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Opponent preview: Philadelphia Eagles’ run defense

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One of their best-ranked facets of the Eagles’ game comes under the microscope

The Philadelphia Eagles’ 2019 season isn’t going as well as many had hoped. Many disappointing performances have led to a 3-4 record leading up to the game against the Buffalo Bills in which we’re all naturally interested. One area that isn’t underperforming is the run defense. At 3.7 yards per attempt allowed, they’re good for seventh-best in the league. Only two teams have broken the century mark against them this year. Will the upcoming tilt against Buffalo be decided by Josh Allen’s arm, or are there opportunities for Frank Gore and Devin Singletary?

Shout outs are deserved this week. First to Bruce Nolan for a lot of scheme and background information on the Eagles, which resulted in this week’s focus. Second to Dan Lavoie for his assistance in breaking down a play and bouncing around ideas.


Play 1

With everyone criticizing the Bills’ quality of competition I felt it was fair game to see who the Eagles have played. In the five games in which the Eagles have held teams under 100 rushing yards, they’ve faced the teams ranked number 18, 25, 23, 20, and 31 in yards per attempt. In the two games they’ve allowed more than 100 yards they’ve faced the number four- and number-five teams. The Bills are number ten. That alone gives hope.

Bruce Nolan indicated that the Eagles frequently have eight defenders in the box and let’s just say he knows what he’s talking about. I was initially surprised to see them continue to run the same defense this close to their own goal line (this play). After deliberation with Dan Lavoie, I came away with the conclusion that there’s plenty of risk in this defensive play call but it’s calculated. A great individual effort is the reason this is a touchdown.

Play 2

If you’re curious, the Green Bay Packers are the 20th-best team in yards per attempt and had a very rough outing despite the touchdown above. For this play, we see some nuance in the stacked box with two players hesitating ever so slightly before joining the fun. Bruce pointed out that the Eagles rely on winning the numbers game and it’s evident here. The sheer number of defenders makes it hard to block everyone. The possibility that not everyone is charging in can create confusion and often all it takes is one missed block like we have here to create a negative play for an offense. The Packers made it easier for the Eagles on this and other plays with a straightforward blocking scheme. I mean this in the usual sense of “fairly simple” but also in a literal sense of everyone merely moving forward. This allows the fast Philadelphia defense to exploit gaps at full speed.

Play 3

The Packers have David Bakhtiari pull, but that’s about it for this play. The Eagles’ speed is on full display. The front-line defenders clog up the offensive lineman as usual and the second wave has little resistance flowing with the play.

Play 4

This isn’t a spectacular play but a gain of four slightly exceeded the average for the Packers. That’s not too bad from an efficiency standpoint, but the Packers only ran the ball 20 times. Of the five teams the Eagles held under 100 yards, only one ran it more times. That team was the Detroit Lions who had a lead much of the game and may have wanted to burn clock. The suggestion is that teams started poorly and gave up on running.

Another thing to note here is the pulling block and an attempt by the Packers to show this play as having some options. Both contributed to a solid gain on 2nd-and-6.

Play 5

Here we have one of Detroit’s more successful plays. The 23rd-ranked team in yards per attempt had a spectacularly boom or bust day. At less than three yards per carry, the Lions landed at 86 rushing yards on 28 attempts. This 11-yard gain is quite the anomaly. The key to this play is that the Lions schemed to get the numbers game back to at least even. Deciding on a play direction, the Lions give the ball carrier two lead blocks to break through the wave of Eagles. Philadelphia’s defense leans heavy on the “first level” near the line of scrimmage. Once a back slips past that it’s often a big gain as they chase the ball.

Play 6

This play has just seven in the box. This could be a result of the Eagles only having ten players on the field. Now that almost certainly impacted this play, but it’s highly likely this is a big gain regardless. The strength of the Philly defense can also be its curse. The high-speed nature of the entire unit can be devastated by a successful misdirection. The Lions dial up this trickery and add a couple lead blockers for good measure. Matthew Stafford doesn't get very aggressive but puts himself in great position to eliminate a pursuit route. This 44-yard gain was just over half their total for the day.

Play 7

One of the reason the Eagles defense is successful is because they react well to the play call they’re seeing. This play shows nine in the box, but it started as seven. The Lions adjusted their play pre-snap and brought in a receiving option to block. The Eagles countered with two more players to attack a confirmed run. This would have been a good time to change the play or call a timeout.

Play 8

Dallas was less shy about having pulling linemen and, as a result, they had a good day running the football against the Eagles. There were a lot of nice chunk plays like this one and Ezekiel Elliot averaged over five yards a carry on 22 attempts and went over 100 yards by his lonesome (111). Elliot is also one of the more talented backs in the league and made some plays with individual effort. The Minnesota Vikings also found success with Alexander Mattison having a little over four yards per carry.

Play 9

Despite a lot of chunk plays, the Dallas Cowboys had to suffer through their fair share of bad plays. This stacked box is another play where “Plan B” was probably wiser. Dallas tries to negate the defense with extra blockers, but it’s all straight ahead.

A key to the success of Dallas and the Vikings in running the ball was persistence. The Vikings had 35 rushing attempts and the Cowboys had 36. There were negative plays they had to suffer through but others where they found ways to break free.


Summary

The rushing defense of the Philadelphia Eagles is a legitimate strength. The anticipation of Jim Schwartz in deciding when to stack the box combines well with the numbers game they like to take advantage of.

Lead blockers, pulling guards, and other plays that sacrifice one spot on the line to open up lanes in others seems to be an effective counter. The Bills should still look to help Josh Allen out with a strong running game and figuring out this puzzle will go a long way toward getting a victory.

If only the Buffalo Bills had a left guard like Quinton Spain. Or lead blocking options like Lee Smith and Patrick DiMarco. If they had players like those guys, perhaps they could find a way to help out their running game on Sunday.