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Eagle Eye: Third Down Haunts Defense

The Eagles' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon was a tough one to sit through if you're a huge fan of defensive football. The Eagles' defense could not get off the field early in this game. On Cincinnati's first six possessions, it came away with points on every single one, not having to punt the ball until the fourth quarter.

Did the Bengals, without wide receiver A.J. Green and running back Gio Bernard, march up and down the field at will against the Eagles' defense? No. In fact, after watching the tape, there were actually more than a few positive plays from the Eagles' defense, but on the most important down in football you have got to execute and protect the sticks. That just did not happen enough for this team on Sunday.

Cincinnati finished the game 7-of-14 on third down (50 percent), much better than its rate for the rest of the season (36.6 percent, good for 22nd in the NFL). Over the last two weeks against the Bengals and the Green Bay Packers, the Eagles have allowed 17-of-28 third-down conversions, good for 60.7 percent. For some context, the Redskins own the worst third-down defense this season around the NFL at 48 percent. Two games is a small sample size, but you get a sense of how much trouble they've had on third down with that number. Now, let's take a look at some of examples where everything went right on first and second down, only to fall apart on third.

Shot 1 - On first down, Brandon Graham explodes into the backfield for a TFL. On second down, Jordan Hicks reads the Tunnel screen perfectly — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

The Bengals are up 3-0 midway through the first quarter and have the ball at their own 19-yard line. On first down, they run the counter play that we focused on in this week’s episode of Eagles Game Plan, but defensive end Brandon Graham explodes into the backfield and blows this play up from the jump. Graham and defensive tackle Bennie Logan converge for a 4-yard loss to bring up second-and-14. Linebacker Jordan Hicks reads a screen pass on the outside to a wide receiver and makes a tackle outside the hashes after a 5-yard gain, bringing up third-and-9. It's a very manageable situation for a defense.

Shot 2 - Brings up 3rd-and-9. #Bengals get a first down on version of 'Dagger' route concept beating Tampa 2 coverage. — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

On third down, the Eagles drop back in a Tampa 2 defense, with two high safeties (Rodney McLeod and Jaylen Watkins), Hicks running down the seam and a four-man wall along the first-down marker with defenders in underneath zone coverage. The Bengals call a passing concept that works perfectly against a Tampa 2 defense, as wide receiver Brandon LaFell settles in behind Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll (guarding the first-down line) and underneath McLeod, who is playing as deep as the deepest route on the field (that being the vertical route from the slot receiver, Tyler Boyd). This a really good play call against the Eagles' coverage scheme. Dagger is a very effective Cover 2 beater, and with Andy Dalton throwing from a clean pocket he's able to deliver this for a first down. That big third-down conversion keeps Cincinnati's offense on the field, and a handful of plays later Jeremy Hill scores on a 2-yard touchdown run to make the score 10-0.

Shot 3 - Next series, now down 10-0, 2 herculean efforts from Brandon Graham on the backside force 3rd-and-11 #FlyEaglesFly — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

On the very next series, the Bengals held the ball at their own 41-yard line and on tried to run a G sweep play on first down. Graham makes an outstanding play from the back side, beating a cut block from LaFell, staying alive and chasing this play down from behind. Credit the defenders on the play side as well for holding up the run and forcing Hill to cut this back against the grain. On second-and-7, Cincinnati runs a very similar play in the same direction, except this time Graham chases the back down for a 4-yard loss.

Shot 4 - #Bengals 3-level stretch beats #Eagles 'Cover 2 Man' scheme. Great route by Tyler Boyd vs Jalen Mills in the slot. CIN goes up 13-0 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

On third-and-11, the Bengals call a three-level stretch concept I've always called Flood with three routes from the same side of the field attacking all three levels of the defense. LaFell ran a deep post, Boyd an intermediate sail route and running back Rex Burkhead short to the flat. The Eagles are in Cover 2 Man with two high safeties in McLeod and Watkins, and man coverage underneath. LaFell's post route holds Watkins in the deep part of the field, preventing him from breaking on the throw to Boyd, but this play is made by the quarterback and the receiver. First, Dalton lets go of this ball perfectly on time and places it along the sideline. Boyd runs a very good route, first beating Mills' jam at the line before sticking him at the top of his stem and breaking outside for a first down.

Even if the ball wasn't caught, a (questionable) roughing the passer penalty was called on Graham. He beat the Bengals' right tackle on the play, but was pushed to the ground where he collapsed on Dalton's knees as he threw the football. Regardless, it's a first down for the Bengals on a third-and-very-long situation, and they capitalize on the opportunity with another field goal to make it 13-0 in the second quarter.

Shot 5 - Next drive. Run stuff by Fletcher Cox on 1st down and good coverage call by Jim Schwartz on 2nd down force 3rd-and-7 for #Bengals — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

Now down by 13, the Eagles punted the ball back to Cincinnati. After a 16-yard run by Burkhead on the opening play of the drive, the Bengals face first-and-10 from their own 23-yard line. The ball goes to Burkhead again, but defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and Graham both converge on the football for no gain to force second-and-10. On second down, the Eagles play Cover 2 to the boundary side of the field, as Dalton throws it to Burkhead only to be stopped by Carroll for a 3-yard gain. You had a great run stop on first down, a perfect coverage call by Schwartz on second down. Now, it's third-and-7 for the Bengals.

