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The Eagles’ run defense was great. Now it’s a problem.

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When is it too much of a good thing? The Eagles’ suffocating run defense is funneling opponent’s snaps to the passing game; an open invitation to attack the weakest position on the team. And there isn’t a change in sight.

New York Jets v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

What is a scheme change?

No, really. What is a scheme change? Whenever specific units struggle; or certain plays break invariably in the opposing team’s favor; or opposing players of a particular mold seem unstoppable, we call for a scheme change. The defensive coordinator needs to run this, and the offense needs to try that. They need to change the scheme.

Let’s offer the Eagles’ secondary as an example. Here’s their problem:

The Eagles are bleeding big plays in the secondary, a violent hemorrhaging that can only spurt from multiple causes. The starting corners have been injured, yes — but backups play in this oft-injured league all the time. The scheme must also be at fault, for failing to protect those beleaguered covermen.

So the Eagles need a scheme change. What does that look like?

In This House, We Stop The Run

Jim Schwartz was hired as the Eagles defensive coordinator in 2016. At the time, the Eagles’ defensive personnel was jerry-rigged into Billy Davis’ toothless 3-4 alignment. Fletcher Cox played defensive end and Brandon Graham was a stand-up outside linebacker. Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll were the starting outside corners. It was a whole thing.

Schwartz found quick wins in the installation of his 4-down, upfield, aggressive approach — at least, that’s what was sold by the franchise and accepted by the onlookers. The Eagles hired Schwartz to generate a pass-rush with four, to win with his defensive line attacking gaps and penetrating to disrupt. The Eagles finished the 2016 season fourth in defensive DVOA, and second against the pass; defensive additions in Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills, and Nigel Bradham all shined.

As it was what we first saw from the new-look Schwartz, after a failed stint as the Detroit Lions head coach and fresh off a year’s sabbatical, it’s what we believed would remain the case. He would attack with his defensive line and disrupt opposing passing attacks; line his EDGEs up out wide and scream them off the corner and into the quarterback’s lap.

This has not remained the case.

In 2017, the Eagles would finish again fourth in defensive DVOA; eighth against the pass. In 2018, they’d be 15th in defensive DVOA, and 15th against the pass.

The defense has gotten worse — but that’s not really that interesting. A lot can go into a team’s performance, and even as DVOA adjusts for context, it’s an imperfect measure — as all individual measures are. Nobody can tell you exactly how good Schwartz’s defenses have been over his tenure in Philadelphia; nobody can tell you why they were that good/bad/mediocre, as well; and certainly nobody can agree with anyone else on the topic.

But we can parse how the defense tries to be good: what it looks to accomplish when it’s on the field, such that it can achieve the ultimate goal of allowing no points, relinquishing not a yard, and winning every football game from Week 1 to the Lombardi. What is it trying to do, specifically, to be the best defense it can be?

Jim Schwartz is trying to stop the run.

Eagles Run Defense By Year (League Rank)

Metric 2016 2017 2018 2019
Metric 2016 2017 2018 2019
Rush yards/game allowed 15 1 6 2
Yards/rush allowed 15 9 20 2
Rushing DVOA 13 2 9 2

And so, Jim Schwartz has stopped the run — every week, we hear about it from the broadcast booth, in the pregame pressers. This season, the Eagles have held Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and Dalvin Cook all under 3 yards per carry on 42 combined carries; Kerryon Johnson, Aaron Jones, and Derrius Guice under 2 yards/carry apiece on 43 total totes. They have the second-best run defense in the league as measured by rushing DVOA (their third season in the Top-10), yards/rush allowed, and rushing yards/game allowed. That’s not a mistake; it’s how they’ve been for the past three years under Schwartz.

But the defense that was promised, advertised, and seemingly realized in Schwartz’s first year was a defense oriented on the pass-rush. Yet the run defense has shined, in large part because it is truly the focal point of the coaching staff.

Schwartz’s 4-man front differs from Davis’ 3-man front in that his defensive linemen deploy one-gapping techniques — they are responsible for one gap in the defensive run fits. This is the “penetration” of Schwartz’s philosophy: he puts his front four in the gaps between offensive linemen before the snap, and allows them to fire upfield to disrupt against either the pass or the run.

The alternative system is a two-gapping system, in which the linemen are typically head up opposite offensive linemen; instead of being responsible for the gap in which they’re placed, they’re responsible for the gap on either side of the offensive lineman opposite which they’re aligned. As such, they play slower at the snap, watching as the play develops — this is why these two-gapping systems have the reputation of being weak against the pass (and often are), as two-gapping defensive linemen rarely have enough time to get upfield to attack the passer after checking their run responsibilities.

