The bye week has come and gone. It’s time for the Eagles to get back into the rhythm of the season after a week of reflection and self-scouting (which we covered on Eagles Game Plan). Over the break, I took some time to look back at two of the biggest themes behind the Eagles' success. Defensively, that theme has to do with getting their best player, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, in one-on-one matchups.
Last year, the Eagles were unable to generate a consistent pass rush when Cox was given extra attention by blocking schemes. The team responded by adding several key veterans and drafting pass rusher Derek Barnett in the first round. The improvement hasn’t just come from the personnel department, however, because the coaching staff has also done a phenomenal job of finding ways to get No. 91 blocked one-on-one on a weekly basis. Let’s take a look at how and why the tactics have worked, while also looking at the sheer dominance Cox has displayed all season long.
Shot 1 - Some teams have felt comfortable leaving Cox 1-on-1 with their RG. Washington, Denver and Carolina were some examples. It's REALLY hard to block Cox with just one man down in and down out #Eagles pic.twitter.com/AtMdrUP2eD — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
Simply put, it’s very difficult to block Fletcher Cox one-on-one. Some teams have a lot of faith in their right guards and will feel comfortable leaving them on an island. Washington did that with Brandon Scherff. Carolina did it with Trai Turner. Denver did it with Ronald Leary. All three teams learned the hard way that on a down-to-down basis, it’s really, really hard to keep him contained with just one blocker. Cox is the kind of player you have to gameplan for up front. When he’s left one-on-one, he’s going to do some damage in the game. The three plays above are all examples of him doing just that.
Shot 2 - The presence of Tim Jernigan certainly has helped. Small example Week 1 vs WAS. #Redskins slide to Cox, leave Jernigan 1-on-1 and he wins. Late in the game, they slide to other side and Cox gets home for the scoop and score #Eagles pic.twitter.com/cYMSWY4Xia — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
The addition of Tim Jernigan has certainly had an impact as well. It’s not that Jernigan gets double-teamed on every single snap because he’s not. When you have another powerful disruptor up front lining up next to Cox, it really makes it tough for opponents. Here’s an in-game example from the season opener against Washington. The offense slides the protection toward Cox on the first play, only for Jernigan to win one-on-one for a sack. On the next play, late in the game, the Redskins slide the opposite way toward Jernigan. Cox wins one-on-one, recovering a fumble and taking it to the house to seal the victory.
In a "slide" protection, there are two sides. There’s the "zone" side, which is the direction the slide is happening. Then there’s the "man" side, which is on the back side of the slide.
Let’s start with the "zone" side. All of the linemen involved in the slide step in that direction. They are responsible for their outside gap. So instead of a blocker having to worry about being beaten on his inside shoulder OR his outside shoulder, he really only has one job: don’t get beat outside!
On the "man" side of the slide, it’s exactly how it sounds. Offensive linemen (or backs and tight ends) have man-to-man assignments in the blocking scheme that they must account for. They have to be wary of both the inside and outside gap, and be ready to pass defenders off if there’s movement (stunts or blitzes) after the snap.
If the offense gets any kind of feeling that the opponent is going to bring extra pressure from the outside, it will often slide the protection in that direction. Defenses know this, however, so that’s where the chess game begins. Defenses try to force offenses to slide one way, then attack the "man" side of the protection. Defenses should get a free runner at the quarterback if it brings more than the offense can block on the "man" side. This "cat and mouse" game is one of my favorite parts of football, and the Eagles have been very good at winning that battle through the first nine games.
Shot 3 - Different pressures from #Eagles have also helped. When you show/bring pressure on the opposite side of Fletcher, you put the offense in a bind. Almost always going to slide in direction of the blitz. Leaves Cox 1-on-1. 3 examples here. pic.twitter.com/rQlUcpXMLf — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
Here are three examples of different blitzes the Eagles have used to attack offenses this year, but notice that the theme is the same in all three. On the opposite side of the blitz, Cox is manned up one-on-one with an offensive lineman, and I believe that this is by design. Cox is playing the role of a "contain" player on the blitz, preventing the quarterback from breaking the pocket, but at a certain point in the rush, he is able to transition from "contain" to "rush" and attack the quarterback for a play on the ball. This is a great way to force offenses to protect Cox one-on-one which, as has been already established, is very hard to do. Here's another pseudo-pressure tactic that’s become increasingly common around the NFL.
Shot 4 - One of my favorite wrinkles from #Eagles this year has been these 5-over-5 looks. Even if you don't send five, the offense has to call protection for five. Helps create one-on-one matchups across the board. pic.twitter.com/QIk83TD3FO — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
These "five-over-five" looks are something I’ve seen from almost every defense I’ve studied this year. The premise is simple. Use a linebacker to "mug" up on an offensive lineman (it can be a center, a guard, or a tackle), and force the line to account for him. Remember, once a protection is set, it can't change after the snap. If a linebacker lines up over the center, he must be accounted for in the protection one way or another. The Eagles have used these looks with Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham all season long, and it’s helped create situations for Cox to beat the man in front of him and get to the quarterback. Now, let’s get back to the slide protections.
