After diving deep into the offensive tape in Monday's piece, I wanted to give a long look at the defensive performance on Sunday night against Dallas. Overall, I thought the defense really stood tall against a Dallas offense that is starting to get healthy again. With Dez Bryant going full bore, Jason Witten's presence inside, the sixth-ranked rushing attack in the NFL and one of the most vaunted lines in the league, the Eagles' defense faced a stiff test.
The defense faced a very effective rushing attack for the second game in a row. Even though Dallas was able to pick up some chunks of yardage in certain situations, I thought the defensive line came out on top overall. Dallas right tackle Doug Free had a rough time with Cedric Thornton and Connor Barwin. Rookie guard La'el Collins, the same guy who did this and this, had maybe his worst game of the season going up against former teammate Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox.
Dallas is looking to run Split Zone here, with Witten coming across the formation to block on the back side. Look at the job Thornton does here of standing up to Zack Martin, taking a shot from Travis Frederick, only to stay on his feet, get into his gap and help force the ball back inside. Then look at Logan, who refuses to be blocked by Collins, as he finishes the play for a 1-yard gain to bring up third-and-long.
Here's a shot from the very next series early in the first quarter, where Thornton just completely dominates Free at the point of attack. He gets into his pads at the snap, locks out his arms, gets his eyes up, finds the ball sheds the block and makes the tackle for a short gain.
Later in the game, here's Fletcher Cox beating Collins with a quick arm-over move inside. Cox's combination of power (which he put on display repeatedly against Tyron Smith throughout the night) and athleticism make him unique. He's quite simply a true force on the defensive line.
Last week, I brought up the Cowboys' use of heavy personnel groupings, and how they weren't afraid to run or throw out of them. Well, Dallas played six snaps of 13 personnel with one back and three tight ends, and they ran the ball on five of them (shows what I know!). On four of those run plays, the Eagles lined up in a condensed front, with the three defensive linemen squeezed down over the center and two guards like you see below.
The Cowboys are attempting to run their vaunted Stretch run play to get running back Darren McFadden outside, but Cox shoots his gap and completely blows the play up before it can get started in the backfield, forcing McFadden to abandon his outside path. Focus on Brandon Graham, who sets the edge against Witten to start the play, before finishing it with a tackle on McFadden for a 3-yard loss.
It wasn't just the defensive line having all the fun against the run. Look at the instincts and burst from Mychal Kendricks on this play. His return from injury comes at a great time due to the loss of Jordan Hicks, but watch just how quickly he reads this pulling guard, shoots the gap and accelerates to the ball carrier to make the stop 3 yards in the backfield. This wasn't a blitz call. This was a great read by an instinctive linebacker, and a fantastic play.
In last week's piece previewing the Dallas offense and how the Eagles could defend it, I weighed the pros and cons of double-teaming receivers. Assigning two defenders to one receiver is not as common as people think, because when you do it, there's a trickle-down effect that limits the way you play coverage away from it, the way you defend the run and the way you can potentially blitz the quarterback. And that's just when you double-cover one player, much less when you do it to two eligible receivers. Remember, there's only 11 defenders on the field! It's important for the rest of the defense to win the one-on-one battles, and you need to be able to get home with a four-man rush up front.
Head coach Chip Kelly talked about this on Monday when he was asked about the big day from Cole Beasley, the slot receiver who racked up over 100 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday night. He made a good amount of plays when the Eagles were doubling up on Dez Bryant and/or Jason Witten because he's such a tough cover himself. With his quickness in and out of breaks, Beasley is a terror in space. He can change direction on a dime and has the ability to sell routes well at the break point. He didn't make a play every time, however, as the Eagles were largely able to keep Witten and Bryant bottled up when they decided to double either of them.
Here's a shot in the red zone from the first quarter, when the Eagles double-cover both Bryant and Witten. Hicks and Chris Maragos have eyes on Witten inside, while Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond bracket Bryant at the bottom of the screen.
On this play, Cox is able to force an early throw from Matt Cassel after a great bull rush against the rookie Collins. The pass falls incomplete.
