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Eagle Eye: Inside the game plan to thwart Khalil Mack and the Bears' pass rush

The Eagles came up with a big win on Sunday against a very tough Chicago defense with blue chip talent at all three levels. As we highlighted last week in this space as well as on Eagles Game Plan, the matchup on third down, in particular, was going to be pivotal. The Eagles came in with the No. 2 third-down offense in the NFL, and the Bears had a top-five defense on third down after forcing a veteran quarterback in Los Angeles' Philip Rivers to go 2-for-10 the previous week. The Eagles needed to stay ahead of the chains, meaning they had to prevent negative plays on offense. To do THAT, they would need to stop Khalil Mack.

Mack is one of the top defenders in the game, and one of the very best pass rushers in all of football. His blend of size and athleticism is rare, and he can win in so many different ways. He plays on both sides, so at times in this game he would be lined up across from Lane Johnson (an equal talent), and others he'd be lined up across from Andre Dillard, a rookie who, while he's played well, would still be in for a tough challenge against an All-Pro who can win with speed and power. The Eagles knew this, and they did everything they could to put Dillard in a position to succeed. The first-round pick responded by playing extremely well, executing at a high level with everything he was asked to do. The Eagles kept Mack relatively quiet all afternoon.

How did it happen? There are a lot of ways to negate a great pass rusher off the edge with different tactics from a schematic standpoint, and the Eagles used a bunch of them on Sunday. Let's go to the film to show you what I mean.

ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY

Let's start with the basics. If you're an average football fan, you've probably heard the term "sliding protection" or "chipping" pass rushers. Here's a quick definition and why they work.

"Sliding protection" happens on almost every single pass play, because the offense will typically "slide" toward the strength of a defensive line. Just watch the center, and he'll tell you the direction of the slide, whether it's going left or right. There are three-man slides, four-man slides, and full-line slides (where five or six blockers all step one way or another). The important thing to remember is that, on a slide protection, each blocker only has to worry about blocking his outside gap. If you're the left tackle, and you're sliding to the left, you only have to worry about the outside gap on your left side because the left guard protects your right side. Having to worry about one gap makes life a little bit easier for a lineman and, in some cases, can create what we may see as a "double team."

"Chippers" are quick blocks by running backs and tight ends, which impact pass rushers before releasing into the route. Chipping can be a bit of a double-edged sword at times. While you can deliver big hits to unsuspecting defenders and completely dismantle them at times, you can also bump them into a wide-open rush lane if you're not careful. That's why some coaches teach their chippers that it's not the contact that's most important, but just doing enough to make them think contact is coming so that they have to slow up their rush gets the job done. The Eagles were very effective at chipping on Sunday, and they were used primarily on third-and-long situations.

Sometimes a tackle needs to block a guy like Mack on an island. Dillard had to do it a couple of times, as did Johnson. Both guys fared well. I wanted to show a great rep from Lane, who I would put on the same playing field as Mack in terms of being one of the elites at his position in the NFL. It's always a fun matchup when those two go at it.

Another way to counteract a fierce pass rusher is with the use of play-action. Run fakes are proven to slow up rushers because of their need to play the run first on their way to the quarterback. It doesn't work against every scheme, but it can be a very effective tool to give the quarterback an extra second to get rid of the ball. Carson Wentz was 9-of-13 off play-action on Sunday, as the Eagles continue to be one of the most high-volume play-action teams in the NFL (they rank sixth in the league in terms of pass attempts off play-action this season).

Sometimes, when the Eagles used play-action, they moved the quarterback's launch point, another great tactic against good pass rushers. By getting the quarterback on the run, you're keeping defenders guessing as to where they need to attack. Statues in the pocket are easier to rush because you know where they're going to be. Whether it was off of "naked" passes (where the quarterback rolls out with his eyes up front away from the protection), off boot-action (where the quarterback turns away from the defense after a hard run fake and goes the opposite way), or off sprint-outs (where the quarterback takes the snap and immediately runs toward the sideline to work half the field), the Eagles moved the pocket in this game a handful of times to keep the Bears on their toes.

Another great tactic? The screen game. The Eagles hit on a couple of clutch screens for some big plays. By sucking the pass rush in, you create a void underneath where the back and blockers can get out in space. It's great against hard upfield rush teams and high-volume blitzing defenses. Here, the Eagles were able to prey on the aggressiveness of Mack and the rest of that Bears front.

Finally, the use of the quick passing game is also pivotal. By getting the ball out in a hurry, before the rush can get home, edge players like Mack really struggle not to get frustrated. When the ball comes out in about two seconds, it's darn near impossible to get a sack.

On average, Wentz took 2.26 seconds to get the ball out of his hands on Sunday, an impressive number. He went 20-of-24 on throws where the ball came out in under 2.5 seconds, a stat that shows just how sharp he was in the quick passing game.

