On Saturday, I gave you a glimpse of the Eagles' performance on offense against Pittsburgh. Today, I look at a defensive unit that shut out the Steelers on the road, netting four interceptions while maintaining strong run defense and consistent pressure on the quarterback throughout the night. First, I want to look at the play of the secondary.
Last August, safety Jaylen Watkins joined me on the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast to talk about the definition of being "in phase" as a defensive back. When you're in man-to-man coverage against a receiver and he tries to win vertically down the field, the defender is either "in phase," or "out of phase."
Being out of phase is NOT where you want to be if you're a cornerback. Though you're ultimately going to be out of phase as you turn and run with a receiver, this is when you look like you're in catch-up mode. You have one objective when you're out of phase, and that is to get back in phase.
If the ball arrives when you're out of phase, defenders are almost always taught to keep their eyes on the receiver, watch his hands go up to catch the football, then shoot their hands through the catch point, causing a pass breakup to get the ball on the ground.
If you're out of phase and you're able to get back in phase, now you're in business as a corner. Being in phase means that you're even or slightly on top of the receiver and you have him squeezed to the sideline. A coach I worked with in the past preached the ability to "look and lean" when you are in phase, meaning that you're looking back for the football but still slightly leaning on the receiver. Remember, if you lose your man, you lose the ball, because that's where the throw will go. There are a lot of times where you see the cornerback look up to find the ball, but he loses his receiver. When that happens, he was not practicing good technique while in phase.
If you're executing this right, you're running step for step with the receiver, pinning him toward the sideline and looking for the football. If the throw comes your way, that's when the natural ball skills come into play, and you get pass breakups or interceptions.
This is a perfect job by Nolan Carroll of defending this vertical route on the opening play of the game. He doesn't get a great jam at the line of scrimmage, and the receiver starts his vertical stem downfield. Carroll begins this play out of phase, but he doesn't panic. Instead, he works to get back in phase, turns his head, leans into the receiver ever so slightly, and times his jump perfectly to make a play on the ball and break up the pass. This is exactly how you coach it up, and it's an area of defensive back play that the Eagles and defensive backs coach Cory Undlin have really improved on since his arrival. On the next series, it would be Carroll who would get the Eagles' interception party started.
One of the themes from the Eagles' quartet of picks on Thursday night was that, in three of them, they were in a form of Cover 1 defense that I know as Man Free. This is a very common coverage that features one high safety, a low player in the hole and five defenders in straight man to man across the field.
On this play, the Steelers are running a simple Curl Flat concept to the boundary. Carroll is in off coverage, following receiver Sammie Coates in motion tight to the formation. It's clear that Carroll sees this play coming, as he jumps the route before the quarterback lets go of the football, taking it back to the house for six points. This was a great read by a veteran corner to get the Eagles on the board. He wasn't the only veteran corner to make a big play on Thursday night, however.
Later in the quarter, down in the red zone, Leodis McKelvin does a great job of using his technique to force an interception. Again, the Eagles are in Man Free coverage, leaving McKelvin manned up on the outside. He begins the down out of phase, and the ball is thrown in the back corner. McKelvin sees the receiver flash his hands, and he shoots his hands up through the catch point, helping to pop the ball up in the air and into the waiting arms of safety Malcolm Jenkins for the red zone turnover. Great job by both players of putting themselves in the right position to make a huge play for the defense. This would be one of two red zone takeaways for the Eagles' defense, and the second one was one of the top plays of the preseason.
The Steelers have the ball on the 20-yard line, and Sammie Coates is lined up on the right side, running a post-corner route, where he'll initially start his stem inside to try and get the cornerback's hips turned before breaking back outside toward the pylon. Aaron Grymes is responsible for that area of the field. He doesn't bite on the double move, turns back toward the sideline alongside Coates and finishes with a diving interception while keeping both feet in bounds. This was an outstanding play by a corner who is looking to make this roster, but he's not just making plays on defense. He's steadily improved on special teams as well.
Here's two reps of Grymes as a jammer on the punt return team, and I absolutely love the effort here. He plays through the echo of the whistle on both snaps, staying ball side of his assignment on the first play and then knowing how to play to his help in the second (great job by Randall Evans on that play as well). Grymes is going to miss some action due to a shoulder injury sustained in the game, but he has certainly done what he can to try and make this final roster through the first two games of the preseason.
You saw Grymes' interception from earlier, and he actually very easily could have pulled down the team's fourth interception as well, if not for another standout in the secondary jumping this throw from Landry Jones.
I absolutely loved this play. The Eagles are once again in Man Free coverage, and Watkins, like he was last week, is matched up man to man against the tight end. When the tight end stays in to block, Watkins has two choices. He can either (a) Green Dog and enter the pass rush as a free blitzer and potentially get a sack, or (b) drop into coverage as an extra free defender and cover ground in the middle of the field.
Watkins chooses the latter, and it pays off big time. Watch him read the routes in front of him, get his eyes back on the QB and track the ball in to finish get the interception. Watkins continued his stellar summer as he battles for the third safety spot in the secondary.
On the ground, the defense continues to be stout against opposing rushing attacks. This was the fans' biggest concern with the defense coming into the season, based off of how the unit finished 2015 and their recollections of the Wide 9 defensive front from 2011-12. Through two preseason games, however, the gap integrity has been sound, the tackling has been good and the discipline up front has been strong.
This is a great shot of the entire defensive front fitting the run against the Steelers. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Jordan Hicks are responsible for their respective A gaps inside. Linebacker Nigel Bradham and defensive tackle Beau Allen have the B gaps. Safety Rodney McLeod and defensive end Brandon Graham have the C gaps, and defensive end Connor Barwin has the backside D gap. The Eagles' defense builds a wall up front, as cornerback Ron Brooks comes downhill to make a tackle after a short gain.
Here's another example, this time with Graham and linebacker Deontae Skinner. At the snap of the ball, Graham takes on a double team from the tackle and the tight end, and Skinner has the opportunity to shoot this gap. He may have made the play, or he may not have! Other young linebackers could get greedy and try to make the play. But Skinner doesn't as he patiently waits to insert himself at the line of scrimmage. When the tight end peels off Graham, Skinner is there to set the edge, forcing the run back inside to Graham, who stayed alive and is now there to make the stop.
The pass rush wasn't as productive in terms of sack numbers on Thursday, at least not from the big names on defense. However, there was one sack in particular that really stood out to me late in the game.
There haven't been many examples of Marcus Smith flying off the ball like this in the last three years, regardless of who is lined up across from him. This was a great sight to see late in the game on Thursday, as Smith displayed the burst and flexibility that made him a first-round pick back in 2014.
Jim Schwartz's defensive scheme calls for the entire defense to be aggressive. His "attack" front is based entirely on playing with energy and getting after the quarterback, disrupting plays and forcing turnovers. This mindset let's players "play fast," and with less to think about they can worry about doing what they do best.
The aggressive nature of this scheme permeates itself in everything they do, and it's apparent whenever you watch this team on film. I saw a number of really impressive hustle plays against the Steelers last week, where that attack mentality really came into the limelight.
Love seeing this level of competitive play from Graham, defensive tackle Taylor Hart and the rest of the defense. I could've done a whole piece highlighting high-motor plays from the Eagles' defense. I'm really excited about the mindset and culture being instilled on that side of the ball.
Consider this a fair warning - I'm probably going to be posting one of these a week. Here's a shot of Jordan Hicks being a really, really smart football player, blowing this screen play up before it even happens.
Looking forward to Indy!
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.