Shot 6 - 3rd dn. #Eagles in Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage. Stunts don't get home. Burkhead works free for a first down. Sets up TD for 19-0 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

The Eagles drop back in Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage, with the defenders at the bottom of the screen in Quarters and the defenders at the top of the screen playing Cover 2. This is a zone concept all the way. However, like all zone concepts, when a certain amount of time has gone by or when the quarterback breaks the pocket, it essentially becomes a man-to-man situation. Burkhead releases into the middle of the field as a safety valve for Dalton on this play. He ends up getting the football in space, but look at what happens before that.

The Eagles' four-man defensive line runs a double E-T stunt, with both ends crashing inside and the tackles looping outside, to create pressure on the quarterback. Both of Cincinnati's tackles block this up well (the right tackle manages in an unconventional manner to get the job done). Dalton breaks the pocket, Burkhead breaks free from Hicks in space and the Bengals pick up another first down on third-and-long. This helped set up the touchdown throw to tight end Tyler Eifert to put the Bengals up 19-0.

Shot 7 - Next drive, first 2 plays. Barwin/Bradham stop Counter for 0yds. Hicks sniffs out screen on 2nd down. Forces 3rd-and-10 #Eagles — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

On their first drive of the second half, the Bengals had the ball on first-and-10 and called a Counter run to the left. Defensive end Connor Barwin blows the play up in the backfield as linebacker Nigel Bradham scrapes over the top for a tackle at the line of scrimmage for no gain. On second-and-10, the Bengals called a quick screen to Hill out of the backfield, but Hicks read it immediately to force an incomplete pass to bring up third-and-10.

Shot 8 - 3rd and 10, Eagles in Quarters at bottom of the screen. 3-level stretch from CIN. Watkins jumps Boyd's route. Lafell goes 44yds — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

The Eagles are once again in Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage, with Quarters coverage at the bottom of the field. Watkins, the safety, jumps the route in the intermediate area of the field where Boyd had caught his previous completion on third down. This allows LaFell to run into the deep post with cornerback Leodis McKelvin playing with outside leverage. Dalton places this ball right where it needs to be for a 44-yard gain. Five plays later, the two would connect again for an 8-yard touchdown to put Cincinnati up 26-0.

Shot 9 - 1st down run stuff by LBs Hicks/Bradham. 2nd down disruption from McLeod on wheel route forces incomplete. #Eagles force 3rd & 10. — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

On the next drive, the Bengals get the ball after an interception on their own 14-yard line. The first play is sniffed out by the linebackers, Bradham and Hicks, scraping over the top for no gain. On second down, Cincinnati comes out with a "junk" formation, spreading their offense out across the width of the field. This actually has the potential to be a big play in the passing game, as the Bengals call dual Wheel concepts along the sideline. McLeod reads this immediately at the top of the screen, as he gets a great jam at the snap to disrupt the timing of the play. Dalton throws an incomplete pass to bring up third-and-10.

Shot 10 - 5 of #Bengals first 6 scoring drives helped by 3rd-and-long conversions vs #Eagles; this time on a penalty short of the sticks. — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

The Eagles drop back in Tampa 2 on this play, and the pocket collapses on Dalton, who is forced to get rid of the ball quickly. He tosses it out to Burkhead in the flat. Two Eagles defenders merge on him short of the first-down marker, but a costly personal foul call on Watkins gives the Bengals new life and another first down on another third-and-long situation. The Bengals would go on to hit another field goal to make the score 29-0.

Get a sense of the theme here?

The Eagles did so many things correctly in this game. Whether it was sniffing out screen passes on first and second down, limiting the run game to just 2.4 yards per carry or staying aggressive at the line of scrimmage to limit yardage early in the series. For whatever reason, the Eagles fell apart on third down. It was never a consistent theme, but it was a consistent result, as the Bengals were able to capitalize on third-and-long situations in five of their first six drives to stay on the field and put points on the board. If the Eagles are able to change the result on even two or three of those plays, we might have a different feeling about Sunday's game.

Head coach Doug Pederson admitted that there were players on Sunday who did not give maximum effort, but two defenders impressed me with their motor and competitiveness, especially against the run - Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham.

Shot 11 - Two guys up front really impressed me in the run game Sunday. First up was Fletcher Cox #Eagles — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

Shot 12 - Brandon Graham equally impressive vs the run. Made a handful of plays like this from the backside in the game #FlyEaglesFly — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

Both players worked up and down the line of scrimmage on Sunday and constantly were in the opposing backfield. Cincinnati's running backs averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, and those two players, along with the play of the linebackers, had a lot to do with that.

Late in the third quarter and going into the fourth quarter, the defense was able to force two turnovers to help try and turn the tide against the Bengals, and both of the forced fumbles came by great hustle plays from defensive tackle Bennie Logan and Bradham.

Shot 13 - #Eagles got two turnovers late in the game to try and turn the tide off great hustle plays from Bennie Logan & Nigel Bradham — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 5, 2016

The Eagles have a really tough matchup against the Washington Redskins on Sunday, a team that physically outmaneuvered them back in Week 6, especially in the run game. The Redskins also have the third-best third-down percentage in the NFL on offense (47.7 percent). Whatever changes need to be made, they will be put to the test on Sunday afternoon.

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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