Each week this season, we’ll have an oral history of a play, trend or scheme from the Eagles’ last game using the coaches’ all-22 film. This week, we spotlight the run defense, which is ranked first in the NFL in yards allowed per game (65.7), after its dominating performance in the 28-23 win over the Panthers last Thursday.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz: We’re only six games [into the season]. … We’re going to be judged on 16.
Last season, Schwartz’s defense ranked 15th in rushing yards per game (103.3) and 16th per carry (4.23). And while the 2017 Eagles are only 10th in the league in yards per carry (3.75), they have surrendered only 2.2 yards per rush to running backs. Take away a Kareem Hunt 53-yard touchdown and an Austin Ekeler 35-yard touchdown and the average per carry would be 1.2 yards.
Schwartz: If you can get the run stopped, that allows you to rush, and we’re a rush team. So you can’t put the cart before the horse, chicken before the egg.
Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham: Our first goal is to stop the run. If you let anybody run the ball, you open up everything. You’re going to have a long day on D.
The Panthers entered the game ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt (3.4) even with the mobile Cam Newton at quarterback. Running back Jonathan Stewart got the ball on Carolina’s first play from scrimmage, and defensive end Brandon Graham, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Jordan Hicks were there to meet him at the line of scrimmage.
Cox: We pride ourselves in making teams one-dimensional.
Two series later, the Panthers went to Stewart again on first down with a stretch play, but safety Malcolm Jenkins penetrated the backfield.
Even though Jenkins couldn’t initially contain him, four other Eagles were there to gang-tackle Stewart.
Jenkins: We play hard. There’s guys flying to the ball on every play, so if somebody does miss a tackle, you got two, three other guys right there.
Schwartz: There’s a commitment to it, and it’s not just saying it in a meeting and it’s not just practicing it on the field. The players have to buy into it.
Eagles safety Rodney McLeod: Other teams start to take notice on film. When you’re seeing 11 guys on the ball carrier, that starts to affect them mentally.
Jenkins and Graham, the Eagles’ defensive captains, have set the tone in practice by being the first to race to the ball at the start of team drills.
Bradham: Malcolm’s like, “Beat me to the ball.”
Graham: He steps on the ball. It’s all about who can run up to the ball first wherever they set it. Sometimes Malcolm be out there before me because he just got off the field on special teams. So it’s easy for him to run straight. I got to run at an angle.
One can question Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula for running on first down late in the game, but the Eagles continued to force negative-yard runs as they did on this Stewart third-quarter carry.
Bradham was first into the backfield, and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Derek Barnett cleaned up. Each defensive group has a tackling philosophy built upon teamwork and accountability.
Graham: There’s just a good chemistry between the d-line. We’re all out there playing hard.
Bradham: [The linebackers] call it “Controlled Chaos.” Just swarm to the ball. If I miss a tackle, I trust [Mychal Kendricks] to be there. If he misses a tackle, he trusts me to be there.
McLeod: [The safeties] talk about no loafs and you being a traitor to the team if you are loafing.
Schwartz: Sometimes part of swarming and having that kind of presentation is guys having fun playing with each other and guys trusting the guy next to him. I think that if you don’t have that vibe, sometimes it’s noticeable on film.
Defensive end Vinny Curry didn’t play much in base personnel last season, but he’s starting this season and having an impact as a run defender, as he did when he stopped Stewart here for no gain.
Curry said that his health – he has said he played through a knee injury all last season – is the No. 1 reason for his improvement.
Curry: Last year, I had one leg to stand on. Literally. Playing through injury. This year, back to normal.
Schwartz: He’s worked really hard at some of the things that he needed to work on, and I think he’s been a much-improved player against the run.
Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, who was acquired in an off-season trade, was projected to have more of an impact as a pass rusher, but he has been disruptive against the run. Cox tried to slide Jernigan over a gap pre-snap on this play, but it didn’t matter. Jernigan beat the center, Tyler Larsen, and forced Stewart to Hicks.
Jernigan spent his first three seasons playing in the Ravens’ 3-4 front.
Schwartz: For three years, he had been sort of a lateral, at-the-line-of-scrimmage-type player.
Schwartz’s 4-3, one-gap front has allowed Jernigan to play to his strengths.
Jernigan: Attacking in this defense is the best fit for me, and I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me because I’m a smaller guy. I don’t have long arms. I have to use my play-making ability.
On this second-quarter play, Jernigan shot the gap and arm-tackled Christian McCaffrey for a 2-yard loss.
Jernigan: That was the play I got hurt. I think that’s the great thing about this defense – it tells me to get up the field. So when that guard tried to pull, I was supposed hop into his hip pocket.
Schwartz: He’s hard to handle now, and a lot of it’s because of him attacking.
Bad Man Bradham
Bradham was all over the field in Charlotte.
Schwartz: That game he played against Carolina was big-time.
In the first quarter, Bradham diagnosed a pitch to Fozzy Whittaker and dropped him in the backfield and knocked him out of the game.
Schwartz: He plays tough. He plays mean. He plays with a lot of spirit. Players feed off of him.
Newton did damage on the ground, mostly on designed runs, but the Eagles kept the quarterback in check when he scrambled. Bradham held him to just a 5-yard gain here in the second quarter.
When Hicks left with an ankle injury, Bradham took over middle linebacker responsibilities in nickel personnel.
Schwartz: Part of that guy’s role is getting everybody on the same page, and that’s something that Nigel has never really had to do before.
Bradham: [Schwartz] has confidence in me. I’m one of his guys. He brought me here.
Schwartz’s wide-nine scheme up front can place additional stress upon linebackers and defensive backs. With linemen penetrating rather than occupying space, there are more gaps to account for. That can lead to missed assignments and long gains on the ground (re: the Hunt and Ekeler runs).
The Panthers like to use misdirection and the threat of Newton to advance their run game.
Jenkins: The biggest thing was going to be handling their run game and all of the zone-read and quarterback-read things on a short week. That’s a lot to prepare for.
On this zone read, Newton had an option to pitch and one too many safeties bit on the fake.
McLeod: Base on certain fronts [the safeties] either have the “C” gap or possibly be on the edge.
But the scheme, when executed properly, is effective against the run. Schwartz has used the word “waves” to describe how the scheme should work. If the first set of waves doesn’t topple the ball carrier, the next should be immediately behind, and then another.
Linebacker Joe Walker missed tackling Stewart on this fourth-quarter run, but Bradham and defensive tackle Justin Hamilton – riding the next wave – were there to pick him up. By the end of the game – one of the most physical in recent memory – Bradham said the Eagles had earned the Panthers’ respect.
Bradham: That’s all we want. We want people to turn on the tape and be like, “Damn, we got to play these boys this week.” You better come physical or you got no chance. When you come play Philly, you better be ready.