It’s well documented that the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles led the league in pressures on passing plays in 2017. They were one of two teams that accumulated over 300 pressures, racking up 342 total, 35 more than the runner-up. With a league-leading pressure rate (41%), the Eagles were able to consistently swarm opposing quarterbacks despite one key fact. They don’t blitz. Well, they don’t blitz very often.
According to Pro Football Focus the Eagles ranked 27th in blitz frequency, bringing an extra blitzer only 22.5% of the time. There are several reasons why the Eagles could afford to play conservative.
First, the Eagles barely trailed in 2017 and amassed an eye-pooping 7 double-digit wins, including five straight in the middle of the season. This favorable game script allowed them to focus on keeping plays in front of them instead of desperately trying to blitz their way back into games. Second, the depth and talent of the defensive line kept the trenches fresh. The pass rush stayed juiced up always, even late in to games where other teams tend to wear down and get picked apart.
Despite all of this, the Eagles did come in at the top of the charts for one blitzing stat which showcased a tendency of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. On 1st down the Eagles stayed home, blitzing 13% of the time (30th), but on third down Schwartz had a clear tendency, as Gordon McGuiness pointed out.
“The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles were the bravest team in the NFL in this regard, using [Cover-0] on 6.1 percent of their snaps against the pass, but from just 43 dropbacks they allowed five touchdowns (11.9 percent). That touchdown percentage might seem high, but it pales in comparison to the Atlanta Falcons, who allowed a touchdown on all three occasions where they went with Cover-0.” – Gordon McGuinness, PFF
The bombastic Schwartz loves Cover-0, a man coverage defense with no safety help. The main purpose is to bring immediate pressure to achieve a sack or a hurried throw that could produce other favorable results for the defense. The go-for-broke scheme has inherent risks as the high touchdown rate would suggest but there are numerous examples where letting ‘em hang worked in the Eagles favor last year.
One of those came on 3rd & 9 against the Washington Redskins in Week 7. The Eagles were trailing by 3 points in the 1st quarter. First, notice the pre-snap alignment deployed by the Eagles defense against the Redskins bunch.
Malcolm Jenkins is lined up across from tight end Jordan Reed. He’s being “capped” by Rodney McLeod. This is a blitz key, especially considering the down and distance. The Redskins motion Reed right to tight doubles on the other side of the formation, forcing the Eagles to adjust their plans. Jenkins peels off with the look that he is now potentially responsible for the running back.
What makes this blitz work is the timing of the defense. Jenkins and Nigel Bradham don’t start to threaten the offensive line until late in the process when it’s too late to make adjustments. McLeod, humping it to the other side of the field to follow Reed, does a fantastic job communicating with Jalen Mills at the last moment to avoid a busted coverage.
Without the motion, it’s unclear which gap would have attacked originally and if the EMLOS Derek Barnett would have continued his upfield arc or kicked more inside to create space for Jenkins, but Jenkins was coming regardless.
The Eagles bring seven blitzers against six blockers and create a 4-on-3 advantage straight down the heart of the line. Redskins running back Chris Thompson does an admirable job picking up Jenkins; identifying the blitz, engaging at proper depth and washing him away from the quarterbacks’ landmark.
The only problem is that Thompson is one man and there’s nobody there to pick up the streaking Bradham. His pressure forces an errant throw that is nearly intercepted by McLeod.
I watched every 3rd down play from this game, looking to see if the Eagles went back to the well. Sure enough they did, showing a very similar pre-snap look with very similar results.
This time McLeod and Bradham get a 2-on-1 on Thompson, who again does an admirable job, but ultimately an impossible one.
Later in the game with a two-score lead, the Eagles would dial back the intensity and dare the Redskins to pick them apart with short passes. Having big leads allows the Eagles to screw with analytics by watering down their tendencies and go-to concepts with other designs and deployments that they otherwise wouldn’t utilize in tighter games. This is a common practice league-wide.
The death blow, conveniently enough, came in the 4th quarter on 3rd & 6. Kirk Cousins, facing pressure from a four-man rush, stepped up in the pocket to evade a sack and threw an interception to a wide-open Corey Graham.
Despite the success Cover-0 brought the Eagles defense, the risky defense is not without its faults or fluctuations. Fast forwarding to the Week 13 showdown against the Seattle Seahawks, a team with a track record for devastating Cover-0 in 2017, the downside of Schwartz’s gamble was exposed.
There are a few things of note that doomed this play before it began. First, notice the pre-snap alignment is nearly identical to the first play noted against the Redskins.
Jenkins is again capped by McLeod, keying blitz. This isn’t a dead give-away, just an indicator of a potential blitz, but what happens next lifts the veil on the Eagles intentions.
The center Justin Britt nodding his helmet causes the Eagles to show their hand. This is frequently a key for the defense. Wade Phillips’ defense are known for studying indicators like this to tee off on. In college, Derek Barnett suffered from slow starts and offsides calls early in games until he settled in and accumulated enough visual data to tap into the offenses’ pre-snap sequence. What makes this interesting that Jenkins revealed his blitz on a cue that Britt hadn’t utilized on several plays leading up to this play. There was no trend for him to go off as the Seahawks are home, not fighting crowd noise, and were using verbal cues.
It’s important to note that this play happened after a time-out. This gave the Seahawks ample time to call the play during the break and get to the line with plenty of time to spare. This could have played a part in why the nod from Britt was incorporated. Notice the time left on the play clock.
With the blitz coming, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson throws up a hot signal to his left. At the last moment Patrick Robinson shifts inside, revealing one-on-one coverage with McLeod vs Doug Baldwin as the play develops. With inside leverage from McLeod and an out breaking route in the works, Wilson knows he just has to buy enough time to throw a lobber to Baldwin for a 48-yard touchdown.
Post-game Baldwin said he knew the Eagles propensity for 3rd down fireballs but was mystified when they attempted it against them.
“They showed it and we were successful again. One day they’ll learn.” – Doug Baldwin
Using this play is not an intended jab at McLeod; this is an impossible situation for him. With the blitz identified, his leverage noted, and facing one of the most detailed route runners in the game, McLeod had very little chance. It’s also a failure of execution on behalf of the defense that arguably exonerates Schwartz (this is your cue, comments section).
With a brand new season the horizon, we’ll see if Schwartz continues to rely on his front four to get pressure on early downs while taking the occasional big-time gamble on third down. Schwartz lives by the sword and consequently his players occasionally die by that same sword.