Eagles-Steelers Rewind: Defensive Breakdown

How the defensive line dominated, and which cornerback was the unsung hero of the group.

Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin. (Jeff Fusco)

Fletcher Cox and Connor Barwin. (Jeff Fusco)

Some final position-by-position thoughts on why the Eagles’ defense dominated in their 34-3 win over the Steelers after watching the All-22 coaches film:


*It’s safe to say Antonio Brown made his presence felt as he compiled 140 receiving yards on 12 receptions. However, Jim Schwartz did a nice job of limiting Brown’s impact in the red zone by shading Malcolm Jenkins toward the Pro Bowl receiver, which is why Brown didn’t score a touchdown. Here’s one example of how much Jenkins shifted toward Brown before the snap:

*However, moving Jenkins around wasn’t limited to the red zone as Schwartz called for safety help in other parts of the field, too. It may be strange to read that the Eagles limited a guy who led both teams in receiving yards with 140, but between Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball 44 times and Pittsburgh’s commitment to looking Brown’s way, Schwartz’s scheme did help prevent Brown from having an even bigger impact. Here’s another example of Jenkins taking Brown out of a play:


*It’s no surprise Fletcher Cox won NFC Defensive Player of the Month. The Pro Bowl defensive tackled capped off September by recording five tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble against the Steelers. He made a huge impact on the game even when he didn’t get credit in the box score, as he tallied five total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Even for Pro Bowl guards like Pittsburgh’s David DeCastro, Cox’s strength and explosiveness was difficult to handle, as Cox showed when he forced a fumble in the third quarter:

*Cox winning NFC Defensive Player of the Month is understandable, but Brandon Graham has been on the same level as Cox in the first few games. One reason Cox had so much success against the Steelers — outside of his immense talent, of course — was because of all of the attention Pittsburgh payed to Graham, leaving Cox with more one-on-ones than any offense would like. On the Steelers’ first drive alone, they chipped Graham on four of their six passing plays, with the other two involving a fake chip — which you don’t see very often — and a screen pass. On one play, Pittsburgh had both their tight end and running back hit Graham before going out on their routes. Still, Graham ended the game with a sack and he made a big impact on plays that wasn’t always reflected in the box score, such as on Nigel Bradham’s four-yard tackle-for-loss:

*Outside of Cox and Graham, the rest of the defensive line played well, too. Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan eached recorded five pressures, while Marcus Smith generated good push off of the edge against the run. Logan and Vinny Curry also blew up the Steelers’ left guard on the blocked field goal.


*Malcolm Jenkins was simply phenomenal against Pittsburgh. He was targeted five times and allowed just 23 receiving yards, according to Pro Football Focus, and he added two pass break-ups against Brown. Jenkins was the defensive back Schwartz consistently relied upon when doubling Brown, and he consistently came up with big plays, such as on the Steelers’ fourth-down attempt. Jenkins also knocked the ball out of receivers’ hands as they were coming down with the catch, and he did a nice job of tackling in the open field. Fran Duffy made a nice video of Jenkins’ big fourth-down pass break-up:

*Rodney McLeod again showed his impressive range throughout the game against Pittsburgh. His ability to roam from sideline-to-sideline made it easier for Schwartz to have Jenkins shade toward Brown, and it resulted in his McLeod’s interception in the fourth quarter. I’m not sure how he came down with this ball, but McLeod picked off his second pass in three games, and he seems to have a nose for creating turnovers.


*While Jenkins played extremely well, Nolan Carroll is the unsung hero of the game for the Eagles among the cornerbacks. He didn’t play that well in either of the first two games this season, but he stepped up against the Steelers. With Jenkins often helping Jalen Mills against Brown, Carroll typically had less back-end support. Carroll allowed just three catches for 33 yards, and he was very physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of routes. Here’s one example:

*Carroll also recorded a nice pass break-up when he recognized a fade route off of a fake bubble screen, dropping back quickly enough to get his hands on the ball. Carroll tied Jenkins for the Eagles’ lead in passes defensed (three).

*Jalen Mills played poorly and was unreliable for the first quarter and a half, allowing a 41-yard gain to Sammie Coates and a 32-yard reception to Eli Rogers. Mills gave up an NFL-worst 146 receiving yards on nine receptions, according to Pro Football Focus, but the rookie did play significantly better as the game went on. Brown still recorded several catches against Mills in the third and fourth quarters, but many of those were great plays by either Brown or Roethlisberger. The rookie was much better at the line of scrimmage in the second half, and in general, he was much more physical, like on the Eagles’ first defensive snap of the third quarter:

*Ron Brooks may not have been as good as Carroll in the Steelers game, but he continues to be the Eagles’ most consistent cornerback this season. Similar to his counterparts, he was physical at the line of scrimmage. He also didn’t allow receivers to create much separation.


*One consistent theme to start this season has been the reliability of the linebackers — particularly Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. Both have done an excellent job of reacting off of the defensive line’s penetration and plugging holes. Hicks was also outstanding in coverage against Pittsburgh, which helped the Eagles limit Roethlisberger to just 257 passing yards on 44 attempts.