On Monday, I took a long look at the success the Eagles had on offense against the New Orleans Saints, so today it's time to look at the defense. Going into the game, there were a couple of things you knew about this Saints offense. First, Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so getting pressure on him and moving him off his spot without sacrificing bodies in coverage would be key. Second, you knew that this was a quick-hitting offense that loved to spread the ball to their backs out of the backfield in the passing game. Third, you knew that there would be some shot plays mixed in down the field, so playing with sound technique would be imperative to limit the explosive plays against the defense. How did the Eagles fare? Let's take a look.
Through the first four games of the season, the Saints targeted their running backs (Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khyri Robinson) 48 times in the passing game, good for 12 times a game. On those 48 targets, the Saints' threesome gained 421 yards, that's over 8.77 yards per target, an extraordinarily high number. Chip Kelly said after the game that stopping the backs was "a big emphasis" for the defense throughout the week. The defense responded by allowing just nine targets for 11 yards, just 1.22 yards per target, so this was a job very well done by the Eagles' defense in succeeding in an area that they had high hopes for going into the game.
When the Eagles were in man coverage, I saw eight snaps in man coverage against the backs for Jordan Hicks, six for Malcolm Jenkins and six more for Najee Goode at the end of the game when the Eagles' reserves were in on defense. Zone coverage requires a full team effort, with the underneath defenders all being aware of where the running backs are out of the backfield and rallying to the football, something we saw on the very first play of the game.
The Saints are running a swing screen out of the backfield to Spiller, and Jenkins as the underneath defender reads it immediately. Jenkins slips the block, gets into the backfield and brings Spiller down for a loss as soon as the ball is caught.
Ironically, the first thing I thought of when I saw this play was the famed Sheldon Brown hit on Reggie Bush, a moment we re-lived last week in our Old School All-22 feature. Sure, it wasn't the big hit that Brown had, but it was the same pass concept from the Saints and a similar read on the play from an Eagles defensive back.
That play featured Jenkins in zone coverage, but he had similar success in man coverage as well.
On this play, the Saints are hoping that Brandin Cooks is able to pick Jenkins off, preventing him from keeping up with Spiller out of the backfield. Again, Jenkins navigates through the block and brings Spiller down for a loss to force a punt.
New Orleans tried to get very creative with getting Spiller alone in the open field, but to no avail.
On this play in the third quarter, they line up in a loose bunch formation to the right. Spiller is on Brees' left. Jenkins lines up across from Spiller, but right before the snap, they shift Spiller to the right and he runs a wheel out of the backfield. Jenkins has to run through three routes - a drag route and two vertical routes from the Saints. Jenkins gets hip-to-hip with Spiller, forces him out of bounds and then looks to find the football so he doesn't get called for a penalty. This was an outstanding play by Jenkins, who was put in a real tough spot by the Saints because of the alignment and design of the play.
On the defensive side of the ball, the star of the day was Fletcher Cox, as he became the first player in franchise history to get three sacks and two forced fumbles in one game. Cox was a dominant force up front for the Eagles' defense, and fans and media want to know, "What did they do differently up front? Why was he so dominant?" Or they want to declare that this was the "breakout game" for Cox. The truth of the matter is, Cox is ALWAYS this dominant. If you read this piece every week, and if you have since Cox arrived here in Philadelphia, you know what kind of a player he has turned into. He is simply one of the best defensive linemen in the entire NFL. He is a monster against the run, and he's a great athlete for his size which allows him to be a ferocious pass rusher as well. Sunday, hopefully, will help him earn his first Pro Bowl bid in 2015.
Here's Cox's first sack of the game, the only one he DIDN'T force a fumble on. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis calls a cross dog blitz with linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Jordan Hicks. Ryans penetrates inside and gets his hand up to cloud the throwing lane, forcing Brees to hesitate a bit. Cox has enough time to finish for the sack.
To give you a sense of what Brees saw downfield as he was preparing to throw, look at all four of his receivers bottled up by the Eagles' secondary. Between this visual and Ryans getting his hands up, Brees was forced to hold onto the football and take the sack. This was an example of great team defense by the Eagles.
Take a look at Cox's second sack of the game. The Eagles are in a subpackage now with Cox lined up directly over the center, with Vinny Curry to his left and the two starting outside linebackers, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin, lined up to his right. This is a formidable defensive front, and this was on first-and-10 mind you, to deal with in pass protection. Brees drops back, Cox beats the right guard with ease, and gets the sack.
