All-22: Return Of the X-Plays
Through the first four weeks of the season, the Eagles’ defense allowed less than three X-plays — completions of at least 20 yards — per game. Despite their four takeaways and rigid red zone defense, however, they gave up seven such passes against the Saints.
“We were real excited because we had finally made the top five of the positive in X-plays, and we were excited about [how] we were correcting that and going in the right direction,” Bill Davis said. “And then boom, here it comes.”
X-plays were a big reason the defense struggled a season ago, as they ranked last in the NFL with 72, or 4.5 per game. After having difficulty against Atlanta and Julio Jones to start the season, the secondary has progressed to being a sound unit, and one that’s responsible for the Eagles’ top-10 ranking in interceptions.
Although the defense played well overall Sunday — they held the Saints to a season-low 17 points — Davis emphasized the need to prevent X-plays from becoming a problem again.
“We have to just weather the storm and get back to just taking care of business, keeping the ball in front of us and keeping the X-plays off,” Davis said. “We have to play some technique things better; some of them could have been better calls.”
In the first half of Sunday’s game, Drew Brees completed just nine passes for 102 yards. As the Eagles buit a multi-touchdown lead in the second half, however, the Saints began to increase their tempo and air the ball out more.
This hurt the Eagles early in the third quarter when Brees connected with Brandin Cooks — who was covered by Malcolm Jenkins — for a 46-yard gain. Cooks ran untouched down the field before Brees delivered an outstanding throw.
“The only thing I’d change is I would’ve gotten lined up quicker because they hurried up and I wasn’t quite set when they snapped the ball,” Jenkins said. “I was playing outside leverage so it would’ve been a tough play regardless, but I would’ve been a little closer and could’ve gotten on him at the line of scrimmage if I was set and ready to go. They did a good job rushing to the line and giving us more tempo than they had been and catching us off guard.”
In the second quarter, the Eagles were beaten not by a quick snap, but by the threat of one. On this play, Willie Snead beat Byron Maxwell for a 22-yard reception.
“When I rushed over, I thought he was going to snap it right away because they were going hurry-up and I just panicked,” Maxwell said. “I played bad technique. My eyes were bad.”
New Orleans’ biggest play of the day was a 59-yard pass from Brees to Snead — who was covered by Nolan Carroll — in the fourth quarter. This completion, however, had nothing to do with tempo.
“I thought he was going to run a deep curl because I saw him looking back,” Carroll said. “I thought he’d slow down so I looked back and then he created separation.”
Outside of this play, Carroll turned in another good performance. Even on this snap, the cornerback was in good position — before turning around — as he ran with Snead.
However, as soon he started to turn around — and after Snead gave him a little push — the receiver already had a yard on him.
“We loosened our grip a little bit in that second half with the score the way it was, but it was definitely way too many,” Jenkins said. “We need to always be focused and concentrate on the little things.”
‘HE PLAYED REALLY, REALLY WELL’
Although the back end gave up several big plays, the front seven continued to play at a high level. We’ve already detailed a couple of Fletcher Cox’s big plays, but, according to Davis, Bennie Logan played just as well.
“Fletch had an outstanding game, but Bennie had probably an equal game, but didn’t have the numbers,” Davis said. “Bennie is very strong in the run game, and then a couple of the sacks that Fletch got — Fletch did a great job, don’t want to take nothing away from Fletch, because he had a phenomenal game — but Bennie was right there, pushing the pocket, not giving another escape route for the quarterback.
“One of the things with the sacks, we collectively, as a group, did our job, so there were no escape routes a lot of times and the coverage was tight.”
According to Beau Allen, a great example of what Davis described is Cox’s second strip-sack. Although the defensive end certainly made a great play, Logan didn’t allow Brees to escape to the right side of the pocket, as Logan blew up the left guard and quickly got deep penetration.
“He played really, really well,” Allen said. “On that play, Bennie did a really good job of closing the pocket from his angle and cut off areas the quarterback could go. It’s little things like that which go under the radar, but we see and appreciate as teammates.”
However, Logan also recorded a game-high three tackles for loss that even a casual viewer would notice.
Early in the third quarter, Logan tackled the ball-carrier for a one-yard loss. He quickly discarded the right guard and swallowed up the running back when he tried to cut upfield.
“He’s all over the place,” Allen said. “It’s unbelievable how high of a level he’s played at. It’s really fun to watch as a guy who plays the same position.”
According to his teammates and coaches, Jordan Hicks is another player who had an underrated game against the Saints.
“In the zone, he’s got great awareness for — he had great depth the other night,” Davis said. “One of the nicest things to see out of a young guy, linebackers a lot of times, especially against play-action, stay too low. So, any kind of a 10-, 12-, 15-yard dig gets them.
“Jordan knows that that is an issue and, like DeMeco [Ryans], those guys drive out of there for depth. And a couple of sacks the other day were because of depth of linebacker drops and coverage was making them hold it a little bit longer. And then, man, he’s athletic enough to have match-up with most of them.”
One play in particular that stood out to the coaches on film was Hicks’ near-interception early in the fourth quarter. On this snap, the rookie inside linebacker faked a blitz and dropped back into his zone coverage deep enough to deflect the pass.
“It was just vision and break on the football,” Chip Kelly said. “I think he did a really good job. He was actually bluffing a blitz to start the play and then got back into a good spot where he could read the quarterback’s eyes, and then he just made a real good break on the ball.
“I don’t think Drew expected him to be there because literally when he started the play he was actually up in the B-gap showing blitz and then all of a sudden he’s 15 yards deep underneath a dig route. It’s just really getting a feel of how we can present different looks to the offense and still be able to execute his assignment.”