This, from the aforementioned Billy Davis’ Eagles.

The three down linemen are head up on offensive linemen, and the rush linebackers are standing up outside the surface of the offensive line to win on the outside edge track.

When the Eagles run their one-gapping defensive front under Jim Schwartz, their run fits are accordingly a matter of fitting all possible gaps. The second-level defenders, such as linebackers and safeties, must align such that they can fill the gaps left uncovered by the first-level defenders in the trenches.

As a general rule, there’s one more gap to run through than there are blockers in the offensive formation. When there are five offensive linemen alone in the formation, there are six gaps: the two A-gaps between the center and guards, the two B-gaps between the guards and tackles, and the two C-gaps outside of the tackles. In order to defend a run against a 4-wide formation, you need six defenders to account for the six gaps.

Run fits are rarely as neat as you see above. On this rep, a TFL for weakside DE Brandon Graham (right side of picture), both Graham and Fletcher Cox will stunt into the interior gaps, as the weakside linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill drops down to the edge on a blitz. This is a 5-man pressure package, but it’s still gap-sound, in that each potential running gap is accounted for by a defender in the fit.

So the rule dictates that there’s one more gap than there are total blocker.s Accordingly, when teams load up their formation with tight ends and fullbacks, they add gaps that the defense must account for. In order for Schwartz to keep his defensive linemen in a penetrating role and give them freedom to shoot through gaps, they must add second-level defenders to account for those additional gaps that the offense created.

These are men in the box. They matter a great, great deal.

The Cost Of Doing (Bad) Business

So Philadelphia is consigned to adding box defenders to account for additional gaps in the offensive formation. Those defenders have to come from somewhere. Namely, the secondary.

The Eagles were one of the league leaders last year in MOFC coverage — in other words, single-high safety sets. That extra safety that would have aligned deep, they pulled down into the line of scrimmage and inserted into the box to account for the gaps left uncovered by the defensive line.

Remember: in 2018, the Eagles’ starting free safety, Rodney McLeod, went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3 — and yet the Eagles still played single-high safety more than most teams in the league. That deep safety was a backup, but Schwartz left him alone. The insistence of leveling the scales of in the box made the danger of leaving Corey Graham isolated deep an acceptable risk.

So the Eagles pull a safety down into the box to defend the run — so what? This seems innocuous; it isn’t, when we add additional data to the venerable Eagles’ run defense over Schwartz’s tenure.

Eagles Run Defense By Year (League Rank)

Metric 2016 2017 2018 2019
Metric 2016 2017 2018 2019
% of rush attempts faced 20 32 32 27
Rush attempts/game 24 32 32 27
Rush yards/game allowed 15 1 6 2
Yards/rush allowed 15 9 20 2
Rushing DVOA 13 2 9 2

In back-to-back seasons (2017-2018), the Eagles saw fewer running plays — and, subsequently, more passing plays — than any defense in the league.

We need to understand this in context. The Eagles pour numbers into their box to ensure they’re always gap-sound against the run. Accordingly, they turn effective running backs into inefficient players — cool. However, because they so diligently fill each gap via alignment pre-snap, they discourage rushing attempts in general, and thereby encourage passing attempts.

This is a big deal. We’ve known for a while now that, on average, a passing play is more dangerous than a running playit occurs deeper down the field to begin with, it can happen in far less predictable/manageable of spaces, and involves a greater variety of skill position players. If there was a play choice to discourage, it would be the pass — the Eagles do the opposite of that.

They encourage it by their numbers, which brings us back to the film. When opposing offenses present multi-tight end sets, or incorporate two players in the backfield, the Eagles add the extra safety to the box, which weakens their ability to protect their outside corners with safety help over the top. With only one deep middle safety, vertical routes on the outside typically leave the Eagles’ cornerbacks on islands.

Consider the final play (incomplete moonshot to Stefon Diggs), again within the context of bodies and space. This is in a hurry-up no-huddle situation: less than 2 minutes, Vikings around midfield — screams pass. The offense, if they wanted to run it here, would be giving a touch to one of their best offensive weapons, a few yards behind the line of scrimmage, with about 17 bodies between the hashes directly in front of him. If they elected to pass it, as they do to Stefon Diggs here, they’re trying to get one of their best offensive weapons 50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, in a one-on-one situation, with the entire breadth and depth of the field available to place the football away from coverage and where Diggs can adjust to the football.

Which would you choose — even considering the high percentage chance of an incompletion?

