All-22: Inside the Eagles’ Secondary Struggles
It didn’t take long for the concerns to start creeping in. On one play, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan delivered a quick pass to Julio Jones, who picked up 17 yards. On another, Ryan found Roddy White wide open for a 25-yard gain.
And that was only Atlanta’s first two passing plays.
The Falcons’ receivers torched the Eagles’ secondary for 23 catches, 298 yards and two touchdowns in Monday night’s matchup. After giving up the second-most passing yards in the NFL last year, Philadelphia focused on fixing their secondary in the offseason. They signed free agent cornerback Byron Maxwell to six-year, $63 million deal and traded up in the draft to select defensive back Eric Rowe with the No. 47 overall pick.
After signs of progress in the preseason, their moves appeared to work. Although few expected the Eagles to make the jump to an above-average secondary, many expected the unit to at least rank among the middle of the pack.
In their first test of the season, however, the defensive backs came up short.
Jones’ 141 receiving yards was the second-most in the NFL in the first week of the season, and White was one of four players to tally three receptions of at least 20 yards. Ryan averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt, which is an entire yard more than what the Eagles gave up on average last season.
Because a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback was throwing to two receivers who also made multiple Pro Bowls, Atlanta was expected to rack up the yards. The secondary’s struggles played a primary role in the Eagles’ loss, however, leading people to wonder how much of a liability the unit will be this season.
Malcolm Jenkins knew it was coming. He not only predicted the alignment, but he predicted what they’d do and when they’d do it.
“With the offensive coordinator they have, they’ll be in a lot of two running back formations on first and second down,” Jenkins said the week before the Falcons game. “They’ll run the stretches, but then they’ll run bootlegs off that same stretch action. They like to do a lot of play-action pass and take some shots down the field.”
On the Falcons’ third play from scrimmage, we saw Jenkins’ words in action.
On first-and-10 from their own 45-yard-line, the Falcons lined up in a strong I-formation with White to the right and Jones to the left. Ryan faked the hand-off to Tevin Coleman and dropped back into a clean pocket.
With only Jones and White running routes—and Coleman carrying out the play-action—Atlanta had seven blockers in against four pass rushers.
“You have to try to find seams in the gaps,” Bennie Logan said. “A lot of times they did max-protection, they slid protection so you just have to work backside and fill a back open seam. It’s hard.”
So what’s the best way to get pressure?
“Just send more people,” Brandon Graham said. “That’s it, unless you can beat double- and triple-teams.”
Predictably, Ryan had plenty of time for White to cross to the middle of the field, before turning and cutting back to the outside. Malcolm Jenkins over-committed to White’s crossing action and didn’t chase him down until the receiver reached the Eagles’ 30-yard-line.
The lack of pressure was a constant theme in the first half, making the secondary’s job even tougher than it already was. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis eventually adjusted by bringing more pressure, but he didn’t do so consistently until after the Falcons scored 20 points.
Atlanta had a lot of success with a variation of this max-protection, play-action passing concept, in which White or Jones ran all the way across the field instead of stopping over the middle and cutting back.
“Those are tough to cover because the quarterback can just sit back and dissect the defense,” Nolan Carroll said. “When we’re in man coverage, they just try to run away from you. They ran a bunch of over routes; you just have to run with him and stay on his hip. When the ball is thrown, you have to attack it.”
Atlanta continued to use this concept, including later in the first quarter when Ryan hit Jones for an 18-yard gain. The image below is what Ryan saw as soon as he dropped back.
Jones, who is cutting to the sideline on this play, created a lot of separation between him and Carroll. White was also wide open on the play as he sat down between four Eagles and had the potential to get 18 yards himself. The offensive line, meanwhile, gave Ryan plenty of time to throw the ball.
However, the Eagles did handle this concept better in the second half. Jenkins attributed that to moving away from single-high safety defenses to split-safety defenses, before adding that they need to make changes on the sideline quicker.
According to Carroll, a shift in mentality also helped.
“We calmed down a little bit,” Carroll said. “In the first half, we were trying to figure out what they were doing. For us corners, those over routes are probably the hardest thing to cover because you have to play outside to a certain extent in case they whip it back, but then they suddenly shoot across the field so you’re in a foot race.”
“After a while, we just tried to play those routes the best we could. Anything else, we’d let them run it. But those over routes and deep posts, that’s what we focused on in the second half.”
One interesting thing, however, is that several defensive backs didn’t really mind these plays, even though the Falcons used them to key multiple scoring drives. It seems Chip Kelly and Davis have really drilled the philosophy of not biting the cheese into their heads, for better or for worse.
“It’s all about keeping the ball in front of us,” Jenkins said. “All of those other routes—the 15- and 20-yarders—they earned those. We’ll give them that.”
Atlanta began running that max-protect concept on their second pass play, but what they ran on their first pass play was also interesting. They called a normal stretch to the right but added an option for the quarterback to audible with just the receiver to throw a quick pass.
Walter Thurmond was surprised the Falcons didn’t run it more in the second half after using it just twice in the first half to pick up first downs, while Brandon Graham sees it as a trend that teams will do more and more.
“That run action gets our line to move and it creates a big gap between where the line of scrimmage was and where [Jones] lined up,” Carroll said. “They had all that room because they got the backers and line to go down.”
Carroll, who was the corner in coverage, tackled Jones, but not before the receiver picked up 17 easy yards.
“That’s a new trend in the league with the quick throw packaged in with the run,” Graham said. “I think Eli Manning started it. It’s a call between the receiver and the quarterback, everybody else doesn’t need to know. It’s effective because it shocks everybody. You have nine people doing one thing and two people doing something different.”
Although Byron Maxwell—whom we analyzed a bit in key plays—and Carroll didn’t have great games, don’t be confused and think the entire secondary played poorly. One of the safeties in particular stood out to the coaches after they watched film.
“We all thought Malcolm had a really good game,” Kelly said. “He was very consistent in his coverage, no matter who they put in there.”
Although he dropped a pair of potential interceptions, Jenkins did well both at safety and as the slot corner when covering receivers like Jones. Fran Duffy made a great vine showing how well Jenkins anticipated plays.
Here, the safety made a great read and broke on the ball well before Ryan released it. The Falcons ran that same tough crossing concept, but Jenkins helped force the incompletion.
“As far as me and Malcolm are concerned, we’re cornerbacks by nature,” Thurmond said. “I feel like our tandem of safeties are some of the best cover guys in the league. That allows us to go down into the slot, which allows us to stay in our base packages. It allows us to be more versatile and run more man pressures.”
Although Jenkins’ and Thurmond’s ability to cover gives the Eagles a few different options when playing nickel, Davis can also call it because Chris Maragos held up his own while playing safety. According to Thurmond, Maragos will have opportunities too to come down and play corner in the slot, depending on the matchup.
However, that’s also indicative of the lack of depth the Eagles have at corner. The coaches have said repeatedly that how they play nickel will vary each week, but it seems like dropping one of the safeties into coverage is a better option than Rowe, E.J. Biggers, or Denzel Rice, at least for now.