Sunday was a learning experience.
It was an unfortunate learning experience, but it was a learning experience nonetheless. This game was one that the team can build on moving forward as they make their final push to the playoffs in the last two games of the regular season. Thanks to other games around the league, the loss didn't cause the Eagles to drop in the standings. They still control their destiny in the NFC East. Let's take a look at the tape from Sunday's loss and break down some of what went right, and some of what went wrong, in the game.
Quarterback Nick Foles said during his postgame press conference that he missed some throws and needs to execute better in some certain spots. But was it all on him? There were some drops, for sure, but let's take a look at some plays where there may have been players open down the field.
On many passing plays, the quarterback will have the ability to combat both man and zone coverages. At times, offenses will ensure this by having a "man beater" to one side of the field and a "zone beater" on the other side. If the quarterback reads man or zone, he knows what side of the field he is most likely to have the most success. It all starts with the pre-snap read.
It's third-and-4 late in the first quarter. The Eagles come out in 11 personnel in an empty set. To Foles' left, he has a double slant concept, a known "man beater."
To his right, Foles has a "snag" concept, something I broke down way back in Week 4 of this season. In short, the snag concept consists of a corner route, a curl and a route to the flat. It's known as a zone beater because of the bind it puts the cornerback in, though depending on the matchup it can be a man beater as well.
Foles surveys the defense before the snap. The Vikings had a single-high safety and tight coverage on three of the four receivers. This appears to be man coverage. Foles decides off of that read that working back to the slants would be the best course of action.
The ball is snapped, and this is where you have to tip your hat to the Vikings. They completely take away the double slants. First, cornerback Shaun Prater squats and plays with inside leverage, cutting wide receiver Riley Cooper off. That slant is gone.
Inside, slot corner Robert Blanton forces wide receiver Jason Avant inside towards his help, the middle linebacker. That slant is now gone.
The slants are taken away. Foles can now work his way back to the right side. He has an open tight end in Zach Ertz in the back of the end zone on this play, but is sacked by defensive end Jared Allen.
Why was Ertz open?
What appeared to be straight man across the board turned out not to be the case. Instead of being matched up on a corner (as it looked pre-snap), Ertz was actually matched up on a linebacker. The linebacker, playing from Ertz's inside shoulder, had no shot at defending the corner route. Kudos to the Vikings on this play for disguising their coverage, forcing Foles to work the double slants, taking them away and forcing the sack. A great job all across the board from them on that particular play.
Over the last few weeks, the Eagles have a lot of success with the mesh concept and a wheel route behind it. This play has resulted in huge pass plays to DeSean Jackson, Cooper and LeSean McCoy. That play continued to work on Sunday, and in multiple forms.
This is a look that the Eagles have shown in recent weeks - a wheel route out of the backfield, two crossing routes underneath and a crossing route over top that sits over the middle of the field.
On this play, the Eagles unveil a new wrinkle. Instead of crossing over each other in the middle of the field, there are pivot routes from the tight end (Zach Ertz) and slot receiver (Brad Smith), where they break inside, stick their foot in the ground and work back towards the sideline. This was a great new adjustment that used a couple of different times from this offense against the Vikings.
Regardless, the first read for the quarterback is going to be the wheel route out of the backfield. If that is open down the field, that is where the quarterback will go. On this play, Foles has McCoy by more than a step by the time he lets go of the ball, that is "open" in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the Vikings are able to get pressure on Foles right up the middle. He's unable to step into the throw, and is forced to hit Ertz underneath for a 4-yard gain. This is an example of one of the big plays that were left on the field on Sunday afternoon.
The wheel route out of the backfield wasn't just used to free up McCoy, but Jackson as well. It was on display in the team's win over Arizona, and it was witnessed once again midway through the second quarter.
On this play, the Eagles don't use the mesh concept and instead get a post route on the outside from Jason Avant with Jackson running the wheel behind it.
The Vikings are in man coverage, and when Avant runs deep it clears out the entire sideline for Jackson, who easily separates from Robert Blanton in coverage. Jackson pulls the ball in for a 20-yard gain.
Chip Kelly will run the same concept more than once in a game if it works. Kelly will also use the same concept out of different formations and personnel groupings to achieve similar results. Both hold true for this next play, which was incredibly similar to the wheel route from Jackson and the result was the same.
It's first-and-10, and the Eagles come out in 11 personnel with one back, one tight end and three receivers. Running back Chris Polk was lined up in the slot with Jackson in the backfield. Polk will run a wheel route, while Jackson will leak out through the line to the right flat. Just like the mesh routes previously seen, the tight end will run a crosser underneath. Let's look at the snap.
Just like the mesh concept, the routes from the tight end and outside receiver serve as interference for the cornerback assigned to Jackson in man coverage. A slew of bodies in the middle of the field muddy his lane to defend Jackson.
The wheel route from Polk clears space for Jackson underneath, and Foles hits him for a good gain on first down.
