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After taking a close look at the offense's performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, it’s time to see some of the things that stood out most on defense. It certainly was far from a perfect day, but I came away pretty pleased with what the unit put on tape after watching the film.
The Vikings had been putting up yards and points in bunches to start the season, and the Eagles held them to just 4-of-11 on third down and 1-of-4 in the red zone. Sure, Minnesota only punted twice and a pair of missed field goals helped keep the point total down, but I thought the game plan was sound and the execution was good for most of the day.
The Eagles knew that the ball was going to come out of Kirk Cousins’ hands pretty quickly, especially on early downs. Overall, the veteran quarterback was surgical in those situations. Cousins completed 12 of 13 passes on first down for 187 yards and a quarterback rating of 118.8. The run/pass ratio for the Vikings was 15/13 in favor of the run, and six of those 13 passes came off play-action. Only one of those completions went for fewer than 4 yards, so the Vikings’ ability to "win" first down was pivotal in extending drives throughout the game. That was certainly one area that they exploited on Sunday.
One of those first-down completions happened after Jay Ajayi’s fumble on the opening drive of the second half. Cousins dropped back and hit Adam Thielen on a 68-yard pass that came off a double move outside the numbers against Jalen Mills. Thielen is one of the best route runners in football, and I’d argue that he and teammate Stefon Diggs are the best route-running duo in the entire league.
The Eagles sent a blitz on that play. Mills expected a quick throw with the pressure and broke on the initial fake. He reacted pretty well on the throw, but slipped as he tried to find the football and gave up the big play. On the very next throw, the Vikings attacked the Eagles’ single-high coverage with a perfect play call (Sluggo Seam), with a completion to Diggs for 25 yards. Mills bounced back and made some critical plays down the stretch to force a field goal in the low red zone. That’s 93 first-down yards on one drive, and it was one of the only times the Vikings went the whole field for points in this game. Their first field goal drive started at the 50-yard line after a punt and the touchdown drive started at their own 44-yard line.
Again, was it a great defensive game? No. There were several plays that the unit would like to get back, and missed opportunities abound that could have given the team a better chance to win the football game. Let’s get into some of the positives, though.
One thing I saw in this game that I really liked was Jim Schwartz’s use of "disguise" before the snap to affect the quarterback. When you line up one way and then show the offense something completely different at the snap of the ball, it can cause confusion and force the quarterback to hold the football as he tries to figure out where to go with it. There can be a downside to this. There are examples every week of teams "disguising themselves out of coverage," meaning that they’re so worried about fooling the opponent that they’re unable to get lined up correctly and they get burned for a big play. That didn’t happen to the Eagles in this game.
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These are two great examples of "disguise" from Schwartz, as one should have been a sack by Michael Bennett. The team showed an overload look on second-and-long with a bunch of players lined up on the left side. The Vikings responded by sliding the entire offensive line that way. The Eagles dropped everyone out, however, and sent Sidney Jones from depth on the other side of the field. Jones came in and took the attention away from Bennett, who was going to be double-teamed on the back of the "slide protection" (this is a common offensive tactic on a full slide – double-team the defensive end with a tight end and a running back to give the quarterback enough time to get rid of the football).
With Jones coming after Cousins, the running back leaves the tight end matched up one-on-one, and that’s a matchup Bennett will take all day as he wins outside and gets home for the sack until the controversial penalty flag was thrown to extend Minnesota’s drive. Coincidentally, this resulted in the Vikings' only offensive touchdown of the game.
Later on, there is a great example of the Eagles disguising their coverage. Before the snap, the Eagles showed a single-high look with rookie Avonte Maddox (who looked good in his debut) in the post. At the snap, Mills rotated hard to the deep half of the field, with Maddox taking the other deep half. This is a coverage known as Cover 2 Invert. It looks exactly like your basic version of Cover 2, except the cornerback and safety switch responsibilities. Here, Malcolm Jenkins is your typical "Cover 2 corner" in the flat, while Mills drops back as the "Cover 2 safety." This removes Diggs from the progression, and he’s forced to hold the ball for almost five seconds. Now, you either A) want the rush to get home quicker on this play or B) the defense rally to the football better in the open field to secure this reception more quickly to prevent a first down, but I liked the scheme to take Diggs away on that snap.
On Eagles Game Plan last week, Ike Reese spotlighted the matchup of Brandon Graham against Vikings right tackle Rashod Hill, and I thought Graham got the best of that matchup throughout the game.
Another player who I thought flashed throughout the game was Sidney Jones, who continues to look more and more comfortable in his role in the slot. Jones’ competitive nature serves him well both mid-route, at the catch point, and in the run game. Those are traits you need, along with quickness and play-recognition skills, to excel on the inside.
Josh Sweat only played a handful of snaps, and he clearly has a lot of development to do in terms of how to be a professional pass rusher, but his physical tools are undeniable. This play stood out to me most, as he tossed aside a veteran offensive lineman in Riley Reiff to the side like a sack of potatoes on this third-and-1 play.
The Eagles' defense goes to New York on Thursday as one of the top run defenses in football, one of the best red zone defenses in football, one of the best third-down defenses in football and, honestly, one of the most talented defenses in football. Have they always played like it this year? Of course not. But I think Sunday was definitely a step in the right direction as the team tries to find its identity through five weeks of the season.
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.