Sunday's huge win over New England obviously had a lot of moving parts. With so many big plays, there's a lot to hit on in this piece. To me, when you look at this defensive performance, it all starts with the pressure the Eagles were able to get both with the front four and their pressure packages from defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
One of the most effective tactics the Eagles have used over the last couple of years is also one of the most basic stunts in football, the T/E Stunt. The player lined up as the "tackle" gets upfield first, followed by the player lined up as the "end" looping back inside. The Eagles' defensive front has consistently been able to generate pressure with this scheme. On this play, Connor Barwin (the end) and Brandon Graham (the tackle) are lined up on the same side. Graham shoots into the B gap (between the tackle and guard) and does a good job holding up the guard, preventing him from sliding inside to block the looping Barwin, who goes inside for the sack of Tom Brady on the opening possession.
The Eagles' defense came up with another sack on the next series. It's third-and-13. First, check out the rush from Vinny Curry, who rips his way past Marcus Cannon and helps force Brady to step up into the pocket. Next, you can see the bracket inside on Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola with Malcolm Jenkins ready for any in-breaking route and Ed Reynolds serving as help over the top. Lastly, watch Barwin here. He is almost a spy on Brady. Why spy Brady, you ask? By not expressing himself as a distinct pass rush threat after the snap, New England's offensive linemen take their eyes off of him. Barwin can be patient, and if Brady decides to step up in the pocket because of the rush off the edge (as he almost always does), he'll be there waiting.
That's exactly what happens here, as Curry and Barwin meet at Brady for the sack to force a punt. There are so many great facets to this play. You have the tight coverage in the secondary removing Brady's primary target from the progression. The great rush off the edge by Curry forces Brady to step up right into Barwin. This was great play-design and execution from the Eagles' defense.
The coverage on the back end was sound in a lot of key spots for this defense, and it really helped the rush. Here's a second quarter play where the Eagles drop eight in coverage and send just three rushers. Brady has nowhere to go with the football. Fletcher Cox forces Brady to try and spin out of trouble and into a sack. As Bill Davis often says, the rush and the coverage are almost always connected. Sacks often happen because of great coverage or interceptions happen because of a great rush. This play was certainly an example of the former.
Later in the third quarter, another Eagles sack came because of a great job in coverage by the Eagles' back seven. Here, a great rush by Graham off the corner forces Brady from the pocket where he's brought down from behind, but look at how Walter Thurmond is playing to his help in the secondary. The Eagles were in "Man Free" coverage with one high safety, a hole defender (Mychal Kendricks) and man coverage across the board against New England's five eligible receivers. Thurmond was matched against Amendola in the slot, and played it with outside leverage. This forces the receiver inside where Thurmond's help, Kendricks, was there to greet him. Brady saw that throwing to Amendola was out of the question, felt Graham coming from behind and tried to break the pocket before being brought down for the sack.
He may not have gotten a sack, but Cox was incredibly disruptive against the Patriots' offensive front. Cox lived in the opposing backfield on Sunday, and was consistently able to get Brady to move off his spot in the passing game. On this play, Cox's spin move forces Brady to run right into the waiting arms of Curry. Cox had a number of "near misses" on Sunday that won't show up on the stat sheet, but his presence was felt all game long.
On the very next play, the Eagles come out in their dime package and play Cover 1 Robber on the back end. What that means is that you have a single-high safety (Reynolds) a low "Robber" defender (Thurmond), and five defenders matched up one-on-one across the board. Byron Maxwell traveled into the slot on this play and played Brandon LaFell with outside leverage, forcing him inside because he knew he had help with Thurmond in the middle of the field. It's third-and-9 and Thurmond delivers a big hit short of the sticks to force fourth down and a New England punt.
A couple of series later, the Eagles again were sound in coverage to help force a punt. On third-and-17, Davis calls a form of Cover 3 where you have three deep defenders, but the four underneath defenders all drop to the sticks, ready to defend the first-down marker. The Patriots run three routes right at the sticks, but there's nowhere for Brady to go with the football. He's forced to scramble short of the first down.
On the next drive, the Eagles are again in Cover 3. Maxwell is lined up at his normal left corner spot and he is responsible for the deep area of the field on that side. LaFell is running a crossing route to that side, and Maxwell reads it perfectly, putting himself in the perfect position to intersect the route. At this point, LaFell has two choices. He can either undercut the route and get in front of Maxwell or he can carry it over the top and attack down the field. LaFell chose to undercut it but, unfortunately for him, Brady thought he would carry it deep. Maxwell tracks the ball perfectly and makes the leaping interception in the end zone.
