The Eagles' playoff hopes are on the line when they head down to Landover, Md. on Saturday to take on Washington. While this team has struggled greatly since the last time these two teams met back in Week 3, there are a lot of things to prepare for on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, this Washington team led by coordinator Jim Haslett is a pressure-based 3-4 scheme. They mix up their looks on the back end with various man and zone coverages. One of the benefactors of that scheme, in terms of production, is linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. The former first-round pick has been a terror for opposing offenses this season, racking up 12.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss and 16 hits on the quarterback through 14 games.
On this play against Dallas a couple of months ago (let's hope we see more of this in Week 17), Washington ran a blitz from the offense's right side. It should be four on four, with the center, guard, tackle and running back there to account for three down linemen and a blitzer from the second level. The back picked up the extra rusher, something Haslett counted on, meaning that no one is available to pick up Kerrigan, who works free thanks to the stunt up front. The Eagles will have to be prepared for designer blitzes like this one, as Washington will look to pressure Mark Sanchez on Saturday afternoon.
How do the Eagles keep Washington from blitzing? The main way will be to "burn the blitz" by keeping Sanchez upright and getting the ball out to open receivers and taking advantage of voids in coverage. On this touchdown to Odell Beckham Jr. last week, the Giants picked up the blitz and got a big play off of a great play design that opened up a huge hole in the middle of the field for ODB to run through for a score. Creating big plays in the secondary will be key for the Eagles' offense this week.
The downfall for this secondary has been injuries. DeAngelo Hall, Tracy Porter, Duke Ihenacho and Chase Minnifield are all on Injured Reserve along with linebacker Brian Orakpo. As a result, a number of young players and veterans off the street have cycled in and out of the starting lineup, resulting in a number of busted coverages on the back end leading to big plays for opposing offenses.
This was a basic Cover-1 look from Washington. Pretty basic look. You've got a single-high safety and man coverage across the board with a hole player. Every team in the league (and in college, high school or Pop Warner, for that matter) runs it. But there's a miscommunication somewhere along the line because slot corner E.J. Biggers thought he's blitzing at the snap, leaving no one to cover Giants receiver Victor Cruz as he caught a long pass for a first down.
Here's another busted coverage, this time against Indianapolis. Washington is in two-man coverage and there was another miscommunication between cornerback David Amerson (at the top of the screen) and safety Phillip Thomas. Amerson thought he passed off the vertical route. Thomas' eyes were in the wrong place and rookie receiver Donte Moncrief sped right past him for a 79-yard touchdown.
Here's another play against the Colts and another busted coverage which led to a touchdown for Moncrief. This is high school Cover-3. Indianapolis ran a little high-low combination to the bottom of the screen. The No. 1 receiver ran a quick hitch and the No. 2 receiver (Moncrief) streaked down the field. Amerson, who responsible for the deep third to that side of the field, hesitated as if he will break on the hitch route and Moncrief flew by him for another score. The single-high safety was looked off by Andrew Luck (brilliant by the young passer, by the way) and the rookie wideout was open by a mile on his way to the end zone thanks to the hesitation from the corner, Amerson.
Against St. Louis, Washington sat on this play in quarters coverage. The Rams have a great call in place to beat the coverage - but let's see how it resulted in a wide open touchdown for tight end Jared Cook. One of the issues with quarters is that, while it is a four-deep coverage on the back end, all of those secondary players have run responsibilities, particularly the safeties. Here, Ryan Clark gets sucked in by the play-action. The Rams have two receivers to the bottom of the screen, and with those receivers running vertically down the field they occupied the safety to that side as well. With both safeties occupied, there was a void between the hashes, one that Cook ran through untouched as he sprinted toward the end zone.
The final coverage I wanted to show was a quarter-quarter-half coverage. This combo coverage is exactly how it sounds. The one side (typically to the wide side of the field, to the opposite hash of where the ball is placed), you have quarters coverage with two defenders splitting up that half of the field into quarters. To the opposite side (typically to the short side, also known as the boundary), you have a Cover-2 look, with one safety covering the deep half and a corner playing as a flat player over the X receiver.
On this play, the Colts called a post-wheel combination and tight end Coby Fleener caught a wide open touchdown pass. Why was he wide open? Because Amerson stayed with T.Y. Hilton on the post route and there was no overlap to defend the wheel as two defensive backs stayed with the post. The Eagles will have chances to make plays against this Washington secondary. It will be up to the Eagles' offense to capitalize on any mistakes and put points on the board through the air.
