All-22: Forming the Wall And Stopping the Stretch
Billy Davis was asked Tuesday about the difficulty in making potential scheme changes, given that teams are approaching Week 13.
“It’s tough to change who you are at this point in the season,” he said. “You have to stick with what you have success with and try to correct and get better at the things you’re struggling with.”
Davis’ comment applies to teams around the NFL. In the offseason, coaches assess personnel and decide what they want their squads to look like from a schematic standpoint. They then practice, tweak and practice some more. Wrinkles can be added, and ideas can be scrapped. But as we approach Thanksgiving, for the most part, identities have been established.
And for the Dallas Cowboys, that identity is clear: A balanced offense that is finding success running the football on a weekly basis.
The Eagles, meanwhile, are a team that focuses on stopping the run.
“It’s my favorite type of offense to play against,” said Mychal Kendricks. “One that runs the ball. That’s my job as a linebacker is to stop the run, and that’s what they’re gonna be doing.”
Added nose tackle Bennie Logan: “Physical football. The style that I love to play.”
The Cowboys spent a first-round pick on right guard Zack Martin, but Chip Kelly said he doesn’t see much difference in Dallas’ run scheme from a year ago.
“Not much. Bill Callahan is still their O‑Line coach and has always done a good job from a scheme standpoint in terms of what they’re going to do,” said Kelly. “There are a lot of things, if you’ve studied Bill and his background, kind of signature plays that he runs. He’s still running them.”
One of the plays that the Eagles can expect to see plenty of is the outside zone or stretch run. The Eagles have had success against teams (Washington, Houston) that like to use the stretch play, but the Cowboys are running the ball better than both those squads.
On the outside zone, the linemen engage and start to move laterally. They apply double teams and climb up to the second level to get on the linebackers. The running back, meanwhile, looks for a crease. Here’s an example from the Giants game.
You can see left tackle Tyron Smith pushes Jason Pierre-Paul back and pins him inside. Cowboys tight end James Hanna pushes the safety towards the sideline.
That gives Murray the crease he needs to get upfield and to the perimeter for a 9-yard gain.
So, what are the keys to making sure this doesn’t happen to the Eagles on Sunday?
“It’s gap discipline,” said Davis. “The stretch run is all about gap discipline and having the bodies in the right place and everybody having their face in their gap and then holding it because it moves quick on you. So you have to keep your feet.
“That’s the other thing when people start getting cut out in the stretch run… so you gotta be athletic enough and strong enough to continue to keep your face in the gap to make sure you have that gap integrity.”
Said Chip Kelly in a video on PhiladelphiaEagles.com: “The ball can hit in various manners. It can cut all the way back. It can bounce all the way outside, so you’ve gotta play great team defense to it.”
Kelly, the coaches and players often talk about forming a wall. In other words, do not allow creases for the back. Set the edge, make him search for a hole and eventually force him out of bounds or into a defender’s arms.
In Week 9 against the Texans, the Eagles did a great job against Arian Foster on the stretch runs. Here’s one example.
You can see the defense flowing to the left.
“You’ve just got to set the edge and then you’ve gotta be really under control on the back side,” said Connor Barwin. “Because if you set the edge well, then he’s gonna try and take the cutback lane, and you’ve gotta be really under control and not overpursue, but then not be late as well. So it’s a fine line of not being too fast but not being too slow.”
Take a look at the defenders and specifically the three defensive linemen. Their bodies are square to the line of scrimmage. Foster can try to cut it up in between them, but the two-gapping defenders are in position to shed their blocks and attack the ball-carrier on either side of the offensive linemen.
“Wall up front,” said Logan. “The guys up front, keep square pads so you’re able to fall back and make the tackle. Don’t get reached or don’t get knocked around or things like that. Just make sure you’re square so the linebackers are clear as to where their gaps at and we’re clear as to where the cutback lanes are.”
Added Barwin: “That’s just the basics of a 3-4. You try to stay square up front. When you start getting turned by blockers, that’s when the creases open up.”
And this is what Kelly means when he talks about forming the wall.
Foster has nowhere to go. The defenders have closed up the creases, and Bradley Fletcher, who is unblocked, is waiting on the edge.
Said inside linebacker Emmanuel Acho: “Everybody staying in their gap and not building a crease in the wall, but rather having a brick wall so that DeMarco goes from A to B to C to D gap, and then finally he runs out of space and runs out of bounds.”
The other thing the Eagles pride themselves on is getting bodies to the ball. Kelly has said in the past that they’ll pause the tape at the end of a play and count how many defenders are in the screen.
“It’s just really about penetration and disruption,” said Malcolm Jenkins. “The guy who does get to the ball has gotta tackle him. It’s a tough tackle this week with Murray. He’s done a great job of breaking those first contacts, and we’ve gotta just swarm for the ball.
“The biggest thing for us that’s helped us out is we don’t always fit the run perfect, we don’t always have the best scheme, but we always just run to the ball. We smother the ball-carrier when it comes to the run, and I think this year we’ve been really stout in our run defense. That’s gonna be the key for us this week. We won’t always have the perfect call or the perfect fit. We’ve just gotta get guys flying to the ball.”
The Eagles have been good against the run for most of the season, but their biggest test to date awaits Thursday. And it’ll start with stopping the stretch.