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Eagle Eye: How The Defense Helped Clinch Home-Field Advantage

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After last week’s performance against the New York Giants, Eagles fans were anxious to see the defense respond this week against the Oakland Raiders. Needless to say, they got their wish.

The defense forced a season-high five turnovers against the Raiders (three fumble recoveries and two interceptions). We’ll get to those plays later because first I want to start with the run defense.

The Eagles gave up a season-high 137 in rushing yards on Monday night (though they still rank first in the NFL with 75.9 yards allowed per game). The Raiders wanted to establish themselves on the ground, especially with the cold weather. Marshawn Lynch, like Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount, is a big, physical ball carrier who can be a load to bring down once he gets a head of steam. To get him going, the Raiders worked in a lot of 13 personnel (one running back and three tight ends) sets with the hopes of getting bigger bodies on the field.

Shot 1 - The #Raiders clearly wanted to come out and establish the run game. They spent 23 plays in 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends). Thought some players really stood out in this area. Brandon Graham, Ronald Darby, and others really came to play against a tough run game pic.twitter.com/RrpptADojZ — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

Oakland came out in 13 personnel sets 23 times, and they ran it almost all of the time from those looks. The Eagles, naturally, matched up with their base defense, with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. It was very clear that they liked their chances of running the football from this look, and I thought the Eagles' defense stood up to the challenge. The Eagles who stood out most were defensive end Brandon Graham, middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (who got his first extended action of the season), and cornerback Ronald Darby. I would go as far as to say this was Darby’s best game as an Eagle. Sure, he had the interception and that was likely the play of the day, but where he stood out most to me was as a tackler. Darby was a willing run defender the entire night, and he made a couple of tackles out on the perimeter that really impressed me as well.

Shot 2 - Ronald Darby really stood out to me in this game as a tackler both in the run game and in the screen game. Made two stops on the perimeter that prevented big plays. Great to see against a physical run game #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/c5EQRyLMok — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

On those two screen plays, the receiver is out the gate for a big play and a potential touchdown if Darby doesn’t make the stop. After giving up a couple of big plays last week, I thought it was great to see Darby come back with such a spirited effort against Oakland.

Shot 3 - The adjustment the #Eagles made to #Raiders 13 personnel set was the use of a heavy 4-4 defense...4 DL and 4 LBs on the field. Was very effective for them late in the game when they needed to stop the run on multiple occasions pic.twitter.com/aVky0Z8WBY — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

Getting back to the Raiders and their game plan on offense, the use of 13 personnel was prevalent early on. The Eagles made a mid-game adjustment that I thought worked in their favor. In the fourth quarter, the Eagles started matching up to Oakland’s tight end sets with a heavier goal-line-type package, using four linebackers with four defensive linemen. This 4-4 front proved effective throughout the late stages of the game, as Nigel Bradham moved up closer to the line of scrimmage and Najee Goode came off the bench to provide some good snaps in the middle of the defense next to Ellerbe.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins said after the game that the team felt good about the plan and executing it.

“If we could stop the run on first and second down we felt like we could win on third down,” Jenkins said. “That’s kind of what we started to do as the game went on. We actually went to a bigger personnel, put an extra linebacker out there and that helped us when they went to those three tight end sets“.

The Eagles made plays in the run game, but one of the biggest keys in this victory was the pass defense, namely getting to quarterback Derek Carr. The young veteran quarterback struggled to get into a rhythm for most of the game, and the Eagles set the tone on the opening drive.

Shot 4 - #Eagles did a really good job of making Derek Carr feel uncomfortable all night. Not always about sacks, but constant pressure affected him throughout the game. Eagles made use of their primary nickel subpackage pic.twitter.com/UYxb95tSjI — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

All season, the Eagles have been getting home to the quarterback with the use of their favorite subpackage group, sliding Brandon Graham inside to have three defensive ends on the field along with Fletcher Cox. This puts the offense in a bind, as they must decide if they want to slide extra attention toward Cox, the best player on the field, or toward the two-defensive end side. On the first play, they decide to do the former, and it costs Carr dearly.

Basic protection schemes can be broken down into two sides. There’s a "man" side and a "zone" side. Typically, the running back is involved on the "man" side of the protection scheme. The Eagles knew that with Cox lined up away from the running back the Raiders would likely slide the protection in Cox’s direction (the zone side), with the running back helping block Graham and Chris Long on the "man" side. It’s three-on-two in favor of the offense. This is where the schematics of breaking down protections come into play, as the Eagles run a basic two-man game (a T/E Stunt). The running back is left blocking a ghost, as Long loops inside and delivers a shot on Carr as he delivers the football short of the first down on third-and-long.

Later, the Raiders decide they’re going to block this up in a different way, choosing to use a "four-man slide" protection to account for Cox and the two-defensive end side together. This leaves the left tackle alone with Vinny Curry (the man side of the protection). The "zone side," asks all four of the offensive linemen in the slide to account for their outside gap. If a rusher comes inside, they let them go for their teammate to pick up. Each offensive lineman just has to block their outside (right) shoulder. That way, if the Eagles run a stunt or a twist, it should be picked up without an issue. In theory, this should work, right? This is where individual matchups throw the whiteboard out the window.

