Getting ready for this matchup between the Eagles and the Bears, a lot was written and even more was said about the Chicago defense. And for good reason. The Bears had one of the top units in the league in pretty much every major statistical category this year, but Fletcher Cox said it best leading up to the game in the locker room. He had a feeling that the Eagles' defense would be the better unit on the field on Sunday afternoon.
It’s hard to argue with him.
The defense was outstanding against Chicago. It showed up on the scoreboard, on the stat sheet, and on the screen watching the film. As is usually the case, the line was the spark plug for the defensive performance starting with No. 91 Fletcher Cox.
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Cox was once again a monster in this game. Whether he was dominating at the point of attack against the run or disrupting the quarterback in his pass drop, the All-Pro tackle was all over the field and consistently was making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Not all of this shows up on the stat sheet as you can see in the video above. Cox was great against Chicago, and his presence will once again be needed this week against New Orleans.
As a whole, I was impressed by the defensive line in this game. Did the Eagles rack up a half-dozen sacks and double-digit hits on Mitchell Trubisky? No, but they were extremely disciplined in their rush lanes. As I wrote last week, Trubisky is an athletic kid and a very willing runner. The Eagles had been burned by Deshaun Watson, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, and the like as runners this year, so keeping Trubisky from beating them with his legs was paramount. Trubisky carried three times for 9 yards.
Look at how disciplined the Eagles were up front, constantly keeping their eyes on Trubisky and not taking their rush deeper than the quarterback. They closed all of the escape routes at his immediate disposal by constraining the pocket slowly around Trubisky. He never really looked all that comfortable in the pocket outside of the quick game.
One critical play in this game was the failed two-point conversion from the Bears after Trubisky’s touchdown throw in the second half. As they typically do, the Bears came out with an exotic personnel grouping. Khalil Mack lined up as a running back in the backfield. The ball was given to Taylor Gabriel on a Jet Sweep. The play was stopped short, and it started with one of the top linemen on the Eagles' roster.
Michael Bennett reads this the whole way. He has a pretty good idea that this is coming to the right once he sees Mack motion to the left. Bennett slides outside, slips past the blocks on the perimeter, and gets into the backfield. This forces Gabriel back toward the middle of the field. That’s precisely where all of his help is, as multiple Eagles converge on the ballcarrier at the goal line and prevent Chicago from converting.
That play was the difference between the Eagles winning by one and losing by one.
At the second level, Jordan Hicks started his first playoff game, and he was solid against the Bears. Nigel Bradham, however, really, really stood out to me in this game. Bradham played every snap, lining up in all of the Eagles' subpackages. He impacted both the run and the pass games.
Bradham was quick to trigger downhill in the run game, and his play-recognition skills have a lot to do with that. The veteran was very quick to see things on Sunday, and on multiple occasions his instincts showed up in the run game to help him defeat blocks before the Bears could even get their hands on him. In coverage, Bradham was used often as a spy on Trubisky. He did a great job of mirroring him from sideline to sideline and either forcing a throwaway or getting his hand on a ball to force an incompletion.
Over the course of the season, the Eagles’ primary subpackage had been nickel, with five defensive backs on the field. Their secondary package was dime, with six defensive backs on the field. As pieces were swapped in and out due to injury, that continued. But over the last two weeks, we’ve seen a bit of a shift, as the Eagles have gone with more dime defense than any other package. In the regular-season finale, the team lined up in dime 52 percent of the snaps, making it the first time this season that it was the top grouping for the Eagles in a game. This past week against Chicago? The Eagles had six defensive backs on the field 65 percent of the time!
That helped for a number of reasons. First, you had more speed on the field to deal with the Bears' playmakers on offense, so from a pure matchup standpoint, you felt a bit better personnel-wise. You also had more defensive backs in zone coverage, creating potentially tighter windows for Trubisky to throw into. That showed up a number of times in this game.
Trubisky questioned what he saw multiple times. He had a slight hitch before he pulled the trigger a couple of times. He tucked some balls and dropped his eyes when he should have kept working through progressions at times. He also forced throws that should have been picked off. The Eagles' speed on the field certainly helped in those situations to cloud what the second-year passer was seeing.
When the Eagles are in a subpackage, one player you see every time is cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc. The young veteran went back to his old stomping grounds in Chicago, to face the team that drafted him a couple of years ago. He was the starting nickel earlier in his career for the Bears, and he had himself a game.
LeBlanc was impressive at the catch point, he was competitive through the route, and he was physical and aggressive as a tackler. This was a really impressive outing for the young corner, who has played himself into consideration for a future role with this team long term.
One aspect of the secondary that stood out to me was the tackling. That had been a hallmark of this defense coming into the year, but the tackling was up and down to start the year. Now? This group is playing at a high level when they come downhill at ballcarriers.
All of the defensive backs were put to the test in this game out on islands, and they all shined. The Eagles will need a similar effort from that group against a dynamic New Orleans offense on Sunday.
Lastly, let’s just look at the special teams. Remember, Tarik Cohen wasn’t only an explosive threat on offense, but he was named first-team All-Pro as a punt returner this season. On Sunday, he failed to return a punt, as Cameron Johnston did an outstanding job with his kicks and the gunners, Shelton Gibson and Deiondre' Hall, did a great job on the perimeter of getting downfield and forcing fair catches.
We’ll never know if Cohen would have broken a long one, but the Eagles never gave him that chance in this game. Every little bit helped.
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.