When the Eagles offer these heavy box looks with isolated corners and a middle of the field floater, they are inviting man-beating routes by the simple numbers game of their defense. One defender, a whole third of the field, with little to no help is an especially beneficial matchup for the offense when that one player is a backup, as Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones, the targeted corners in the above reps, are.

Remember, the Eagles’ defense is hemorrhaging big passing plays, and you can’t put the whole blame on just one source of the defense’s many-faced composite. The alignment and scheme encourage deep shots, but so does the objectively poor play of the backup cornerbacks (and, at times, starting cornerbacks). The coaching staff and the personnel share the blame.

But can we isolate those plays in which the scheme is to blame, as opposed to when the cornerback play is at fault as well?

If it is indeed possible, it looks like this: because the Eagles’ corners only have the deep middle safety, they don’t have help against deep vertical routes. Accordingly, they often align in those woeful off-coverage cushions that Eagles fans have come to resent — eight yards off of the ball, fearful of losing deep down the field. When they align as such, they invite effortless short throws from the opposing offense.

Again, when we put these throws in the framework of bodies in space, we see why they are of such an advantage to the offense. A running play is a touch for a skill position player, behind the line of scrimmage, with five or six or seven blockers who need to properly execute their responsibilities for the runner to even make it back to the line of scrimmage. A quick route to the wide receiver is a touch right around the line of scrimmage, again to a skill position player, now in a one-on-one situation. Make one dude miss, and it’s a positive gain. You’ve eliminated the variance of the offensive line entirely, wherein one member failing could lead to a loss of yardage.

But when the Eagles load the box, they don’t only encourage these WR screens by their off alignment — they build the alerts into the offense. Watch again, focusing on the offensive line actions instead of the cornerback alignments. See how they fire off the ball, orchestrate a blocking scheme, in conjunction with the running back preparing for the handoff.

These are running plays — more specifically, these are packaged plays. The running play that is called in the huddle is packaged with an quick passing play — in these three specific instances, alert WR screens to the isolated X — that can be executed before the offensive line gets illegally far beyond the line of scrimmage.

These are RPOs, really, in that there is an option to run and an option to pass. But these passes don’t even go down the field! They’re at the line of scrimmage; they’re predicated on YAC and broken tackles. These won’t count as runs against the Eagles’ vaunted rushing defense, they won’t tick the boxes as the Eagles look to three-peat as the team that faces the fewest runs — but they’re basically runs! Instead of runs with eight defenders shooting into eight gaps against seven blockers, they’re one-on-one runs with wide receivers against off-coverage corners. There is hardly a greater chance the alert screen will fall incomplete than the handoff will be fumbled. These are runs.

They’re also a win for the offense. They’re an overwhelming win for the offense, and they come as a product of the Eagles’ determination to get that extra defender in the box and remain gap-sound against the run — even if it means giving up an essentially equivalent, if not greater play, right over there to the side.

So the rushing numbers are lying to you, plain as pie. Runs are not runs anymore — not when they can be packaged with quick, high-percentage passing plays that protect the offense from diving headfirst into loaded boxes through which they’ll never see daylight. Stopping the run invites the pass, which makes offenses better, not worse. The Eagles defense is good at stopping the run, but that makes them worse at stopping opponents, which is fundamentally bad.

So what is a scheme change? It’s dropping cornerbacks in half-bail techniques to get split-field coverages — something the Eagles have tried and failed. It’s turning to Cover 0 blitzes to get quick pressure on long-and-late downs, which the Eagles have tried and failed; quarters coverage to get safeties involved in coverage while still keeping them engaged in run fits, which the Eagles have tried and failed.

The Eagles don’t need a scheme change; it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that they can’t stop the pass because they just don’t have the numbers. They’re bleeding big plays through the air, and a scheme change is just gauze — it’s hiding the issue without healing it. What is required is far greater, and less likely: a paradigm shift. For the Eagles defense to go from bad to good, they must loosen their death grip on box numbers, choosing to flood coverage zones with bodies instead of interior gaps. When presented with the option of defending the run or the pass, Schwartz much choose to defend the pass, and in doing so, change the design and technique of the defense at all three levels.

That doesn’t, you know, happen. At all.

The Eagles can stop the run, and that’s great in a vacuum. But to do it at the expense of defending the pass is too steep a price to pay, and to fundamentally shift the orientation, the philosophy of the defense, takes monumental effort that few teams choose to expend. The Eagles are playing defense on a chalkboard, for a different generation of football — and for as long as they continue to do so, they’ll give up a free seven yards on 3rd and 5; lose to double-moves; struggle in a vertical third. Their corners will die on islands as box defenders stroke their chins, wondering what — oh, what could have been done to help them.