On Friday, I took a look at the performance of the Eagles' offense in Thursday's win over Tampa Bay with a lot of focus on the play of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. Now, it's the defense's turn. I was really excited to see this defense unleashed after watching them fly around all spring and summer, and they did not disappoint. All of the elements of a "Jim Schwartz defense" were put on display against the Bucs, whether it was relentless pass rush, aggressive linebackers or sound play in the secondary. There were a lot of really good teaching points that came out of the game.
One thing that you can expect to see a lot of from opposing offenses this fall is the screen game. Teams will try to counter Schwartz's attack scheme by burning it with slow-developing plays that allow the defensive line to get upfield and away from the action. The Eagles did allow some screen plays for significant yardage on Thursday, something I'm sure will be addressed in meetings and on the practice field this week.
In the run game, the same concept can be used to take advantage of an aggressive line. First, you have draw plays, where the quarterback drops back looking like he's going to pass to get the pass rush upfield before he hands it off to a running back. Next, you have trap or wham plays, where offensive linemen immediately leak up to the second level to the linebackers while a pulling lineman from the other side blocks a dangerous interior rusher. Fletcher Cox should expect to see lots of trap blocks this fall. The first one I noticed on Thursday didn't target Cox though. It came against backup tackle Taylor Hart.
Tampa Bay's left guard is going to pull to the right, with the full intention of blocking Hart. The thinking behind this is that Hart, having a free release upfield since the guard or tackle in front of him won't block him, will think he's got a wide open look at the quarterback. Just as he thinks he's home free, he'll get earholed from the side, not expecting a blocker to be coming from the other side of the formation.
At the same time, the offense also has to feel good about both a guard and a tackle having a free run at two linebackers. If the running back can get to the second level, he should have minimal traffic to navigate to pick up a first down.
There's just one issue for the offense here, and his name is middle linebacker Jordan Hicks.
Hicks reads this play immediately, flying downhill and beating the block of the right guard to blow up the back at the line of scrimmage. Strongside linebacker Nigel Bradham makes a similar read, beating the right tackle to the ball carrier as the Eagles make a stop for minimal gain.
The player that everyone was very excited to see on Thursday, and for good reason, was defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. After signing his huge contract extension earlier this offseason, Cox is playing within a scheme best suited for his playmaking abilities, and he's in a prime position to have a huge season. He met those expectations in a big way on Thursday night with the "trifecta" that so many pass rushers yearn for - the sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Cox uses a simple rip move to get by the Tampa Bay offensive lineman on his way to quarterback Jameis Winston. He forces the ball out and recovers the fumble inside the opposing 20-yard line. But is there more to this play than meets the eye? Let's take a look at the secondary and see what things looked like on the back end.
The Eagles are in Cover 3, with Rodney McLeod as the single-high safety in the middle of the field. Cornerback Nolan Carroll is at the bottom of the screen, matched up against receiver Mike Evans, who is running an over route across the field. I love the pass-off here from Carroll to McLeod, as the safety comes down to pick up Evans and deter a throw from Winston while Carroll in essence becomes the single-high safety, rotating into the middle of the field. In the first preseason game, it's really great to see this kind of communication in the secondary.
On that play you got to see how the rush and the coverage worked together in concert, resulting in a sack for the Eagles' defense. That wasn't the only example of that though ...
On this play, defensive end Connor Barwin and defensive tackle Beau Allen run a perfect T/E stunt to force quarterback Mike Glennon from the pocket. As the play continues, Glennon is forced to hold onto the football. The two defenders merge to share a sack in the backfield. On the back end, the Eagles played straight up Cover 2. With the secondary hugged up on Tampa Bay's receivers, Glennon has nowhere to go with the ball, allowing the line to get to the quarterback. Keep in mind, though, that these types of plays don't always end in sacks.
