When a team’s offense is playing well, the coaches look like geniuses, as they orchestrate a masterful symphony of open receivers and perfect blocking.
When a defense is playing well, it mostly just looks like the guys on the field are making plays.
In Sunday’s game against the Cardinals, the first play from scrimmage demonstrated how far the Eagles’ defense has come under first-year coordinator Bill Davis. The play began with one of the heavy, eight-man blocking sets that Arizona head coach – and noted pro-style offense enthusiast – Bruce Arians called for throughout the day:
The cutback run sets up nicely on the snap. Most of the defensive line is flowing to the right, as is middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans (#59). On the back side, Connor Barwin (#98), Mychal Kendricks (#95) and Cedric Thornton (#72) all look like they’re sealed off.
But fast-forward three running back steps:
Kendricks flips the tackle past him like a toy. So many other defenders get off blocks that Ryans literally has to pull up because he can’t find a lane to hit someone who isn’t wearing green.
When players say they’re getting more comfortable in Davis’ two-gap 3-4 scheme, this is what they mean. At the beginning of the season, guys were stuck on blocks or running the wrong way. Now they’re all making plays.
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Things aren’t quite as smooth on the back end of the defense, although they don’t seem to be scheme issues (mostly). The Eagles had a somewhat bizarre amount of trouble covering the most basic route combination in football:
In the first example, Williams stops running with the deep route and takes a step to the flat receiver being covered by Mychal Kendricks. That leaves the inside comeback open.
In the second frame, both Williams and Ryans are covering the deeper receiver, leaving the out route in the flat wide open.
The third and fourth frames are the same play. Trent Cole blitzes off the slot and Williams and Chung jump down into man-to-man. Chung is closer to the intended receiver than we saw on the earlier plays, but he then overruns him, allowing a good-sized gain.
Announcers and analysts talk a lot about the importance of continuity on the offensive line, but another place where familiarity is important is the secondary. The communication between these defenders just isn’t there yet.
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On the Larry Fitzgerald touchdown where safety Patrick Chung succeeded only in peeling off a defender who was about to make a tackle, the Eagles actually had three guys in coverage on him:
There was a similar setup on a play later in the game (OLB/CB/S):
The catch wasn’t made on this second play, but that didn’t stop Chung from again lighting up one of his own teammates:
The best part of this play was Cary Williams’ reaction to being nailed:
For the all-22 analysis, it’s actually nice having a player like Williams on the team. When he screws up, he makes the tackle, gets up and walks away. If he’s yelling at someone after the play ends, then it probably wasn’t his fault.
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There is one recurring scheme issue that opponents have been taking advantage of in the red zone.
This is the touchdown allowed by Brandon Boykin after he bumped into Bradley Fletcher and got knocked off the route. You can see that before the snap, the Eagles have four defenders facing three receivers. If they would just play a little four-man zone outside, they wouldn’t have to worry about these pick plays they keep seeing. And it’s not like they don’t play zone against the same alignments at mid-field. But for some reason, once they hit the red zone, Davis goes to no-switch man and this frequently ends up being the result.
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Before we move to the offense, let’s take a quick look at the kick coverage team. These guys generally only get attention when they screw something up, so here’s an all-22 change of pace:
On the Eagles’ second kickoff of the day, the Cardinals sent one of their front-line players forward to pick off the Eagles’ #3 man in coverage, who in this case happened to be Brandon Graham. Teams do this semi-regularly to help create gaps in the wall of defenders who are racing down the field. The only reason I mention it is because of the result:
Graham absolutely obliterates him and keeps chugging down the field. I didn’t see the Cardinals try that again.
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The Eagles’ first touchdown came on a play we hadn’t seen yet this year. Nick Foles faked the pitch left to LeSean McCoy, then rolled out right where he had two tight ends running deep/short in the end zone:
This is how it looked from the end zone view:
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t see that without immediately flashing back to one of the best moments in Eagles’ history. (You won’t regret clicking that link.) There truly is nothing new in football.
That touchdown play was not Chip Kelly’s only post-bye wrinkle. Check out this one, which starts out looking like the basic inside zone they run 15 times a game:
Wham, the whole line chop blocks on a called pass play. That’s one way to slow down these defenses that are starting to overplay to the Eagles’ tendencies.
The Eagles also unveiled an entirely new blocking scheme near the end of the game. This was the 35-yard McCoy run that was partially called back for Jason Avant’s illegal block:
As with the power play, this is designed for the running back to hit a hole on his side of the formation. The difference is that in this version the tight end and tackle are blocking down, while the center and playside guard both pull around them to the outside. My favorite part is inside linebacker Daryl Washington (#58) having no idea that Jason Peters is about to ruin his day at the end.
If there’s a downside to all these fun new bells and whistles, it’s that they haven’t been field-tested. The Eagles ran a couple ugly-looking aborted wide receiver screens in this game – mostly because the Cardinals were doing a good job disguising their pre-snap looks outside and then crashing hard on the intended receiver – but this one had nothing to do with the defense:
Foles has to get rid of the ball quickly on these screens. By their very nature, he has an unblocked player bearing down on him right away. But notice in this case that even though he’s ready to throw, Riley Cooper still has his back turned to him. Foles had to tuck it and try to fall forward for a couple of yards instead. All the timing kinks haven’t been worked out of this one yet.
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Foles was also under more duress than he had been for a few games. He was sacked five times and had to throw a couple of others away before the pressure arrived. He’s very, very good at seeing pressure coming and getting the ball out quickly to beat it, but the challenge comes when he doesn’t have an escape hatch:
This is a three-man pattern with all deep routes. They’re all well-covered. Foles had nowhere to go with the ball and had to eat it.
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There was also a lot of talk this summer about “option routes” in the Kelly offense, with the idea being that it makes no sense to run into coverage if there’s a giant hole somewhere else. But a play like this illustrates that it’s not quite as freewheeling as was perhaps suggested:
The mistake Jason Avant made here was making his first move too good. He was trying to set up the defensive back by faking out then in then going out again. But his first fake was so good that he immediately had huge separation and seemingly nothing but open space in the middle of the field. However, he still completes his route and runs into the defender going back outside. Foles is watching the whole thing, waits for Avant to make his last break, and then puts one in the dirt right as he’s about to get creamed.
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Zach Ertz used the less complicated double move to get himself open for his second touchdown:
By threatening the corner route, he moves the safety over to the numbers, opening up space in the middle of the field. He ended up catching the ball in almost the same horizontal position as he began the play.
If Ertz’ recent usage rates continue, he could easily reach 450 yards receiving on the season. Since 1990, that’s something only 16 rookie tight ends have done. Not bad for a guy who isn’t even a starter.