Shot 5 - On 3rd down, the #Eagles love these personnel groups up front with three DEs on the field. Force offensive line to choose. Slide protection towards Cox? Or slide protection to the 2-DE side? #Broncos choose poorly here pic.twitter.com/UgJUDgDx4J — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
One of the primary fronts the Eagles have used through nine games in their pass rushing downs is this personnel grouping with Cox alongside three defensive ends. Typically, those players are Barnett, Chris Long, and Brandon Graham, with Graham lined up inside as a tackle. This puts offenses in a bind. Do they slide protection toward Cox to give help to the guard? Or do they slide toward the two-defensive end side? On this example against Denver, the Broncos do the latter, sliding away from Cox and toward Graham and Barnett. Who can blame them? But that leaves Cox matched up against Leary one-on-one, and he wins for a sack.
Shot 6 - Same idea here, with a little bit of the 5-vs-5 look worked in as well. #Panthers slide to the left with Brandon Graham / Derek Barnett next to each other. Leave Cox 1-on-1. Pressure / INT #Eagles pic.twitter.com/Fzwb5CBiET — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
The same exact thing happened against Carolina in one of the biggest moments of the game. The Eagles come out in a three-defensive end look. The offense slides toward Graham and Barnett, leaving Cox one-on-one with the guard. Hicks is even mugged up on the center for good measure, but the damage is done. The Panthers slide away from Cox, who wins with a bull rush, attacking Cam Newton’s right arm, knocking the pass in the air, and creating an interception to put the Eagles' offense inside the 15-yard line to set up a touchdown. It all started with the Eagles dictating to the offense how to protect in a key situation, and the players came through by winning their one-on-one battles.
These three-defensive end looks aren’t new to the game. They aren’t revolutionary. Teams have seen them for a while, and one of the ways offenses will combat them is with a Full Slide protection. This is exactly what it sounds like, as the entire offensive line slides in one direction. This makes everything clear for the five blockers up front. What did I say before, though? There are two sides to the slide protection. On the back side of a Full Slide, the lone edge rusher will be double-teamed by the running back and the tight end. Neither is an offensive lineman, so you’re taking a chance, but hopefully, the double team in itself will be enough to keep the pass rusher at bay.
Shot 7 - What teams have started to do is execute a 'Full Slide' in protection. All 5 OL slide one direction, and the backside DE gets double teamed by RB/TE. Cox gets skinny here and flies upfield. Turns into Pick 6 #Eagles pic.twitter.com/0XfXi6EMXb — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
The 49ers executed a Full Slide protection on Jalen Mills’ interception return for a touchdown. There are three defensive ends on the field and a Full Slide protection away from Barnett. The tight end and the running back double-team the rookie and keep him away from the quarterback (who is pressured by Cox anyway and throws an interception). The Eagles have seen these types of protections at different points throughout the year, as many teams do, and will continue to see them. There’s a tactic, however, that they’ve brought into the fray to help attack the Full Slide protection. That is the Green Dog blitz.
A Green Dog blitz is a simple concept. It’s not a called blitz from the sideline, but it’s a strategy executed by man coverage defenders. The rule is really easy to follow ... if you are playing man coverage, and the receiver you are assigned to cover stays in to pass protect, you rush the quarterback. Easy, right? We’ve seen it for years all around football, and let me show you how the Green Dog helps attack the Full Slide protection.
Shot 8 - #Eagles answer these Full Slide protections with 'Green Dog' blitzers. #Redskins slide protection, leaving Barnett doubled by RB/TE. Malcolm Jenkins (manned on TE) blitzes, pulling RB away from dbl team. Barnett now 1-on-1 w/ TE for sack pic.twitter.com/8bu8msaiLk — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 13, 2017
In the game against Washington, the Eagles are in their three-defensive end nickel package. The Redskins call a Full Slide protection, and the entire offensive line slides to its right. Just like against San Francisco, the tight end and running back double-team Barnett.
Here’s where the Green Dog comes into play. Malcolm Jenkins is manned up against tight end Jordan Reed in press coverage. He knows this protection scheme is a possibility. When he sees Reed is blocking Barnett, he knows it’s time to pull the trigger. He inserts himself into the pressure scheme, rushing into the C gap. The running back, Chris Thompson, does the right thing here. He abandons his responsibility in the double team against Barnett to block Jenkins, who is a more dangerous defender coming at high speed from a shorter distance to the quarterback. Thompson has to block Jenkins. That leaves Reed, who is not known for his blocking ability, matched up one-on-one with Barnett, who wins easily for the sack.
Every fan on their couch screams, "Why would the Redskins leave a tight end one-on-one with Derek Barnett!??!" Well, now you know why. It starts with Fletcher Cox’s ability to win one-on-one, the Eagles coaching staff’s use of alignments to get him those one-on-ones, the offensive reaction to those tactics, and the Eagles' counter-action to combat it.
I love football.
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.