After taking a long look at the performance of Carson Wentz and the Eagles' offense on Monday, it's now time to look at the other side of the football.
First, against the run, I think it's worthwhile to dispel a bit of a myth that has taken off since Sunday's win. Analysts have said that they were disappointed with the run defense, after allowing nearly 6 yards a carry to the Browns on 17 runs for 98 yards. What that doesn't take into account is the fact that the Browns ran for 51 of those yards on the final drive, when the linebackers played 10 to 11 yards off the ball as the defense sat in prevent mode to keep the Browns from taking shots down the field. If you remove the runs off that final drive, the defense allowed 3.62 yards per carry. When you narrow it down to just the base defense (with four down linemen and three linebackers on the field), the number drops to 2.5 yards per carry. Was the run defense perfect? No, but it was pretty strong against a Cleveland offensive line that has some established players.
At the center of that run defense, you have to start with the pair of defensive tackles - Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan. This is the second play of the game, and you can see Cox stand his man up at the point of attack, lock out his arms and control the play from snap to whistle. Logan on the other hand tosses the center, former first-round pick Cameron Erving, aside like a sack of potatoes, before stone-walling Joel Bitonio as well. Cox and Logan converge for what ends up being a 1-yard gain.
Later in the game, look at the athleticism of Cox on this play. Focus on how light his feet are as he withstands the initial push of a double team, stays square to the line of scrimmage, holds his ground and shrugs off a block to stop this running play for no gain. Cox is a truly dominant player, and his abilities against the run will always be an important part of this defense. It's not always just about the two stalwarts inside though, because it takes an entire defense to properly stop the run.
It's second-and-4, and the Browns try a little trickeration on this play, sending slot man Andrew Hawkins on an end-around after initially faking the handoff to tailback Isaiah Crowell. This play is well-thought-out by Browns coach Hue Jackson, as he's trying to prey upon the Eagles' aggressiveness up front by drawing defensive end Brandon Graham in toward Crowell. Graham doesn't bite, however, as he does a good job trying to stay home and flash color outside, forcing Hawkins back in. Now, he has to take one for the team and ends up on the ground because of a block from his blind side, but he did just enough on a hard play to read to force Hawkins back inside, the No. 1 job of a force defender.
To clean things up, the alley defender on this play, safety Rodney McLeod, runs downhill and finishes Hawkins in the flat for a 1-yard loss. McLeod is a fantastic tackler. He does a great job coming downhill and staying under control, coming to balance and bringing the shifty receiver to the ground. This is a really nice job all around by the entire defense.
Graham had to take some punishment on that last play, but he gets one back on the next series. Here, watch him jack up Cleveland's right tackle, bench-pressing him into the backfield as he collapses onto Crowell for a minimal gain. Credit Beau Allen as well on this play, staying stout against a double team to help stay in on the play.
Stopping the run will be a big point of emphasis for this team, but being effective against screen plays may be equally as important. Why? Because as teams try to counter the Eagles' "attacking" front, they will likely revert to a variety of running back and wide receiver screen plays to draw the defense in and gain a numbers advantage out in space. The two primary ways to stop the screen? First, you need pursuit from your defensive line, but second, you want your second- and third-level defenders to be able to make a tackle one on one.
Here's a shot from the first quarter when Nolan Carroll is out on the perimeter at the top of the screen. The Browns are running a screen to Crowell here in the flat. Watch Carroll turn around and flash downhill to make a stop, avoiding the block from Erving in space and bringing Crowell down short of the first down. It's that type of effort that goes a long way to stopping the screen pass on defense.
One of the biggest plays in the passing game for this defense came in the second quarter. The Eagles lead 10-7, and the Browns had the football on second-and-5 from the 28-yard line. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz calls for Cover 1 Man Free, with one high safety (McLeod), one player in the hole (linebacker Jordan Hicks) and straight man coverage across the board with a four-man pass rush.
Being a hold defender like Hicks in this situation is a role that many linebackers relish. When I spoke with former Eagle Takeo Spikes a few weeks ago on the podcast, he talked about how being a hole player lets you sit back and "see things unfold." That was where things such as "awareness" and "instincts" come into play. Hicks said after the game that he had a feeling they were going to run some kind of quick in-breaking route from that side of the field, and he was 100 percent right. He's not able to make a perfect play on the ball, but he gets one mitt on the football, forcing an errant throw that gets knocked again up into the air for McLeod to sweep under for the interception. It all started thanks to great instincts from Hicks as an underneath hole player in Cover 1.
The pressure on the quarterback wasn't always evident in terms of sack production on Sunday, but I thought the defensive line did do a solid job affecting the quarterback throughout the afternoon. Whether he was forced to get rid of the ball early, break the pocket or throw the football away, Robert Griffin III was affected by pressure more often than not. When the Eagles were able to get to him, they made him pay.
This is a great play by Cox to get the sack, but it really all starts with the bull rush from Vinny Curry at defensive end. Curry gets inside the pads of the right tackle and, with some help from the right heel of the guard, gets him on the ground. Cox does a great job playing off of that chaos next to him, making a beeline for Griffin in the backfield for a sack.
In the fourth quarter, Connor Barwin got the better of All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas on a deep play-action pass play. No. 98 uses his length with a "long arm" technique, getting into Thomas' pads and keeping him at bay, as he turns the corner and accelerates into Griffin at the top of his drop. I love Barwin's effort here as he tries to attack the throwing arm of the quarterback, nearly forcing the ball out and turning a good play into a great play with the sack.
On the next series, Brandon Graham nearly came up with his second safety of the afternoon on a perfectly executed T/E stunt. Cox penetrates upfield quickly, occupying the right guard. Erving, the Browns' center, is completely unaware of where to look for work, and Graham loops inside for a near sack in the end zone. Griffin quickly tries to flip the ball to running back Duke Johnson out of the backfield, but Graham impacts that pass attempt, as that almost ends up in the hands of Barwin for an interception. This was a really well-executed stunt by the Eagles' front four.
All three of those plays came on standard four-man rushes, but Schwartz did mix in a couple of pressure looks in key spots to change what Griffin was seeing up front.
On this play, the Eagles are playing zone coverage on the outside, and execute what it is referred to as a "zone exchange" up front, dropping Logan into underneath coverage and sending linebacker Nigel Bradham on a blitz. It's a four-man rush still, but with rushers coming from different angles it can be confusing for a quarterback. Curry forces the issue again on this play, getting into the throwing lane and forcing Griffin to make a blind throw to the boundary. If this ball hadn't landed in the Philadelphia bench, it may have been a pick-six for rookie Jalen Mills, who squatted on the corner route outside.
Overall, the defense allowed 10 points to a Cleveland offense that really struggled to move the football. Their only touchdown of the game was set up by an outstanding play by wide receiver Terrelle Pryor on a deep ball and by a questionable penalty on Malcolm Jenkins (not even counting the blatantly missed holding call on Curry on the same play). The Browns were the only team in the NFL to not record a drive of more than seven plays in Week 1, as the Eagles showed time and time again the ability to get off the field on third down. It was a good start for a unit that should flourish under Schwartz in 2016.
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.