Friends and family asked me what seemed like countless times last week, "OK, Fran, so how do the Eagles beat the Vikings on Sunday?"
Every time, I had the same answer. I said if the defense could bounce back and match Minnesota's effort in the game, the Eagles should be able to win the game. I did not expect that in a literal sense, as five straight drives in the first quarter ended with a turnover. But to say that the Eagles had their best defensive effort of the season would be an understatement. They smothered the Minnesota run game, gave Sam Bradford very little time to operate and did it from a wide variety of looks that constantly kept the quarterback guessing. Before we get to how the Eagles schemed up ways to confuse their former teammate, I want to first highlight the individual effort of defensive end Brandon Graham, who was simply outstanding on Sunday afternoon.
Shot 1 - #Eagles in 'Man Free' coverage with McLeod in the middle reading Bradford's eyes. Graham wins inside to affect throw for easy INT pic.twitter.com/0dKJSd5Yla — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
The Eagles have turned the ball over to Minnesota. It's a "sudden-change" scenario and the Eagles are forced to make a red zone stop. It's third-and-goal from the 6-yard line. The Eagles are in a form of Cover 1 that I call Man Free coverage, with five players in man-to-man coverage, a free safety in the deep middle of the field (Rodney McLeod) and a hole player underneath. This play starts with a great rush from Graham who, lined up wide, gets tackle T.J. Clemmings to "overset." Graham sees that he can work the inside half of the tackle and attacks Bradford's throwing arm. The quarterback is unable to deliver the ball correctly, as it comes out flat, and it results in an easy interception for McLeod. Granted, the safety did such a great job of reading Bradford's eyes that he was in position to make a play on the ball, but Graham certainly helped make it an easy interception in the back of the end zone to keep Minnesota off the board.
Shot 2 - Graham was so disruptive all game. Perfect hand swipe as he rips through, attacks the QB's arm and gets the sack-fumble #Eagles pic.twitter.com/mkx0d5Ce8S — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
Graham was so disruptive all game long against Minnesota, whether he lined up on the left, on the right, inside or outside, he was able to beat his man and get penetration in the backfield to affect the run or the pass. This is late in the fourth quarter with the game in hand, but watch him perfectly wipe the hands of the right tackle away, ripping past the block, bending as he turns the corner and accelerates toward the quarterback. Graham attacks Bradford's throwing motion again. He gets a piece of his forearm, knocking the ball loose for a near turnover and a 4-yard loss. The former first-round pick made plays like this all game long on Sunday, but it wasn't just his performance as a pass rusher that stood out to me. In pursuit, Graham was an absolute monster.
Shot 3 - @brandongraham55 straight hustle. Two plays here that stood out to me more than any from the veteran leader on Sunday #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/45aUjwzwUj — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
Those two plays from Graham stood out to me the most in the win. On the first shot, the play where the Eagles lost cornerback Ron Brooks for the season, watch Graham get chipped at the line, work through contact and chase the ball from the back side for a third-down stop. On the next play, he retraces his steps, chasing a play down from behind short of the sticks on first down. Graham is developing into a leader on this defense, and plays like this are exactly why. He's playing at the highest level of his career right now.
Meanwhile, Connor Barwin saw a slight downtick in his snaps, but responded with an uptick in production. His sack on the first play of the Eagles' second series was a huge swing for this defense.
Shot 4 - Barwin wins w/ 'Long Arm' move outside, Jenkins comes on pressure, results in a huge play. One of my favorite visuals of #Eagles D pic.twitter.com/VRMybQvF2b — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
If you look at this play from the end zone first, you can look at what led to Barwin's end of the play. The Vikings were hoping for a deep shot off play-action, a seven-step drop from Bradford. Barwin reads this immediately and attacks straight upfield, beating the veteran Jake Long with a "long-arm" rush and, again, attacking the throwing arm of Bradford to get the ball out on the ground. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is right on the spot, as he picks this ball up for a fumble recovery.
But what brought Jenkins there in the first place? Before the snap, Minnesota brings receiver Adam Thielen in motion, slightly in the backfield behind the offensive line. We've seen opposing offenses do this to the Eagles throughout the season. With the defensive line a bit further spread out, a way to generate good angles in the run game is to bring a receiver into the backfield as a blocker. Thielen is not going to block though, but rather release upfield on a vertical route. His motion, however, helps bring Jenkins close to the line of scrimmage.
By the way, the visual of 10 Eagles defenders sprinting down the sideline in unison with their hands raised in the year has to be a top-five visual of the last six or seven years, right? I know the return came back, but this was still a really awesome play to watch unfold.
