I took a long look at the offense's play against the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday, and today and I wanted to focus on the defense. This unit has gotten stronger by the week, and it's lead by its front seven. It's no secret in Philadelphia that Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan are at or near the top of their respective positions in the league, and Cedric Thornton helps form the best three-man front in football.
The combination of DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks has been extremely effective inside, and the return of Kiko Alonso in the coming weeks will only add to this unit's versatility. The safety tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond has been one of the best in the entire NFL, consistently making plays and giving coordinator Bill Davis the flexibility to make any defensive call from a coverage standpoint. At cornerback, Byron Maxwell had a rocky start but has settled into place in this defense, while Nolan Carroll has been a steady contributor opposite him on the right side. The arrow is pointing up for this group overall, and there's a lot to be excited about in the second half of the season.
On Sunday night, the defense gave up some plays against the run, plays that we're not used to seeing them allow on the ground. I'll hit on that later, but the play of the defensive line shouldn't go unnoticed, as it was very stout for most of the night.
Fletcher Cox makes a handful of these plays each and every week, where he just manhandles the blocker in front of him, tosses him to the side and gets to the football to make a play against the run. He's powerful. He's a dynamic athlete for his size, and his motor has not been a question this season. He has turned into a truly dominant force along the defensive line.
Bennie Logan has followed a similar path, and has developed into the most athletic nose guard in the game. You have to appreciate the strength and the balance it takes for him to be engaged, take a shot in the side from a free-hitting guard like he does here. Logan not only stays up, but remains in control of the blocker, then sheds him and get to the football. This is an outstanding football play by Logan, who also continues to shine week in and week out on film.
Fully recovered from a hand injury, Ced Thornton has resumed his place as a consistent force against the run. Thornton's combination of size, strength and athleticism allows him to make plays on the front side and on the back side in the run game. On this play, you can just see the effort that he plays with each and every down. Carolina is running its version of a sweep play. He fights through a pin block from the tight end before handling the pulling center, staying alive to make the play outside the numbers. That's a great play from Thornton, who has been as steady as they come over the last three years in this scheme.
This play is a prime example of the flexibility that the safeties give Davis when he's game-planning and calling plays on Sundays. This is a passing situation. It's second-and-15 and the Panthers come out in 11 personnel - one running back, one tight end and three receivers. In this situation, the Eagles respond with their dime package - four down linemen, one linebacker (Hicks) and six defensive backs (three cornerbacks and three safeties).
The two starting safeties, Jenkins and Thurmond, are down near the line of scrimmage, assigned to play man coverage against the running back and tight end. Thurmond, matched up on tight end Greg Olsen, has cornerback skills and his ballhawking nature has resulted in a team-high three interceptions so far. Jenkins, another former corner, is extremely comfortable on an island in these types of situations. Davis has confidence to put them on the field in any situation because the Eagles are not hamstrung with their ability to be effective in the ground game, should Carolina choose to run the ball.
Here, it's a pass play, and just watch the athleticism and discipline from Jenkins, who stays with the back out, "hip-pocketing" him through the route, accelerating and decelerating as needed before jumping this pass and coming up with the interception along the sideline. Jenkins has made plays like this in coverage all season long, but it was nice to see him come down with this much-needed pick in a clutch situation.
As for some of the big plays the Eagles allowed on the ground, this is a Carolina offense largely focused on misdirection and the threat of the quarterback run game. I touched on all of the different layers to this rushing attack last week, and detailed how it constantly puts defenders in a bind. They may think they see Play A, only for it to turn into Play B. And when the defense then expects that Play B, it actually turns into a variation of that, or some kind of play-action pass off of it, and down the rabbit hole you go. It's a constant guessing game against this offense, and they're doing a really good job from a coaching perspective of making it work. That was no different on Sunday night.
This is the long run by Ted Ginn, Jr. on the reverse. The Panthers were working with a short field after the kickoff out of bounds. When you watch this play in the first couple of steps, it looks like it could be a version of Quarterback Power, a play we diagrammed in our Anatomy Of A Play last week on Eagles Game Plan.
Running back Jonathan Stewart is involved in some sort of read-option look, and Ginn comes around in an orbit motion behind Newton at the snap of the ball, taking the pitch. All that action before the pitch, however, sucks in linebacker Marcus Smith, who is taken out of position on the play. Ginn has a wide alley to run through for the huge play into the red zone. Remember, though, that Carolina made defenses like Seattle look very silly as well on similar-type plays. That is the object of the offense, to pull wool over defenders' eyes and prevent them from making proper reads at the snap. I wouldn't worry about this Eagles defense moving forward after this game, and would expect it to continue it's upward climb into the upper echelon of the NFL.
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.