In Sunday's loss to the Dallas Cowboys, there were a few big storylines coming out of the game.
First, the performance of quarterback Nick Foles was brought into focus once again after a handful of series in the regular-season finale. The offense was shut out for the first time in seven years, and obviously the execution across the board wasn't great from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
Defensively, the storyline was much different.
A number of young players saw their first significant, non-special teams snaps of the season. Despite missing a handful of starters, the Eagles held the starting Dallas offense to six points, keeping Ezekiel Elliott largely in check and rendering Dak Prescott almost completely ineffective. I figured I'd cover both sides of the coin in this piece, starting with the offense.
Along with everyone else, I was interested to see what the coaches would do to get Nick Foles in a rhythm early in this game. They got the ball first to start the game, and I thought the Eagles had a really good approach to kick things off. Foles threw a quick out route to Alshon Jeffery on the first play of the game, a week after rarely targeting the veteran wideout. It was an easy completion to get on the board and get things rolling. They came back with two straight runs, one of which was of the non-traditional variety.
Shot 1 - The #Eagles tried to get the run game early and nearly hit a big one on this Jet Sweep from a Tackle Over set. Nice little wrinkle in the weekly run game plan. Split second away from going for 70+ yards #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/Jtpir5g3NN — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
On the second play of the game, the Eagles went with a Jet Sweep to Nelson Agholor, who lined up in the slot to the left. This was a "tackle over" formation, meaning that the right tackle, Lane Johnson, slid over to the left side to line up next to Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The defense has to respect a formation like this because of the obvious run strength to that side. Agholor runs in the direction away from the extra tackle since there will be less defensive attention on the other side of the field.
On a Jet Sweep, teams very rarely block the "playside defensive end." In that case, it's one of the most productive pass rushers in the league, DeMarcus Lawrence. Zach Ertz, lined up in front of Lawrence, is going to sift up to block the safety. Brandon Brooks is going to block Sean Lee, the playside linebacker. At the snap of the ball, Foles hands the ball off to Agholor. Ertz releases up to the safety. Everything looks exactly as it should.
Unfortunately, the play is ruined by Lawrence, who slants inside and disrupts Brooks' release to the second level for just a split second. That slight delay holds up Brooks for just a tick, and Lee is now unblocked to flow to the football and he makes the play. Everything else on the play was perfect, but the Cowboys ran a stunt that was the perfect call for the play. Tip of the cap to Dallas for making the play.
On the next snap, the Eagles came back with a more basic run play from their playbook, the inside zone. This play features two double teams up front, one on the play side with Stefen Wisniewski and Jason Kelce, and the other with Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson. The blocks are extremely effective in this case, and LeGarrette Blount gets downhill for a big gain. After the quick completion to Jeffery, I like the idea to get things going on the ground, with the exotic wrinkle on play No. 2 and the staple inside zone on play No. 3 to move the chains.
Shot 2 - These are the kinds of staple concepts we can expect from the #Eagles offense with Nick Foles. Three-level stretches are great for a number of reasons. Half-field read, play-action element, attack zone coverage; all results in a nice throw in-rhythm pic.twitter.com/U4cDeyUX5z — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
Foles' second completion came on another Eagles staple, a "three-level stretch," and this was perfectly executed. With a three-level stretch, you have receivers attacking all three levels of the field. Jeffery runs vertically down the field. Agholor serves as "flat control" underneath, and Ertz comes from the back side on an over route. Most teams want that intermediate route to be the primary receiver. The ball isn't going to go to the deep route unless the safeties are lined up extremely shallow pre-snap. For that reason, a three-level stretch is really just a two-man concept, which really comes down to the shallow and intermediate routes. Here, Agholor's route holds the defensive back underneath, and Ertz is open for a first down. Foles makes this throw with good ball placement and anticipation, throwing Ertz open to the left into the void in the coverage. Simple reads like this are a good way to keep a quarterback in rhythm in the passing game as well.
After that completion to Ertz, the drive stalled and the Eagles failed to convert on a fourth-down play. The offense had a few other chances to get into scoring range, but then it would fall apart. Here are a few examples where things just didn't go well for the offense in this first quarter.
