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Play-action is giving the Eagles’ defense fits

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And the Giants have shown an affinity for it...

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With all the talk about lapses in coverage and lack of identity in the secondary, the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles have a sneaky problem that has persisted since the Super Bowl. The play-action pass.

In the Super Bowl, New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady torched the Eagles’ defense and while the leaks were everywhere, they were especially prevalent when play-action was used. On 17 dropbacks, Brady went 12/17 for 248 yards and 1 touchdown for a 132.6 QB Rating. It wasn’t an aberration; if anything, it was a foretelling of things to come.

Play-action rates saw a gigantic spike in 2017, reaching levels only touched during the read-option era and beyond.

“Twenty-four teams saw their play-action rate increase from 2016 to 2017. A dozen teams saw their rate increase by at least five percentage points. The five teams that increased the most went to the playoffs, including all four conference championship teams... It really was the best year for play-action in recent history...” - Bryan Knowles, Football Outsiders

The Eagles were largely spared from this trend, perhaps by sheer luck. They were only exposed to play-action on a fifth of dropbacks, the 26th lowest frequency. Unfortunately, in 2018, they haven’t been so lucky. They’ve faced play-action 25.8% of the time this year, which compared to last year would’ve ranked 4th among defenses.

Have opposing coordinators taken the Patriots’ blueprint and used it to crack Jim Schwartz’s code? The stats would suggest it’s a possibility. Over the past two weeks opposing offense have completed 82% of their passes off play-action at an alarming clip of 11.13 yards per attempt. On the year they’re conceding a 113.6 QB Rating to those concepts.

We were told for decades that a successful running game set up those fakes for success. If that’s the case, why is the 2nd ranked run defense having fits against it? The first answer to that is because that idea that we were fed has never been proven. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it does show that the correlation between the two, if it exists, is wildly exaggerated.

Here’s why I think play-action works so well against this Eagles’ defense:

  • Displaces an aggressive, fast-to-flow defense.
  • Condensed splits exploit large swathes of space against zone coverage.
  • Additional protection.
  • Altered path to the quarterback.

The Eagles front four is a terror and the secondary is struggling to cover for more than two seconds. With that in mind, what’s the best way to avoid a buzzsaw pass rush and buy enough time to challenge the deep zones? Move the pocket, leave in six or seven men, and do not let the front four pin their ears back and attack in a traditional manner.

This is a three-man route combination with seven-man protection. There are three Eagles on the bottom of the screen are covering grass. Corey Graham is playing single-high/robber and is influenced by the trajectory of Marcus Mariota’s drop to the point where he joins the grass people as a fourth. The extra protection allows Corey Davis, who is working from a nasty split, time to attack Jalen Mills’ cushion and sit in the sweet spot between the flat zone and deep zone for an easy completion.

A quick word on what tight formations like this do to a defense. They force zone coverage as a defender playing man against these sets can be run off and can be slow to his read. In zone, defenders are free to read and react more freely against the run. Again, fast-to-flow defense, right?

But the Minnesota Vikings are taking that freedom and first step read and using it against the Eagles. Nigel Bradham is influenced by the line flowing to the right and takes three full steps before he realizes he’s far away from home. It doesn’t matter that Michael Bennett is unblocked or that Fletcher Cox defeats his block quickly. All Kirk Cousins’ needs is just enough time to allow Stefon Diggs to sneak underneath the linebackers and across the field.

Whether it’s DeSean Jackson flying past the Eagles’ defense while seven men buy Ryan Fitzpatrick enough time, or simple crossing patterns, the defense hasn’t held up against these concepts. It takes what they do well and turns it on it’s head. It exposes what they do poorly and attacks it time and time again.

Here’s the problem that the Eagles are up against this Thursday against the New York Giants. Last week Eli Manning utilized play-action on 32% of his dropbacks. They also love getting Odell Beckham Jr. in condensed splits which provides him with a full route tree and plenty of open space.

For more on that, this piece on the Giants’ offense by Mark Schofield should provide plenty of context, but here’s a clip of what we have to look forward to anyway.

On the plus side, as much as the Giants would love to use play-action to push the ball downfield, Manning has an abysmal 23.5% adjusted accuracy when throwing over 20 yards in the air and he’s been unable to consistently produce after run-fakes.

Still, Schwartz will be tasked with coming up with a game-plan that contains not only Saquon Barkley, but Odell Beckham Jr. and the play-action pass ... and we haven’t even talked about double moves yet.