Chip Kelly was asked how important it was for the Eagles to generate a pass rush against Peyton Manning.
"Not that important," Kelly joked. "I mean, we actually didn't even think of that."
As funny as Kelly may have thought he was being, stopping the Broncos quarterback won't be a laughing matter for the Eagles this Sunday. But if defensive coordinator Bill Davis' unit is to have any chance against one of the greatest to play the game, the Eagles should go light on the blitz.
Kelly said that Manning and the Patriots' Tom Brady were two of the best quarterbacks he had ever seen against the blitz. Manning has completed 24 of 36 passes for 352 yards and five touchdowns this season when opposing defenses have come at him with more than four pass rushers.
His numbers are just as good when coordinators played him straight up, but Manning has been sacked four times when facing a four-man rush. We're splitting hairs here, but Davis' only hope to contain Denver's passing attack would be to rely on his line -- the strength of the Eagles defense -- and pick his spots in blitzing.
After two games of heavy blitzing, Davis employed a similar game plan against the Chiefs and for the most part it worked. Alex Smith is not in Manning's class, but Davis was able to occassionally confuse the Kansas City quarterback with the illusion of blitz even though he often dropped seven into coverage to aid a suspect secondary.
As illustrated below, in a series of screenshots detailing their five sacks Thursday night, the Eagles generated pressure in a variety of ways and from a variety of places, but the constant was a four-man rush.
SACK 1: FIRST QUARTER, THIRD DOWN AND 7 AT THE EAGLES 7
The Eagles were in their nickel defense here and a traditional four-man front look with defensive ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton and outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Trent Cole. Thornton and Barwin ran stunts.
Cole got push inside even though he was up against two offensive linemen. The Eagles secondary was in man coverage and when Cole pushed the pocket Smith scrambled to his right. Cox and Barwin had heavy pursuit and Smith ran back across the field. He avoided Fletcher, but safety Nate Allen came up and dropped him for the sack.
Allen made a fine play, but the combination of the four-man pressure and the coverage in the secondary led to his sack.
SACK 2: SECOND QUARTER, SECOND DOWN AND 15 AT KANSAS CITY 34
The Eagles were again in their nickel defense, but three linemen had their hands in the ground. Cole (2) was lined up inside Barwin (1), who was in a two-point stance. Thornton (4) was over the center and Cox (6) was over rookie right tackle Eric Fisher. Any one of the seven Eagles defenders shown in this end zone camera angle could have rushed Smith.
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans (5) and safety Patrick Chung (7) were fairly far off and did not come on this play. They may need to have that kind of flexibility against Denver, although Manning generally needs only a few seconds. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks (3) was closer.
"You have to try to give [Manning] different looks," Kelly said. "But you have to make sure your disguise isn't a liability, that you're so far away from your work that you can't get to your work."
The Eagles once again rushed four, but Kendricks went instead of Barwin, who set the edge. Thornton was double teamed. Chiefs tight end Sean McGrath chip blocked Cox, but the defensive end blew inside Fisher and gobbled Smith up before he really had an opportunity to survey the secondary. It was a great individual play. The Eagles will need Cox, arguably their best player on defense, to make similar plays against the Broncos if they are to have any shot.
SACK 3: THIRD QUARTER, FIRST DOWN AND 15 AT THE KANSAS CITY 40
The Eagles were again in the nickel but had different personnel at end with Vinny Curry and Bennie Logan. Barwin was once again up at the line, but in a two-point stance. Chiefs tight end Kevin Brock was responsible for Curry at the snap.
Curry, though, exploded off the snap and Brock was late. You couldn't see him in the above panel, but cornerback Brandon Boykin blitzed from the slot. It was picked up because the Chiefs had six blockers. But the Eagles rushed only four. The difference here, again, was a great individual effort, not the coverage, as Curry picked up his first sack.
SACK 4: THIRD QUARTER, SECON DOWN AND 21 AT THE KANSAS CITY 34
We've seen Cole line up in the 7-technique, the 5- and the 3- in the previous three highlighted plays. He was back in the 7- a play after Curry's sack. Curry was in a 3-technique stance over the right guard and he's slanted toward the "A" gap.
Cole rushed upfield and was double teamed by the left tackle and the running back.
Because the Chiefs had trip receivers to Smith's left, Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher had no one on his side of the field. While Barwin manned the tight end, Fletcher blitzed and raced into the backfield untouched. When Smith turned after the fake to the running back, he saw Fletcher and Curry, who had beaten his man inside.
Smith stepped up in the pocket to avoid both, but the high-motoring Cole split the double team and chased down Smith. Curry played only 12 snaps in his first game of the season but he was very productive. He deserves and should see more time against Denver.
SACK 5: SECOND DOWN AND SEVEN AND THE KANSAS CITY 8
The Chiefs were backed up in the fourth quarter and the Eagles showed five men on the line, with Ryans showing blitz. The three down linemen were Logan (2), Isaac Sopoaga (4) and Clifton Geathers (6). Barwin (7) and Brandon Graham were the stand-up outside linebackers.
The Eagles rushed four with Graham and the three down linemen. Ryans dropped and Barwin covered the running back in the flat.
The Eagles' zone defense gave the conservative Smith no open receivers and Graham's bull rush pushed the left tackle into the quarterback. When Smith stepped up, Graham picked up the sack.
After the Eagles trimmed Kansas City's lead to 23-16 and Graham picked up his first sack on the season, the momentum seemed to be shifting. But the Chiefs converted third down and ten, drained the clock and ended the drive with a game-clinching field goal.
Despite notching five sacks and keeping Smith in check for three quarters, the tired Eagles defense could not seal the deal. They can't afford a similar lapse against Manning. Even if they play their best it might not be enough. But Davis' best chance Sunday should be to dial back the extra pass rushers and roll the dice with his line and the illusion of blitz.