Going back and watching the film of Sunday’s overtime loss against the Tennessee Titans was difficult because of all of the missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. The Eagles had chances to put the game out of reach early and finish it late, but just couldn’t execute enough on offense and defense in key spots. I detailed my findings from watching the offense on Monday night, so now it’s time to look at what happened on defense.
The biggest story coming out of this game is the breakdowns in coverage, and I'm going to cover some of what happened in the secondary. It was not one specific thing that popped up time and time again, as is always the case in football, rather a few different issues. Poor discipline and awareness in zone coverage, getting beaten in man-to-man situations, bad tackling, bad execution in rush lanes up front, and just flat-out good play design from the offense all led to some big plays against this Eagles defense in key moments, particularly in the fourth quarter and in overtime. To start off this piece, however, I want to talk about Cover 3, one of the staple coverages of Jim Schwartz’s defense, and why there were some adjustments off of that in this game.
The more you study football, the more you realize how much the front impacts the coverage, and vice versa. There are examples of it in every game, whether they are on individual plays or in overall game plans and defensive philosophies.
What do we know about Jim Schwartz and this Eagles defense? It all starts with an aggressive four-man rush, right? Those guys are flying upfield. They want to live on the other side of the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc. Complementing that, the linebackers are also aggressive. Those guys fly downhill, attacking the run game. The Eagles are a "fast-flow" team, reacting to the first thing they see like sharks smelling blood in the water. That aggressive nature, in my opinion, is the right way to play defensive football, and it helped them win a title a year ago.
Going into this game against the Titans, who ran the ball more than any team in football (particularly on first down), the Eagles were going to need to play a lot of single-high coverage. The Eagles are primarily a single-high safety team anyway. That means you play with a true free safety in the middle of the field (in this game, it was Corey Graham) and a strong safety closer to the box (for three years in this scheme, that’s been Malcolm Jenkins). When you play single-high zone coverage, you are playing, in some way, shape, or form, Cover 3 zone.
Cover 3 is played at every level of football. You have four underneath zone defenders spread out across the width of the field. Three deep players account for the vertical part of the field. In the most basic terms, that is Cover 3.
Now, keep in mind, every player on every snap has a pass responsibility and a run responsibility. All four of those underneath zone coverage defenders must make their presence known in the run fit before they decide to drop back in zone coverage. That must happen first. Play the run, then turn and find your landmark in zone coverage.
Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur knows this. He comes from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, where he also worked with Sean McVay. That system is predicated on getting teams to play in these single-high looks on a weekly basis, establishing a strong run game, and then hitting them both down the field and in the intermediate area of the field off play-action. We saw this with Jake Plummer in Denver, Robert Griffin III in Washington, Matt Schaub in Houston, Matt Ryan in Atlanta, and now Jared Goff in Los Angeles as well as in San Francisco with Jimmy Garoppolo before he was injured. That is in the DNA of this offensive game plan, to attack teams off play-action and put the linebackers in a bind. Last Thursday night, McVay and his Rams abused Minnesota and their two stars in the middle of this defense, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, with the same principles. Against Cover 3, this offense can do some real damage.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
It’s first-and-10 in the second quarter. The Titans present a tight formation with "minus splits" from the wide receivers. This means they are lined up close to the quarterback with everyone aligned between the numbers. The two reasons why that is important is because it:
a) Presents a running look to the defense that causes many coaches to play Cover 3.
b) Forces the corners to back way off of the receivers. It’s very difficult to press receivers with tight splits because, in essence, they have two-way gos and can win either inside or outside with a ton of room to work. The Titans have a pretty good idea at this point that the Eagles are playing Cover 3.
The quarterback drops back off play-action, and with that run fake, you can see the linebackers all sucked up toward the line of scrimmage. This is a public service announcement. Even though they are underneath zone players, they must first play the run! Look at the void in the middle of the field created by the play fake. The single-high safety is too far away to defend the intermediate crossing route. The cornerback on the other side is occupied by the X-receiver. Mariota drops back and hits his target for a 17-yard gain.
Through three games this year, Tennessee’s offense was extremely conservative. There were very few attempts to go downfield. It was run, run, and run again with play-fakes and quick throws. The Titans showed early on that they were going to attack the intermediate areas of the field. The Eagles had to have an answer for that. It was a coverage they’ve played at times over the last couple of years, a version of Cover 3 that many refer to as Cover 3 Robber.
With Cover 3 Robber, the rules are almost all the same as basic Cover 3. There are four underneath zone defenders, and two corners occupy two of the deep thirds down the field. The one major difference is at free safety. Instead of playing in the deep third, the safety doesn’t retreat at the snap. His alignment puts him closer to the line of scrimmage and therefore in better position to defend those crossing routes. The middle of the field is a little bit more exposed, but that’s where your cornerbacks have to help each other on vertical shot plays.
There are three plays above. On the first snap, the very first of overtime for the defense, the Eagles face the same kind of look on first down that they saw on the earlier play. The Eagles respond to the tight formation with Cover 3 Robber. Off play-action, the Titans run an intermediate crossing route, and rookie defensive back Avonte Maddox takes that away. A deep post route is run from Ronald Darby’s side. The corners still both play with outside leverage, meaning they are funneling the action inside. Darby escorts the receiver to the post, Jalen Mills sinks backward, passing off the most dangerous threat to him inside to Maddox, and takes away this deep throw to Mariota. That’s exactly how these corners are coached to react on this play, and the coverage works great.
