That was it, folks. That was the last time I had to watch 2017 film. (Not really.)
How excited I am for organic schemes, fresh ideas, player improvements, and new takes. Oh, what a time to be alive. I just love this feeling of impossible uncertainty in the NFC right now — Eagles, Falcons, Rams, Saints, Vikings, dark horse. Everyone is good; everyone got better; but who did enough?
We’ll start to get an idea as the weeks rumble on — but for now, it’s back into the 2017 tape to get a feel for how Atlanta and Philadelphia might attack one another on the chalkboard. Much like Xavier Rhodes would remark in the ensuing week’s game, Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz schemed circles around their opponents. We’ll start with the offense.
Free yardage in the flats
Philadelphia loves to get their backs involved in the passing game — and we should expect even more of that now that Darren Sproles has returned from injury and Jay Ajayi has made a concerted, documented effort to improve his hands.
Last year against the Falcons, Corey Clement lead the team with 5 receptions, while Ajayi was second on the team with 44 receiving yards (on 3 receptions). The common target was this quick little swing pass to the flat that seemed surprisingly effective — but against the Atlanta Cover 3 popularized by the Seattle Seahawks, Pederson found a great way to capitalize on that space.
What makes it so easy to pick up positive yardage on this little dump-off? To understand, we have to understand what Atlanta does with their defensive shells.
Atlanta is a heavy Cover 3 team — and when they go man, it’s typically Cover 1, so that single-high safety remains. It can be a little tricky, then, to identify if they’re in man or zone pre-snap. The common solution to identify man v. zone is, of course, some pre-snap motion.
On the final play of the above cut-up, Philadelphia comes out in 13 personnel — something they love to do to confound defenses and run their hurry-up offense. Before the snap, Trey Burton comes across the formation. The linebackers shuffle on over as Burton’s motion adjusts the strength of the formation, but one individual defender doesn’t track Burton across the field. This is zone coverage.
As such, the outermost defender to the boundary side of the field is responsible for the deep third. (That player is a cornerback, and just the fact that he was aligned to that side of the field without a receiver present is also a strong indicator the defense is in zone.) The next defender in then — the strongside linebacker — is responsible for the flat.
At the snap, you can see that Philadelphia runs a favorite of theirs from the Chip era — the Mesh-Sit route combo. The two crossers form the ‘Mesh’, while the little curl route behind them is the ‘Sit’ route. While that route combo can do well to confuse underneath defenders and thereby is a short-yardage favorite, it also creates something quite advantageous for Doug Pederson.
As the linebackers look to switch off the routes and get connected with the receivers entering their zones, Clement leaks out into the flat and Foles dumps it right to him. The deep third defender has appropriately gained depth, and as such, has to cover significant distance to close down for the tackle. First down.
That’s not a ton of yardage, but it is easy yardage. The Eagles snagged two first downs on this play (and variants) alone, also finding success with it against man coverage, because the traffic in the middle still delays the man coverage defender from getting into the flats.
Attacking Cover 3 deep
The same principles apply when looking for the long ball. Pederson’s offense did a stellar job attacking Cover 3 by running isolated routes into the boundary (speed out, comeback), but they also knew how to increase their chances of chunk plays with pre-snap motion determinants.
Doug opened the game with this shot — the longest passing attempt BY FAR for Nick Foles on the day. Gotta love the balls.
This is a levels concept to the field side, tagged with that little jet motion opposite to pull the defense for just a half second. Levels is a great concept to attack Cover 3, because the short route usually holds the flat defender, the deep route clears out the deep third defender, and the intermediate route opens up for a nice healthy gain.
But instead of opening up the game in their traditional Cover 3, Atlanta opted for their Cover 1 man look. Fortunately, Doug had built in the pre-snap motion of Nelson Agholor to key for QB Nick Foles man/zone coverage. Because Nelson is tracked across the line of scrimmage by the slot defender, we are clearly in a man coverage look.
