A lot of the talk around last Thursday's loss surrounded the play of rookie second-round pick Eric Rowe. The cornerback entered the game in the second quarter after Nolan Carroll's injury, and saw his fair share of reps against Calvin Johnson. In fact, it was pointed out repeatedly on the FOX broadcast that Rowe was "on an island" with no help against Megatron. Was that the case when I watched the tape? Absolutely not. I will show you how it all went down.
I want to start with Rowe's first play. Detroit went right at him when he stepped on the field in place of Carroll, running a "slant flat" combination to his side of the field.
Honestly, I thought this was his worst play of the day. Lined up in press coverage, Golden Tate runs right at him, catches Rowe back on his heels and breaks inside for a 15-yard gain and a first down.
Two series later, the Lions were knocking on the door, and were hoping to catch the rookie against Megatron.
It's second-and-1. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis is blitzing the Lions' empty set. It's a full pressure look, with 10 defenders at or near the line of scrimmage and one safety high in the middle of the field. Quarterback Matthew Stafford correctly reads man coverage. He drops back, looks to his favorite target down the left sideline and slightly overthrows him. The coverage by Rowe was very good on this play, however, as he stayed hip-to-hip with him down the sideline. Two plays later, the Lions went at Rowe again. The first time, the Eagles were in Cover 1, with just one high safety. Was that the case this time around? Let's find out.
It's first-and-10 from the 18-yard line. The Eagles are in a version of two-man coverage with two free players deep and man coverage across the board underneath. Malcolm Jenkins is manned up against versatile tight end Eric Ebron, the No. 3 receiver inside to the left. Ebron shakes Jenkins and appears to be open down the seam, and that's where Stafford's eyes are. Safety Walter Thurmond reacts to this and comes back inside. He was initially playing as a deep half player. This leaves Rowe alone with Johnson one-on-one. How does the rookie react? He tries to disrupt Megatron at the line. Rowe turns and runs with him, works to get back in phase and turns to find the ball in the air. Rowe is so tight on Johnson that the catch is unable to be made. Incomplete pass. Stafford went back at Rowe in a similar situation two plays later, this time with a different result ...
The Eagles are once again in this two-man coverage. The two deep players are Walter Thurmond and Ed Reynolds. Detroit comes out in a 3x1 set with Calvin Johnson as the X-iso receiver to the boundary side. The Lions are also running a "four verticals" concept, with all four receivers attacking the deep part of the field. Most importantly, the No. 3 receiver in the slot is running his vertical route toward the opposite hash, right at Thurmond. When Jenkins (who is manned up on the No. 3 receiver) sees him break inside, he peels off, knowing that his receiver is going to be picked up by Reynolds. Jenkins now becomes the free player to that side, and he helps out with the No. 2 receiver running down the numbers.
But back to the boundary side, Thurmond hesitates for just a second, seeing the vertical route coming his way. That slight hesitation gives Stafford the time to unleash a throw that is just freakish, a beautiful dart on a line to Johnson who was covered pretty tightly by Rowe. Was the rookie outstanding in his first line of extensive action? No, there were certainly some teaching moments for him. But to make sweeping judgements and say that he'll never be an NFL cornerback (as some in the media have suggested), or to say that the coaches "hung him out to dry" (as others have accused) is unfair and factually incorrect. I think Rowe competed very well on Thursday, and I think the coaching staff did what they needed to do to try and give him help whenever they could.
On the Lions' next series in the red zone, the Eagles went back to that coverage. Thurmond kept his attention on Johnson on the outside this time. A one-on-one matchup inside, however, did the Eagles in. Theo Riddick beat Mychal Kendricks on a pivot route, gaining 9 yards and putting the Lions inside the 5-yard line.
Riddick was an issue for the Eagles throughout the game. On this first quarter touchdown catch, the defense double-teamed Johnson in the red zone and Riddick won his matchup inside, this time on an option route against Kendricks.
On the very next series, the Lions came back with a similar route from Riddick out of the backfield, but Bill Davis had it defended perfectly. The Eagles doubled Johnson outside, and bracketed Riddick inside with Connor Barwin and Kiko Alonso. Stafford had nowhere to go with the football. Unfortunately for the Eagles' defense, the four-man rush is unable to get home to Stafford as the quarterback scrambles for 8 yards.
On the next play, a third-and-2, the Lions come out in a 3x1 set with Calvin Johnson as the point man in the bunch set. The Eagles bracket Johnson with Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso, who has eyes on him from the linebacker spot. This was a nice pressure from Davis and the defensive staff. Alonso sugared in the B gap as if he was preparing to blitz, before dropping out and helping play inside on the bunch formation to defend any in-breaking route. Again, the rush is unable to get home, and Stafford scrambles for 5 yards and a first down.
Since the Eagles had trouble generating pressure with a four-man rush, there were a lot of exotic looks in the blitz package on Thursday.
It's third-and-10 in the second half. The Eagles bust out a Triple A-gap blitz, a man pressure out of their dime package. I can count on one hand how many times I've seen the Eagles run this pressure in three years (and I may only need three fingers), and this worked perfectly. With Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox lined up as 3-techniques, they both expand at the snap, creating a two-on-two matchup between Kendricks and Jenkins versus Detroit's center and running back. But no one is available for the Lions to protect against a late blitzer in Walter Thurmond from the slot, who runs right up the chute into Stafford's face and forces him out of the pocket, forcing fourth down and a punt.
In the fourth quarter, on third-and-5, the Eagles and Bill Davis show another exotic look, and look at how the defensive personnel is deployed here on this play. Linebackers Brandon Graham and Barwin lined up over the guards and blitz their respective A gaps. Behind them, Curry and Cox are standing up, almost as stacked linebackers. They blitz the B gaps. In the C gaps, you've got Jenkins and Kendricks off the edge. This results in a sack for Curry, who beats the right guard with a rip move on his way to the quarterback.
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.