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Eagles’ defensive game plan lacked flexibility against Buccaneers

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Death by bombing or a thousand curls, it was coming either way...

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The early lead the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles conceded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had many people asking, “what happened? Who is at fault?”

Rest assured there is plenty of blame to go around for a defensive performance that was gashed for 436 total yards. But where does it land? Let’s run through some possible culprits and get to the bottom of it.

RUN DEFENSE...

Might as well keep it moving because this wasn’t close to the issue. The Eagles run defense stifled the Buccaneers ground game, holding them to 44 yards on 22 carries (removing the end of first half kneel down).

Overall, the Buccaneers had a paltry 23% success rate pounding the rock and only two successful runs in the second half as they attempted to salt the game away. 16 runs went for 3 yards or less, with 9 of those being stuffed for zero or negative yards.

The entire front seven front six were key performers in this area. The Buccaneers offensive line simply could not win one-on-one battles in the trenches; nor could they get to the second level to cut off the Eagles linebackers. This area was a big win and set the defense up in plus situations while also forcing the Buccaneers to pass to win in early downs and late in the game.

GENERATING PRESSURE…

PFF tabbed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with 66% throws being released in under 2.5 seconds. Through my own charting, I found that he released the ball within one hitch of his final drop step 71% of the time.

Let’s compare time-to-throw with Nick Foles, who held on to the bar far too long either through fault of his own or due to the lack of separation from his receivers (both are true). Foles released the ball at an average of 2.92 seconds. Fitzpatrick blurs past that with a lightning quick 2.21. The living conditions were quite different, but the contrast is still stark.

Getting rid of the ball fast is all gum drops and lollipops but what impact did it have? First, it negated a pass rush for the Eagles that performed well. Well, mostly, Fletcher Cox still got home once (yay).

While the New Orleans Saints struggled to generate a push (18%) in Week 1, the Eagles ranked 6th (37%) in applying pressure in Week 2. That’s despite the ball getting out in three steps. It was consistent throughout the game too, just not effective. Why?

When Fitzpatrick was under pressure he was sacked twice but otherwise had a productive day. He went 7 of 11 for 110 yards, 3 touchdowns with a 136.4 QB Rating. So I’ll ask the question again. Why was the pass rush productive, but not effective?

COVERAGE…

The Saints were abused in the passing game by playing press and getting balls thrown before they could get their heads around. Fitzpatrick would identify his primary read pre-snap based on the depth of the cornerback and leverage of the safety and simply put it up for his receiver to make a play. Time and time again his receivers made those plays.

The Eagles don’t press on the outside nearly as much as the Saints, so you would figure off coverage wouldn’t allow him to be as effective. You would be I was wrong.

When the Eagles played off and in their standard cover 3, things were easy for Fitzpatrick. Simple curls turned into world beaters thanks to the ball getting out quicker than the flat zone can get to the spot.

On 3rd & 5 in the 3rd quarter, Chris Godwin does to the Eagles what the Buccaneers did all day. Ran a quick curl and received the throw before Jordan Hicks’ flat zone could cut underneath. Ronald Darby starts with a 7-yard cushion and Godwin has plenty of space to gear down and sit in the void.

These were the types of situations the Eagles needed to be in but were not put in a position to win. The formula was too simple for the Buccaneers. Curls, comebacks, slants, go-flat route combinations, everything worked against a secondary playing on their heels on the outside.

Self-aware of their defects in the run game, the Buccaneers didn’t always wait until third down to air it out, where they finished middle of the pack for conversions (40%). On second down they took to the passing game to convert 10 of 16 attempts for first downs. Removing the 4th quarter to eliminate game script weight, the Buccaneers passed on 87% of their second down plays, the second highest rate in the league. The Eagles were caught off guard, out of place, and without answers.

There are too many examples to show in this regard, so with that I’ll move on. If you’ve seen one play clip, you’ve essentially seen them all.

INEFFECTIVE BLITZING...

The Eagles don’t blitz much because they can get home with four consistently. The same, as noted above, was true against the Buccaneers. When they did blitz, which only happened on six occasions (17%), it was a disaster.

They ran those six blitzes into a play-action wall four times, and Fitzpatrick released the ball quickly five times. The result was 5/6, 136 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown was the first play of the game. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz sent a heater, with Darby coming from his outside corner position plus a little extra from the linebackers.

That’s Jalen Mills linked up with DeSean Jackson at the top of the screen. Mills is undoubtedly catching heat for this play, but it’s not his fault. You could even blame Schwartz for not seeing what everybody in the stadium saw coming, but that would be wrong too.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins took blame for the play after the game, as he should have. He has deep middle third responsibility, but he gets greedy. He banks on the blitz getting home quicker than it does and attempts to undercut the route.

One greedy mistake by Jenkins, one egregiously poor tackle by Darby.. you take those two plays out of the equation and it alters the landscape of the game entirely. Unfortunately, you could say that for almost any football game. Those plays happened, and they cost the Eagles dearly.

Even without those two plays, the efficiency of the Buccaneers offense put them in a position to win. The problem for the Eagles was execution and game plan. If you can’t counter quick strike offenses despite a top-notch pass rush, what good is the pass rush? It’s not worth much when your strategy for the defensive backfield is based on fear.

In summation, the Schwartz’s design lacked creativity and adaptability. If they didn’t lose to two big plays, they were going to lose by death of a thousand 3-step drops. Schwartz stuck to his guns and lost. Ultimately, the blame lays squarely on his shoulders.

After his Week 1 performance against the Atlanta Falcons, one lost battle isn’t the end of the world. How he proceeds from here will be the real story.