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Eagle Eye: Eagles' Run Defense Has Been Underrated In First Four Games

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After analyzing the run game, the performance of quarterback Carson Wentz, and the rest of the Eagles' offense, I now want to now look at the defensive performance against the Los Angeles Chargers.

While Philip Rivers and the Chargers didn't look to get the ball out quite as quickly as Eli Manning and the New York Giants did the week before, there was still an emphasis on trying to get the football into their playmakers' hands in a hurry. The Chargers also did a lot to help out their offensive tackles with the use of chipping from their tight ends and running backs, further trying to negate the Eagles' pass rush. The Eagles were still able to get to Rivers for a pair of sacks and force him off his spot in the passing game.

Four-Man Rush

The Eagles were able to reap the benefits of their attacking scheme as well as their depth up front on the opening drive when backup defensive ends Derek Barnett and Chris Long helped force a turnover.

Shot 1 - Great hustle play by Chris Long on sack-fumble, and it started with Derek Barnett's bull rush, avoiding RB's chip and getting FR pic.twitter.com/63Elh8buxm — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

Long lines up off the left side and he runs the hoop, chasing Rivers down from the back side and getting the ball on the ground. The play starts with a great coverage call on the back end that's executed by the secondary, and then you get a strong bull rush from Barnett off the right side. The rookie pushes the left tackle right into Rivers' lap, evading a chip block from the backfield on the way, and forces the quarterback from the pocket. I love the hustle from Barnett to finish the play as well, as he closes on the ball and ends up recovering the fumble.

Shot 2 - Edge rush closes pocket, coverage stays disciplined, and Beau Allen beats Slausen for the first solo sack of his career #Eagles pic.twitter.com/YNZyzUsJu4 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

It's a very familiar scene on the Eagles' second sack of the day. The coverage on the back end forces the quarterback to break the pocket. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry both fly upfield, and Rivers shuffles to his left, where Beau Allen cleans up the play for a sack.

Run Defense

Through the first four games of the season, the Eagles rank third in the NFL with just 70.8 yards per game allowed on the ground. Outside of a couple of long runs late in games, they've largely kept opposing backs under wraps. Because of the Eagles' aggressive nature up front, there are certain schemes that every team will try to incorporate into the game plan. Any runs that try to get defenders flying upfield, only to sneak a runner through a gap and get offensive linemen up to the second level, is likely to be on the table when facing the Eagles. One of those schemes is the draw play. The Chargers tried very hard to make it a part of their attack on Sunday, but with very little success.

Shot 3 - Chargers tried to get things going in the 'Draw' run game. #Eagles front seven was not having it. DL flying upfield. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/iINqYkdEro — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

On both of these draw plays, the Eagles' defensive linemen explode upfield and recognize the play, bringing the back down for big losses. These plays aren't just about "playing the run on the way to the quarterback," because it requires a certain amount of play-recognition ability to see the draw coming and finish behind the line of scrimmage.

One of the other run concepts I hit on nearly every week in this piece is the trap play, where the offensive linemen get up to the linebacker level immediately by purposely allowing the 3-technique defensive tackle to go into the backfield untouched. The Eagles' linebackers are used to seeing this play and have become accustomed to dealing with blockers in their lap.

Shot 4 - Chargers run 2-Back Shotgun Power run, Jernigan/Bradham are stout play-side and Kendricks slips a block backside for the stop pic.twitter.com/hOno45MHhd — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

Mychal Kendricks ends up with a guard right in his face on this Power run play, but he slips the block and is available to make the tackle. Nigel Bradham deserves a lot of credit on this play as well. He flies downhill and meets the lead blocker in the hole immediately. Bradham's aggressiveness along with Tim Jernigan winning at the point of attack force the runner to cut back toward Kendricks' side for a short gain.

The Eagles' defensive line has done a really good job of holding up blocks in the run game, anchoring down at the point of attack, and keeping linebackers and defensive backs free to flow to the football. That showed up against L.A.

Shot 5 - #Eagles DL did a really good job holding up blocks and keeping running lanes clean for LBs and DBs to flow downhill in this game pic.twitter.com/ES62W53Zqn — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

There are a couple of plays here where you can see just that. Watch how strong the front four are at the point of attack (on some run concepts that are similar to the ones I showed you with the Eagles' offense). The linemen stay strong up front, and the linebackers fly downhill to attack the run.

