Last week on Eagles Game Plan, we highlighted the fact that Washington would have to establish itself on the ground in order to really maintain success against the Eagles. This was a team that was breaking in a host of inexperienced pass catchers, missing their top pass protector in left tackle Trent Williams, and introducing a new quarterback in Case Keenum.
Washington did try and set the tone with the run game early, but found very little success. In fact, by the time the game was over, Jay Gruden’s offense averaged just 2.15 yards per carry, with starting running back Derrius Guice averaging just 1.8 yards per rush. Run defense is a total team effort, and before we get into some individual performances, I wanted to first look at some great plays from the group as a whole.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
Good run defense acts like a vice clamping down on a piece of metal in a workshop. You have defenders coming in from all sides, constricting down on the ball carrier so he has nowhere to go. Whether it’s players setting a strong edge on the play side of the run, pursuit players coming from the back side of the run, or players filling in from the second and third levels, everyone on defense has a part in the ground game. The Eagles had that team effort on Sunday. There is a reason why Jim Schwartz’s defenses have always been among the league’s best against the run during his time here in Philadelphia. It’s a part of the culture and the way they want to play.
With that in mind, Washington had a good game plan in place to try and beat the Eagles with the use of play-action. Three of Washington’s top four pass plays came off of a run fake, including both of Keenum’s touchdown throws. Early in the game, Washington used play-action to try and get Eagles second- and third-level defenders to come up and attack the line of scrimmage, only to throw passes behind them. The Eagles adjusted and, by the second half, completely locked down Washington’s offensive attack.
Here is a look at some of the personnel on the defensive front, and I want to start with the player who impressed me most in Sunday’s game, defensive end Derek Barnett.
Barnett made several plays in pursuit in this game against Washington, and that’s always been in his repertoire. Barnett will always pick up extra tackle stats with his hustle from the back side, much like his teammate Brandon Graham. What really stood out to me on this play, though, was his pass rushing.
Barnett was a top-15 pick three years ago because of his ability to get after the quarterback. Remember, he broke Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee, but college production (regardless of what position you play) does not always translate to NFL success. Barnett still had to prove himself when attacking professional offensive linemen. You can’t just win with speed in the NFL, and a point of emphasis for Barnett when he first arrived in Philadelphia was to continue developing those inside moves. Every year, they’ve become a more and more expansive part of his array of skills.
Those two rushes at the end of that clip were extremely impressive, particularly the last one. That’s a move Khalil Mack has perfected, flattening the tackle with a quick jab step inside to protect the B gap before ripping outside and turning the corner. Barnett is not comparable to Khalil Mack right now, but just watching the continued development of a young player is great to see.
I know that the sacks weren’t there for the Eagles on Sunday (just one on the day, from Tim Jernigan). I you ask any defensive line coach at any level, they’ll tell you that these types of games happen. Do the Eagles need to be more productive rushing the quarterback? Of course, but I wouldn’t draw too many negative conclusions based on a one-game sample because of how active this group was. Barnett, Graham, Fletcher Cox, and company were flying around the field, making plays in the run, forcing the quarterback off his spot, and making plays in pursuit.
Cox got his first real action after missing all of Training Camp and the preseason, and I thought he looked just fine. He exploded out of his stance numerous times, including on the very first snap of the game, looked strong, and powerful. Cox impacted the run game and pass game. I'm excited to watch him as he continues to get into full shape coming off the injury.
Josh Sweat only played 10 snaps, which is to be expected for a backup defensive end, especially one in his second season after an injury-shortened rookie campaign. The Eagles don’t need Sweat to come off the bench and record 20 sacks this year. When he’s out there, Sweat needs to be active, play with urgency, and provide some juice in everything he does. I thought Sweat did that on Sunday, even showing his power on a rush against tackle Morgan Moses late in the game.
One tool that sat in the pockets of the Eagles' defensive linemen and was very effective for them on Sunday was the use of stunts. Whether it was a simple "T-E" stunt or a basic "E-T" stunt, the Eagles were able to have success. What is the difference between the two?
On both stunts, one player shoots upfield first as a penetrator, typically attacking a shoulder of an opposing offensive lineman. When one is used as the penetrator, the other is used as a "looper," running around the penetrator into the opposite gap to get into the backfield. These kinds of "games" up front can create confusion for offensive lines. The schemes typically work to open up a lane for the looper, but sometimes it’s the penetrator who actually gets home. In the clip above, we see examples of both scenarios, as Jernigan gets a sack as the "penetrator" and Cox gets a tackle for loss as a "looper" on a draw play.
The Eagles' defensive line has a big opportunity against Atlanta to wreck the game, much like the Minnesota Vikings’ group did this past week. It will be one of the most pivotal matchups in the game. I think the Eagles will be up for the challenge.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.