On his conference call with Philadelphia reporters this week, Washington head coach Jay Gruden talked about the reasons why Robert Griffin III was benched for Colt McCoy. Griffin gets the start on Saturday and will have the opportunity to show that he's improved from the early-season mistakes.
"He's got a couple of games here to show what kind of progress he's made this year. He's still a young guy at 24 years old," Gruden said. "We're looking for him to improve upon the performances he's had so far with his decision-making, getting the ball out of his hands. We've taken way too many sacks. We've just got to speed up the process a little bit. Hopefully, he's starting to understand these concepts to get the ball out."
Here's a look at some of those struggles that Gruden alluded to.
Here's a play from a few weeks ago against Minnesota. Greg Cosell and I talked about it in one of our discussions on an earlier podcast. It's third down. The Vikings showed blitz at the snap. With no safeties in the middle of the field and the alignment of the defensive backs on the outside, it's a clear pre-snap read that it's going to be a Cover-0 blitz. To the right, DeSean Jackson ran an isolation route that, in theory, is a quick hitter that will beat man coverage. Griffin started to his left, however, failing to read the defense before the snap. By the time he got over to the right, he was forced to throw the ball away. Washington kicked a field goal when they should have been in position to score a touchdown.
The false reads don't just happen before the snap however. On this read-option play, Griffin had the ability to give the ball to the back on a run play or pull it and throw the pop pass to the tight end against Tampa Bay. Instead of making the throw (even if he felt the linebacker took the throw away initially, Reed's route carried him farther inside into a lane that the ball could have been thrown into with a bit of anticipation), Griffin pulled it, broke the pocket and tried to dump it out on the run and ended up throwing an interception.
In the same game, there was a play that illustrated the issues that Griffin is having right now as an NFL quarterback. Washington ran a mirrored route concept with a corner-flat combination to both sides of the field. This type of concept makes sense for a passer like Griffin in this stage of his career because it's a simple high-low read.
It is particularly strong against Cover-2 because that high-low read is easily defined with the cornerback playing in the flat. If the corner sinks with the corner route, throw it to the flat. If he plays closer to the flat, throw it in the void behind the cornerback near the sideline for the corner route.
Mirroring the concept to both sides allowed for Griffin to decide before the snap which side he has the better matchup on. This play worked exactly as planned for Gruden. The Bucs were in Cover-2. This pass could literally go to any of the four receivers on the outside. All four were open, not including the dump off in the middle of the field. But Griffin didn't throw it. He felt pressure quickly and released the ball to the right off-target for an incompletion. These are the types of plays that can be understandably frustrating for the Washington coaching staff.
Can these issues be fixed? Absolutely. Griffin is a great talent, remember he was considered a near "can't miss" talent just three years ago as the second-overall pick. He's coming off of his best game this season against the Giants. He's starting to look healthier running out on the perimeter. His arm is still as strong as ever. But it's the mental aspect of the game that he is still developing at this stage of his career.
Griffin had a lot of success with those types of one-read concepts. One that Washington has used with him in the lineup throughout his career is the post-dig, or post-cross concept. When Washington comes out with the receivers in tight splits, lined up inside the numbers, particularly out of two-receiver sets like this one, it should be an immediate alert for the Eagles' defense. Griffin obviously didn't play back in Week 3, but the Eagles saw this concept anyway with Kirk Cousins under center. Pierre Garçon ran a dig route and DeSean Jackson went over the top with the post route. It's a simple read for the quarterback. He just has to read the safety in the middle of the field. If he plays deep to take away the post, the ball goes to the dig route crossing over the middle. If he crashes down too far to attack the dig, then the ball goes over the top on the deep post. The play is designed to put the safety in that bind, so that no matter what he does, he is (in theory) wrong.
When you run the ball as well as Washington does, you can run concepts like this off play-action and it can be particularly deadly. Here, Cousins read Nate Allen and after a great double move from Jackson he was freed up for an 81-yard touchdown late in the game back in Week 3. When Washington comes out in two-receiver sets with tight splits, watch out for this route concept.
On a closing note, make sure you catch Eagles Game Plan at a special time this week. With the Saturday kickoff time, the show will air on 6abc at 1:30 PM on Saturday throughout the region and will be available on-demand right here on PhiladelphiaEagles.com at 2 PM, as well as air as part of our pre-game coverage starting at 3 PM as we take you up to kickoff against Washington.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and 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.