Shot 3 - When you play with your backup QB, or ANY backup player for that matter on either side of the ball, you shrink your margin for error across the board. Everyone has to cross the Ts and dot the Is. Not enough execution the last two games #Eagles pic.twitter.com/uaXS8u6k8W — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
At the end of rewatching this game, I had a different view of Foles' performance. The interception was not a good decision, but I don't think the scoreless outing in the first quarter was all on his shoulders. When you play with a backup quarterback (or a backup at any position for that matter), the rest of the offense has to take its game to the next level. The backup isn't going to make the same kinds of plays that the starter can. In order to make up for those plays, you need one more big catch or one more big block or one more big run. Conversely, any negative plays in those areas are going to be amplified. Does Foles need to play better than he has the last couple of weeks? He'd be the first person to say he needs to. He absolutely can execute in this offense, but you can't expect him to carry the team on his shoulders by himself. He's going to need help around him.
Let's move on to the rest of the team in a game where we got to see a lot of players we may not have seen take the field since summer, if ever. The first of those players is backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
Shot 4 - Really solid performance for Nate Sudfeld - showed the reasons why the team is comfortable with him as the 3rd string QB behind Nick Foles. Had his share of ups and downs vs Dallas, but some bright signs for the future and his development down the road #Eagles pic.twitter.com/LIKvIntjBg — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
I think Sudfeld had a good outing against Dallas. Was he great? No. However, he was efficient, he didn't force too many throws, and he was able to make a couple of plays that, in my opinion, prove why the team felt strongly enough to promote him to the active roster midseason. The throw to Marcus Johnson, in particular, along with the checkdown to Wendell Smallwood, really give me a lot of hope for his development moving forward. I'm excited to see how he continues to improve in the future.
Shot 5 - Isaac Seumalo had his share of moments in this game as well. Played both LG and C. Showed his athleticism on a number of plays. Solid performance in season finale #Eagles pic.twitter.com/QBRnx3BzDL — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
Second-year offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo played 40 snaps in this game, with time at left guard and at center. I thought the former third-round pick was solid against the Cowboys. The two plays that stood out most to me had to do with his athleticism and ability to finish blocks in space. The versatility to line up at both spots really helps him and his value moving forward, as well.
Defensively, I was honestly blown away by the effort from this group with so many players out of the lineup and more put on the bench after the first couple of series. Keeping that offense limited to six points was a hell of an accomplishment. I was very impressed in particular with the run game.
Shot 6 - #Eagles defense was really impressive with a lot of backups playing vs Dallas. Ton of players standing out here. Beau Allen, Elijah Qualls, Najee Goode, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Vinny Curry, and others all making plays #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/Dy3cOtF3sc — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
The players who stood out most to me is a list that's a bit lengthy. Defensive tackles Beau Allen and Elijah Qualls were disruptive on the inside. Vinny Curry was really effective off the edge in the run game both on the play side and on the back side. Linebackers Najee Goode and Kamu Grugier-Hill flashed both in the run and the pass games. It was great to see these players flash the way they did in this contest.
Shot 7 - Rookie LB Nate Gerry really flashed in this game a few times. Aggressive downhill, made plays against the run and in coverage. Great to see from the former safety #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/6RZSG2PnDO — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
One rookie who really stood out to me was linebacker Nathan Gerry. A former safety at Nebraska, Gerry is making the transition closer to the line of scrimmage and has spent most of the season as a core special teamer. In this game, he played as a stacked linebacker as well as pressed on the line of scrimmage. I was really impressed by his instincts in coverage (which I saw at Nebraska) and with his toughness and physicality in the run game. The play where he took on La'el Collins at the point of attack was particularly impressive.
Shot 8 - Rookie CB Sidney Jones made his debut, and we saw more good than bad from him on Sunday. Not challenged down the field, no big plays on the ball or anything, but saw some flashes for sure. Good to see him back from the injury #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/5Px26FfbB7 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 2, 2018
Gerry isn't the only rookie to stand out, however, because all eyes were on cornerback Sidney Jones. The second-round pick played in his first NFL game, one year to the day after playing his collegiate finale at Washington, and I thought he performed well. Did we see him make a great flash play down the field? No, but I think we saw some of the traits that made him a potential top-15 pick before his Achilles injury. He's physical, instinctive, and competitive. I'm really excited to see how he'll be incorporated into the defensive rotation moving forward and what his potential impact could be.
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.