It felt like forever since we've had a chance to react to an Eagles game with the Eagles on the bye in Week 8 and with Sunday's contest being in prime time, but this was well worth the wait. The Eagles came out, and despite facing early adversity, put together their most complete game on offense. I thought the offensive line, despite missing Jason Peters, had a strong outing both in pass protection and in the run game. Quarterback Sam Bradford looked comfortable. He made a number of very accurate throws, and he was largely decisive throughout the night in key situations. His receivers even made some plays for him! There were still a couple of drops, but for each one of those there was a tough, contested catch mixed in as well. Schematically, the Eagles busted out some new wrinkles and I thought it was very apparent that the coaching staff had a bead on what the Cowboys wanted to do in key situations, and played off of those tendencies.
Again, the Eagles faced adversity early in this game, and struggled to move the ball on the first couple of drives. On the first third down of the game, the Cowboys brought a blitz from a double A-gap look pre snap. Both linebackers came up the middle and defensive back Byron Jones inserted into the pressure as well, getting a free shot at Bradford, who was forced to roll out of the pocket and dump the pass off short of the first down.
Two series later, with Dallas holding a 7-0 lead, the Eagles again were faced with third-and-long deep in their own end. The Cowboys' defense showed the same look pre snap, with two linebackers in the A gap and Jones lining up with inside leverage on the slot receiver as if he might come. Would they bring the heat again?
Rather than blitz this time, the Cowboys drop eight into coverage, playing a version of Cover 2 I've always known as "Cover 2 Sky." This means that instead of the two high players being a pair of safeties, it's a safety and a cornerback, with the other safety dropping down as a force player in the run game. The Eagles may not have known that they'd play Cover 2 Sky, but they certainly expected some form of Cover 2 because they ran a great Cover 2 beater, a concept designed to attack this type of coverage.
The two outside receivers, Miles Austin at the bottom and Jordan Matthews at the top, ran corner routes, first breaking inside toward the middle of the field before cutting back toward the sideline, directly into the void in this coverage. One of the biggest soft spots in any Cover 2 scheme is the area between the safety and the cornerback on the outside along the sideline, what some coaches refer to as the "Turkey Hole."
Bradford delivers the right ball, over for the underneath defender and beneath the high one, for a 27-yard gain and a first down on third-and-18. This was a combination of great game planning and execution across the board on offense.
Later in the second quarter, another example of the Eagles playing off of Dallas' tendencies popped up. This time it paid off in the run game.
On second-and-10, the Eagles came out in 11 personnel, with one running back, one tight end and three receivers. This, in itself, is not peculiar, but when you consider that the back was Darren Sproles and the tight end was Zach Ertz, it solicited a specific reaction from Dallas. Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, chose to match up to this personnel grouping in their dime package and that made sense. Why? Because in the Eagles' previous four games, they played in that personnel grouping 72 times. Of those 72 plays, they ran the ball on just five of them. Marinelli played the odds, and put his dime subpackage on the field with a wide defensive front, expecting a pass play.
The Eagles lined up in that grouping with Ertz, Sproles and three receivers 10 times on Sunday night. They ran the ball five times, the same amount that they had the previous four weeks combined. On those five carries, they gained 4.6 yards per run, an impressive number and an impressive display of knowing your opponent by the Eagles' coaching staff.
The last time these two teams faced off in Week 2 was the start of the "execution" talk in Philadelphia. The Eagles' offense couldn't get anything going that day at Lincoln Financial Field. Everything they tried on offense failed to gain any traction. Sunday night was a far different story, as they were able to get things going on a much more consistent basis. In the zone run game in particular, I thought the offensive line worked well in tandem to give the running backs room to work and open up holes for them to run through.
Look at the entire backside on this play, from center Jason Kelce through tight end Brent Celek, everyone does their job. Kelce rides the lineman directly where he wants to go, toward the play side. Right guard Matt Tobin gets up to the second level to linebacker Sean Lee. Tackle Dennis Kelly blocks down and rides his man out of harm's way. Finally, Celek cuts off the backside defensive end to create ample running room for running back DeMarco Murray to run for this first down.
This was a theme throughout the night, as the backside double teams for the Eagles in their zone schemes were very effective against Dallas' defensive front, a unit that gave this team a lot of trouble just a few weeks ago.
Entering the bye week, I was excited to see if the coaching staff busted out any new looks, schemes or wrinkles to the offense with the week off. Obviously, the time away helped with extra days to prepare for Dallas and what they do on defense, but would we see any changes to how they ran the offense? On the Eagles Insider Podcast, I talked about the idea of self-scouting, and how one of the key parts of it is looking at what you do well and finding ways to complement it. Can you find a changeup to your fastball? That's the key for coaches during the bye, and I think the Eagles accomplished this in a number of ways on Sunday.
