All-22: Inside the Eagles’ Defensive Success
As the Eagles jogged off Lincoln Financial Field for halftime on Sunday, their fans showered them in boos.
The offense ran just 16 plays for 21 yards in the first half. DeMarco Murray rushed the ball five times for one yard, and Sam Bradford’s longest first-half completion traveled a single yard past the line of scrimmage.
Somehow, the Eagles only trailed the Cowboys 6-0.
Although Chip Kelly’s offense was expected to carry the defense this season, it has been the other way around. While the offense has struggled six out of the eight quarters so far this year, the defense—particularly against the Cowboys—has given the Eagles a chance to win both games.
“Our defense played outstanding today,” Kelly said on Sunday after losing to Dallas. “I don’t think the offense did anything, especially in the run game, where we could complement what our defense was doing. We let a really good defensive effort go for naught because we didn’t do what we needed to do offensively.”
That’s why Philadelphia trailed by just two field goals at the break against Dallas, and why the Eagles’ defense gave up only seven more points in the second half.
Although many questioned how good the Eagles would be in nickel because of their lack of depth at corner, safety Malcolm Jenkins has moved down and filled that role nicely. Jordan Hicks, a rookie inside linebacker, also played well Sunday after two injuries to talented defenders.
While Byron Maxwell continues to look like a corner who the Eagles significantly overpaid for, and injuries have ravaged the team’s inside linebacker depth, the unit has still given fans hope that the team can turn the season around if the offense gets going.
Jenkins played well in the Eagles’ first game of the season, but he appeared to solidify his role in the second game of the year. According to defensive coordinator Bill Davis, safety Walter Thurmond was set to get more snaps at nickel Sunday, but the plan was aborted because of Jenkins’ play.
Although Davis acknowledged the defense may “adjust a little bit,” the defensive coordinator seems to have found his solution in nickel.
“[Jenkins] is making a big difference in the nickel spot. He’s an extremely intelligent, hard‑working—he studies the game as much as any veteran I’ve been around,” Davis said. “He’s tenacious down there in the nickel spot and you need a guy like that, where whether it’s a run or pass or even a blitz. He’s on top of his game and he’s playing very aggressive down there low.”
That aggressiveness was apparent when the Cowboys ran a screen on 1st-and-goal from the 8-yard-line Sunday. The week before, the Falcons ran virtually the same play out of a very similar formation.
Against Atlanta, Walter Thurmond was the slot corner and missed a tackle that led to a Julio Jones touchdown. Against Dallas, Jenkins was in the same position against an almost identical formation that the Eagles similarly blitzed.
Jenkins, however, made the tackle, forced a loss of two yards and helped limit the Cowboys to a field goal on that drive.
“On that particular play, it’s film study,” Jenkins said. “You get a feel for what formations they run screens out of and who runs it. When you see it, you’ve got to be disruptive on that point guy who’s trying to block. You’ve also got to cut off the inside portion of it because they try to block me and pull linemen out to block the corner and there’s no one else out there.
As you can see above, Jenkins performed his responsibility to perfection. He not only got inside leverage on the receiver trying to block him, but he got past the Cowboy and brought Cole Beasley down as the receiver tried to cut inside.
Because the Eagles blitzed and Dallas had two offensive linemen to block just one corner, Jenkins’ tackle likely saved a score.
“If I don’t make that tackle, it’s probably going to be a touchdown,” he said. “But I have to take away the inside portion and be effective against the point so even if I don’t make the tackle, the corner is unblocked and hopefully makes that tackle for loss.”
Jenkins was effective against the run, too. On the last play of the first quarter, the Cowboys faced 1st-and-10 from their 14-yard-line. Jenkins was blitzing on the play, with the dotted line displaying the path he was supposed to take. However, as the play unfolded, he decided against it and stopped where the solid line ends.
“Usually I’m supposed to spill the fullback, but I didn’t like the relationship between me, the running back and the fullback,” Jenkins said. “I went outside of him and carved as flat as I could and got his ankle. When the fullback comes to me, I’m supposed to go inside of him and make the ball bounce outside, but I boxed the fullback and made the ball spill inside. I had to make the tackle because I went against my responsibility.”
