On Monday, I gave you a look inside the Eagles' offensive philosophy, and now it's time to look at the defense. Through three preseason games, you can argue that no defense in the NFL has been as effective in terms of defending the run, affecting the quarterback and creating turnovers. You can take that for yourself and decide what it means, but overall you have to feel optimistic about this unit from front to back.
All summer, we've seen examples of the Jim Schwartz "attack" scheme in effect. The aggressive nature has permeated itself throughout the depth chart, as high-effort plays have been abundant through three games. I personally have been surprised by the wide variety of pressure looks that Schwartz has shown as well, because that wasn't necessarily his M.O. coming in. This is going to be a fun scheme to break down week after week, and one of my favorite things to see when watching defensive film is how the rush can impact the coverage and vice versa, a theme that was very prevalent on Saturday night against the Colts.
Take a look at this sack of Andrew Luck in the first quarter by Connor Barwin. A great second effort from the vet helps bring Luck to the ground, but check out the back end of the defense. When the quarterback hits the top of his drop, he's hoping that the route concept has developed. Unfortunately for him, Ron Brooks has engulfed T.Y. Hilton, Nolan Carroll is sitting on top of Phillip Dorsett and Jordan Hicks has tight end Dwayne Allen covered. Luck has nowhere to go with the football. Brandon Graham crosses the right tackle's face to force him from the pocket, and Barwin finishes him up from the back side for the sack. In the second quarter, we get another great example of the pass rush working hand in hand with the coverage to result in getting the quarterback to the ground.
First, let's look up front at Vinny Curry coming off the edge, helping to force Luck to climb the pocket. Curry effectively manipulates Luck to step right into the waiting arms of Bennie Logan, who collapsed the pocket from the bottom up, wrapping the quarterback in his arms for a sack. This was a great job by both of these players to execute a disciplined rush and come away with a big play - but it wasn't just on the defensive line.
When you look at the secondary, it appears we're getting a version of Cover 1 Robber coverage. Robber means that you have one single-high safety (in this case Rodney McLeod), a safety rolling down closer to the line of scrimmage to play in the middle of the field (Malcolm Jenkins) and straight man coverage across the board with five defenders. This coverage relies on a four-man rush up front, and it allows that Robber defender in the middle of the field to read the quarterback and the routes in front of him to make a play on the football.
Watch Jenkins here on this play, as he reads the drive route from Hilton (who again was smothered by Brooks in the slot). When Luck first looks Hilton's way, Brooks has him covered, and when he goes back to him after the initial rush from Curry, Jenkins joins in the fray, completely eliminating the throw and allowing Logan to finish the play for a loss. This is a great example of overall team defense from the Eagles on this rep.
One of the hallmarks of a good defense is quality play in the red zone. Reducing touchdowns to field goals obviously goes a long way to keeping points off the board, and the Eagles' defense has been strong down near the goal line so far in the preseason, a theme that once again repeated itself against the Colts.
Now this is a fun play with a lot to dissect, so let's take it piece by piece. It appears as if the Eagles are in a basic Man Free coverage, but when you're so close to the goal line, you basically just have two free players and straight man coverage across the board. Jenkins and Hicks start the play as your two free players.
At the snap of the ball, tight end Dwayne Allen runs a slant route. McLeod, covering Allen, successfully passes the tight end off to Hicks in the middle of the field. Now, McLeod becomes a free player, and is available to help where he's needed in coverage. Watch the safety's eyes, as he (correctly) feels like there's going to be a slant route behind him. With that covered, he gets his eyes back on the quarterback.
At linebacker, Nigel Bradham was manned up on the running back out of the backfield to start the play. The back delays his release, leaking out toward the middle of the field. Watch McLeod read this, as he breaks on the throw from Luck and nearly picks the pass off, getting a pass breakup and a huge stop for the Eagles' defense down on the goal line.
