Eagle Eye: Examining The Fourth-Quarter Defense

This is my eighth season working for the Eagles after growing up a huge fan of the team. I have to say that Sunday’s loss was as tough to take as any I’ve experienced. That was a tough one to swallow. Defensively, when you see that the opponent only ran 59 plays, it’s usually a positive result for your team. For most of the game ... it was! There was plenty to like over the first three quarters of Sunday’s game. Michael Bennett was disruptive. Nigel Bradham was physical. Malcolm Jenkins had one of his best games of the year. The rush was getting to Cam Newton and he was largely ineffective. The run defense gave up some chunk plays but the Panthers started the game with punt after punt after punt after punt.

Then, the fourth quarter happened.

I’m going to just go through the final three defensive series of the game. This isn’t every play, obviously, but there were key moments in each sequence that helped encapsulate what happened in the loss.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

The Panthers moved the ball fairly well to open the fourth quarter, but it was an 11-play drive. If you’re the Eagles, holding a 17-0 lead, you’ll take that. The Panthers didn’t get a play of more than 10 yards until they reached the fringe area of the red zone at the 30-yard line. The Eagles made them work for it. There were eight passes on the drive, and the Eagles played four snaps of man and four snaps of zone. They mixed up coverages all game long and kept Cam on his toes with what he was seeing, and that continued on this drive.

The difference?

The Panthers made plays when they needed to, converting twice on third down, and then they made a great play call to get into the end zone. This was a play off of their Triple Option run game, something I wrote about last week. The entire Eagles defense was fooled by what the players thought they were seeing in the backfield on a play the Panthers did not show on film, and Carolina capitalized with a touchdown. On this drive, I don’t think there’s much you can point the finger at and say, "This was terrible by the Eagles' defense." They can execute better across the board, but this wasn’t the drive that lost the game.

The Panthers get on the board but miss the extra point. So they’re now down 17-6. They get the ball back and march down the field to score another touchdown. Here’s how.

This was a killer drive for the Eagles. The Panthers went 87 yards in seven plays. The first play went for 4 yards. After that, Carolina gained 14, 8, 8, 28, and 7 yards in succession before the 18-yard touchdown. I picked three of those plays to show along with the two-point conversion, and there was a little bit of everything.

The second play of the drive, the comeback route to wide receiver Torrey Smith for 14 yards, because it paints an excellent vision of something I’ve tried to show for a few weeks. A lot of people -- fans, media -- like to point to the Eagles’ off-zone coverage, particularly in Cover 3, as a slight on the cornerbacks when they give up a catch underneath. That is often not the cornerback’s fault, however. Look at this play. Before the snap, Bradham tries to get newly signed slot corner Dexter McDougle to buzz out underneath the No. 1 receiver (Smith) in the Eagles' zone coverage concept. McDougle doesn’t, and Mills has no help underneath. After the catch, Mills talks things through with McDougle. He has to be there to help Mills in that situation as the Curl/Flat defender in that coverage concept.

On the next play, Newton scrambles for 8 yards after Fletcher Cox misses him in the backfield. On second-and-2, Newton hits a receiver on the back side with a quick slant route right in front of Ronald Darby for an 8-yard gain.

Remember that play.

On first down, the Panthers attack the Eagles in Cover 2. Look, there are holes in every coverage concept. In Cover 2, there are voids are outside the numbers in the intermediate area, between the cornerback and the safety along the sideline (an area I refer to as the turkey hole). The other void is right down the middle of the field deep between the two safeties. That’s precisely where Carolina attacked here, sending Jarius Wright down the right seam. He sprinted past Jordan Hicks, who has a tight end crossing his face as well, in coverage. Mills had a receiver outside the numbers running right at him as well, so he has to honor both routes. That creates a void in the middle of the field for Newton to attack, and he hits his wideout in stride for 28 yards.

Two plays later, on second-and-3, the Panthers score. Remember that second-and-2 slant route right in front of Darby? Well, he thinks he’s seeing the same thing here, but instead of a slant he gets a slant-and-go route and falls to the ground on the double move, allowing the 18-yard touchdown to Devin Funchess. I understand what he was seeing. The Panthers ran a lot of slants his way in this game, but you can’t give up the big play ahead by two scores with just a couple of minutes left. He does, and the Panthers pull within five points.

On the ensuing two-point conversion, the Panthers run a slick play. Bringing Christian McCaffrey in late motion into the backfield, this looks like it could be a run or some kind of option play with Newton. The Eagles' defenders eyes are in the backfield. The mental Rolodex that I mentioned in that preview last week is spinning out of control. Off the run fake, Wright sticks his foot in the ground after pretending to block down, then breaks to the sideline for an easy conversion. The Panthers are now within three points.

I’ve seen a lot of chatter on social media about how the Eagles were in "prevent" defense late in the game. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The Eagles played the same kinds of coverages that they had played all game long. Here’s how I charted the Eagles and their 44 pass plays on defense from Sunday afternoon.

On what became the game-winning drive for the Panthers, the Eagles called four straight plays of press man coverage across the board. They were aggressive and forced three straight incompletions, one of which was nearly picked off by Darby along the sideline. On the fourth-down play, Mills fell down at the top of the route, and his man broke wide open. That’s obviously not what Mills or any of the players or coaches were hoping for, and Smith made them pay. He gained 30 yards to get the Panthers in scoring range.

I was asked to look closely at the coverage breakdowns, so I did a quick charting of the types of schemes the Eagles played on the back end. This is a rough breakdown, there are obviously more detailed variations of each of these coverages, but I sorted them into the following groups.

Table inside Article
Coverage Description All Game Fourth Quarter
Cover 0 Man Coverage, All Out Blitz, No Safety 2 2
Cover 1 Man Coverage, One High Safety 20 12
Cover 2 Zone Coverage, Two High Safeties 8 3
Cover 3 Zone Coverage, One High Safety 12 6
Sticks Zone Coverage, Deep Off Coverage Protecting The First-Down Marker 2 0

Most of the Eagles' snaps of man coverage happened in that fourth quarter as did the snaps of straight press coverage. This was not a "prevent defense gone wrong." On some plays, Eagles players got beat. On others, the Panthers' receivers made great plays. The Panthers attacked the right areas of zone coverage at the exact right time on others. The bottom line is that everyone needs to be better. It’s not as simple as saying, "They need to play more press," or "They need to play more man coverage," or "They need to play more zone." It doesn’t matter what coverage you’re playing if you don’t A) Get a good pass rush with four and B) Don’t execute your techniques in the secondary. These were issues late in the game.

After the long play to Smith, the Panthers came back with two plays underneath to Christian McCaffrey in the passing game. One came against zone coverage where he was a checkdown option, and another came against man coverage. Hicks was responsible for McCaffrey out of the backfield, but the Panthers called the perfect play. Hicks was picked off and he had no chance to recover to the flat. Inside the 5-yard line, the Panthers finished the comeback by scoring the go-ahead touchdown to win the game.

There was a lot of good from this game, but I know that’s not what matters. This team has to overcome this loss and prove that they’re better what they showed on Sunday. The talent is obviously there. The first three quarters proved that, but this was a tough loss to swallow. I’m excited to see how they bounce back in an unfamiliar environment against the Jacksonville Jaguars this weekend.

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.

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