On Monday, I looked back at three factors that helped provide the spark for the Eagles' run game against the Giants. Here I want to look at what went into the defensive success in the win. New York came into this game with a very defined game plan. The Giants knew they had to protect their offensive line against the Eagles' defense. That meant they were going to run the ball more than usual, and it meant the ball was going to come out of quarterback Eli Manning's hands quickly.
Just how quickly did the ball come out? Manning dropped back 53 times on Sunday. On 29 of those pass attempts, he held the ball for fewer than two seconds. On 50 of those attempts, he held the ball for fewer than three seconds. The average release time for Manning was 1.93 seconds in the game. When the ball comes out THAT quickly, it's tough for a defensive line to generate a rush, much less for a blitzer to get home free coming from farther away. Sending extra rushers would've been a moot point, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz knew it.
For that reason, Schwartz backed his secondary off, along with the fact that the Eagles were severely shorthanded with two of the top three safeties and two of the top four corners out of the game. The Eagles played a ton of off-zone coverage on Sunday to force Manning to chip away and matriculate the ball down the field. They weren't going to get beaten over the top. See the throw, rally to the football, and tackle the ball carrier immediately after the catch. That was the Eagles' game plan in the secondary against the Giants, and for most of the time, it was extremely effective.
The only pass play over 20 yards in this game for either team was the 77-yard catch-and-run by slot receiver Sterling Shepard. It came off a pinpoint throw by Manning over the middle of the field to help set Shepard up for yards after the catch. On the two previous touchdown drives, New York only had to go a combined 88 yards and it took two outstanding grabs in the end zone by superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Schwartz went in with a plan, and his players went out and executed it. So let's see what it looked like on film.
Shot 1 - Giants came in w/ defined game plan. Eli Manning's average release time was 1.9 secs; protected OL. #Eagles kept it all in front pic.twitter.com/5WIchA4CSO — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
This is a play from the Giants' opening possession. It's second-and-8, and the Eagles are in a soft zone coverage, a Cover 3 look. Cornerback Jalen Mills is lined up over Beckham, who runs a slant route - probably the most common one in the New York offensive playbook. Mills reads the route, drives on the throw, and tackles Beckham quickly to force a third-and-6. You can't ask for anything more than that from Mills on the play. This is what the Eagles were expecting, and it's what they got from New York early and often.
One of the things I started to notice as the game wore on was the alignment of safety Chris Maragos, who stepped into the starting lineup with Rodney McLeod and Corey Graham inactive. Maragos spent the entire game as the high defender in the deep middle of the field. Typically, in that role, you ask that safety to play "deeper than the deepest" receiver as a centerfielder. As the game progressed, Maragos was cheating closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. Why? I personally think it was to help be there to defend those quick in-breaking slant routes. He's not going to deter the throw, but he'll be there to help get the ball carrier down quickly from 10 yards off the ball as opposed to 15 or 20 yards away.
That distance comes into play here. The Eagles are in a Cover 3 look again, with the corners playing extremely off the line of scrimmage. Manning sees his window and he turns it loose to Beckham for a gain of 14 yards and a first down. Schwartz probably would like the window to be a bit tighter on that play and for the cavalry to arrive at the ball a bit sooner, but there's an angle to this I want you to watch from the end zone.
Shot 3 - Same play from end zone. 2nd Quarter. Kendricks sees he could've expanded more in his drop to take away window on 'Slant Flat' play pic.twitter.com/TlSwRGV0Z7 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
This is the same play and look at Kendricks. It's New York's third series of the game, and the Giants have just run this Slant Flat pass concept for the first time. The defense saw it plenty of times on film, and Kendricks knew he had a chance to take away that throw. He has a chance to make up for it later in the game.
Shot 4 - This is cool. Next quarter, Kendricks adjusts. Leaves hook/curl area to defend Slant/Flat, creates INT that leads to a TD #Eagles pic.twitter.com/1dAhNvd2SE — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
It's now early in the third quarter, and the Giants are in another second-down situation. What's the call? Slant Flat. Kendricks reads his keys, recognizes the play, and gets into the passing window. He meets the ball midflight and tips it into the air to lead to cornerback Patrick Robinson's interception. The Eagles capitalized on that turnover with a touchdown throw to tight end Zach Ertz to take a 14-0 lead. Kendricks saw where he messed up on the previous play, adjusted, and it led to a huge play in the game.