The Eagles played a good amount of Cover 3 with three defenders deep and four underneath, but here's a version of Quarters coverage with four deep and three underneath. What often happens with Quarters though, is that while it's a zone concept it often reverts to man coverage once the routes have declared themselves. Here the Patriots are running a post-wheel concept. On the chalkboard, Maxwell is responsible for the deep quarter along the sideline. He follows the post into the middle of the field while Jenkins, an underneath defender before the snap, reads the wheel route and follows him downfield. This is a great job by Jenkins flipping his hips, getting into phase, pinning the receiver closer to the sideline and helping to force an incompletion. This is where cornerback skills at the safety position really come to the limelight. Jenkins made headlines last week with his words, but against New England he really walked the walk and had one of his best games of the season.
Jenkins made plays in coverage, was very disruptive against the screen game and was effective against the run on Sunday against New England as well. This is a play from early in the game, where the Patriots are running an "Inside Zone Counter" run. Look how well the Eagles' defense has it fitted up. "Misfits" had been an issue in the past few weeks with this unit against the run. The Eagles were very disciplined with their gap responsibility against New England minus a couple of runs early where Blount was able to cut back across the grain when the defense lost contain. Jenkins avoids the crack block and remains a factor in the D gap, giving Kiko Alonso the time he needs to come back side and make the play for a short gain.
That wasn't his biggest run stuff of the game though, because in the third quarter on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Patriots went with a no-huddle approach to try and keep the Eagles' nickel defense on the field against a goal-line subpackage. This is what they like to do because of their versatile personnel groupings. With six defensive backs on the field and the Patriots in a heavy set, the Eagles' secondary was going to have to make a play. It would be Jenkins knifing through the C gap, avoiding the block from the tight end and bringing James White down for a 4-yard loss. This turned out to be a giant play in the course of the game, because two plays later the Eagles would take the lead.
It's third-and-5, and the Patriots come out in a 3x1 set. The Eagles are playing their form of Cover 2 Man here, with man coverage across the board and two safeties helping as "free players" on the back end, helping to defend the most dangerous receivers in their area. It's not a true double team, as Jenkins said in his post-game press conference. The man defenders all know where their help should be, and they'll play to it as the routes develop. Here, two natural "brackets" develop on the back end, with Maxwell and Reynolds having eyes on the X-receiver, LaFell at the bottom of the screen. Jenkins is manned up on Amendola in the slot, and he knows that he's got Thurmond inside as a free player.
Thurmond breaks up the pass from Brady, knocking it into the air. Jenkins does the rest taking it back for a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown. It's a huge momentum swing for the Eagles as they take the lead for good. Jenkins had a really strong game in every facet, but he wasn't the only defensive back to have a strong outing on Sunday. I thought the rookie Eric Rowe fared very well in his first career start.
On first-and-10 in the second quarter, Rowe faces a dig route from Keshawn Martin lined up in a tight split. Rowe reads the route break perfectly, meeting the receiver at the catch point and getting the ball on the ground.
Later in the game, the Eagles were in Cover 2 and Rowe was a cloud corner to the right. The Patriots ran James White on a route to the flat, and when Brady threw it to him Rowe broke on it immediately and laid a big hit on White. Rowe's physicality and intensity came through in every game he played at Utah, and it was great to see that emotion on Sunday against the Patriots.
On the final drive, Brady went right at Rowe on first down with a vertical route attacking Quarters coverage. With a vertical route from the No. 2 receiver, Rowe was essentially on an island against LaFell, but look at the rookie trust his technique on this play. In off coverage, he gets out of his pedal quickly, flips his hips, gets in-phase with the receiver, pins him to the sideline and turns to find the football while not drawing a penalty. The pass falls incomplete and the Patriots face second down. Great play by the rookie in a pressure situation.
Three plays later. Fourth-and-10. This is the game. Rowe is manned up on Amendola with help over top in Thurmond. Jenkins is matched up on Martin inside in the slot. Amendola motions inside, and Jenkins and Rowe pass their men off. This is a deep version of "Levels," a concept we've broken down in the past. This ball is intended to go to Rowe's man, Martin on the backside deep dig. The rookie plays the receiver's hands perfectly here, getting the ball on the ground and ending the game. Love the job by Jenkins as well, peeling off his man after the throw and delivering a hit on the receiver for good measure to make sure the ball came out. Excellent job by that duo, and a good example of both players doing exactly as they're coached on the play.
