Back in the spring, new Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis was asked if he had spent time looking at Jim Johnson’s scheme and concepts.
“He had some great dynamic pressures, and I’ve studied a lot of them,” Davis said. “They were out-of-the-box thinking. But when you really break him down, it was more guys up in the A-gaps with the illusion of pressure than actual [sending] more than four rushers.
“There were times that he brought more. …But he did a great job of keeping offenses off-balance through both pressure, illusion of pressure and non-pressure. And you need all elements to attack an offense because there’s some times you pressure some of the stuff Coach [Chip Kelly] does, you’re going to get eaten alive.”
Davis' comments serve as a good launching off point to examining what's working well for the Eagles on defense. Last week, they were able to keep Tony Romo off-balance and free up rushers all game long, both with the blitz and the threat of the blitz.
Here's a pressure look from the defense in the second quarter. You'll see seven players threatening the line of scrimmage with Brandon Boykin on Miles Austin in the slot.
The Cowboys go with an empty-back set. That means if the Eagles send all seven players, they have a one-man advantage. Someone will be unblocked.
When Romo takes the snap, it looks like the Eagles are bringing the house.
The Cowboys block up six of seven defenders. Nate Allen is going to rush free outside the right tackle.
But in reality, this is a lower-risk pressure than it first appears. Trent Cole and Mychal Kendricks are going to drop back into coverage.
The Eagles end up only rushing five against six blockers, but because of the scheme and execution, they're able to free up a rusher.
Look at where Cole and Kendricks are when Romo finally releases the ball.
Allen pressures Romo and affects his throw, which ends up incomplete to Austin at the top of the screen.
"It's all disguise, man," Cole said. "It's all part of the disguise. That's one thing as players we have to do our jobs as players to make sure we can disguise it. It takes practice, it takes preparation to be able to do those things."
A similar situation later in the first half. The Cowboys once again go with an empty backfield and spread it out with five wide receivers. The Eagles show six at the line of scrimmage. Once again, if they send all six, they'll have an unblocked rusher.
At the snap, all six rushers take a step forward. But this time, Cole and DeMeco Ryans drop back into coverage. Because of the initial look, the Cowboys are set up to let Connor Barwin rush free.
Barwin ends up crushing Romo, and Ryans gets in front of Austin. That's where Romo ends up going with the ball, throwing incomplete.
On a key 3rd-and-7 just two plays later, Davis went back to the same concept.
You should notice a theme by now. One more rusher than blockers at the line of scrimmage. An empty set from the offense.
Cole and Ryans sell that they're rushing, occupying offensive linemen before dropping back into coverage. Allen rushes unblocked.
Romo actually made a good throw here, but Bradley Fletcher broke it up and forced a field goal. Still, the Eagles only rushed five and ended up with an unblocked defender. That's usually a win.
The key to the success on these plays, per Barwin, was that Davis mixed it up, sometimes sending big blitzes and not dropping anyone.
"Sometimes you actually gotta come [on a blitz]," Barwin said. "Billy does a great job of keeping things balanced that he's done all year. That makes it hard for teams to prepare for us. Just one of those calls where they show, sometimes they came, sometimes they didn't. And the way it looked for you guys is the same way for Romo that he didn't know."
Added Kelly: "There were times he showed blitz and didn't blitz, and then there were other times when he came. I think that helped us in terms of the presentation. Anytime where it's not a known, or, hey, they're always doing this or doing that, I think it's a good plan going in. I thought Billy and the defensive coaches had a good plan. I thought our players executed the plan."
I never put out a game review of the defense, so here are some notes after having watched the All-22:
* Cedric Thornton was lights-out against the run and had some nice moments as a pass-rusher too. The Cowboys only averaged 2.8 YPC last week, and Thornton was a big reason why. Of all the Eagles' defensive linemen, he looks most comfortable two-gapping. Before the season started, I thought Thornton might be better served in a rotational role, but he's really playing at a high level.
* Mychal Kendricks is still having some issues in coverage.
"It's a work in progress, " Davis said. "Mychal is getting better. There is a lot of growth he can make in the coverage part of it. But he's such a dynamic athlete and has such burst to it. The more he's comfortable, the better he's playing."
Kendricks blew coverage on a 26-yard completion to Jason Witten in the first half. The Eagles were in man coverage, but Kendricks dropped and didn't account for Witten, who ran free across the middle of the field.
* The secondary had one of its best showings of the season. Cary Williams competed throughout and only gave up one big play to Dez Bryant, a 25-yard back-shoulder throw where he had pretty good coverage. For the most part, Williams kept plays in front of him and made tackles to minimize YAC.
* Other than the two plays I just mentioned, the Eagles didn't give up any completions that traveled 20+ yards downfield. Earl Wolff is improving, and while Nate Allen isn't going to make the Pro Bowl, he's looked far more competent in the past couple weeks than he has in a long time.
"I think he's more consistent in everything he's doing," Davis said of Allen. "He understands it better. His eyes are better. His tackling is better. Nate has worked very hard. He's very serious about what he's doing. He's in the front row taking notes. He's at every practice. When you do the player loads that we do and see how hard everybody works, he's one of the top guys. So Nate's all in and getting better. I believe the biggest factor with Nate are his eyes. He's not getting out of position, and that's helping him make his tackles, make his plays and Nate's getting better and better each week."