Jackson was utilized out of the backfield often against the Vikings. Here's another example:
It's third-and-3, and the Eagles are in 11 personnel once again with Polk in the slot and Jackson in the backfield. This time, you're going to get a "switch" release from Polk and the outside receiver Jeff Maehl.
Maehl will run a post, and Polk will run a wheel underneath of him. On the line of scrimmage, Celek will run a short crossing route.
Blanton will once again be charged with covering Jackson out of the backfield in man coverage.
The crosser from the tight end once again picks off the cornerback. Celek gets in Blanton's way, and Jackson takes off for a 16-yard gain .
Jackson's success didn't just come out of the backfield, however, as he made an impact from outside the numbers as well.
It's first-and-10, and the Eagles are going to attack the Vikings downfield with three vertical routes. Cooper and Avant run "go" routes up the field from inside the numbers, while Jackson runs a dig route right around midfield. Ertz runs another crossing route underneath.
Let's first start with Cooper's route. He takes the top off the defense by running full speed down the seam. The Vikings are in Cover 3, meaning the corner and deep safety have to play as "deep as the deepest" on this play. Cooper's route stretches the defense vertically.
Avant's route across the middle and down the field holds that safety and cornerback to that side of the field. This helps to stretch the defense horizontally, widening the coverage and the possible holes for Foles.
Underneath, Ertz's route carries the linebacker to that side towards the sideline. This route further expands the coverage. The defense is stretched over the top, and horizontally on both sides of the field.
This creates a great throwing lane for Foles, a lane Jackson is running into as he comes out of his break. Foles hits Jackson over the middle for a 21-yard gain and an Eagles first down.
This next concept is far less complicated. This is very similar to the high-low scheme we looked at last week in the Vikings preview. There are mirrored route concepts on both sides of the field. A quick in-route from the outside receivers, and corner routes from the inside receivers. Against man-free coverage (a single-high safety and man coverage underneath), it's a certainty that one of those corner routes will be open.
Just to be sure, Foles throws a pump fake to his right, where Ertz is running a deep corner route. The safety, Harrison Smith, doesn't fully bite on the fake, but the pump holds him in place.
What that means is that the left side of the field will be wide open, with Smith staying in the middle of the field and the outside corner staying with Cooper underneath. There is plenty of room for Jackson to run and separate from the cornerback (Blanton, again), for a 30-yard touchdown grab. Great design, and great execution by the offense.
This next one is a concept the Eagles have used a lot, especially early in the season, to get Jackson free.
You've got three routes attacking downfield, clearing out a load of space underneath. Jackson, running out of the the slot, has a ton of room to make a play.
Once again, the Vikings are in man coverage, and Jackson is covered this time by cornerback Marcus Sherels.
Sherels has to run around and through the two vertical routes from Cooper and Celek, and he creates 7 yards of separation. This is an easy pitch-and-catch for Foles.
Jackson does what he does best and makes three different defenders miss (and two of them twice), for a 51-yard gain to get the Eagles in scoring position.
This next play I really wanted to show you, because it showed something that was overlooked in the game broadcast.
It's first-and-10. The Eagles come out in 11 personnel, this time with Polk in the backfield. Before the snap, they bring Avant in motion from the left to the right. He's followed by the opposing cornerback, tipping off that the Vikings are in man coverage.
At the snap of the ball, Polk goes on an all-out sprint to the left, leaving the backfield with incredible urgency.
This is a sprint-out from Foles (meaning he sprints to his right at the snap, not turning his back to the line of scrimmage like on a boot leg). The sprint-action, which is something not often featured in the Eagles offense, paired with Polk's route out of the backfield, has the attention of the Vikings linebackers. They're clearly thinking this will be a throwback to Polk of some sort, as they follow the second-year back out of the backfield.
This isn't a throwback down the field, however. It's a screen to Celek. Polk's urgency out of the backfield has helped vacate a ton of space underneath, allowing the offensive line to work up to the second level to secure their blocks.
Celek follows his blocks downfield, and gets one final block before being pushed out inside the 5-yard line. That block came from, you guessed it, Polk, who completely decleats the defender on a clean block down the field. Kelly has talked about Polk earning more snaps in recent weeks, and plays like this only help his cause moving forward.
Obviously, Sunday was not a great day for the defense. While the run defense held Matt Asiata to just 1.7 yards per carry, the back seven also allowed journeyman quarterback Matt Cassel to complete 26-of-35 passes for 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kelly talked about some of the issues that haunted the defense. Let's take a look at one play that put one of those issues on display.
On this past week's Eagles Game Plan, the crew analyzed the "high-low" concepts the Vikings have shown on tape. That was something they used to their advantage on Sunday, as they showed why those types of concepts are so tough to defend, especially when you execute as well they did at the quarterback position.
The Vikings run double posts on the outside with two receivers, and are get an in-route from their tight end. This route concept is going to be a problem for the Eagles' Cover 3 coverage, especially when play-action is factored into the equation.