Keep in mind that the first two levels of the defense work together in this scenario. If the linebackers attack the hole quickly, then offensive linemen are forced to peel off double teams at a quicker rate. If the defensive tackle is working through the double team, he'll soon be facing one blocker instead of two which puts him in better position to make a play. The next time you see a linebacker fly upfield untouched to make a play, try to notice the defensive linemen in front of him occupying blockers. And the next time you see a defensive tackle split through a double team and make a play, see if you can find a linebacker attacking downhill, taking the attention of one of those blockers in the double team. They often work together in concert.

Jernigan continues to shine whenever I watch this Eagles defense on film. He's been extremely disruptive against the run, active against the pass, and a force to be reckoned with in the trenches. That was the case again on Sunday.

Shot 6 - Tim Jernigan stood out again; didn't always show up on the stat sheet but he was stout, changed the LOS and impacted the run game pic.twitter.com/MYHjjxlV5R — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

Jernigan is a hell of a player. Not everything that he does shows up on the stat sheet. He changes the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis and helps force the issue for opposing runners. This is why he was viewed as one of the best at his position coming out of Florida State just a couple of years ago.

The Big Plays

Everyone wants to know what's going on with the big plays allowed on defense.

The Eagles have allowed five touchdowns of 20-plus yards in 2017, tied for most in the league. There's never just one specific reason for any theme in this game, whether it's failed third downs, red zone issues, sacks, or big plays allowed in the passing game. They can't be pinned on one specific person or reason, but overall there are a couple of things that lead to each one.

Shot 7 - T Williams TD came off post-cross; PA shot play vs quarters coverage. Jalen Mills almost makes a great play downfield. Great call pic.twitter.com/ZCa1W1xE8z — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

This is Los Angeles' first touchdown of the game, a touchdown from Rivers to Tyrell Williams for 75 yards. This was the perfect call against the Eagles' defense on this particular play because they were lined up in Quarters coverage. The Eagles have four defensive backs splitting the deep part of the field into quarters in this scheme.

The safeties are going to have specific responsibilities in the run game, so any fake is going to likely impact the safeties early in the down in quarters coverage. The Chargers run play-action, and you can see the effect it has on both Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, holding them in place for a second.

On the outside, cornerback Rasul Douglas is matched up with Williams, and he's playing with outside leverage. This means that he is playing outside of the farthest receiver, forcing him inside to his help. Douglas is left to his own devices in the secondary since the safety help is worrying about the run in the backfield. The receiver runs by him, and the only player who is able to potentially help is cornerback Jalen Mills from the other side of the field. Mills actually almost reads this play perfectly, and you can see he's nearly in position to help defend this throw. In this game, I saw Mills do this multiple times as a player on the back side of a pass concept. On those plays, he took the throw away, but on this one, he couldn't do enough to deter Rivers from unleashing the downfield throw, and it's completed for a touchdown.

Shot 8 - The 'Sucker' play(@MattBowen41) is very effective vs zone coverage. Basically a version of #Eagles 'Dagger' play. Huge void inside pic.twitter.com/UJIx48rovU — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 3, 2017

This was a big play to Keenan Allen that led to the Chargers' final touchdown. This is a class concept, one that I've come to know as the Sucker play. It's basically a version of the Eagles' Dagger play, one that has been so effective for them on offense over the last two years.

What you get is a vertical route on the inside, which serves as a "vertical stretch," taking the top off the defense. The No. 3 receiver runs a basic curl route, which holds the underneath defender in the Eagles' zone coverage scheme. With the underneath defender held in place by the curl and the safety over the top occupied by the vertical route, there's plenty of room for the outside receiver, Allen, to run a dig. There's a huge void in the defense, which is exactly what the route concept is designed to do.

I want you to watch Travis Benjamin, the receiver running the vertical route deep downfield. He gets his eyes back to look for the ball. Mills, coming from the other side of the field, sees this from Benjamin and thinks he's getting this throw, and he lays a hit on him in the secondary. The ball goes to Allen, instead. Mills didn't see him because he was lined up 50-plus yards away from him at the snap of the ball. Mills hits Benjamin so there's no help in the middle of the field thanks to the curl route. Allen runs this deep into Eagles territory.

You have to give the Chargers credit here on both of these plays, as they had pass concepts called that perfectly attacked what the Eagles were doing in zone coverage. Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect zone coverage, otherwise a team would run it on every play! There are always voids, and if the quarterback has time to attack them he will find the soft spots in the secondary.

Getting things straightened out will be paramount this week against Arizona, a team that loves to:

  • Attack downfield.
  • Prey on a defense's zone coverage concepts.

Bruce Arians will try to push the ball vertically in this game, and it will be important for the Eagles to have their t's crossed and their i's dotted to keep points off the board.

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.

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