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Eagle Eye: The Josh Norman Effect


After taking a long, hard look at the Washington offense and all of the challenges it will present the Eagles this weekend, it's time to look at the other side of the ball at what coordinator Joe Barry and the defense has cooking for Sunday afternoon.

As I prepared for this week's Eagles Game Plan show over the last 10 days or so, the Washington defense gave me a lot of issues when it came to deciding what to focus on.

Statistically, the Redskins have really struggled. They rank in the bottom half of the league in points allowed (19th), passing yards (21st), rushing yards (30th) and third-down percentage (32nd). They've had a ton of injuries, and it feels like every week there are more to add to the list. This is a team that has lost both of its starting safeties (DeAngelo Hall and David Bruton are on Injured Reserve), seen cornerbacks shuffle in and out of the lineup due to different ailments (Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland and Dashaun Phillips have all missed time). Rookie safety Su'a Cravens, who has been a linebacker for all intents and purposes, missed last week due to a concussion and is questionable for Sunday. The losses of Cravens and Bruton have really impacted how Barry has called the defense. Losing those two players have severely hampered the Redskins' subpackage personnel.

What is the biggest thing for Eagles fans to watch when this unit is on the field? Well, with Lane Johnson out and Halapoulivaati Vaitai in at right tackle, you can be sure that Washington will be looking to throw everything it can at the rookie. Vaitai hasn't played a snap in the regular season, so I had to go back to the summer to scout his preseason tape. This is something I'm sure Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and the rest of the Washington defensive front have done as well. So what did they see? Let's take a look.

Shot 1 - #Eagles new RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai has heavy hands and the ability to move people in the run game. Love play he made on 2nd shot — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

Here are two shots of Vaitai in the run game, where you're really able to see his ability to move people. In the first play, the rookie is actually late with his hands, but watch him jar the defender on contact and generate some movement. He's got what some coaches and scouts call "heavy hands," meaning that when he makes contact there's a lot of force behind it. On the second play against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I love his awareness and ability to lock in on a second-level defender on this gap-style run in the preseason, as he finishes the linebacker into the ground.

Shot 2 - Vaitai has light feet for a big guy and knows how to use his length. Good job handling the stunt on second play here #Eagles — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

Vaitai's performance in the passing game is really what people are going to be focused on though, as he protects the right side of quarterback Carson Wentz. Vaitai isn't the most nimble athlete, but he's got lighter feet than you'd expect for a 320-pound man. He actually moved better than I thought when I went back and watched his tape from this summer. On this first play, you see he's actually late with his hands again, as the defender initiates contact. But once the rookie engages the pass rusher, he stops him dead in his tracks thanks to those heavy hands.

On the second play of the same game against the Jets, I loved to see Vaitai block up this stunt so well. He's got a defensive end across from him, and as soon as the defender crosses his face he expects another body coming at him from him inside. He gets his eyes locked in on the looping defensive tackle and blocks this up perfectly. This is particularly important, because I expect the Redskins to try and challenge Vaitai mentally in a lot of ways. Stunts like this one are an example of what he may see on Sunday.

Shot 3 - #Redskins a high-percentage blitz team. I expect them to show plenty of exotic looks on Sunday. 7 potential rushers here, 5 rush — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

Washington is a high-percentage blitz team, so I definitely would not be surprised to see it show some exotic looks up front. On this play two weeks ago against Cleveland, there are seven potential rushers on or near the line of scrimmage. This is stressful not only for the offensive line, but also the running backs, tight ends and, of course, the quarterback.

Shot 4 - #Redskins Ryan Kerrigan will be who Vaitai sees the most, and it may be one of the top 2 or 3 matchups to focus on in this game — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

From a personnel standpoint, the player who will line up most of the time over Vaitai is Ryan Kerrigan, a perennial Eagles killer. The former first-round pick will present as many challenges to Vaitai because of his technique, motor and strength as a pass rusher. Kerrigan against Vaitai may be one of the top two or three most integral matchups to focus on in this game on either side of the ball.

When you look at the rest of this defense, it's tough to not mention Josh Norman, the key acquisition the Redskins made in the summer after he was let go by the Carolina Panthers. Like Vaitai, Norman is a former third-day draft pick. Norman's combination of length, physicality, instincts and ball skills make him a very tough cover man. When Norman was released by Carolina after his All-Pro 2015 campaign, experts wondered how Norman fit in the structure of the defense. The Redskins have definitely toyed with different strategies. He's stuck to one side in some games, and traveled with opposing No. 1 receivers in others. I expect the former on Sunday, with him lining up primarily on the defensive left side of the formation.

Shot 5 - Norman loves to get physical in press, regardless of who he lines up against. Competitiveness is one of his best traits #Redskins — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

Here's a rep of Norman against Dallas receiver Dez Bryant. Notice Norman's physicality on this play, getting right up in the grill of one of the most dominant receivers in football at the line of scrimmage and disrupting him early in the down before making a play on the ball for a pass breakup. In some of their zone concepts, you'll often see Norman lined up almost in a track stance with his feet staggered before the snap before he vaults himself into the receiver's chest. Getting off the line against him will be a big key for the Eagles' receiving corps.

Shot 6 - Norman is not afraid to undercut throws, with or without safety help. He trusts his eyes and loves to jump passes after baiting QBs — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

On his lone interception of the season, you see Norman's willingness to undercut throws put into action. He knows he has a deep safety in the middle of the field, so when his man runs a deep in-cut, he jumps this route and picks off the pass for a big turnover. Even when he's in man coverage, Norman looks like he's in zone because of how he keeps his back to the sideline and his eyes on the quarterback, he's always looking to bait quarterbacks into throws so he can jump routes for big plays. That is certainly something to watch for in this game.

Shot 7 - Reckless or great instincts? Norman abandons his role as a deep 1/3 player in Cover 3 when he reads Eli's eyes inside for big play — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

Norman isn't afraid to take chances, and there are times where that can burn him. This is not one of those plays. This goes down as a huge play on his highlight reel as he lights up rookie slot receiver Sterling Shepard, but he took a big risk in abandoning his role as a deep third player in Cover 3. Off play-action, it may have been a "tape study" play by Norman to know that Eli Manning was going to hit the quick slant over the middle, but if that was not the case he would've given up a huge play in the secondary. These are the types of plays that he makes on a consistent basis, and his instincts in zone coverage are as good as anyone's in the NFL.

Shot 8 - #Redskins missed Sua Cravens last week. A subpackage LB for them, his physicality & man cover skills vs RBs were very valuable — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 14, 2016

The loss of Cravens hurts the Redskins schematically. With him in the lineup, Washington loved to play him as a nickel linebacker, where his physicality and aggressiveness allowed him to be effective close to the line of scrimmage, and his athleticism allowed him to be a viable man coverage player against running backs. Here you see him make an outstanding interception on a Texas route in the middle of the field against the Giants, a deciding play in the outcome of that Week 3 contest.

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.

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