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What the analytics tell us about the Eagles’ defense

Establishing the play-action...

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NFL: SEP 08 Redskins at Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles’ defense got ripped up by play-action on Sunday. There’s no denying that.

Washington quarterback Case Keenum torched them 7-for-11 (63.6%), 168 yards (15.3 Y/A), 2 touchdowns and a robust 146.8 QB Rating. The difference between that and non-play-action is worth about 9 yards per attempt and 50 points in QB Rating. Despite that, Washington only utilized run-fakes on 24% of their dropbacks. Why?

One cause could be the fallacy that you need to “establish the run” to execute play-action. There’s a mountain of evidence that flies in the face of that. Still, if Jay Gruden is still clutching those pearls, it’s of note that Washington gained zero first downs on rushing attempts. In fact, they were the only team in Week 1 to not move the chains via run.

Overall, the Washington offense was only able to muster an abysmal 2.2 yards per carry with a 15% success rate. Despite that, they still elected to run on 60% of their first half first-and-tens. They definitely didn’t learn their lesson from last year where they ranked 3rd highest run frequency in that situation with the 4th lowest success rate. They had only one successful run on in those situations on Sunday.

But again, you don’t need to establish the run to be effective with play-action, as the analytics from this game help show. Perhaps game script skews the numbers, as Washington had seventeen straight passes after going down 12 points in the fourth quarter. If you remove those, Washington went play-action on 39% of their offense snaps before the rout took full effect. That’s more like it.

Seeing it in that new light, you have to ask what happened to make them so explosive on play-action. Three of their four explosive plays came off of run-fakes. The first came on a 48-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis which included Andrew Sendejo flying up-field and tripping up on Davis’ leg, followed by some atrocious team tackling.

The below video is three examples of how play-action beat the Eagles. In the first, you can see how the Eagles were sucked into the run-action and got out of sorts with their responsibilities. This left a pocket of grass for Kelvin Harmon on a 21-yard pass.

In the other two plays included, you can see that the Eagles were coming with a least one extra blitzer. The problem with blitzing play-action is that you’re often met with extra protection from the offense, which was the case. Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones are squatting on the intermediate area expecting a quick release from Keenum, but the extra protection affords him the time to let the deep routes to Terry McLaurin develop. It’s not an excuse for the defensive backs, but as with everything the thought process behind the busted coverage is important to note.

The Eagles didn’t find themselves in that situation much however, as Jim Schwartz predictably played soft and sat back. He blitzed only 16% of the time, but when he did the defense was torched for 12.8 yards per play and it should’ve been more if not for an overthrow from Keenum. Blitz effectiveness is something to keep an eye on throughout the season, because it sure didn’t work Sunday.

Despite bringing only four rushers 84% of the time, Pro Football Focus credited the Eagles’ pass rush with pressuring Keenum on 42.2% of his dropbacks, 7th best on the week. I’ll be interested to see how the other analytical companies report this as it certainly didn’t feel like that on my first, second, or third watch. Either way, smashing into a wall of protection with blitzes toasted the Eagles big once and nearly cost them twice.

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