This is a play we saw a good amount of a year ago, the Inside Zone Cutback. The Eagles obviously are a big zone run team, and with the offensive line blocking in one direction, and the first steps of the quarterback and running back all going towards that same direction, the entire defense flows in the direction that they think the play is going. But after a counter step in the backfield, the ball actually cuts back against the grain, and all of the Eagles blockers are in position to out leverage the defense, including the receiver on the backside, who can block the safety and leave Murray one on one with a cornerback in the open field. The Eagles busted this play out last year in that Black Out, Shutout Victory over the New York Giants, and they waited for another Sunday night bout to use it again this season, a great complement to the zone run scheme that has been a staple of the Chip Kelly attack.
They didn't just run this play with Murray, as it was effective with Mathews in the game as well, as evidenced by this first-down play on second-and-5 where Mathews gets to the corner. If the Eagles can consistently get things going on the ground, as we've said all season long, it helps to open up a lot of what they want to do offensively. This play design certainly fits into that category.
The Inside Zone Cutback was a cool wrinkle, but like I said it's something we've seen before, so the Cowboys perhaps shouldn't have been as surprised to see it even though the Eagles hadn't shown it thus far in 2015. There was another add-on, however, that really caught my eye.
The Eagles have always had a lot of success with boot-action pass plays. They fake a run play one way, then have the quarterback roll to the opposite side of the field where he has a multi-level read down the field. Whether it was this year with Josh Huff's touchdown against the Saints, or any number of the big gainers for Jordan Matthews a year ago, this has been a key part of what they do.
The Eagles hit on a play just like that early in the second quarter. On second-and-7, the Eagles ran outside zone-action to the right, getting the defense to flow that way. You can see the reaction of all the second-level defenders on Dallas' side. The Eagles bring Matthews from the slot across the grain on the over route, and he catches a 9-yard pass for a first down.
Fast forward now to the third quarter, and from a very similar look offensively, look at how one change in the route leads to an even bigger gain.
From a similar area of the field, this time on first-and-10, the Eagles run split zone-action to the right, getting the defense to flow that way. Matthews again comes across the formation from right to left, against the grain of the defensive flow. The defender over him, rookie Byron Jones, was not prepared for Matthews to stick his foot in the ground and break back in the opposite direction. Bradford delivers the ball to J-Matt, and he runs for a 28-yard gain and a first down.
Now to overtime, the final play of the game,. The Eagles call the same exact play. Split zone-action to the right helps to suck the linebackers in. Matthews breaks across the field as if he's running an over route. Jones, again in charge of covering Matthews, commits to defending the over route, and is in no position to stop what happens next, as Matthews cuts back toward the right side, catches this pass from Bradford and takes it the rest of the way for the walk-off touchdown.
Self-scouting isn't about reinventing the wheel on offense or defense. You look at the things you do well, see how teams are defending it and formulate ways to counteract it. This whole play was a culmination of great coaching and execution between the lines.
Matthews had a huge day receiving, and it was great to see him get out of his slump after Chip Kelly said he had the best week of training leading up to the game. The second-year receiver didn't just stand out in the stat sheet, though, because I thought he was really effective as a blocker in this game as well.
Here's Ryan Mathews' touchdown to put the Eagles up in the third quarter, a basic sweep play down in the red zone. Look at Matthews' block up at the next level on Jones, as he bulldogs the rookie to help escort Mathews into the end zone. Have to love the effort from the leader of the receiving corps on that play.
Lastly, I wanted to share one play concept I've noticed the Eagles run over the last couple of weeks that I haven't really seen from them too much in the past. It’s called the "Levels" concept, and it's pretty common around the sport at both the college and NFL levels.
Made popular by Peyton Manning during his time with the Indianapolis Colts, "Levels" is a high-low read for the quarterback. The offense targets an underneath defender and puts him in a bind with two crossing routes in the middle of the field. The receiver farthest outside runs a shallow drag route, while the second receiver runs a dig. The way most teams, including Manning's Colts, ran this is with a short-to-deep progression. If the drag route is open, the ball goes there. If the defender crashes on the drag route, then the dig will be open behind it.
On this play, Josh Huff is running the drag, with Ertz running the dig behind it. The defender to that side, safety Barry Church, doesn't bite the cheese with Huff's route, sits back to defend the dig. Bradford is forced to hit Huff with the hope that he can pick up the first down, except he's stopped just short.
What I like about the way I've seen the Eagles run this play, and other teams run different variations of this as well, is that they have a third receiver BEHIND the play as another option.
Here's a play in overtime on Sunday night. It's first-and-15. This is another "Levels" concept with Huff on the drag route and Ertz on the dig. Except look at Murray running a little arrow route out of the backfield. Having him on the back side helps make this "zone coverage beater" a viable "man beater" as well from a pass game standpoint.
With the drag and dig routes eaten up by man coverage, Bradford's next option is Murray out of the backfield. Seeing Murray's initial track, look at how the linebacker plays this, having to run over the top of Ertz's dig route. Keep in mind, the Eagles hit Murray on a wheel route late in the fourth quarter. This linebacker has to get over the top to defend the possible wheel route in overtime (to prevent THIS from happening again). Murray breaks his route inside, Bradford hits him and he's off and running to set up second-and-1 after a gloomy start to the drive. This was great execution by Bradford and Murray and good play design by the coaching staff, a familiar theme from Sunday night.
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.