After the first quarter, Jim Schwartz really turned up the heat on Bradford. Schwartz is historically not a high-volume blitzer, so the amount of blitzes was certainly a stray from the norm, but the wide variety of pressures and looks was also fun to see. He attacked Bradford from every angle, sending second-level defenders without hesitation to help create confusion for the quarterback. Furthermore, the Eagles disguised their rushes well.
Shot 5 - A zone blitz from #Eagles D sends Bradham and Watkins after QB. Graham gets chipped but stays alive and still is in on the rush pic.twitter.com/9SxB9QsV8i — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
It's third down in the second quarter, and the Eagles show a pre-snap look of what may be man coverage. The Vikings bring tight end Kyle Rudolph closer to the formation before the snap to chip Graham (since he's been so disruptive through the first quarter of the game). However, the Eagles send both Nigel Bradham and Jaylen Watkins from that side on the pressure. With soft zone coverage behind it on third-and-10, Watkins comes free on this zone blitz, forcing Bradford to dump the ball off to Rudolph, who is unable to complete the catch.
Two series later, the Vikings have the ball at the 31-yard line on second-and-8 with just over three minutes left in the half. This is a huge play and arguably the turning point of the game. Schwartz calls for a zone blitz, this time from the wide side of the field. Rodney McLeod and Mychal Kendricks come on a pressure from the defensive right, with Graham dropping underneath on the left. From the sideline angle, you can also see the job Bradham does in coverage reading the route break from Thielen toward the middle of the field.
If Bradford were able to deliver this ball, Bradham likely would've been able to make a play on it. From the end zone angle, you can see the two rushers win their respective matchups outside. Kendricks, who has always been such a good blitzer from the linebacker spot, beats the back with a swim move, while McLeod senses a slight hesitation from the left tackle and beats him around the corner. The safety attacks Bradford's arm and gets the ball out for a fumble. This is a huge play that allows the Eagles to make the score 11-3 at halftime.
Shot 7 - Well-disguised pressure from #Eagles and Schwartz. Jenkins and Hicks come from depth, Vinny Curry drops out. Sack for -3 yards. pic.twitter.com/I8Aw2QNOR9 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
Early in the third quarter, Schwartz sends a very similar pressure scheme from the wide side of the field. The Eagles are in their nickel package and send Jenkins, playing in the slot, along with Jordan Hicks after Bradford. Curry, the defensive end to the boundary, drops out. Watch Bradham in the middle of the field smother Rudolph (within the 5-yard limit), erasing him from Bradford's progression. The Eagles disguise this pressure so well that no one is able to account for Jenkins coming from depth. He nearly sacks Bradford, who steps up in the pocket and stumbles forward, allowing Hicks to finish him up for the 3-yard loss on second down.
Shot 8 - My favorite blitz of the day. A 'zone exchange' with Cox dropping. #Eagles force MIN to slide one way, creating a 1 on 1 w/ LB v RB pic.twitter.com/5LqdzgR2W2 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
The very next play may have been my favorite blitz from the afternoon because it's so beautifully designed. Before the snap of the ball, the Eagles show pressure from their left with Hicks mugged in the A gap and Jenkins lined up outside Graham off the left edge. The Vikings decide to slide their protection that way, toward the side of the perceived pressure. Schwartz was accounting for that.
If you read the recap of the Eagles' performance on offense against Washington or the preview of the Vikings' defense, I detailed one of the basic rules of slide protections. The linemen on the "slide side" are in zone protection, meaning they are responsible for any defender who comes into their gap to the side of the slide. In this case, the Vikings are sliding right, starting with their left guard. That means all of those linemen are only really worried about defenders who enter the gap to their immediate right. Away from the slide, the blockers are in "man" protection, so you have the left tackle on an island with Barwin, and you have the running back manned up on Bradham.
This is a win for the Eagles, especially with the back coming from the other side of the formation. The Eagles drop Fletcher Cox into coverage here, making this a "zone exchange" pressure. The Eagles only send four players after Bradford. Bradham wins clean and takes down Bradford to force a punt. Give a ton of credit to Graham (again) for forcing Bradford to step up right into the sack as well.
That blitz was incredibly well-disguised, and you couldn't have drawn it up prettier than how the Eagles executed it. Pre-snap disguise was absolutely huge for the Eagles against Minnesota, and it didn't always result in sacks. On this second quarter play, the Vikings call a Run Pass Option, or RPO, play for Bradford where he can either hand the ball off or throw a screen to the perimeter if the numbers are right. Bradford makes the decision to not hand this ball off to his back and throw the bubble screen, but with Jenkins coming off the edge and McLeod screaming downhill, he tucks it and ends up throwing it away to bring up third down.