Again, look at the picture Brees sees down the field. He has nowhere to go with the football as the Eagles' defense completely erase a potential shot play by the Saints' offense.
For Cox's third and final sack, once again there was great coverage on the back end from a New Orleans attempt at a shot play down the field.
This was a post-cross call from the Saints, with Cooks at the bottom of the screen on the deep post and Willie Snead running a crosser from the top of the screen.
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Cornerback Nolan Carroll funnels Cooks inside to his help in safety Malcolm Jenkins, who doesn't take the cheese in the crossing route, staying home to defend the post and deter a deep shot. Ryans and Hicks defend the cross from Snead, as they get to their landmarks in this zone coverage to take away the crossing route from Brees.
Cox holds up his end of the bargain up front, tossing Saints first-round pick Andrus Peat to the side, sacking Brees, forcing the fumble and then jumping on it to force the turnover. The Eagles would score on the next play with a touchdown to tight end Brent Celek and, in essence, seal the victory on a play that required a great individual effort by Cox, but was beautifully covered by multiple players on the back end as well.
It wasn't just against the pass that Cox had success, as he was once again dominant against the run. On this play, he completely stands up Peat again, shrugging him aside and making the tackle for a short gain.
Cox was dominant, as was nose tackle Bennie Logan. These two have continuously made plays against the pass and the run, and that held true against the Saints.
The Saints come out in a heavy set on first-and-10 in the third quarter, and the Eagles' defense shifts to account for it. This puts Cox over the center, and Logan over the right guard. This is an inside zone run. Just watch Logan make contact with the guard, get his eyes up to the ball, lock out his arms to maintain separation from the block, show violence in his hands by shedding the block and flashing into the gap. The back is forced to cut back inside, right into the waiting arms of Cox, who ropes him down for a 1-yard gain to bring up second-and-long.
Logan picked up a sack of his own in this game, his first of the season and third of his career. It was a great play by Logan, but it also featured great effort from those on the back end who helped set the play up.
The Saints call a three-level stretch play on second-and-10, with a vertical route down the field and two crossing routes at different levels of the defense - one short and one at the intermediate area.
This is a zone pressure from the Eagles, with three defenders underneath and three deep. Ryans and Hicks are the two underneath defenders to that side of the field and are the ones who are going to be responsible for stopping those crossing routes. Look at the job Ryans does on, again to use the term, "not biting the cheese" with this underneath crossing route because he expects that there's something behind him. He stays disciplined in his coverage, remains at his landmark, removing the intermediate crossing route from Brees and allowing Logan the time to get in for the sack.
As a side note, I remember a conversation I had with Ike Reese about the late Jim Johnson. One of the things he always told his linebackers was that if you see a route developing in front of you, the best offenses will always have someone running behind you. I thought of that when I saw this heads up play from Ryans, who forced Brees to eat this throw.
From the end zone angle, you can see the job by Logan, who beats the center on this stunt from the Eagles' defensive line, loops around and brings Brees down for the sack.
Logan made a number of really athletic plays against the Saints as well, as you can see on this tackle for loss where he goes back side and makes a play in pursuit of this stretch toss play. I've said for a long time that both Cox and Logan belong in the Pro Bowl this year, and are potential All-Pro-caliber talents. This Eagles front seven has truly turned into one of the most impressive in the league.
On the back end, I've already showed you some of the great plays that you may not have noticed from the secondary, but how about Walter Thurmond's interception late in the game? Thurmond has been a great addition and has proven to be a true ballhawk, with three picks in five games.
This was an interesting coverage from the Eagles on this play, one that I don't see too often. The two safeties, Thurmond and Jenkins, appear to be playing quarters coverage in the deep middle, but it appears to be straight man coverage underneath. When I was at Temple, I knew this as "Brown" coverage. It could be a tighter version of Cover 2 Man, which we've seen from the Eagles as well, but either way, Thurmond is playing as a high player and reads this throw beautifully from Brees and is in perfect position to make a play on the football and bring it in for the interception. The duo of Jenkins and Thurmond has turned out to be a huge strength for the Eagles in 2015, as they've quickly developed into one of the best safety tandems in the league.
I had to show this clip because I love great plays on kickoff coverage, and Chris Maragos has made plenty of them in his time here in Philadelphia. Look at Maragos' ability to avoid the block, after going full bore down the field as one of the first men in the area, then finish a one-on-one tackle against rookie returner Marcus Murphy, one of the most dynamic players in the SEC a year ago. Maragos has seen an increased role on defense this year, but he continues to make plays as a special teams demon for this Eagles team.
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.