Special teams was obviously a huge part of the Eagles win on Sunday. Four plays in particular stood out to me. The first one was innocent enough. The Patriots attempted an onside "drop kick," with former Rugby player Nate Ebner getting pitched the ball and drop kicking to the right in an attempt to catch the Eagles off-guard.
The Eagles were completely dialed in. No one on the front line was fooled, and Bryan Braman lets the ball go over his head as he blocks the most dangerous cover man. Receiver Seyi Ajirotutu, known for his prowess on special teams, jumps on the football. The Eagles take over with a short field and score their first touchdown of the game just a few plays later.
Now let's look at the play of the game, with the Eagles down by a touchdown late in the first half, New England sent the punt team out on the field.
First thing to notice is that Chris Maragos and Kenjon Barner are standing up in the A gaps. This is something that the Patriots have to account for in their protection scheme. Teams typically do it in the same way that offensive lines do it against A-gap pressure, sliding the protection.
Everyone up front for New England is sliding left, responsible for their respective outside gaps. Whomever runs through that gap is their man. This is set up this way to create a wall up front for the punter, a left-footed punter by the way. This is the "zone" side of the protection.
On the other side, the Patriots run a "man" protection, this is a common tactic. While the players up front are zoning to their left, the blockers on the right are responsible for specific men in the pressure. Most important to note here, the personal protector for the Patriots (highlighted No. 4) is responsible for Barner in the opposite A gap (also highlighted No. 4).
What makes this play go is Bryan Braman's first step off the ball, as he attacks the A gap between the guard and the snapper. The left guard for the Patriots, responsible for the B gap, leaves his area of responsibility to protect his inside gap. This, paired with the fact that the personal protector goes across the formation to block Barner, leaves a wide open lane for Maragos, who comes in free for the block.
Here it is in all its beauty. Maragos comes free and Goode, who was playing as a contain player in case of a fake on the outside, scoops the ball up and returns it for six points. This was a great scheme by special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, because the alignment drew away the personal protector. Braman's first step helped take away the guard, and Maragos' effort and technique led to the blocked punt. Just an awesome job all around by the Eagles' special teams unit.
After the blocked punt, the special teams struck again with this punt return for a touchdown by Darren Sproles. "Mighty Mouse," as Merrill Reese loves to call him, struck again for the first time since Week 3 against the Jets, and he got some great blocks to help make it happen.
First, look at the job on the outside from Jaylen Watkins as a jammer, getting his gunner out of bounds with the help of E.J. Biggers. Then, look at the hold up from both Ajirotutu and Barner, as they delay the release of their men down the field to help create more room for Sproles to work. Next, Maragos does a great job of tracking down the personal protector downfield, and he makes a really heady play. Sometimes, it's the blocks you DON'T make in the return game that make all the difference, as Maragos doesn't commit a block in the back here and instead plays the shoulder and just brushes past his man to give Sproles a crease. That's a great job by Maragos reading Sproles' body language and knowing he likes to get to the sideline. Then you just have a series of great decisions. Biggers, Trey Burton (who made multiple tackles on special teams), Barner and Ajirotutu do a great job of staying hip-to-hip on their men and not blocking in the back on this play, before Braman and Goode escort Sproles to the house.
Lastly, I have to show the final onsides kick attempt by the Patriots. This was great for a lot of reasons, not just because of Riley Cooper's ability to (smartly) knock the ball out of bounds. First off, this was a cool design by New England, who lined up as if they were kicking to the right. They sent two of their defenders from the left that direction, along with their kicker, to try and get the weak side of the Eagles' "hands" team fooled. Look at Marcus Smith and Ajirotutu though. They are unfazed by the motion, standing their ground and waiting for an apparent kick in their direction.
The only player for New England who has a chance at recovering this onsides attempt is running back Brandon Bolden. Ajirotutu absolutely lays him out, removing him from the realm of possibility when it comes to recovering this kick. Cooper knocks the ball out of bounds to close it out, a great heads-up play, but give credit to Ajirotutu and Smith up front as well as Fipp for having his unit prepared for anything the Patriots threw at them 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.