It goes without saying that the last part of Sunday's win over St. Louis should have felt a lot different. After leading 34-7 and having success in all three phases of the game, the Eagles let the Rams back in it to make what should have been a laugher into a nail biter. Still, at this point in the season, it's all about wins and collecting as many as possible before you get into the months of November and December and improving along the way. On Sunday, we saw improvement and a high level of play in multiple areas, starting up front on the offensive line in the run game.
Running back LeSean McCoy entered Sunday's game averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. He improved that number against the Rams by rushing for 81 yards at a clip of 3.4 yards per run. Fellow running back Darren Sproles broke off a number of big runs as well. How did the running game get back on track? Sure, the return of Lane Johnson (paired with the shift of Todd Herremans back to right guard) helped a lot. But on Sunday the Eagles also featured a run play we saw a lot last year in the second half of the season that worked very well for them, the split zone.
Ironically enough, I actually touched on the split zone run last week in my breakdown of the Rams, but here you see the basic look of the split zone run. Just like any of the Eagles' zone run concepts, the offensive line is trying to create a wall for the back to run behind. Unlike your basic inside zone run play, however, this features a player, in this case James Casey, coming across the formation at the snap of the ball to seal the backside to create an additional crease for the running back to run through.
On this play, Sproles has multiple avenues in which he can run through, as the line gets good movement and he takes this carry for a 10-yard gain and a first down.
While this formation with two tight ends to one side of the line is the basic look the Eagles showed on Sunday, they sprinkled in a few change-ups to the play as well. One of the first was the utilization of the unbalanced line.
Here, you see left tackle Jason Peters lined up on the right side of the formation next to Lane Johnson, giving the Eagles a favorable advantage from a rushing standpoint.
Here's the split zone run again, with Casey coming to seal the backside, as the Eagles get great movement up front from Herremans, Johnson and Peters. McCoy has room to work, and takes this for his longest run of the day, a 19-yard gain and a first down.
Here's another shot from later in the game in the third quarter. Again, the Eagles line up with two tight ends to the right, helping make the defense think that it will be Casey coming across the formation on a run to the right side.
But this will not be a run to the right side; this play will actually go left, as the Eagles add Riley Cooper into the formation and bring him across to block the backside defender. McCoy takes this run for 8 yards on first down. Notice the great movement the line gets up front, particularly from Lane Johnson, who helps create the lane for McCoy to run through.
In typical Chip Kelly fashion, the fun didn't stop there. Those plays where Cooper was inserted into the formation as a blocker helped set up a pass play later in the game. Let's take a look at that shot.
Just like in the previous play, Cooper motions into what is almost a wing tight end. He comes across the formation as if he is blocking the backside defensive end, but keeps on running into the open field where Nick Foles hits him for a 14-yard completion and an easy first down.
The Eagles went back to another reliable run play in their arsenal, using a tactic we've seen from them earlier this year in a play I broke down after the team's win over the Colts. This requires a pre-snap read from Foles, who brings a receiver in motion and, depending on what the defensive back covering the receiver does, will pass it to the receiver on a bubble screen or hand it off to the back on a running play.
On this play, you see the corner run with Cooper across the field, creating more room with fewer bodies to the right for Sproles to break off the longest run of the day.
Looking at this play from the end zone angle, check out the push the Eagles get up front with a double team on the nose tackle. Johnson seals the defensive end and Celek does a great job driving his man downfield as Sproles goes for 25 yards. Great design and execution from the Eagles' offense on that play.
Defensively, as coordinator Bill Davis noted after the game, you would've liked to see the unit finish the game better. There were some opportunities in one-on-one situations that I'm sure the team would've liked to have back, but give credit to Rams quarterback Austin Davis and the physical receiving corps for continuing to fight and work their way back as well. The Eagles continued to bring pressure throughout the fourth quarter and Austin Davis did a great job of stepping up and maneuvering within the confines of the pocket to deliver the ball to underneath receivers, allowing the Rams to move the ball down the field and help bring them back into the game. Still, this was another strong performance through three quarters from the Eagles' defense, especially in terms of getting after the quarterback. Bill Davis' unit did a phenomenal job on Sunday of confusing the Rams' offensive line, showing pressure, faking pressure and bringing pressure that resulted in four sacks and three turnovers as well as another defensive score.
It's third-and-10 early in the game, and the Eagles are showing some unique pressure with Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans stacked over each other to the left.
Before the snap, Barwin and Ryans switch to the right side as Davis changes things up for St. Louis. But Ryans isn't coming on this play, he's actually covering the running back out of the backfield. What you'll see is a game up front with Barwin and Trent Cole crossing over each other. As Ryans goes to cover the running back, the right guard for St. Louis goes to try and block him (thinking he's a blitzer). That leaves Fletcher Cox one on one with the Rams' center. Cox gets pressure to initially move Davis off of his spot, and Barwin and Cole bring him to the ground. The Eagles' pre-snap movement up front, paired with post-snap movement from Barwin and Cole, along with one of their best players winning a one-on-one matchup (Cox) resulted in a big sack on third down to force a punt.
Let's fast forward a bit to the second quarter, where the defense faces a critical third-and-5. The Rams flex running back Benny Cunningham out to the left, creating an empty set. Ryans resets the defense, checking to a pressure call to attack the St. Louis protection.
