It's finally here. After nine months of waiting for the 2014 NFL season, the month of September has arrived, the summer is over and the regular season kicks off this Thursday night. There's nothing better than NFL football and in this space each and every week, as we do on "Eagles Game Plan," we will take a closer look at the game from the same angle the coaches use every week to evaluate their team - the All-22.
To start off the year, I thought we would take a look at some of the new players on the team that made the 53-man roster over the weekend, and an example of what kind of value they can bring to the team this season. Let's start with one of my favorite rookies on the roster, and one of the players many were surprised to see make the final roster - tight end Trey Burton.
Burton was a Swiss army knife for the Florida Gators during his college career, playing every offensive skill position you can imagine and serving a number of different roles for that offense for multiple coaching staffs. He signed here in the spring as an undrafted free agent, and his play in the preseason earned him a spot on the roster thanks to plays like this one against Pittsburgh.
It's third down with 4 yards to go in the third quarter against Pittsburgh. The Eagles are running a concept we saw often in the preseason, with four vertical routes. On this play, Burton is lined up on the line of scrimmage with his hand in the dirt, the tight end towards the bottom of the screen.
While the Eagles have backup players in the game at this point, the Steelers still have their first unit on the field defensively, meaning that Burton will be manned up one-on-one by linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers' first-round pick in May's draft, Shazier is known for his freakish athleticism, something he has put on display this summer. Burton beats Shazier cleanly down the seam and comes up with the longest play of the preseason for the Eagles through the first three games.
Obviously this was a great throw by Mark Sanchez, as he throws it into a tight window for Burton to go and get the football. Throw in great protection by the second offensive line, and this is a good play all around for the Eagles' offense.
While we're on the topic of the second-team offensive line, it goes without saying that they were very strong as a unit throughout the entirety of the preseason. Fans expected as much from right tackle Lane Johnson, but with newcomers like center David Molk and left tackle Andrew Gardner as well as returning backups Matt Tobin and Dennis Kelly performing at such a high level, you have to be very happy with this unit and with the job that offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has done coaching them up. Let's look at another rep from this group, this time from the first game against Chicago, as they run an inside zone play.
In one of the Eagles' staple run plays, we're going to see a great double team by the backside (right of your screen) guard and tackle, in this case Tobin and Gardner. To the playside (left of your screen) Johnson, Kelly and Molk also do a great job. This is going to be a 15-yard run by David Fluellen.
The initial point of contact for Tobin and Gardner comes at the 50-yard line. Gardner, reading the linebacker (No. 52), peels off the double team and gets the second level, leaving Tobin alone with No. 98.
Tobin takes his man for a ride, driving him 5 yards upfield before turning him outside and creating a great running lane for Fluellen.
Tobin was very, very good this preseason in pretty much every phase of the game. He handled himself well in pass protection, showed the toughness to excel on interior runs and the athleticism to locate defenders in space and erase them from the play. Let's take a look at how well he, and other members of the line, excelled throughout the summer.
The Eagles' offense made great use out of their version of the "sweep" run play last year, and it was one of their go-to run plays this preseason as well. Depending on the defensive front, the Eagles would pull two or three of their interior linemen. On this play, I want you to keep a close eye on Tobin and Molk, who are pulling out to the perimeter as lead blockers for running back Henry Josey.
Keep an eye also on Gardner and tight end Emil Igwenagu, who do a good job "pinning" their men, blocking from the outside in and help sealing the edge for the back.
Circled from left to right, you see Tobin and Molk both locate their targets in space and get them to the ground. Notice also the job that Kelly does. Kelly was out-leveraged here at the start of the play, and was tasked with crossing the face of the nose tackle and seal him from the ball. Kelly does a great job working to get to his landmark and keeping the nose tackle from getting upfield. Check out all facets of the blocking scheme, and how well executed it was by the line, you may want to play this back a few times!
Check out the block on this play by wide receiver Will Murphy too. Murphy was re-signed to the practice squad again this fall, and it's for reasons like this. This play ends up going for a touchdown, but gets called back for a holding penalty on wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.
It didn't matter who was carrying the ball when the Eagles called this play, however. We saw LeSean McCoy have success, Matthew Tucker, Josey, and on this play, Kenjon Barner gets in on the action. Regardless of who carried the ball, the first- and second-string offensive line did a great job blocking for them. Look at the job Tobin and Molk do once again in this play against the Steelers.
Let's shift gears a bit to the defensive side of the ball, where a number of young players have stood out throughout the preseason. I picked this play against Chicago because a number of those players did a really nice job on the play.
