I explained on Monday why Sam Bradford's performance on Sunday was arguably his best in an Eagles uniform, but here I want to focus on the Eagles' defense and its disappointing outing against the Cardinals. Anytime you give up 40 points like the Eagles did on Sunday night (and it could've been more had wide receiver John Brown caught a few of those uncontested catches), there's a lot to pick through and figure out what needs fixing.
Before we get into the negatives though, let's start on a lighter note. With so many passing threats on this Cardinals team, the Eagles were going to have to get creative stopping them through the air. Now, losing both starting corners early in the game limited the Eagles from that standpoint, but there were reps where they asked their corners to travel across the formation while matched up with receivers (something rarely seen in this defense). They also did some interesting things from a bracket perspective as well.
With Arizona up 7-3 early in the second quarter, the Cardinals have the ball deep in the red zone on third-and-5. Quarterback Carson Palmer is alone in the backfield in an empty set. The Eagles combat that with a three-man rush, dropping eight into coverage. With eight defenders against five receivers, the Eagles are able to bracket both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd inside. Palmer has nowhere to go with the football, and Pro Bowl defensive end Fletcher Cox closes the pocket to force a sack and a field goal, keeping it a one-score game.
This is the play everyone has been talking about this week, the 47-yard touchdown run by rookie David Johnson. This was a form of the stretch run play from the Cardinals, and as I've detailed in the past, there are lots of reasons why these runs work. Chiefly, the main advantage of getting the entire front seven on the run laterally, parallel to the line of scrimmage, is that defenders are more likely to overrun their gap assignment, and that's exactly what happened here.
Somewhere along the line, responsibilities were skewed. Between the offensive line stretching to the play side and Larry Fitzgerald cracking down, gap assignments got a bit convoluted. The Eagles end up with three defenders outside the point of attack. This creates a cutback lane for Johnson, who smartly sticks his foot in the ground and gets downhill. The rookie puts his head down and runs through a sea of Eagles defenders, none of whom are able to corral him, and he takes it to the house.
Team run defense comes down to gap discipline and sound tackling, and neither of those was present on that play against Johnson, a dagger through the heart of the Eagles' defense.
It's not like the Eagles are unable to do it, we've seen it for most of the last two years. The defensive line has always been stout against the run, and that has been the case even during the rough patches this season. Here's a play back in Week 4 against Washington and Alfred Morris. The Redskins' favorite run play is the stretch outside zone concept, the same play that Arizona scored the long touchdown on. Here, the Eagles were sound in their run fits, everyone is in their designated gap and a wall has been built up front at the point of attack. Morris has nowhere to go with the ball, and the Eagles stop him for a short gain.
Much like everything in football, run defense is a team achievement, and rarely can you say that a team gave up 150-plus yards because of one individual player. It takes a team effort to stop the run and it takes a team effort to not stop the run. This Eagles defense will have to come together against a Washington team that, while their numbers on the ground aren't as great as years past, still wants to be able to pound you with the run game. Stopping that will be a big key to success on Saturday night.
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.