Whether it was in base downs or in nickel after Jordan Hicks left the game due to an ankle injury, I was impressed by Kendricks' performance on Sunday. We know the type of athlete he is, and we know how physical he is. But I thought he read things quickly against the Giants and showed the ability to slip blocks and make plays that earlier in his career he may not have made.
The first play above came on a trap play, a run that we will likely see offenses run against the Eagles each and every week this year because of their aggressive upfield scheme. Last week, I showed how Tim Jernigan destroyed a trap block and finish with a WWE-style wrestling move against the Chiefs. Here, it's Kendricks who flashes. The offensive tackle is going to block Kendricks here, and the linebacker knows it. He uses his athleticism to slip this block and then wraps up the ball carrier and finishes for a tackle right at the line of scrimmage to force second-and-20. Having Kendricks play this well is huge for this Eagles defense moving forward.
Another player who really stood out to me on defense was rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas. Making his first start in place of Ronald Darby and Jaylen Watkins, Douglas was charged with a pretty tough task against a veteran receiver in Brandon Marshall. I thought he battled throughout the game and he showed off some of the traits that made him worthy of a third-round pick in this draft. Here is a couple of them.
Shot 6 - Rasul Douglas played this fade about as well as it can be played, then nearly broke on a quick throw for another INT later #Eagles pic.twitter.com/Bykb5gH72A — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
The Eagles appear to be in quarters coverage on this first play, so Douglas is responsible for any vertical route on his side of the field. He's lined up in off coverage, sees that Marshall is attacking vertical, and he flips his hips and runs downfield, staying in-phase and never losing sight of the football. Those are the ball skills the Eagles saw in him at West Virginia a year ago, as Douglas uses his size to go up and finish at the catch point, outmuscling Marshall for the pick. Douglas was hoping for another interception later in the game, again from off coverage, where he read a curl route from Marshall quickly and jumped the throw. If it hadn't been tipped by Robinson in the slot, the rookie may have come away with a pick-six on the play.
One of the other big themes in this game was the defense's performance in the clutch. This was very much a game a complementary football, where players and units stepped up when their names were called and executed.
Hicks is out? Kendricks, go in there and force an interception.
Fletcher Cox is out? Beau Allen step on in and play just as many snaps as Tim Jernigan.
Darren Sproles is out? Wendell Smallwood, go lead the team in rushing and come up BIG in pass protection.
Half of our secondary is out? Jalen Mills go shadow Beckham for most of the afternoon on a 90-degree day and play 100 percent of the snaps.
Short fields on defense? Come up with big stops to keep New York off the board.
Game on the line with one final chance? Jake Elliott, go out and make a franchise-record 61-yard field goal to win the game in your home opener in front of a rabid fanbase.
Several players and groups came up huge in this win, and it seemed to happen in clutch situations. New York was just 3-of-10 on third down on Sunday, and they were 0-for-2 on fourth down. The Giants reached the end zone on just two of their five trips to the red zone. Sure, there were no sacks in this game and just the one interception, but the Eagles came up big in key spots and did everything they could to keep the Giants off the board for most of the game. Let's look at some of those big stops on third and fourth down.
This is the second series of the game. It's third-and-1, and the Giants are hoping to run a crack toss play, with tight end Rhett Ellison motioning tight to the formation to crack defensive end Vinny Curry. This would leave left tackle Ereck Flowers one-on-one as a lead blocker against Malcolm Jenkins, not an advantageous position for the safety. Curry feels that, and he explodes upfield to blow the play up. He makes contact with Flowers, preventing him from reaching Jenkins, who is able to clean up in the backfield for a tackle for loss to force a punt.