The beauty of all of this is that the Eagles mixed in all of these elements into the game plan. This prevented Mack and that pass rush from being able to get home for quality sacks against Wentz and the Eagles' offensive line as most of their sacks were "coverage" sacks. To show you what I mean, I went back and charted the Eagles' pass plays to show exactly how they dealt with the All-Pro.

Table inside Article
Technique Snap Count Note
Play-Action Passes 13 Wentz 9-of-13 and a TD
Slide Protection (5- to 7-step drops) 13 9 vs. Johnson, 4 vs. Dillard
Moving the Pocket 8
3-step Quick Game Throws 6 3 unblocked, 3 vs. Johnson
Chips 4
Screens 4

Keep in mind, the Eagles used some of these tactics on the same play (a play-action screen, for example), but it gives you a sense of how varied they were with their approach. The Eagles threw the ball 46 times on Sunday, and on just seven of those dropbacks Mack was left man-to-man against an offensive tackle with no help on 5-to-7 step drops (meaning they were deeper throws where the rush had time to get home). Five of those seven snaps came against Lane Johnson (no sacks) and two of them came against Dillard (no sacks). That's a job well done across the board.

Now, we can move on to third down. The Bears aren't known as a high-volume blitz team, but they will incorporate their linebackers into pressure packages on third down as well as run lots of stunts and twists. This would need to be a big communication game for the Eagles, and they did not disappoint.

All three of these snaps came on third down, and all three of them showed examples of excellent communication and teamwork to handle blitzes and stunts from the Bears. Was every pass complete? No. In fact, only one of them was, but that doesn't change the execution from the protection scheme. Jordan Howard was once again a big part of that, as he and Miles Sanders both have proven to be very reliable in protection this year. The pass offs from linemen and the pickups from backs were very impressive against Chicago on money downs.

For me, it was fun to watch that final scoring drive as the Eagles took more than eight minutes off the clock to help secure the victory. Why? Because it was a culmination of EVERYTHING detailed above. Not only did they run the ball well, but we saw play-action, we saw pressure pickups, we saw screens, misdirection, pocket movement, quick game – you name it and we saw it. Four third-down conversions helped to keep the drive alive and ice the win for the Eagles.

Looking at the game, one of the stars was tight end Zach Ertz, who racked up a season-high in catches (9) and yards (103) against the Bears. What was really fun to see upon film study, however, was how the Bears tried to defend him.

Whether Ertz was manned up against a corner, a safety, a linebacker, a nickel, it didn't matter. The veteran was able to get open and be a reliable target in clutch situations for Wentz in this matchup. This was a testament to his versatility as a pass catcher, as he found multiple ways to uncover and also proved to be a reliable target in high-leverage spots for this team.

Ertz now has 74 targets on the season for a team that leads the entire NFL with 106 targets to its tight ends. Ertz's 74 targets are actually more than 27 teams' TOTAL targets to tight ends through Week 9. He's a huge part of the offense, has been all season long, and will continue to be down the stretch. He currently leads the Eagles in both catches (46) and receiving yards (527) in 2019.

I know the red zone offense didn't result in a lot of touchdowns Sunday for the Eagles, but keep in mind that they are a top-five red zone offense in terms of scoring efficiency (any points) this year (93.3 percent) and they rank ninth in touchdown efficiency (63.3 percent). I think the "settling for field goals instead of touchdowns" says more about a stingy Bears defense than it does about the Eagles' red zone offense.

In the run game, Howard was once again impressive on the ground, and that starts up front. The Eagles dominated the line of scrimmage in this ballgame, with guys like Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks leading the way at the point of attack. Double teams were devastating against the Bears, and it helped open up huge holes for both Howard and Sanders on the ground.

Watching Howard run is so fun because he's always running with "forward lean." What does that mean? Look at how he's rarely getting knocked back on contact. Even when he's hit at the line of scrimmage, the power in his lower half allows Howard to withstand that contact and push forward for hidden yardage. Safety Eddie Jackson had him dead to rights on that play behind the line, but he fell forward for a 3-yard pickup! That's an outstanding trait to have, even when you don't have outstanding physical gifts like an Ezekiel Elliott or a Saquon Barkley. This is one of Howard's best traits as a runner, and he's now just the fourth Eagles running back since 1950 to post at least 500 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns through nine games (a list that includes LeSean McCoy, Ricky Watters, and Wilbert Montgomery).

Schematically, one of the top runs for the Eagles was their one-back "power" play out of the shotgun, which has been a great change-up for them when paired with their inside zone plays. Typically, when the quarterback is in the shotgun with a back to one side of him, the run will go to the opposite direction. On this play, the play is actually going toward the same side of the back. This forces defenders in the box to stay disciplined and honest with their run fits, preventing them from trying to cheat and get an extra split second in pursuit. The double teams worked wonders at the point of attack on these plays as well. The rushing attack was a critical element of the win Sunday and will be extremely important for this football team down the stretch.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.

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