The second play is from early in the fourth quarter, and the same things are present. It's a reduced formation from the offense, Cover 3 Robber from the defense, and a deep post route alongside an intermediate crossing route. The Robber, this time Corey Graham, takes away the crosser. Darby’s side is uninhabited with the receiver running to the middle, which is what happened to Mills on the previous play. It’s up to Darby at this point to run to the post to help Mills, who is defending a vertical route from Corey Davis. Darby doesn’t sprint to the middle of the field until the ball is in the air, and the pass is completed for a 51-yard gain. The Titans actually made it a point to attack Cover 3 and Cover 3 Robber numerous times throughout the afternoon. I give a lot of credit to LaFleur for finding ways to attack the concept and scheme guys open.
Looking at plays like this is NOT about assigning blame on one corner or another. That’s not the point. The point is to find out "why" these big plays and work to correct them. The Eagles ran this coverage a number of times. Sometimes the coverage worked, other times there were breakdowns, and sometimes you just get beaten. There were plenty of examples of all three on Sunday from the Eagles, and you can be sure that the team is doing everything it can this week to get it all corrected before Minnesota arrives on Sunday.
Miscues in coverage didn’t just happen on vertical shot plays down the field off play-action. The Eagles allowed three fourth-down conversions on the final drive in overtime alone in this loss. Here are two of them.
These two plays could have been easily avoided. One appears to be a fundamental error in a simple underneath zone coverage by not getting enough width and depth on the outside to cover the first-down marker. The second is harder to pinpoint, but clearly something happened in passing off running back Dion Lewis out of the backfield in Tennessee’s Mesh passing concept, as he broke free to the right flat to move the chains. Again, these are correctable mistakes that the team can learn from and build off of moving forward.
Big plays don’t just fall on the back seven because the defensive linemen can do their part as well. Tennessee did a good job of trying to negate the Eagles' pass rush, whether it was through play-action (forcing the defenders to attack the running back before the quarterback), max protection (some of those deep shot plays were just two-man routes, meaning there were at least seven men in protection), and with chips from the backfield. I thought the front four did a good job of getting after Mariota. It didn’t always result in the sack, but they impacted him more than it seemed watching the broadcast of the game live. However, there needed to be more consistency keeping him contained in the pocket, as Mariota was able to hurt the defense numerous times out on the perimeter both with his legs and with his arm.
Let’s quickly look at some bright spots for this Eagles defense from the game.
Michael Bennett had his best game as an Eagle on Sunday. Outside of losing contain of Mariota on that third-and-long rush in overtime, Bennett was disruptive in the backfield and changed the line of scrimmage a bunch of times as evidenced in the clip above.
Derek Barnett also showed up in this game. His sack of Mariota was one of my favorite individual plays from the afternoon. We know that Barnett can win outside with a speed rush, but we haven’t seen him beat a guy like Taylor Lewan with an inside move like this one yet. Barnett exploded into Lewan’s chest with good hand placement, executing a push-pull move, and winning with an inside swim to get home for the sack. That was really, really good to see for the former first-round pick.
Fletcher Cox had a few really impressive plays in this game, including on rookie Avonte Maddox’s interception. I was impressed with Maddox on Sunday, as he was thrown in at safety in subpackages and performed well. Was he perfect? No, but the moment didn’t look too big for him and he competed at a high level. I’m excited to see more of him moving forward. Maddox gave up the final touchdown to Davis on the last play of the game, but it was on a good route in the middle of the field against a top-five pick in the draft with the game on the line.
Here’s that touchdown, along with a third-down sack early in the game. Both of those plays came off Cover 0 blitzes, where six defenders are sent as all-out blitzers after the quarterback. This leaves five defenders in man-to-man coverage across the field on an island. This is a vulnerable position for any defensive back, but the Eagles are able to bring one more than the offense can block, in theory.
On the final play, Jenkins and Mills are matched up on the running back and tight end in man-to-man coverage. Both players stay in to protect. Sometimes, players can decide to "green dog" here, meaning that they get the green light to blitz once their assignment stays in to defend. There’s more in play here, however. If you’re Mills and Jenkins, you have to worry about Mariota's rushing ability, you have to worry about the quick throw, you have to worry about a player sneaking out late into the flats. Both guys stay in coverage, and I don’t blame them.
I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of Mills and the way he plays. I love his play personality. He does all the right things in this defensive scheme. As Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday, Mills represents a lot of the identity of this defense. A lot of the big plays are being pinned on him from Sunday, and as I showed earlier, they shouldn’t all be.
I’m not going to sit here and argue he’s perfect. There are times where he needs to be more disciplined, he can get beaten by double moves at times. But I have news for you. If you’re an aggressive corner in the NFL, you’re going to get double moves thrown at you, and sometimes you’re going to give them up. I’ve seen Xavier Rhodes, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and others all give up big plays on double moves. That happens. That’s life in the league.
In the clip above, Mills gives up one double move on third-and-3, lined up in press coverage against a receiver with a tight split. That’s not an easy rep, and he has to defend that out route in that situation to protect the sticks. The receiver breaks upfield for a big play, but I’ll live with plays like that. Mills later defended a post-corner route perfectly. He was on his way to defending another until he stumbled a bit out of the break, tried to catch his balance, and briefly grabbed the receiver, drawing a penalty. Was the flag deserved? Maybe. But I’ll take that style of play every time.
This defense clearly has issues that are being worked through right now. But I have faith in the scheme and in the players, both of which brought a title to Philadelphia just seven months ago. The defense will hit its stride sooner rather than later.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.