All-22: Inside the Defensive Line’s Dominance
The Eagles’ season through three weeks has been a fascinating series of twists and turns. Before the opener in Atlanta, many considered the rushing attack to be a potential juggernaut. After Week 3, however, they rank third-to-last in yards per carry.
The secondary, meanwhile, was considered a potential weakness in the offseason. But after the win against New York, the Eagles’ defense ranks in the top-10 in interceptions, opponent passer rating and yards per throw allowed.
Perhaps the only unit that has played close to expectations is the defensive front seven. The Eagles rank first in the NFL in rushing touchdowns given up (0) and yards per carry allowed (3.1).
“We’ve been really consistent in our rush defense and you’ve got to stop the run,” Chip Kelly said. “If you can make teams one‑dimensional, then obviously things can change for you. If it forces people to be one‑dimensional, then you hope you have a little bit of an advantage because you kind of know what’s coming.”
It’s been an impressive effort from a group that has lost two starters (Mychal Kendricks and Cedric Thornton) and two important backups (Kiko Alonso and Taylor Hart). But with strong performances to start the year from Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan, among others, the run defense has had an unsurprising amount of success.
‘IT SHOWS UP ON SUNDAYS’
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis didn’t hesitate when asked why the Eagles have been so good against the run.
“It starts with the d‑line,” he said. “You watch these guys hit the sled every day — every day without exception — and it shows up on Sundays. They are striking with their hands, they are reading their keys, they are doing a great job with it and it’s real tough to run on us right now because of the consistency of the technique that the inside guys are playing.
“And then behind them, you are looking at some real disciplined linebackers that are playing patiently behind the two‑gapers.”
Those points are perhaps best illustrated by the Eagles’ goal-line stand against the Cowboys in Week 2. Near the end of the first quarter, Dallas faced 1st-and-goal from Philadelphia’s 1-yard-line. The Cowboys used a jumbo formation, in which they inserted an extra offensive lineman, two tight ends and a fullback.
However, the defensive line did a great job of winning at the line of scrimmage and gave the running back nowhere to go. When he received the hand-off, he saw what’s captured in the image above.
The circled player is Logan, who pushed the left guard about a yard into the backfield and took away the left side. Because of Logan’s disruption, the ball-carrier tried to jump into the end zone about two-and-a-half yards out, but was stuffed by Beau Allen and DeMeco Ryans.
Allen also did a good job by staying alive after the center tried to cut him.
“What people don’t realize is that Bennie Logan had a great play on that,” Allen said. “He just knocked the guard back in the backfield and held off the ball-carrier. That was also a great play by DeMeco to stand up the running back.”
However, that’s not an unusual sight. In the Cowboys’ next drive, they faced 1st-and-10 from their own 31-yard-line. When the running back took the hand-off, the offensive line got virtually zero movement on the Eagles’ defensive front. Philadelphia’s line did a great job of absorbing the Dallas blockers and didn’t allow them to open up a hole or get to the second level.
As you can see above, Darren McFadden had nowhere to go. The Eagles had guys waiting for him if he tried to bounce it outside, and the middle was stuffed. Every defender on the second level had plenty of room to operate and didn’t have to worry about being blocked. Cox and Hart ended up tackling McFadden for a zero-yard gain.
“You look at the way we defend the run, our line frees us up and allow us to run,” Jordan Hicks said. “It’s huge. They make the offensive line choose between staying on them longer than they want to or coming up too early to us and letting our line get penetration. Sometimes, they aren’t able to reach us.”
After Thornton and Hart were both ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Jets, it was reasonable to expect a dip in production from the Eagles’ defensive line. Instead, the unit held New York to a season-low 2.9 yards per rush.
“Even though we are rotating players along the defensive line, we have consistency there,” Kelly said.
A prime example of that is Brandon Bair, who started Sunday after being inactive against both Atlanta and Dallas. He played 58 percent of the defensive snaps, which was higher than every other lineman except for Cox. Bair led the defensive line in tackles (four) and the team in pass deflections (three).
“He’s built for two‑gapping and striking with [his] hands and his length,” Davis said. “Our system fits his skill set, I think, better than anything else out there in the NFL. He is great at striking and pressing a block, getting off and playing the inside run, and that’s what the Jets really hung their hat on, was the inside run game.”
Vinny Curry is another backup who constantly exemplifies the Eagles’ depth. In the play below, Curry quickly splits two offensive linemen to tackle the running back for a two-yard loss.
Curry also cross-trains at outside linebacker, which is a position that’s important in stopping the run. They’re typically responsible for setting the edge, which doesn’t allow ball-carriers to reach the outside where there’s more room to run.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Brandon Graham said. “You’ve got to set the edge because all of your guys are in the middle. If we have an edge on both sides, everyone can play their gap and there’s nowhere for the running back to go.”
One Eagle who’s particularly good at this is Barwin. Although he doesn’t get any credit in the box score, he often assists in making tackles because he forces the running back inside into the arms of teammates.
“With Connor, he’s long and he’s physical at the point of attack,” Graham said. “That’s what it’s all about: striking them and getting them to stop their feet. He understands schemes and what’s coming at him. He calls out plays; Fletch does that a lot too.”
THE PASS RUSH
Despite their success against the run, some have criticized the Eagles’ defensive line for their average pass rush because the team ranks 19th in the NFL in sacks. Although it’s a small sample size, which likely hurts Philadelphia because they faced a lot of max-protection in one of their three games, Davis thinks the numbers are actually favorable.
“One of the things — I say this over and over again — sacks and interceptions are attached, and it’s the quarterback’s choice,” Davis said. “We are pressuring the quarterback and he either chooses to eat it and take the sack or he gets rid of it. [Jets quarterback Ryan] Fitzpatrick was getting rid of it, and they were turning into interceptions. It won’t be long until we have a five‑ or six‑sack game because the quarterback chooses to eat it instead of force it.”
Fitzpatrick threw three picks on Sunday, and the Eagles are tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions to start the season. Although all interceptions aren’t directly tied to pressure from the defensive line, one of Fitzpatrick’s clearly was.
In the play above, the Jets faced 2nd-and-10 at Philadelphia’s 30-yard-line down 10 points with about six and a half minutes remaining. The Eagles rushed five guys (it appears Graham is responsible for the running back in coverage, but it’s unclear) against six blockers, but they quickly get pressure.
As soon as he drops back, Fitzpatrick moves to his right because of the blitzing linebackers on the left side. He can’t escape the pocket, however, because Logan loops around to the outside. Instead of taking a sack, Fitzpatrick throws the ball with Bair (circled) in his face. Hicks then catches the pass after Bair tipped it up into the air.
“[Bair] has a knack for that, but it was part of what we talked about with what Fitzy does,” Kelly said. “One of those points of emphasis this week is that if the ball’s out so quick, we may not be able to get to him in a pass rush. We need to clog the throwing lanes for him.”