Graham, matched up on right guard Gabe Jackson, does exactly what the protection is guarding against. He wins on the outside shoulder of the guard, flying into the backfield to pressure Carr. The quarterback feels the pressure and falls away from this throw, which ends up being complete downfield for a big play. The play comes back, however, because Jackson holds Graham to keep him off his quarterback. That’s a win for the defense and the subpackage rush group of the defensive line.

Shot 5 - Whether it was the 4-man rush, diverse coverage schemes, or extra rushers, the #Eagles kept Carr on his toes all night. Really good game plan by Jim Schwartz that was executed at a high level #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/N4ZFoTIZzG — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

It was clear that Carr was uncomfortable for the entire game. Here are three examples of what the Eagles did to keep him on his toes. With the combination of four-man rushes, blitzes, and complex coverage schemes that caused Carr’s eyes to betray him mid-play, the Eagles were able to get to him on a consistent basis and take him out of this game.

Now let’s get to those turnovers because they really were a lot of fun to break down. Let’s start with the first one, which came on third down in the third quarter, a situation where the Eagles NEEDED a big play on defense after the offense sputtered coming out of the locker room.

Shot 6 - Just a great job from CB Patrick Robinson on a key INT for the #Eagles. Understood where his help was, took a chance undercutting the route, and came up with the pick #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/ktWNDDVh2c — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

Patrick Robinson is in man coverage out of the slot and he undercuts this slant route over the middle of the field for the interception. He knew he had safety help over the top in the Eagles’ Cover 1 call, and he turned his slight gamble into a big play. It was Robinson’s fourth interception of the season, tying a career high for him.

Shot 7 - The sack-fumble by Chris Long came with the #Eagles in 'Cover 1 Robber' with Rodney McLeod taking away in-breaking routes and Patrick Robinson playing with outside leverage to take away anything towards the sideline. I believe this play started a few plays earlier tho... pic.twitter.com/WZtDdDNPZR — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

Another big play for this Eagles defense came later in the fourth quarter. While it wasn’t a turnover, it was a clutch third-down stop. Long came free off the edge and got the ball on the ground for a strip-sack (four of Long’s five sacks this season have been strip-sacks). However, the coverage on the back end is what caught my eye. Safety Rodney McLeod has seen more reps lately as a "Robber" defender, and that’s exactly what he played on this sack.

"Cover 1 Robber" is a coverage used by defenses to take away (or "rob") in-breaking routes for the offense. By dropping a safety down to patrol the intermediate middle part of the field, any crossing routes will be available for him to pick off. This was a big coverage for the Seattle Seahawks during their vintage "Legion of Boom" days a couple of years ago when they got away from their zone concepts. McLeod drops into the middle of the field here and takes away the crossing routes for Carr, but the Eagles have an adjustment built into this. Watch the Oakland receiver hit the brakes and turn back to the sideline. The problem for him is that Robinson, playing with outside leverage (meaning he’s lined up outside of the receiver and funneling everything inside) is there to take away that part of the route as well. Carr has nowhere to go with the football, and Long gets home.

The Eagles ran the same exact coverage against a very similar concept for the Raiders a few plays earlier. The difference here is that Carr was able to hit his man on the route adjustment. That time, Robinson jumped the in-breaking route, and both he and McLeod were nowhere to be found when the ball was thrown to the outside. Watch those two talk things out immediately when that play finished. McLeod likely reminded Robinson to play with outside leverage and to let him handle the inside throws between the hash marks. That post-play communication came into effect just a few plays later on the near turnover for the Eagles' defense.

Shot 8 - Jalen Mills may have given up the long Sluggo for a TD, but he rebounded well. Made a number of big run stops in the game and shut down all of the double moves that went his way later in the game, got a big PBU in the red zone on third down as well #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/6YkZOj4AoE — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

Jalen Mills was criticized last week after giving up a touchdown on a "Sluggo" (Slant and Go route), a double move preying on his aggressiveness from off coverage. Early in the game, he gave up another touchdown on the very same route to Amari Cooper and, needless to say, Eagles fans weren’t happy. After that play, however, the Green Goblin was scary enough to eliminate a number of Carr's throws in all areas of the field. Mills sat on top of two more double moves in this game, one of which fell right out of his hands for an interception, and another where he forced Carr to check down. The second-year corner got a much-needed pass breakup down on the goal line against Michael Crabtree and made a couple of big tackles one-on-one as well. Mills does a lot of the little things right and is still one of my favorite players to watch on this football team.

Shot 9 - Ronald Darby came up with the play of the day on his INT vs the #Raiders. But what I love most about it I think is how reminiscent it was of the slant route he gave up for a TD last week vs NYG. Great job by Darby cutting off this route for a pick #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/UiiDHAIzco — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 26, 2017

Last, but not least, was Darby’s interception, which was an outstanding play from press coverage from his right cornerback spot. Darby read this route break from Cooper like a book, intersecting with the receiver at the catch point and coming away with the pick. What I loved most about the turnover, however, (outside of it setting up Jake Elliott's game-winning field goal) was the fact that the release from Cooper was eerily similar to the one Darby faced a week ago against the Giants. On that play, New York receiver Tavarres King jab-stepped outside (just like Cooper), trying to get Darby to flip his hips before breaking vertical for a step (to false step on his break) and then to fly into the middle of the field on a slant route. The route worked wonders for King but fell far short for Cooper.

It wasn’t a perfect defensive performance, but it was a pretty great way to respond after a bit of a lackluster day last week against the Giants. I’m excited to see a hungry, and fresh, unit come back for the playoffs in January.

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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