The defense stole the show last Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons, but there were some interesting takeaways from the offensive side of the football as well, despite the slow start.
Let's begin with that first half, where things didn't look great out of the gate for this unit. It really just came down to a lack of execution. There were some untimely penalties, drops in key spots, and some blown protections that led to stalled drives. There were two sacks allowed on just the second drive alone!
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
What I liked, however, is that those mistakes ended early on, and as the game progressed there was much more consistency in handling assignments up front. Atlanta did a lot of late shifts just before the snap on Thursday night, and that can certainly mess with the blocking assignments. On the first snap above, a sack of Nick Foles on first-and-10, Atlanta runs a stunt. Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson pick it up, but Darren Sproles goes to block the looping linebacker, the same man that Brooks is handling. That leaves no one in the backfield to account for nickel corner Brian Poole off the edge, and he comes in for a clean shot on Foles.
Go to the very next series. The line is hitting on all cylinders on two consecutive plays. First, against Atlanta's "reduced" front, Jason Kelce and Stefen Wisniewski handle a twist between Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford, allowing Foles to complete a pass to Sproles over the middle. On the next play, the Falcons send a blitz (one they'll likely see from Tampa Bay this weekend), and Kelce and Wiz block it up perfectly, as Foles goes untouched in the pocket.
Looking at a unit that didn't play as an entire group for a large majority of the summer, some growing pains from the offense were expected early on. It was good to see them work out some of the kinks mid-game on Thursday night.
One of the other themes from the opener was the return of several Eagles from injury. We saw a lot of Sproles early on, as he made his presence known as a runner, receiver, and as a returner. Jordan Hicks was strong up the middle of the Eagles' defense. The guy I was most excited to see return to the field, however, was Jason Peters, and he came back in a big way.
There are two examples there with just one run play and one pass. The run happened on the Eagles' first offensive play of the game, as Peters drove his man onto his back in his triumphant return to the field. On the pass play, which came on the following drive, you can see Peters' devastating punch against veteran defensive end Derrick Shelby. It was great to see The Bodyguard back in midnight green protecting the quarterback's blind side.
It was an ugly first half, there's no getting out of that. The offense needed a spark, something to get the crowd back into the game and give the unit some juice to push the ball downfield. The Eagles had just passed midfield and faced a critical third-and-5. What does Doug Pederson call? How about some Philly Philly?
A spin-off of the play immortalized from Super Bowl LII, Nick Foles caught a 15-yard pass from Nelson Agholor, which to that point had been the longest completion of the night. There certainly were some similarities to the touchdown that Foles caught against the Patriots in February, but really it harkens back more to the play that New England actually ran AGAINST the Eagles earlier in the same game. The pass that Tom Brady dropped? That was the play the Eagles ran with success against the Falcons last week, and it led to the first touchdown of the 2018 season. You'll see in the clip above the similarities between the plays, and it was the perfect time for Pederson to reach into his bag of tricks to give his team a shot in the arm when it needed it most.
Three plays after the completion to Foles, the Eagles faced another big third down just outside the red zone. On third-and-eight from the 24-yard line, Foles sat in the shotgun down by three with just a few minutes left in the quarter. Pederson called two straight plays that put the Eagles on the goal line.
On the first play, Pederson and Foles perfectly attacked Atlanta's zone coverage concept. This is a five-man zone blitz by the Falcons, who drop a three-under, three-deep zone concept behind it. The Eagles attack one of those underneath defenders, who just happens to be cornerback Brian Poole.
The Eagles are in a 3x1 set, with Agholor lined up as the No. 2 receiver. He streaks across the field, stretching the defense. Agholor's route removes safety Ricardo Allen from the middle of the field. From the other side, the X-receiver, Mike Wallace, comes across on a drive route underneath. That attracts the eyes of Poole, who steps up toward the line of scrimmage. That creates a void between the hashes, and Zach Ertz settles in beyond the sticks for a first down to put the Eagles into the red zone.
On the next play, the Eagles come out in 11 personnel with one running back and one tight end. Agholor, lined up to the left, comes in Jet motion pre-snap, just behind Foles. This is meant to pull the flow of the linebackers and safeties from left to right. Remember, this is a "fast-flow" Falcons front, and the Eagles want to attack that with misdirection. That's the goal on this play. Foles takes the snap, fakes the Jet sweep to the right to Agholor, and flips the ball to Sproles to the left. If it weren't for Deion Jones' ridiculous athleticism, as he's able to defeat this block from Peters, Sproles is diving in for a touchdown. Instead, the Eagles get first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
Here, the Eagles mix things up with their alignment. This is a Tackle Over set from the Eagles, with Peters actually lining up like a tight end on the right side next to Lane Johnson. Ertz is actually the left tackle next to Wisniewski. These looks can really mess with a defensive line, throwing off gap responsibilities against the run. The Falcons are scrambling to get lined up, and Foles takes the snap to hand this ball off to Jay Ajayi.
