total by the unit all season long (behind just the Minnesota game and former Eagle Sam Bradford).

Perhaps most important, when this team needed a stop late in the game, it came through multiple times. With two minutes left and the Eagles up by four, the Giants faced fourth-and-6 on the Philadelphia 37-yard line. Mills and McLeod double team Beckham in the slot, leaving Carroll and Shepard one on one on the outside. The rookie runs a hitch route beyond the sticks. There’s contact on both sides, and the ball falls incomplete to force a turnover on downs as the defense makes another play away from the double team on Beckham.

The Giants got the ball back late in the game and drove to the Philadelphia 34-yard line. Manning and Beckham hooked up for a handful of short passes in the fourth quarter, including on that drive, with Beckham running underneath the Eagles' zone coverage and getting upfield to pick up positive yardage. The Eagles responded by basically drawing up a coverage in the sand, backyard-football style, to keep Beckham under wraps in the "must-have" situation for the defense. The Eagles ran it on the final three plays of the game.

“We got tired of Odell catching the ball and sprinting through the defense,” Jenkins said. “So we put Jalen Mills on him, took one of our D-linemen out, and added Terrence Brooks in and basically just played a form of Cover 2. But we made sure we had somebody on Odell all the time. Because every time we played zone he just kind of ran through the entire defense. So we knew that last drive we were going to need something to keep the ball out of his hands. And like I said, it was a quick decision between that second-to-last drive and the last drive that we kind of put it out there and guys went out and executed.”

When I went back to the tape, I saw exactly what Jenkins later described as a "Box and One"-type defense. Box and One is a popular term for a defensive scheme in basketball, where the defense mans up on one star player while playing a basic "box zone" defense across the rest of the floor. So what did it look like in football terms? Let’s take a look.

The Eagles played three snaps of dime defense, with three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. Mills is manned up on Beckham, meaning that the Eagles' defense had just 10 defenders to work with. They wanted to play Tampa 2, which calls for five underneath defenders and two deep safeties. In order to play seven zone defenders with one man defender in Mills, they needed to take away a resource from somewhere else. That asset was on the defensive line, as the Eagles elected to go with a three-man rush on the final three plays of the game.

It’s first-and-10 from the 34-yard line, and here’s the Eagles’ Box and One defense - the Tampa 2 scheme with Mills manned up on Beckham. New York runs a Switch concept on the outside, with Beckham running down the middle of the field. Tye appears to be wide open on the wheel route because of all the attention paid toward Beckham. Manning is unable to properly get this ball off, however, because of a great rush from Brandon Graham. The Pro Bowl alternate was incredibly disruptive all night long. He beats Bobby Hart and hits Manning to force an incomplete pass.

After an incompletion to Beckham down the field on second down, the defense faces third-and-10. The Giants counter the Eagles' Box and One with another rep of the exact same Switch concept they ran on first down. The Giants' coaching staff saw that Tye was wide open on the last one so thought, "Why not go for it again and try to strike gold?"

Manning drops back and he airs a throw downfield that Brooks steps in front of for the game-sealing interception, taking away the throw to Tye to finish off the win over the Giants. Manning wasn’t able to fully step into his throw again, as Vinny Curry gets home on another three-man rush to force a turnover. The Box and One worked to perfection, as the dime defender ended up coming away with the pick to end the game.

The defensive line get home on a three-man rush to impact Manning on both of those pivotal plays on the final drive. That was a consistent theme all night long. Many have looked at the stat sheet and wondered aloud, "How can Manning drop back over 60 times and not get sacked once?" The Eagles' front four was very disruptive, generating 10 hits in the on Manning and hurrying him several times more which helped to take away multiple potential plays down the field in key spots.

Here’s two third-down plays from the first half where the rush got to Manning and forced an early or errant throw. On the first play, a third-and-8 late in the first quarter, Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin both get to Manning at the same time, forcing him to break the pocket and roll to his right.

Later in the second quarter, on third-and-9, Curry flashes color inside, winning off the ball as Manning overthrows Beckham in the back of the end zone to force a field goal instead of a possible touchdown. The pass rush was not always there during the 2016 season, but on Thursday night the defensive line did its part from start to finish against Manning and the Giants.

Cox is one player who consistently stands out, week after week, game after game. These are two shots of the run game where he’s able to control the point of attack and get a big stop to force third-down plays. He’s such an impact player against the pass as well. As the defensive staff looks to 2017 and beyond, they have to feel good about the cornerstone of the unit being No. 91.

One player who really flashed and likely had his best game as an Eagle on Thursday night was backup defensive tackle Beau Allen. Whether it was against the run or the pass, Allen was disruptive and beat veteran guard Justin Pugh off the ball multiple times in the game. For the Eagles to have success under Schwartz, they need dominant play from the front four. To get this level of play from backups will be key as the Eagles grow into a playoff and Super Bowl contender.

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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