I have diagrammed Cover 3 before, but I'll touch on it quickly once again. It's a three-deep, four-under coverage, with one single-high safety (in this case Kurt Coleman). The field is split into thirds, as each of these three high defenders are responsible for their third of the field. As a cornerback on the outside, the general rule of thumb is to play as wide as the widest (never let anyone outside of you), and as deep as the deepest (never let anyone behind you). At the snap, you'll see the corners "zone turn," as they turn their backs to the sideline and have their eyes on everything in front of them, including the quarterback.
As we move forward into the play, we see the Vikings number one receiver start to break inside on his post route. Fletcher, playing by the rules of Cover-3, passes him inside. There are four underneath defenders there to take passing lanes away, as well as a safety in the middle of the field to defend against anything in the deep middle.
Fletcher has to "stay home" to make sure no routes come up behind him. Now, could Fletcher have stayed tighter on this route, seeing that there is no other receivers in the vicinity and that he is safe to play tighter? Perhaps. That's something they will work out this week. But the defenders playing tighter on the receivers down the field is something that Kelly referenced when bringing up the defensive struggles on Sunday.
Let's go to the end zone angle, where you see Cassel at the top of his drop staring at the in-breaking route of his tight end. The play-action fake to his running back has already sucked linebackers in, and his eye manipulation now moves linebacker DeMeco Ryans to his right.
Cassel resets after moving Ryans, and releases the football, hitting the outside post (Fletcher's "man" in coverage) for a 22-yard gain.
Sunday's loss to Minnesota didn't harm the Eagles' long-term prospects as much as many thought it would, because the Dallas Cowboys ended up blowing a 23-point halftime lead to the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers to lose on Sunday evening.
How did this happen? Here are a pair of fourth quarter Tony Romo interceptions.
With just under three minutes left in the game, the Cowboys have the ball up by five. It's second-and-6, and the Cowboys have called a packaged play, something that should be very familiar to Eagles fans by now.
This will be a split zone-option read for Tony Romo. The run play is a split zone run, a play the Eagles had success with a week ago against the Lions. This run calls for a tight end from the two-tight end side, Gavin Escobar, to come across the formation at the snap of the ball and block the backside rusher, in this case Clay Matthews. The option part of this play comes from Romo. If the Packers load the box, which they have as you can see with all 11 players within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage eight of them inside the tackle box, he has the ability to throw the football to Miles Austin on a slant route.
Before the snap, you can see Romo motion over to Escobar. The rookie tight end's eyes are square on Matthews. It seems pretty apparent who is responsible for blocking the All-Pro linebacker, and he reads it perfectly. Matthews fires off the ball directly at Romo, and is in the quarterback's lap before he can finish the second step in his drop. Escobar, who wasn't exactly known as a good blocker at San Diego State, had no chance.
Romo, as he can do, amazingly sidesteps Matthews, shrugging the linebacker off. Austin has beaten the cornerback on the outside, and is wide open over the middle of the field. With no one deep, if this ball is completed, it could go for a possible touchdown. But look at Romo's feet and hips. He is completely square to his target, and is unable to use his lower body at all in the throw. With his hips as open as they are, power and accuracy will be tough to generate.
Instead of the ball being thrown sharply out in front of Austin, it floats up in the air and is behind the receiver, causing Austin to slow down and give enough time for Sam Shields to break on the ball and make a great play for an interception.
The Packers are able to turn that first interception into a touchdown, but after failing to make the two-point conversion are up by just a point. It's 37-36, Green Bay is winning, and it's second-and-1 with just under 90 seconds left in the game. If the Cowboys can gain about 40 yards, they'll be in position to attempt a game-winning field goal. Let's see how this plays out ...
The Packers are playing it safe here, with a two-deep shell. Romo sees the two high safeties, and assumes, correctly, that this will be a form of Cover 2.
It just so happens that the Cowboys are running a concept that is known for success against a Cover 2 coverage. The No. 1 receiver to that side will run a vertical route down the field, while the No. 2 receiver (in the slot) will run a quick out route.
The hope here is that the vertical route from the outside receiver will carry the outside cornerback out of the picture (blue arrow). The vacated space will give Romo enough room to fit a ball in to Cole Beasley and allow him to get a first down and get out of bounds.
As Romo releases the football, look at cornerback Tramon Williams squat and break on the ball. He reads this play and makes a great play on it, crashing down on the intended catch point.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, and fortunately for everyone else in America, Romo and Beasley were not on the same page. Beasley, feeling Williams' presence on the outside, cut off his route. Beasley said after the game that he did not have the option to cut that route off against zone coverage on the outside, taking blame for the play.
Regardless, it resulted in a huge interception, allowing the Packers to ice the game, and ended up being the biggest play in the Eagles' favor all day related to their playoff hopes in 2013.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen on 6abc Sundays at 11:30 AM. 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.