Which means that, while the intermediate route (deep over from Alshon Jeffery) may still open up, it’s not our first read anymore — because we’re not facing Cover 3. Instead, we have our eyes set on the deep ball, one-on-one down the field, with speedster Torrey Smith. Coaches rarely disregard the opportunity to take those one-on-one balls, and once the deep over by Alshon holds the deep safety at his depth, Foles knows he can uncork the opening shot.
Of course, Foles grossly underthrows it, it could have been picked, it was DPI (thank goodness), and the explosive play is missed. Execution is important. But what’s more important here is understanding the Cover 3/Cover 1 check that’s built into the route concept. This particular play has different primary reads against zone and man coverage, which is identified by the pre-snap motion. It’s a fantastic opener that could have truly been a stellar first play.
Blocking even fronts and threatening RPOs
While Pederson and the Eagles will always turn to the air when they look for their big plays, leaning on the running game to pick up that elusive first first down — and keep the ball out of Nick Foles’ hands.
Because of their league-leading offensive line, Philadelphia can run a ton of different blocking schemes according to the defense’s weakness. With good penetrators on the line of scrimmage and the fastest linebacking corps in the NFL for Atlanta, the Eagles eschewed a lot of their inside or outside zone looks — and when they looked to run zone, they used pin-pull ideas to seal off disruptors like DT Grady Jarrett and get better angles on pursuers like LB Deion Jones.
Expect to see a ton more of these tackle wraps, influence traps, and whams tonight — and expect to see Atlanta counter by unchaining their linebackers to shoot down into gaps and play hot into sunlight.
Now, on every running play (and every quick throw the Eagles hit) (and every throw the Eagles hit) (and every passing attempt ever), expect to hear ‘RPO’ thrown around. It’s a misused and misrepresented term — but it does matter in a big way to defenses. Let’s grab a play from the cut-up.
Notice immediately that Atlanta has a +1 numbers advantage in the box — 7 defenders, 6 blockers. The typical response for offenses at a -1 box count? Leave a defensive end unblocked and give him a read option look — we’ve seen it a thousand times before.
If we call the read option a ‘run-run option’ — either run with the running back, or run with the quarterback — then it’s easy to understand how a ‘run-pass option’ can also eliminate one defender in the box. Instead of putting a line of scrimmage defender in conflict, a second-level defender — with run and pass defense responsibilities — is forced to make a choice.
But here’s something really, really, reaaallllly important. That play above is not an RPO. It’s a run all the way.
It could so easily be an RPO — and it looks like one! The backside runs a little slant-flat combo that is often tagged with RPOs or play-action pass ideas, and the weakside linebacker there knows how often Philly likes to work those ideas.
So, the moment TE Zach Ertz releases quickly to the outside, you see that WLB gain width to prepare for the pass. Even the defensive end, as an added bonus, drops into coverage as well! That’s a two-for one.
But if you keep an eye on Alshon Jeffery or on Nick Foles, it’s very clear that at the snap, the offense knows this is a running play. Is there a chance this is a pre-snap RPO by alignment, where Foles decides what to do before he gives a ‘hut-hut?’ I don’t think so — Alshon never looks for the pass, and the defensive alignment initially looks more advantageous for the passing play (remember, Atlanta is +1 in the box).
So a -1 box for the offense became a +1 box, simply via the threat of the RPO. Sheesh.
MOFO/MOFC on deep shot plays
Maaaaan, Jim Schwartz beat the pants off of Steve Sarkisian in this game. By the second half, Jimbo was running Cover 3 almost exclusively — highly irregular for the 2017 Eagles — because Sarkisian just didn’t have the play calls in place to make them pay consistently. It was pitiful, watching that Falcons offense score zero (0) points in the second half.
Schwartz relied very heavily on single-high coverage, just like Atlanta did — that’s Cover 3 and Cover 1. Given the linebacker depth issues — the Eagles started Dannell Ellerbe in this game, never forget — it makes sense: Schwartz needed Malcolm Jenkins in the box, and playing split-high safety looks would have put Corey Graham on the field a lot, which is not great. (He still saw the field a decent amount, and it was...not great!)
