Don’t let the 4-3 record or last week’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys fool you, the Philadelphia Eagles are still a really good team. By Football Outsiders’ DVOA, they’re still the best team. While the offense has struggled over the past few weeks, the Eagles are No. 1 in DVOA thanks to a special teams unit that’s well above every other team and a league-best defense.
Much of what Philadelphia does successfully stems from the defensive line. What the Eagles have been able to do with their front four shouldn’t be all that surprising. The talent along the line had been there and the players seemed like a perfect fit in the scheme of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz, unlike almost any other coordinator, excels at creating pressure with the front four. During his time both as the head coach for the Detroit Lions and defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, Schwartz had among the lowest blitz rates in the league, yet his teams were typically near the top of creating pressure and sacks.
Schwartz has continued with that philosophy so far this season. Per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, the Eagles have the third-highest pressure rate on defense and they’ve converted that into the second-highest raw sack rate in the league and highest adjusted sack rate per Football Outsiders, all while ranking 32nd in the percentage of plays with a blitz.
The Eagles have three stellar players along the defensive line who have the ability to rip through any offensive lineman on their own in ends Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin, as well as defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The fourth member of the line, tackle Bennie Logan, is out for a few weeks with a groin injury and missed his first game of the season against the Cowboys in Week 8. Beau Allen started in his place against Dallas and likely will against the Giants on Sunday, but the three mainstays on the line will be dangerous enough to have the attention of the Giants’ offensive line.
While Schwartz might send four rushers more than any other defense in the league, that doesn’t mean he’s just letting his linemen run aimlessly into the backfield in the hopes for a sack. The Philadelphia defense can disguise the pass rush even when opposing teams can bet on just four defenders coming.
We’ll start with a pretty simple stunt the Eagles ran against the Cowboys on Sunday night. It’s a simple four-man rush from the linemen, but it technically ends up as a three-man rush because Graham’s responsibility has little to do with actually getting to the quarterback. As soon as Graham reached right tackle Doug Free, he turned to take out the guard, which allowed Cox to bounce outside and pressure Dak Prescott.
On the play, Cox overpursued Prescott, but that also has to do with Prescott’s mobility. It’s still a pressure, which forced a rushed throw on the run. The pass, while caught, was ruled incomplete because the receiver was out of bounds. Against a less mobile quarterback like Eli Manning, there’s a good chance this play ends up in a sack.
Where Schwartz and the Eagles really get creative is in sending different combinations of four pass rushers. Take this play against the Minnesota Vikings that really screwed with Minnesota’s offensive line. Pre-snap, the Eagles showed the possibility of seven rushers before two eventually dropped back. Now that leaves five defenders on the line of scrimmage and at the snap the Eagles only send four, but not the four the Vikings were expecting. Cox, the defensive tackle, dropped back into coverage at the snap, which created a mismatch on the other side of the line. The right side of the offensive line has three blockers for two defenders, while the fourth rusher -- linebacker Nigel Bradham -- is one-on-one with running back Matt Asiata. That’s an easy win for the linebacker and he gets the sack on the play.
What also makes this front four so dangerous is how well each individual can rush the passer and how well that meshes together. If one defender gets into the backfield and misses the sack, there’s a good chance there’s one right behind him to clean the play up as Matthew Stafford learned here earlier this season. For quarterbacks and offensive linemen, there’s not a large margin for error when someone gets beat.
But just because the Eagles blitz at the lowest rate in the league, it doesn’t mean they don’t blitz at all. When Philadelphia gets an opponent in an obvious passing down, the defense can really amp up the pressure. Against the Cowboys, the Eagles forced a third-and-18 and decided to bring the house. They lined seven players up on the line of scrimmage and brought all seven on the blitz. Prescott moved to his left in an attempt to get away from the rush and fired a pass at an open Cole Beasley, but the timing was off due to the rush and the pass falls short.
Against the Vikings in Week 7, Schwartz really took advantage of confusing an overwhelmed Minnesota offensive line. On this 2nd-and-8 play, the Eagles showed a standard pass rush before a safety and linebacker rushed in just before the snap. But instead of it being a six-man rush, Graham dropped back into coverage on the opposite side of blitz, which shifted the line. This left safety Rodney McLeod one-on-one with left tackle Jake Long, which in theory should be a win for the offensive line every time. But on this play, Long wasn’t ready for the safety and McLeod was able to run right around the corner and cause a strip-sack recovered by the Eagles.
So far this season the Giants have allowed the eighth-lowest pressure rate on offense per Sports Info Solutions charting and have the third-best adjusted sack rate in the league. Those rankings are as much, if not more, about the scheme and play of Eli Manning than the success of the offensive line. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Manning is getting the ball out at the eighth-quickest rate among quarterbacks, which limits the amount of time opposing defenders have to rush the passer. The Giants have done a great job keeping Manning upright this season, but the Eagles’ defensive front will definitely be the toughest test they’ve faced yet.