Jenkins finished the game with a team-high eight tackles—including two for loss—although the box score didn’t detail the extent of his success.
Soon after Kiko Alonso left Sunday’s game with a left knee injury, Mychal Kendricks also exited in the second quarter with a left hamstring issue. DeMeco Ryans was already struggling in coverage, and according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed four receptions on five targets and graded out worse than any other Eagle.
With Philadelphia’s two best inside linebackers in coverage out for the game, Hicks entered for his first significant defensive snaps in the NFL.
“Jordan is a guy who’s above his years,” Ryans said. “To me, it’s not like he’s a rookie. He’s a pretty smart guy so it wasn’t like he had some big learning curve to hurdle. He was ready to go from the start. He came in calm. For me, it was like playing with another veteran player because of how he approaches the game. He has really, really impressed me a lot.”
Hicks soon showed why the Eagles spent a third round draft pick on him this year. Fran Duffy made an excellent vine showcasing the inside linebacker’s talent and athleticism.
Hicks quickly shed a block while chasing the running back across the field, before pushing the ball carrier out of bounds on the sideline opposite of the hash he lined up near.
“He stepped in and did a really good job for his first time getting that much playing time,” Ryans said. “He did really well. He understands really what we’re doing and he stepped in and made some good plays for us. Like I told him, this was the perfect game for him to build off of.”
However, Hicks’ most notable play came when he sacked Tony Romo in the third quarter, forcing a fumble the Eagles recovered and knocking the quarterback out of the game. As Hicks previously explained, it was a typical blitz Dallas failed to pick up.
What’s interesting about this play isn’t how Hicks finished it, but how Jenkins started it. The safety, who was down in nickel, quickly diagnosed the play and jumped a route, which caused Romo to hold onto the ball and take the sack.
Duffy also made a good vine of this play focusing on Jenkins.
The rookie wasn’t without his mistakes, however. Perhaps his most costly one was two plays before the fumble. He gave up a 39-yard completion against a running back who was split out as a wide receiver.
Although the rookie initially kept up with his man, the Cowboy eventually created separation and hauled in the catch.
“I shouldn’t have turned around and looked for the ball,” Hicks said. “I should’ve played through his hands. I thought I was tighter and I wasn’t. He’s a fast guy and I should’ve known better.”
The sequence that mistake initiated seemed to impress his coaches and teammates more than anything else. In addition to causing the fumble, the rookie recorded seven tackles, tied for second-best on the Eagles.
“The neatest thing that happened was when he got beat on the deep pass which he played poor technique on, he came back and wasn’t fazed and made some plays after that,” Davis said. “He wasn’t rattled or depressed or going in the tank and that’s what some rookies do. He didn’t. He went back in there and played some real good football for us.”
Although Hicks filled in nicely Sunday, he may be forced to do so again soon. It’s unclear how long Alonso and Kendricks will be out, but both seem unlikely to play this week against the Jets.
“We love having Kiko and Mychal because they’re athletic enough to cover most tight ends in the league,” Jenkins said. “Jordan is also one of those young, athletic linebackers that can cover. Some linebackers aren’t mobile enough to be out in space and cover.”
Despite Hicks’ athleticism and potential to be good in pass defense, the Eagles turned to dime for a few plays on Sunday to get an extra defensive back in coverage rather than an inside linebacker. Players said they thought the dime package worked well, even though they hadn’t practiced it much since last season.
With the injuries at inside linebacker, Davis made the change on the fly, moving Nolan Carroll inside and inserting E.J. Biggers into the lineup. According to Davis, rookie Eric Rowe will also likely get snaps in dime. Ryans will play more too, even though Davis said the inside linebacker was on a “pitch count,” meaning Davis wanted to limit Ryans’ number of snaps.
Because of the Jets’ tendency to run empty backfield sets, you may see more dime when Philadelphia travels to New York this weekend.
“If they come out in 10 personnel on third down a lot again, we could do dime more,” Jenkins said. “I don’t see us being in dime on first and second down because they like to get in 10 and 11 personnel hoping you go small and then they run the ball. But obviously, being short inside linebackers, dime is something we could definitely do more of.”