Those single-high coverages are called Middle Of the Field Closed (MOFC) coverages, and are categorized in contrast with the Middle Of the Field Open (MOFO) coverages like Cover 2, Cover 2 Man, and Cover 4. As we discussed on the offensive section, you can take deep shots up the boundary against MOFC coverages, because you typically get one-on-one coverage without single-high help. With MOFO coverage, it’s a bit trickier to get that space.
So Schwartz ran almost exclusively MOFC coverage, and Sarkisian struggled to get anything going against it. But when Sarkisian started looking for his deep shots, Jimbo was ready.
Between the 40s is prime deep shot territory in offensive coordinator canon — and twice, when Sarkisian got a 1st and 10 right around the 50, he looked for a deep shot. First with Yankee, then with Levels (like above)
Both times, Schwartz adjusted his coverage to anticipate a deep shot. On the first rep there he ran an Inverted Cover 2, in which the corners, not the safeties, take the deep halves of the field.
Against a MOFC coverage, Julio would get across the deep safety’s face and work across the opposite hash into space — you like that match-up with your elite wide receiver. But with Jalen Mills dropping into a surprise deep half coverage — before the snap, this could look a bit like Cover 3 — Julio is met with an undercutting Mills, and has to play defensive back to prevent the interception.
Later, against levels, Philadelphia spins their safeties to play more of a ‘Quarters’ shell, which allow the deep coverage defenders to adjust to the flood and bracket the deep receiver. Easy money.
Schwartz knew when Sarkisian wanted to go deep, and know how to defend the favored concepts. Sarkisian must be more willing to switch up when he takes he looks long — outside the 40s, chief — to force Schwartz into different coverage shells.
Attacking the boundary in the running game
Remember how the Eagles trapped and pulled against that penetrating front of the Falcons? Yeah, same basic issue for Atlanta — but a different solution.
Atlanta loves the wide zone — they love running into the boundary in general — so that’s where they went against the Eagles. Get those defenders playing upfield, beat them to the corner, and peel into the third level.
They saw a mixed bag of success — Philly was well-prepared for the predictable offensive approach. But when working to the boundary, Atlanta loved working into the right side of the formation, where Jalen Mills was often aligned.
Mills is a bit of a timid player in run defense, often relinquishing yardage and retreating from defenders. Atlanta also liked looking for Mychal Kendricks — but you can’t really blame them for that, can you?
After pushing into the C-gap and outside so often, you can see how the last rep — a key late-game run — took advantage of Philadelphia’s defense flowing hard into the boundary. When Atlanta can establish their outside rushing attack, it forces your defense to play laterally, and leaves you exposed to cutbacks up the middle.
I’m more interested, however, in diagramming the weakside toss that Atlanta incorporates as a natural counter to their outside zone. It’s a clever, well-designed play that takes advantage, again, of those linebackers itching to go set the edge against wide zone.
Atlanta loved to line up with a clear strength to the formation on one side of the field, then pitch this little backside toss the other direction. Again, notice how Atlanta is able to leave the strongside defensive end unblocked, which gives them a numbers advantage in the box.
You can immediately see on the final rep how the incorporation of a dummy puller to the opposite side freezes the linebackers, who have learned over many years of football that they should close down and attack those pullers before they get too far.
On this particular toss, Atlanta leaves the playside DE unblocked, knowing that he will close downfield once he feels space — again, what he’s taught to do — and that RB #26 Tevin Coleman has the speed to get around him. Look at the great blocks Atlanta’s LT and RG can get because of how eager the linebackers are to get rolling to the offense’s right, worried about the zone flow to the strong side.
Philadelphia’s got two new starting linebackers on the field tonight — expect Atlanta to attack them in space with their stellar duo of backs in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Misdirection like this should be heavily utilized.