The Eagles run another T/E stunt on this play, this time with defensive end Steven Means winning with an inside spin move (something he and I broke down on this week’s podcast). Means forces the throw to be delayed by a couple of seconds, and when the ball comes out it's picked off downfield by safety Chris Maragos.
Looking at it from the sideline view, you see the Eagles in Cover 2 Man, with two high safeties and man coverage underneath. Maragos makes this interception over the top, securing a huge turnover for the Eagles' defense.
On that play, Means impacted the game as a pass rusher, but he was very active as a run defender as well. The third-year player from Buffalo was at the forefront of the run defense as an edge-setter all night long, consistently forcing the action back inside to defenders crashing from the back side.
On the first play, Means jacks up the tight end to allow Graham to make the play in pursuit, and on the second play he stacks and sheds the left tackle before Taylor Hart fires into the backfield for the tackle for loss. Means was very effective on Thursday night, even though it didn't always show up in the stat sheet. That doesn't mean that there was a lack of big plays from him though.
Here, Means wins on the outside and does a great job attacking the throwing arm of the quarterback, getting the ball on the ground for a near turnover. Means made plays as a pass rusher and as a run defender on Thursday, and was a starter on two special teams units. He is certainly making his case to make the roster in a few weeks.
I've shown a couple of really good examples so far of good team run defense, and that was one of my biggest takeaways from Thursday night. It wasn't that long ago when Tampa Bay's Doug Martin ran for 235 against this team. He obviously wasn't the primary ball carrier in this game, but it was still a good sign for things to come.
A few weeks ago, I talked with Andy Benoit from The MMQB on the podcast to break down run fits in Jim Schwartz's scheme, and on more than a handful of plays you could see how clean things looked up front for this defense from an assignment standpoint.
Look at how clear you can see this inside.
Linebacker Joe Walker has the playside B gap (between the right tackle and right guard).
Defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao (No. 77) has the playside A gap (between the right guard and the center).
Linebacker Najee Goode has the backside A gap (between the center and the left guard).
Defensive tackle Aziz Shittu has the backside B gap (between the left guard and left tackle).
All four players fill up their gaps perfectly. Chris Maragos, who responsible for the backside C gap between the tackle and tight end, fits in and makes the stop near the line of scrimmage after a short gain. That's exactly how you draw it up, and it looked exactly like this for most of the night on Thursday.
One of the players who has stood out to me most since the start of Training Camp is Jaylen Watkins. The veteran has lined up at a number of spots during his time here in Philadelphia, including corner, the slot and now at safety. Every day in practice, the former Florida Gator seems to be breaking on passes and disrupting throws at the catch point, and that's something that carried over to Thursday's game.
On both of these plays, Watkins lined up in man coverage against a tight end, and in both plays he undercut the throw to break it up. In the second play, you can really see how Watkins' experience in the slot helps him. The tight end has a two-way go in the middle of the field, but Watkins, knowing he has safety help over the top, is able to undercut this throw and get the ball on the ground. Like Means, Watkins was also a big factor on special teams (being a primary backup on all four main units). Watkins is really making a strong case to be a key contributor on the 53-man roster.
Another player who has made a lot of headlines this summer is rookie seventh-round pick Jalen Mills, who is trying to win a starting job on the outside. Mills had his share of ups and downs in this game, and this play helped encapsulate what you get in a rookie corner - some good and some bad.
Mills is lined up in press man coverage, and ideally you'd like to see a little more disruption at the line of scrimmage against the receiver in this situation. Instead, Mills misses the jam, but watch how well he recovers. He knows he has safety help over the top, so he plays to his help (coincidence!), undercutting the receiver. Mills runs the route better than his man, and puts himself in a position to make a play on the football, drawing an offensive pass interference penalty. Is Mills a bonafide starter yet? Absolutely not. He still has a lot to learn about what it takes to succeed in the NFL. He has shown great flashes all offseason long, though, and his future sure looks bright here in Philadelphia.
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.