The Rams call what is commonly referred to as "Scat" protection, or a five-man protection with just the offensive linemen responsible for keeping the quarterback upright. The Eagles have shown in the past that they will pressure empty sets with Scat protection, often bringing six men (one more than the line can block). This is often done by bringing two players into the A gap over the center. What does this do? It forces the offensive line to squeeze the protection inside. If there is going to be a free blitzer, it cannot come from up the middle, since that is the shortest distance to the quarterback. Any free rushers will come from the edge, and it will be the quarterback's responsibility to beat that rusher by either getting the ball out quickly or by making that unblocked defender miss. Davis does neither on this play.
While the Eagles showed double A-gap pressure, they didn't bring both players, as Nolan Carroll II dropped back into coverage. So even with five rushers going against five blockers, Vinny Curry still is able to come free on Davis, who does not get the ball out quickly enough. Curry gets the ball out on a sack-fumble, and the ball is picked up by Cox. This all started with a pre-snap check from Ryans, who put the Eagles in a position to get after Davis and force a turnover on third down.
One of the biggest plays of the game happened on the very first defensive snap of the second half, another sack-fumble that resulted in an Eagles touchdown.
This play starts with Cole showing pressure along with safety Nate Allen off the edge. Veteran left tackle Jake Long sees both players, and at the snap of the ball you can see how he overcompensates.
Long oversets here possibly because of the possible pressure from Allen - giving Cole a clear line to stick his foot in the ground and get after Davis with an inside move. Cole blows by Long, attacks Davis' throwing arm, gets the ball out and Cedric Thornton recovers for the first touchdown of his career.
That wouldn't be the only fumble recovery for Thornton in this game, as he got his hands on another ball later in the quarter on a play that was a result of complete team defense.
This play starts with defensive end Brandon Bair, who I think may have played his best game yet as an Eagle. Watch as Bair immediately gets inside the pads of St. Louis' left guard and stonewalls him, as he is the first defender to contact the ball carrier.
Next, you've got Casey Matthews - again another guy I thought might have played his best game yet - pressing the line of scrimmage and taking on the lead blocker in the hole. Matthews closed up any space the back may have had in the B gap, pushing him further outside.
Next up is Brandon Graham - look at this guy set the edge, stack Long at the point of attack, keep the ball inside him and then have the ability to shed him and get the ball out.
Just an awesome job by this Eagles defensive front of creating a wall where the back has nowhere to go with the ball.
And last but not least, look at Thornton chase the action from the backside, scoop it up, show some natural athleticism by hurdling the quarterback and return this for a 40-yard gain to help set up the game-winning touchdown. Thornton has long been one of the quiet heroes up front on this unit for the past year and a half, and is easily one of the best at his position in the NFL. It was great to see him turn in a performance like this that will get him noticed for his play.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Eagles' special teams, which continued play a pivotal role in the Eagles win over the Rams. We talked with Chip Kelly on the Kellystrator last week after the punt block for a touchdown against the 49ers, and he gave great insight on what he's looking for from this unit when they're looking to block a punt. Let's see how many of those coaching points transfer over to this week's huge play.
The first thing he talked about was, "Are they ready?," meaning, are the players on the field in their stance ready to explode off the ball and attack the punter to block a kick. Here, you can see they're all at the ready, in their stance and ready to attack on this play.
The next question Kelly asks is "Are they focused?," meaning are the players focused in on the snap and coming off the ball because often players miss punt blocks by a half-second because they did not get a good jump off the snap.
The last question is "Do you plan on making a play?," meaning that any of these players could be the one coming up with the block. Who comes free ultimately comes down to how the blocking scheme unfolds and who the Rams decide to block. So it's important that everyone is going hard at the punter to reach the spot where he makes contact with the ball to come up with the block. Let's see how it unfolds.
First, let's focus on the job Bryan Braman does attacking the outside shoulder of the snapper. Braman does such a good job timing the snap and swimming the center that the guard has to block him to keep him from running untouched directly into the face of the punter.
Next, focus on the job Chris Maragos does attacking the outside shoulder of the tackle. With the urgency that he shows coming off the ball, he immediately catches the attention of the tackle. What that does is, just like last week, is create a lane for rookie Trey Burton to run between the guard and the tackle, giving him a shot at blocking this punt. Right now, on the left side, this is almost identical to what happened a week ago against the 49ers.
The difference comes on the right side. Last week, it was Brad Smith who did a great job coming off the ball up the middle. This week, it's James Casey, who comes free and is looking to block the punt. This puts the Rams' personal protector in a bind. Burton blocked a punt last week, he knows that, but Casey is coming free as well. You've got a two-on-one on the personal protector (Chase Reynolds - who had a dreadful game by the way), and it's Casey who comes up with the block. But the play isn't done, as Maragos scoops it up and watch the devastating block from Burton here to help spring Maragos for the touchdown. I can't express enough the disappointment I felt in Chris Maragos, who promised us on the set of the Eagles Insider Podcast a couple of weeks ago that he had a touchdown celebration planned and that we better be ready if he ever scored.
Chris, you let us down, but I forgive you.
Awesome play by Maragos and the entire unit to get the Eagles on the board.
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.