This is a "split zone" run. Split zone is a version of inside zone where the tight end comes across the formation to block the edge rusher on the back side. Here, that player is Josh Perkins, who comes in motion from out wide just before the snap to lay a block on Vic Beasley. The damage has already been done, however, as the Eagles create the hole Ajayi needs up front to get the first touchdown of the season.
The Tackle Over and split zone concepts are both facets of the Eagles' offense, and both came to fruition on that touchdown. Both were prevalent last Thursday night outside of the touchdown drive.
The second clip above is an example of a Tackle Over play from earlier in the game. It's the second drive, and this time Johnson is lined up next to Peters on the left side. The Eagles pick up 8 yards here on a "pin-pull" scheme. Watch Johnson's huge pin block on the defensive tackle, Crawford, to help create a crease, while Peters, Kelce, and Wisniewski block the frontside defenders with ease. Ajayi cuts off of Brandon Brooks' block on the backside linebacker and nearly scoots for a first down after running through first contact on a Beasley tackle attempt.
The final clip actually happened earlier in the touchdown drive, on the play before Philly Philly. This is a split zone run with Ajayi, where Ertz comes across the formation and blocks defensive end Takk McKinley to the ground. The Eagles get great movement on a playside double team by Kelce and Brooks, Ajayi makes one man miss, and he gets upfield for 5 yards to set up third-and-5 and the memorable trick play.
Pederson's creativity showed up time and time again in this game. There was a run by Agholor in the fourth quarter, in particular, that caught my eye. Why? Because it was very, very similar to a play that happened back in the playoff game between these two teams in January.
It's third-and-1 from the 13-yard line and the Eagles line up in a 2x2 set. You have a stacked receiver look to the right side, Agholor lined up to the left outside of Ertz, and Corey Clement in the backfield offset to Foles' right.
Just before the snap, Agholor comes in orbit motion behind Foles, but look at Clement. He fakes the "belly" action inside to the left. This is the run play that Agholor actually hit on against the Falcons back in January, except Agholor lined up in Clement's spot with Ajayi was in the backfield. On that play, Foles handed the ball off to Agholor for a 21-yard gain. Here, Foles fakes that handoff and tosses it to Agholor, playing the role of the Jay Train. He races 16 yards down the right sideline for a first down to get the Eagles out their own end.
There are huge similarities between the two runs watching them back to back. Last time, it was linebacker Deion Jones taking the cheese and running in the opposite direction of the football. This time, it was star cornerback Desmond Trufant, who ran with Clement and away from the play side. This kind of creativity is one of the things that makes Pederson one of the best coaches in the NFL.
Let's get to the end of this game now, late in the fourth quarter as the Eagles are trying to secure the win.
It's third-and-2 from the 35-yard line, a big play in the game with the Eagles down by two points and facing a long field goal attempt if they don't convert. What does Pederson lean on? Split zone ... or at least a version of it.
The Eagles are in 11 personnel, and the Falcons matched up in nickel (a personnel grouping they used on 63 of 73 snaps). Agholor comes in motion from right to left, and his whole objective is to try and block linebacker De'Vondre Campbell off the edge, while also removing Trufant from the play side as a result. Strong double teams on the play side (Kelce and Brooks) and back side (Peters and Wisniewski) give Clement room to work, and Jones is removed from the box by a pre-snap "scrape" call, and the second-year back runs for a 21-yard gain and a first down.
Two plays later, the Eagles reach the end zone for the final time of the night on this beautifully executed touchdown run by Jay Ajayi. This is a pin-pull scheme for the Eagles, and let's just look at this from left to right.
Zach Ertz does a nice job on Shelby, the best run defender on the Atlanta defensive line. Ertz "loses slowly," holding onto his block just long enough to let Ajayi get by. Peters pulls and kicks out Campbell, removing him from the edge. Wisniewski perfectly pins down the nose tackle, erasing him from the play. Kelce pulls to the left, and he makes a really athletic block on Jones, who tries to run through and make a stop in the backfield. This isn't what Kelce expects to happen, but he reacts so quickly and keeps Ajayi clean. Brooks blocks the backside linebacker and ensures that Ajayi gets up to the third level untouched. Lastly, Johnson slingshots past Jarrett and then buries him into the turf before Ajayi runs into the end zone. This was perfectly executed up front and possibly my favorite play from the game to watch on film.
The Eagles follow that touchdown up with a two-point conversion on a familiar play. This is a Tackle Over split zone run, except it's being run to the opposite side. With Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Johnson lined up on the left, this handoff actually goes to the right, with Perkins coming across the formation to block the backside edge defender. Ajayi waltzes into the end zone, and the Eagles win 18-12.
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.