Here's a shot early in the second quarter, when the Cowboys line up Bryant in the slot and the Eagles bracket him with Kiko Alonso and Malcolm Jenkins. The construct of this play was really interesting, however, and a really good design from defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
Before the snap, Alonso lines up over the guard in the B gap as if he's going to blitz. Dallas sets the protection by sliding that way. The right tackle has Barwin, the right guard has Alonso, the center has Vinny Curry (lined up in the A gap), the left guard has Cox and the left tackle has Graham. The running back will be responsible for Kendricks if he blitzes, and will release into his route if he doesn't. This pre-snap alignment by Alonso is important though.
The ball is snapped. Alonso fakes pressure before dropping out and getting his eyes on Dez Bryant outside. Jenkins allows him inside because he knows he has help from Kiko. But look at what this did. First, you have Kendricks lined up on a running back one-on-one. The Eagles like this matchup because Kendricks has the ability to beat tackles off the corner, so dealing with a running back is a win for them. You get Curry matched up on a center, a matchup you'll almost certainly take every time. Lastly, look at the rush from Barwin, as he completely pancakes Free into the ground with a speed-to-power rush. All the action in front of Cassel leads to a throw earlier than he would've liked, and sticky coverage on the back end helps lead to an incomplete pass down the field.
Here's a play from the next series. It's another bracket coverage from the Eagles' defense on Bryant. Jenkins is lined up over Dez, with Thurmond's eyes locked in on him inside as well to bracket him from the slot.
Getting home with a four-man rush is ideal. Getting the sack with a three-man rush? Even better. With Barwin spying Cassel on third-and-14 in the fringe area at the 33-yard line, Graham beats Smith quickly off the edge, hits Cassel and gets the ball out to take Dallas out of field goal range and force a punt. With Bryant double covered and Hicks manned up on Witten with a safety over the top, Cassel has nowhere to go with the football and takes the sack.
NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell did a great job in this week's All-22 Review of breaking down Kendricks' sack on Cassel and the exotic look from the Eagles' defense that went along with it. That wasn't the only time it created pressure with a well-designed scheme on Sunday night.
The Eagles were up by three with just over five minutes remaining. The Cowboys came out in an empty set on second down. Bill Davis responded, as he is known to do against empty sets, by bringing pressure.
This is a five-man rush against a five-man offensive line, so from a numbers perspective, Dallas should be able to block this up. But watch how Davis schemes it up to get the numbers in his favor. This is a double A-gap pressure from the Eagles, with Kendricks and Hicks plugging the gaps inside. But notice Vinny Curry, lined up as a three-technique tackle inside over the right guard. He expands his rush outside toward the right tackle, bringing the guard with him. With the right guard on Curry, the center on Kendricks and the left guard blocking down on Hicks, no one is in the B gap to protect against a looping Connor Barwin, who jets inside and rushes Cassel right up the middle to force an incomplete pass.
This was actually a form of a Cover-0 blitz from the Eagles, something you don't often see from this team. You can see Graham drop out to defend Witten man to man, and he's got help from Thurmond at safety as well. With those two defending Witten and straight man coverage across the board, the coverage phase of this play-design requires six defenders. The Eagles blitzed five. That left no safety in the middle of the field, leaving this defense very vulnerable had a pass been completed. This is where the "X's and O's meet the Jimmy's and Joe's," as the rush gets home, forces an incomplete pass and brings up third down. Loved seeing this from the Eagles' defense on Sunday, as this unit continues to improve despite injuries at the linebacker position.
On that note, losing Jordan Hicks is a tough pill to swallow. The rookie had been playing at such a high level. He was the most consistent linebacker on this team through the first eight games. Luckily, with Kendricks and Alonso almost 100 percent healthy and DeMeco Ryans on the way back as well, the Eagles should be able to move on as scheduled. Still, you have to feel for Hicks, who has a very bright future here in Philadelphia.
Let's look at his interception for a touchdown, a dagger to the heart of Cowboys fans everywhere on a play that tilted the momentum very much in the Eagles' favor late in the game. The Eagles were in Quarters coverage, with four players deep and three underneath. Hicks is one of the underneath players at the bottom of the screen.
It's second-and-7, and the Cowboys are driving at the Eagles' 36-yard line. Dallas calls for a flat-7 concept, with Dez Bryant running a corner (or "7") route and McFadden running a flat route from the near slot. Hicks reads this the whole way, undercuts the route by stepping in front of the pass and taking it to the crib for a huge touchdown and a monumental play for the Eagles' defense. I'm very excited about Hicks' future here with the Eagles defense, and can't wait to see him back on the field in 2016.
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.