On Monday, I looked at the Eagles' performance against the Dallas Cowboys on offense and their struggles moving the ball. Today, I'm feeling a bit more optimistic and want to focus on the defense, a unit that did everything they could to keep the team in the game on Sunday afternoon.
As I typically do, I wanted to start along the front seven. This unit is viewed by many as the strength of the team. There were some issues last week in setting the edge against Atlanta's stretch run game, and it wasn't just one person. Everyone had a hand in that performance not being up to the typical level of success, and it was one of the things I was most anxious to see against a Dallas offense that wants to run the football.
I thought the defense got off to a good start in this area. Edges were set consistently against the outside zone run play, and running back Joseph Randle had to settle for cutback lanes that were rarely there. Notice the job Connor Barwin and Cedric Thornton both do on this play, working the upfield shoulder of the blocker, locking out and forcing the ball back inside.
For fans wondering how quickly things like "executing the fundamentals" can be fixed in regards to the Eagles' offensive woes against the Cowboys, just look at the jump from Week 1 to Week 2 for the defensive front. An area of improvement saw just that during that six-day span, and at no point against Dallas did I get the sense that the Eagles could not stop the run game.
With Thornton out of the lineup this weekend, we could see more of Taylor Hart on Sunday against New York (as long as he is healthy). I've long been a fan of Hart, as any listener of the Eagles Insider Podcast would already know, and I think his strong preseason play has carried over into the regular season.
Last week, the Eagles Game Plan crew took a closer look at his performance, and now we'll really get a long look at him if he does indeed enter the starting lineup.
While we're on the topic of young players stepping into the spotlight, let's discuss rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks. The team's third-round pick out of Texas saw increased playing time against the Cowboys with both Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks out of the lineup due to injury, and I thought he fared well. He gave up a long catch to Lance Dunbar (a player I highlighted in the Dallas preview piece last week), but overall I think Hicks had a strong performance in his first defensive snaps as a pro.
On this play, Hicks chases this outside zone run from the backside, fighting through the block from fellow rookie La'el Collins and making the play on the other side of the field. Hicks proved during his time in college that he was capable of being a three-down, sideline-to-sideline player in the NFL. Plays like this helped prove that on Sunday.
Clearly the biggest play of his career came later in the game, however, on the sack on Tony Romo that forced a fumble and knocked the quarterback out of the game. Let's take a closer look at that play.
The Cowboys are in an empty set, with just the five linemen in to block. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis is sending five rushers on this play, with three down linemen and the two inside linebackers. This is a five-on-five matchup, so in theory the Cowboys should be able to block it up.
The first thing to notice is the alignment of the front, followed by the path of two of the down linemen. Both Fletcher Cox and Beau Allen are head up on the blockers in front of them. Both players will cross the face of their respective blockers, pulling them away from where this blitz is going to hit. This is done by design. By Allen crossing into the opposite A gap and Cox going into the C gap, the center and left tackle have to follow them, they have to respect their initial path.
What this does, in turn, is put rookie guard La'el Collins on an island. The Eagles are running a "cross dog" blitz, with both DeMeco Ryans and Hicks crossing Collins' face inside. You'll hear people call this a "Fire X" blitz as well.
Ryans crosses Collins' face, taking his vision away from Hicks, who penetrates the protection and brings Romo down for the sack. This was great design from Bill Davis, attacking the rookie inside to help force the big play.
You may have noticed the slight hesitation from Romo before he goes down. What caused that? Why didn't the ball come out? Let's take a closer look at an even deeper wrinkle to this play.
Walter Thurmond made an interception against the Falcons out of Cover 1 Robber coverage. Well on this play, they were in the exact same coverage. It starts as a two-high safety look, with the high safety Chris Maragos and low safety Thurmond rotating to their positions after the snap as a disguise.
The Cowboys are running a quick dropback screen here to Jason Witten. It looks like a dropback pass, but both receivers on the outside are actually releasing to block for Witten.
Look at how quickly Malcolm Jenkins reads this play, stepping in front of Cole Beasley to deter the throw from Witten, giving Hicks enough time to bring the quarterback down for the sack. I love plays like this, where full team defense comes to the forefront.
The last play I want to show you was another big turnover for the defense, and it came from a familiar coverage.
It's Cover 1 Robber again from the Eagles' defense, with man coverage underneath. Byron Maxwell does a phenomenal job working through the traffic, finding Gavin Escobar, getting the ball out and holding up the receiver to prevent him from jumping on it. Jenkins scoops it up to return it deep into Dallas territory.
This was a phenomenal effort from the Eagles' defense as a whole. They were on the field for 85 snaps, which is a very high number for an NFL team. If they can play this way against New York, it should turn into a huge defensive matchup against the Jets on Sunday afternoon.
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.