In Part 1, Jake Vincent explored the State of the Eagles offense, looking at their struggles and their opportunities to improve. In Part 2, the NFL‘s best pass rush comes under the microscope. And to complete all three phases of the game, please enjoy Darren Sproles and how-to block a punt.
Philadelphia’s improvement on defense can be attributed almost entirely to their pass rush. They rank second in the NFL with 33 sacks through 10 games (in 2013 the Eagles had just 37 sacks all year). Meanwhile, opponents are averaging 4.0 yards per rush, almost identical to last season (3.9). Philly had been tied for 12th in fewest points allowed before the Packers blowout which has dropped them to 20th. Getting to the quarterback more often and holding stout against the rush has helped propel the club to a 7-3 start.
As shown Sunday against the Packers, when Philadelphia doesn’t rush the passer effectively they can be carved up. How have the Eagles succeeded in pressuring quarterbacks this season and how can they get back on track after being exposed in Green Bay?
Installing defensive coordinator Billy Davis’s defensive system last year took time and most returning players had to adapt not only to a new philosophy but to new positions. The Eagles switched from a traditional 4-3 base defense to a hybrid 3-4, with defensive ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham moving to outside linebacker and Fletcher Cox switching from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 defensive end, a major change in responsibilities and assignments. The scheme change took hold as 2013 progressed but fans still viewed the pass rush as the major weakness heading into 2014, especially after the team chose not to fortify the front seven through free agency.
However, the results are hard to argue with. Through ten games, significant improvements by Cole and Graham ‒ especially in hiding their blitz intentions ‒ have given Connor Barwin more room to operate. Mychal Kendricks has emerged as a force rushing the passer from his inside linebacker spot, and the combination of defensive ends Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry has been a large factor. Thornton is a run stuffer playing on early downs and Curry may be the best pure pass rusher on the team. In this clip his work ethic and refusal to give up are on full display. Guard John Jerry does a decent job initially but doesn’t play to the whistle. Note Curry’s attempt to dislodge the ball during the sack, a maneuver he employs frequently on QB hits:
Instead of judging Curry as too small to play 3-4 DE, or fixating on his inability to play in zone coverage as an OLB, Davis carved out a specialized role that maximizes Curry’s core skill: getting after the quarterback on third down.
Blitzing the A Gap
Davis often shows double A-gap pressure with the inside linebackers pre-snap but then varies his unit’s maneuvers: sometimes aggressively rushing, other times dropping back. Known as “sugaring the A gap”, the goal is to force the quarterback to audible or to confuse the offensive line’s blocking assignments.
Here’s a look from the 49ers game showing pre-snap double A-gap pressure:
Safety Nolan Carroll II (#23) and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans (#59) both drop into coverage. On the opposite side the Niners end up having Cole one-on-one with the center, while guard Mike Iupati (#77) stands around with no one to block. However, running back Frank Gore commits to blocking Carroll before the snap and right guard Alex Boone also swivels his head to the edge right away, resulting in three Niners blockers paying attention to Cox. Nobody blocks Barwin, who sprints into the backfield before quarterback Colin Kaepernick can complete his drop:
Ten players have recorded at least a half-sack for the Eagles in 2014, and while Barwin leads the team with 10.5, Curry has 6, Cole and Graham 4.5 each, and Kendricks 3 in only five games. Davis’ defense aims to create and exploit mismatches. By forcing the offensive line to account for the blitz, Davis and the Eagles are able to use the zone blitz concept to confuse the protection and put pressure on the quarterback.
Stuffing the Run
The Eagles pass rush is succeeding by scheme, with individuals winning their one-on-one matchups. This shows up in the rush defense too, in particular the ability of the defensive line to shed their blocker and take the runner.
On this play the nose tackle Bennie Logan stands up the center, shifts his leverage to the run side, and disengages from the block to make the tackle for a minimal gain:
There are some eye opening stats on the defensive line. Logan leads all NFL D-linemen in solo tackles with 31 while playing just over half (52.9%) of opposing snaps. DEs Cox and Thornton both rank in the top 26 of all linemen in terms of tackles. When all three of your defensive line starters are making stops at or near the line of scrimmage, something is going right.
The effectiveness of the pass rush has enabled Philadelphia to record some coverage sacks. The signing of Malcolm Jenkins to bolster the secondary looks like a stroke of genius, and he has lined up everywhere from single deep safety to playing the slot in man coverage. On this next play against the Texans, Jenkins is inside the black circle as part of his zone coverage assignment. However, upon seeing cornerback Bradley Fletcher (#24) beaten by receiver Andre Johnson on the slant route (red arrow), Jenkins closes down on Johnson while Fletcher drops into the deep zone:
The exchange in coverage again flusters Fitzpatrick and Barwin swoops in to pick up the sack:
Green Bay Problems
The Eagles’ issues against the Packers can be laid directly on their inability to generate a pass rush. On 36 dropbacks, Aaron Rodgers was sacked just once for a measly two yards. For much of the day, the Eagles dropped seven or eight players into coverage and still could not prevent Rodgers and his offense from rampaging up and down the field. Here’s an example:
The Eagles have five men on the line at the snap but the outside linebackers drop into short zones and only three rush the quarterback. Kendricks (#95) falls for the play-action fake and cannot recover his depth in time to disrupt the clean passing lane right down the middle.
A lack of aggressiveness hurt the Eagles and it runs counter to how Davis has called the plays all season. Hopefully, it was a one-week aberration and the Eagles will be back to the winning formula against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
Stick the Landing
Ultimately, it is the versatility of Philly’s personnel that makes this defense work. The Eagles will often show blitz, especially double A-gap blitz, but will execute a variety of schemes based on that look. The ends and linebackers are complemented by the gap plugging power of Cox and the defensive line, while Jenkins has solidified the secondary.
Continuing to perform at this high level is especially important for Philadelphia’s defense with two vital games against the Cowboys still to come. Washington and Arizona both showed that the Dallas offensive line has issues adjusting to aggressive blitzing teams. For fans heading into the season, the state of the Eagles defense ‒ particularly the pass rush ‒ registered at or near the top of any list of concerns. Not only do such concerns seem unjustified at this point, but the 2014 Eagles have made their defense an organizational strength.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.