Eagles Wake-Up Call: Beware Of the X-Plays


USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports

Moments after the season ended, Jeffrey Lurie identified x-plays against as the “Achilles heel” of the team along with turnovers and red zone inefficiency.

The Eagles surrendered a league-high 72 pass plays of 20-plus yards in 2014. Determined to clean that area up, they reshaped three-fourths of the secondary, invested $27 million of guaranteed money in the back end through free agency, and brought in a new secondary coach in Cory Undlin.

Those moves didn’t solve the issue altogether, but there have been improvements. The Eagles are currently tied for 13th in passing x-plays allowed with 44. They’re on pace to yield 54 — 18 less than last season — for an average of 3.38 per game. (Last year, they gave up 4.5 on average.)

On Sunday, the revamped unit will face its toughest test yet when the high-octane Arizona attack comes to town.  The Cardinals are tops in the league with 59 pass plays of 20-plus yards. According to Billy Davis, Bruce Arians dials up six-to-eight deep balls a game, and they’ve been converting at a pretty high rate.

“That’s what they do. That’s part of the reason they are the No. 1 offense in the NFL in a lot of categories right now,” said Davis. “We’ve got to stayed disciplined.”

They failed in that effort when these teams squared off last year, yielding a most memorable 75-yard John Brown touchdown reception with 1:21 remaining en route to a 24-20 late October loss.

John Brown TD 14

“That play had nothing to do with technique or play-calling or anything,” said Malcolm Jenkins, the lone remaining starting member from that secondary. “It was literally just a lapse of judgment or a lapse of focus or a lapse of execution in a crucial point in the game. We’re in quarters coverage…Basically the corner just kind of fell asleep and Brown took off through the defense and caught it somehow right over the top of his head and stayed up. And so, yeah, you lose.

“We couldn’t learn much off of that tape. Because it’s just like, ‘Just do your job and we win.’ There’s other games, like Dallas here last year when Dez [Bryant] went for three touchdowns, a lot of those were just, we’re up in press and not touching him at all and just running down the boundary.”

Dez TD 1

Dez TD 2

“That’s stuff that we can eliminate with technique and better form at the line of scrimmage and that’s some stuff we’ve obviously emphasized and it’s shown up this year,” Jenkins continued. “It’s been up and down but for the most part I think we’ve been pleased with it.”

Like the Brown play, Jenkins says that the 2014 tape overall has been of little help to the current group –though it was used once for a very specific purpose at the beginning of offseason training.

“When we first got here we watched last year’s stuff, like in the spring, and basically our DB coach is telling us, ‘This is what we’re not going to do,'” said Jenkins.

Cory Undlin is really the one who detailed the technique and all that stuff. He really changed up a lot of things that we were doing and brought in a new philosophy. Even me, I’m the only one from last year — me and Nolan Carroll — we really had to tweak the way that we went about our technique and I think it helped us for the better, too.”

At the onset Undlin made it known that he was looking for “non-impostors” when it came to press technique,“meaning guys that get up and line up in press, and then the ball gets snapped, and then they open the gate, and then they just let the guy run down the field. We don’t want that. So my job is to get them to believe in themselves and believe in the technique.”

It appears to have taken root to a large degree, as the defensive backs have been challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage more. Better technique and personnel have led to improvements, though likely not to the degree that they had hoped. And now here comes John Brown, Michael Floyd, J.J. Watson, Jaron Brown and Larry Fitzgerald who, thanks in large part to the fine quarterback play of Carson Palmer (31 TD, 9 INT), have combined to form the most potent downfield attack in the game.

Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe — both of whom suffered ankle injuries last week against the Bills — will have to be at their best.

“They do such a good job of getting the ball and pushing it downfield,” said Chip Kelly. “They’ve got outstanding speed out there. And it’s something you’ve really gotta be conscious of, especially playing against this team.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

“Fletcher just little boy’d him and made the play.” Josh with a good All-22 on Fletcher Cox‘s dominant performance.

“[His contracts are] not team-friendly, that’s for damn sure.” A piece on the price tag that may be attached to Sam Bradford. 

In the latest installment of Press Coverage, we discuss Bradford’s future and offer predictions for Eagles-Cardinals.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

The Pro Bowl roster will be announced Tuesday. Jason Peters said he isn’t concerned whether he’s on it, writes Rueben Frank.

In NFL history, there have been 37 offensive linemen — or two-way linemen from back in the day — picked to eight or more Pro Bowls. Only nine aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Even though Peters didn’t get to Philly until his sixth NFL season, he is still tied for sixth in Eagles history with his five Pro Bowls as an Eagle. One more would tie him with Donovan McNabb and Pete Pihos at six. Only Chuck Bednarik (eight), Brian Dawkins and Reggie White (seven) have been selected to more than six.

Peters said Pro Bowls meant a lot more to him early in his career than now.

“When I first was trying to make it and the first five times (in a row), you were trying to keep it going,” he said. “But now it’s at the point like where I’d rather get a ring now. I’d rather make the playoffs.

“I’m not worried about that. I’m looking at Arizona, I’m looking at Redskins, I’m looking at Giants, and then I’ll go from there.”

Zach Berman on DeMarco Murray‘s reduced role.

“It is what it is,” Murray said. “You always want to contribute as much as you can. We’re winning. At the time, that’s all that matters. . . . It’s different. Obviously I’ve never been in this situation. But we’re tied for first place in the division.”

Based on production, it’s difficult to argue that Murray should play more. He averages 3.5 yards per carry, which is worse than Mathews’ 5.3 and Sproles’ 4.

However, in a closer look at Murray’s numbers, his third-down performance sticks out. He averages 6.1 yards per carry on 15 third downs and has converted first downs on each attempt. He has needed only 1.47 yards to go on those third downs, so Murray well exceeds what he needs.

COMING UP

We’ll take a closer look at this Cardinals team.