Shot 10 - #Eagles nearly 'trap' Bradford here. Fool him into thinking he has man; actually is Cover 2. Ball thrown out further is a Pick 6 pic.twitter.com/qM2EcdvX4u — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
On the previous series, the Eagles nearly bait Bradford into an interception on second-and-long. Before the snap, they show a man coverage look, which should be fine for him to throw a quick out route to Rudolph. This isn't man coverage though, as Leodis McKelvin squats on the route. If the ball had been thrown just a bit further outside, it would've been an interception going the other way for six points. This is another example of great disguise from the Eagles' defense, mixing up a variety of looks to try and confuse Bradford before the snap.
In the video feature on Wednesday morning, I plan on giving you a deeper look at the run defense, which was unequivocally better than the Washington game in every facet. The run fits inside were outstanding. The players got off blocks in the front seven. Backside contain held true. Edges were set strong on the front side and the tackling was much better overall. As the Eagles prepare to face the No. 1 rushing team in football, it was a huge step in the right direction, and it was at every level of the defense.
Shot 11 - #Eagles run D was excellent Sunday. Bradham decisive downhill, but watch Marcus Smith. He has taken huge strides vs the run in '16 pic.twitter.com/kdI7CTT0DS — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
Here's a first-down carry in the second quarter. Notice the receiver enter the frame late, which is something that we've seen a lot this season from opponents that want to get an extra blocker inside. First, notice the double team at the point of attack against Destiny Vaeao, who is lined up in front of Bradham. The Eagles' linebackers were incredibly decisive downhill against the run on Sunday, and what that does is make things easier for those defensive tackles.
Instead of a double team lasting two or three seconds (a lifetime in a football play), it lasts about a second, meaning that those defensive tackles now have just one blocker to deal with. Bradham's aggressiveness here forces the back to kick this play further outside in the direction of both McKelvin and Jenkins. McKelvin, who was lined up over the receiver who motioned inside, is no longer responsible for outside contain. Now that the receiver came inside, McKelvin is responsible for the gap inside of defensive end Marcus Smith.
With this play spilling outside, it is solely up to Smith to make this play as the edge-setter. Watch how well Smith does locking out his arms, keeping his eyes on the football, staying square and then releasing to make the stop for no gain. This wasn't a tight end he was going up against either. The Vikings came out in heavy personnel with an extra tackle on the field for this run play. That was a great job by the third-year defensive end to make a stand in the run game, an area that he has really taken large strides in this season.
Shot 12 - Bradham perfect on this play vs pulling guard. Graham sets a hard edge. Cox holds up double team. Blitz by Jenkins. Run for 0 yds pic.twitter.com/1oQttRbKRG — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
Three plays later, the Eagles again face first-and-10. This is a basic power play out of the shotgun, with a guard pulling to the play side. Jenkins reads this play immediately and flies into the backfield, but watch a couple of things play side. First, Cox holds up incredibly well against the double team, giving up no ground against the guard/tackle combo. Next, watch Bradham attack the pulling guard downhill. His physicality has always stood out, but he's not just flying into this block with reckless abandon. Look at him go with his inside shoulder, keep his eyes up and take on contact to stonewall the guard and create a wall on the play side. Graham further cements the wall on the perimeter, and proves that blocking him one on one with a tight end is a BAD idea in the run game.
On the last play, Cox held up at the point of attack against a double team to set up his teammates. On this play in the second quarter, he completely dominates Minnesota's right guard Brandon Fusco, destroys the block and makes the play for no gain. Cox's get-off and strength at the point of attack are such a tough matchup on a weekly basis for NFL offensive linemen.
Shot 14 - Cox with his best Reggie White impression. Or is that Negan @JDMorgan from #TheWalkingDead ? Either way, ridiculous play for TFL pic.twitter.com/YiSN9TJAJ7 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
Typically when Cox wins, he beats offensive linemen with his pure brute strength or his freakish first step. At times, you'll see him win with technique, wiping the hands of a blocker away. This play is so reminiscent of Reggie White's patented "hump" pass rush move, as he bullies his way into the backfield for a tackle for loss.
Shot 15 - Perfect fits from #Eagles defensive front. Gap integrity exactly what it needs to be. Need a repeat performance next Sunday night. pic.twitter.com/Ig5sme7mf8 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 24, 2016
A couple of series later, and I'll end on this play, you see just a remarkable fit by everyone in the front seven. I mentioned earlier how decisive the linebackers were on Sunday, and this is a perfect example. The Vikings are in a two-tight end set. All three linebackers get downhill for the Eagles, who are in their base defense. The double teams on the linemen don't hold up, and Bradham comes in for a tackle on a short gain. If the Eagles can have a repeat performance against Dallas' vaunted rushing game on Sunday night, it will bode well for the team's chances at winning on the road. This was a great step back toward the right direction for this Eagles defense, reminiscent of the first three games of the season.
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.