Shot 8 - Man coverage on the goal line. Patrick Robinson disrupts Shepard at the LOS just enough to keep him out of the endzone #Eagles pic.twitter.com/dvQdcWckYx — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
Late in the first half, after a failed fourth-down attempt by the Eagles at midfield on fourth-and-8, the Giants drove inside the Eagles' 5-yard line. It's second-and-2, and Manning takes the snap and rolls to his right. He wants to hit wide receiver Sterling Shepard at the pylon for a touchdown. Robinson, however, jams Shepard at the line of scrimmage, forcing Shepard to reduce this route. The ball is caught short of the goal line, and the Eagles keep New York out of the end zone. A drop later, and it's fourth-and-1 ...
Usually, these plays on the goal line are a disaster to try and break down, but this one is really clean. Allen gets things started because he attacks that A gap so quickly and forces the left guard to protect his inside shoulder. Allen eats up the guard, and it opens up a nice, wide lane for Curry to fly through, as he flies upfield and meets Orleans Darkwa behind the line of scrimmage. Second-year linebacker Joe Walker supermans in over the top and the Eagles get a 1-yard loss on fourth down to close the first half with a shutout. The Eagles bent, but they didn't break.
The Eagles secondary' came up with big stops on third and fourth down again and again throughout the game. The two-play sequence above happened late in the third quarter, and it started on third-and-2. Manning is hoping to hit Shepard on a quick curl route to the right, and Mills reads the play beautifully, playing the ball through the body without drawing a flag to force fourth down.
The Giants go for it again. And again they come up short. New York comes out in an empty set with two receivers to the left and three to the right. Manning starts left and appears like he was expecting some sort of zone coverage, what the Eagles had done all day. But the Eagles aren't in zone, they're actually in man coverage. Manning hopes to get Marshall on the out route against Cover 3, but once Douglas takes that away he comes back to the middle of the field to Shepard on an in-breaking route. Since the ball comes out late, Robinson has time to break on the throw, and he forces a pass breakup to keep the Giants off the board.
The score was 14-0 on the last play, but a full quarter later and it's an entirely different ball game. It's now 21-21 with just over three minutes left. The Giants are now in the high red zone on the 23-yard line. It's third-and-7, and Manning wants to hit Beckham on, surprise, a slant route.
Shot 11 - Jalen Mills shadowed Odell Beckham for most of the game. Contested nearly every throw. Played 100% of the snaps. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/kwyGO5oApL — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
Mills reads this play perfectly, breaking on the throw right away. The ball is thrown slightly off the mark, and the receiver can't make a play. Even if he was, Mills was right there to disrupt the catch or at the very least get Beckham down right at the sticks for what would've been a close measurement. Either way, the defense forces a field goal and keeps the dream alive.
So we have a well-executed game plan, some resiliency from the Eagles' defense on multiple occasions in tight spots, and a tie game late. Looks like overtime, right? Well, we know how the story ends, but let's look at one of the sneaky plays of the game that turned out to impact the final outcome.
There are 32 seconds left in the game, and it's second-and-18 from the New York 17-yard line. The holding penalty that Curry drew against Ereck Flowers sets the Giants well back behind the sticks. They're in survival mode right now. If they don't pick up a large chunk of yardage here, they're going to try and sit on this ball and force overtime.
Shot 12 - One of the sneaky BIG plays of the game. 32 secs left. 2 TOs. Vereen runs OOB and stops clock for NYG. Helps keep time for #Eagles pic.twitter.com/KmEVZ95yn2 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 26, 2017
The Eagles drop back in Cover 2, and a quick rush from both Curry and Brandon Graham force Manning to dump this ball to the flat to Shane Vereen. The pass is complete, and it's Mills against Vereen one-on-one in space. If Mills tackles Vereen, which I'm fully confident that he's able to do, the clock doesn't stop. New York has two timeouts left and would face a third-and-15. Do they stop the clock? Probably not. Do the Eagles stop the clock? Perhaps, but then you're giving the Giants the ability to take a breath and put together a play call that could get them a first down.
The Eagles don't have to make that choice because Vereen runs out of bounds to try and save his team some time. He picks up just 3 yards. The Giants come up short on third-and-15, punt the ball away, and the Eagles have just enough time left to sneak the ball to Alshon Jeffery for a first down on the fringe of field goal range. Would the game have ended differently if Vereen were tackled in bounds? It very well may have, and it's just one of countless examples of how every game has 1,000 different factors when it comes down to who wins and who loses.
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.