One of the problems a cornerback can face down in the red zone in a one-on-one situation is that they're literally on an island. That's why there are times where the receiver runs a fade route or a corner route and everyone watching on TV screams, "What was he doing, why was he so wide open?" There are a variety of routes a receiver can run at the snap, and the cornerback won't have a clear idea until he at least sees the release off the line. One false step down on the goal line will result in a touchdown because the ball comes out so quickly.
One way to help that cornerback is to bring another defender out there to, in essence, double team that receiver. If the wideout goes outside, one man gets him, and if he goes inside, the other gets him - a tactic commonly referred to as "vicing" a receiver at the line. The problem with doing that is if you show it before the snap, you're immediately removing a defender from the box in the run game, so the other team may immediately check to a run against a slightly lighter defense between the hashes for what could be an easy touchdown. So sometimes, you have to be sneaky with how you do it.
It appears as if that's exactly what the Eagles do here. Watch McLeod come from the middle of the field right at the snap of the ball. He's not blitzing, and he's not in man coverage, so it appears as if he's streaking to help Carroll outside by taking away any slant route or in-breaking throw. That allows Carroll to focus solely on the fade, and while the receiver basically bails on the route, Carroll is in perfect position to defend this throw and reel it in for an interception. If he isn't playing over the top (thanks to the help from McLeod), this pass likely falls incomplete, but instead the defense gets a turnover.
I mentioned earlier that I've been surprised by all of the exotic looks from the Eagles' defense and the variety of pressure packages through three games. One of the concepts that isn't incredibly off the wall, but still fun to watch, is the way they manipulate personnel along the defensive line. With versatile pieces like Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry, two players who can line up in a number of spots and win off the ball, you can be creative in your rush plan.
Shot 5 - Fletcher Cox (@fcoxx91) and that burst.
As a DE.
At 310 pounds.
That's exactly what you get here from the Eagles on this third-down play. Curry lines up inside as a 3-technique, with Cox lined up outside as a defensive end in this 4-3 look. Schwartz sends Bradham off the edge as well, but look at the athleticism from Cox, who slants inside to get the right tackle moving, then sticks his foot in the ground and explodes upfield to get a huge hit on Luck. A flag in the secondary negates this play, but it's still incredible to witness how this 310-pound man can move along the defensive line.
The Eagles have been outstanding against the run so far this preseason, and Cox has been a big part of that as well. Here he gets quick penetration in the backfield, forcing the run inside as McLeod comes off the corner on a blitz and makes the play in pursuit. Team run defense has certainly been a strength of this unit all summer, and it's something to keep an eye on as we transition into the regular season.
As the team trimmed the roster down to 75, one of the cuts that caught some by surprise was Mike Martin. The veteran defensive tackle was signed this offseason to provide depth up front, and he was getting some reps with the first-team defense before an injury early in camp forced him to miss each of the first three games. I would venture to guess that one of the reasons they felt comfortable releasing Martin was because of the play inside from a pair of defensive tackles many have tabbed as "3-4 players only," Beau Allen and Taylor Hart.
Here, you see the strength and natural power that Allen brings to the table inside, as he bulldozes his way into the backfield to bring the quarterback to the ground.
Conversely, Hart brings a bit more athleticism and range. Here he is chasing a screen pass down in the flat for a short gain. Defending the screen will be a big challenge for the Eagles this year, as opponents try to take advantage of their aggressiveness. In order to properly stop the screen, you need defensive linemen to play in pursuit and chase the action to get the numbers back in their favor out on the perimeter. Hart does just that here in a really impressive play in space.
Hart didn't just make plays outside the numbers, but down in the trenches he was very disruptive as well in the run game. Here, he helps lead a key stop on third-and-1. Notice that Hicks is also right on top of the center, mugged up in the A gap, to help create some disruption at the snap.
On the very next play, Hicks lines up in the A gap again and completely blows this play up from the start, getting a hit on the quarterback as he throws to force an incomplete pass.
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.