It's first-and-20, and the Bears are running a screen play to their running back. With three blockers out in front, things are looking good for them gaining a good chunk of yardage on this play.
First, we'll look at the job Marcus Smith II does on the play. This is the kind of athleticism you want from that position. It's something we saw out of Connor Barwin a year ago, and Smith showed it on this play with the ability to keep himself clean and slip through the blocks to get in on the tackle.
Next, look at fellow rookie Beau Allen, who gets knocked to the ground at the snap but shows a great motor chasing the play down and making a play in pursuit. Allen played his way onto the roster as a seventh-round pick this offseason, and it was plays like this that contributed to his place on the team. Linebacker Najee Goode does a great job recognizing the play, attacking his block, shedding and getting in on the tackle as well. You have to love the effort from all three defenders on this play.
Let's move to a play that happened later in that game, the interception from rookie defensive back Jaylen Watkins. The fourth-round pick was beaten badly on a deep touchdown earlier in the game, and it was great to see him rebound with a play like this.
It's second-and-11, and the Eagles are in a nickel defense playing Cover-3. This is as basic as it gets with Cover-3, with the three deep defenders being the two corners and a deep safety. The four underneath defenders will be the slot (Watkins, the nearest underneath defender toward the bottom of the screen), the two linebackers and the opposite safety.
Watkins does a great job attacking the man running through his zone by turning, staying with him and passing him off deep. The quarterback thinks he's in man coverage.
Watkins peels off and makes a great play on the ball, contorting his body to come down with the interception. This was a great play by the versatile rookie who should be a productive player for the Eagles over the next few seasons.
Staying in the secondary, one of the key free agent signings of the offseason came in the form of safety Malcolm Jenkins from New Orleans. The veteran is known for his leadership and his ability to be an incredibly versatile player. He can play as a deep safety in zone coverage, he can play in man coverage and he can support the run. His presence and that of fellow free agent signing Nolan Carroll II also gives the Eagles the ability to play dime coverage, which calls for six defensive backs on the field and just one linebacker. Against teams that employ wide open passing attacks, this can be incredibly valuable. But the caveat is that those defensive backs, especially the ones playing closer to the formation on tight ends and slot receivers, must be able to play the run too. Before we get to that, let's look at an example of the Eagles' dime package against the Steelers.
It's third-and-7, and the Eagles come out in their dime personnel. Here, you see four cornerbacks across the board, with (from top to bottom) Bradley Fletcher, Carroll (covering tight end Heath Miller), Watkins (where Brandon Boykin will be in the slot in the regular season) and Roc Carmichael (where Cary Williams will be).
The Eagles are in a two-man coverage here, with two deep safeties and man coverage underneath.
What's really interesting about this play, however, is the last-minute change made by the Eagles' secondary. With wide receiver Antonio Brown running a shallow crossing route, Jenkins actually jumps it. What that means is Fletcher now becomes the free safety. We saw a similar play in Boykin's game-winning interception against Washington a year ago. If Brown had run vertical, or had run an out route or a comeback, Fletcher would have stayed with him, but with him running a short in-breaking route (a tough assignment for a corner trying to follow him across the field), Jenkins becomes responsible for him.
The pass rush gets to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and Jenkins is covering Brown, who is breaking off his route to work himself open for his quarterback.
This is a great job by the entire defense of adjusting to the play post-snap, getting after the quarterback and then Jenkins diving to break up the pass. Names of other players were thrown around by fans and media experts in regards to other safeties the Eagles should have targeted this offseason, but it's clear that Jenkins was and is the right choice for this unit, he has been a perfect fit thus far.
While we're on the topic of offseason transactions, obviously no other move got more fanfare than the release of DeSean Jackson. Will the Eagles offense operate the same way? Will they be able to produce at such a high level without the team's leading receiver from a year ago? In my mind, that was never a question, and early on against Pittsburgh we saw an example of why.
It was third-and-10 in the "fringe" area just outside the red zone. Rookie slot receiver Jordan Matthews is lined up in the backfield opposite LeSean McCoy. We saw this often last year with Jackson. At the snap, Matthews will sprint to the left flat, taking the attention of two second-level Steelers defenders with him.
This play is all about generating defensive flow to the opposite side of the field, away from where the ball is ACTUALLY going to go. While the defenders flow to the left, McCoy leaks out to the right on a screen, with blockers out in front.
McCoy secures the catch, and Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans create what Chip Kelly likes to refer to as "the sidewalk," forming a lane for McCoy to run through on his way to the end zone.
We see great blocking from wide receiver Jeremy Maclin downfield, and McCoy walks into the end zone. Great play call, great design and great execution from the Eagles' offense.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and 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.