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Eagle Eye: From Starters To Backups, An Impressive Performance By The Defense
August 18, 2017 09:31 PM | Fran Duffy


The Eagles' defense was extremely impressive on Thursday night against the Buffalo Bills. After a strong outing last week in Green Bay, the unit came back with an equally, if not more, remarkable performance in front of the home crowd. Jim Schwartz broke out a diversified blitz package, the starters made big plays at all three levels of the field, several young players flashed, and the team was pretty sound in almost every phase of defensive football. The tone was set early on when defensive end Brandon Graham got things started with a huge hit in the backfield.

Graham rifled upfield and was met head-on by the pulling center Eric Wood, one of the best in the league at his position. Graham chopped Wood to the side, defeated the block, and met LeSean McCoy in the backfield for a big collision and a loss on the play. Graham had a similar hit last week in Green Bay, and he appears to be in midseason form.

You'll notice on that play as well that Fletcher Cox got that play started by causing immediate disruption against the right guard. Cox lined up as a wide nose tackle here just shaded inside guard John Miller. He exploded into the guard, catapulting him into the backfield. This forced the fullback to help out, and this creates a ton of traffic early in the play for McCoy, who hesitated for a split second, allowing Graham to finish the play. Cox got the play started, and Graham came in for the finish. It wasn't the only time Cox was disruptive on the handful of snaps he played Thursday night.

On the two plays above, Cox just overpowered both guard Vlad Ducasse and Wood, driving them into the backfield and collapsing the pocket on quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Both throws were hurried and ended up as incompletions thanks to Cox's pressure on the quarterback.

The defensive line was outstanding against the Bills, creating several negative plays in the backfield and forcing Buffalo quarterbacks into bad decisions throughout the night. That's not who Eagles fans were most excited to see, however, because this would be the first time that we'd all get a look at newly acquired cornerback Ronald Darby. Needless to say, he offered an unforgettable first impression.

Early in the second series, Darby lined up in off coverage against veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, who ran a speed out just short of the sticks. Darby read the route and drove on the throw, showing off the short-area burst that makes him such a threat to pick off passes in the quick passing game. He almost came away with one here in what surely would've been an easy interception for a touchdown. He didn't get the turnover, but he made thousands of fans in the stands extremely happy. Two drives later, he'd send them through the roof.

It's the first play of the defense's fourth series, and Schwartz dialed up a Cover 0 or an all-out blitz. This means that six defenders will rush the quarterback, leaving just five players against five eligible receivers in straight man-to-man coverage with no safety help. Some defenders may feel threatened out on an island, but for Darby, this is like a walk in the park.

Boldin tried to run a stutter-go route, a double move meant to get the defender to bite on a quick throw to only get beaten over the top. This was a common theme last season. Teams loved running double moves his direction. Buffalo had no such luck here, as Brooks stayed disciplined and on top of the route, showing off his speed in the open field to stay in proper position, allowing him to make a play on the ball. Darby found the football, finished in the air, and looked great in the open field on the return, nearly returning it for a touchdown. It was a great way to introduce himself to Eagles fans, and it got the crowd buzzing early in the game.

Darby's pick was the Eagles' second of the game. The first happened in the opening series, and it also came off an aggressive blitz call from Schwartz.

On second-and-13, Schwartz sent a safety blitz from the boundary with Rodney McLeod flying downhill off the edge in a five-man pressure. Not all blitzes are going to get home, especially when the blitzer comes from depth, but coaches drill this at all levels of football. If you can't reach the quarterback, then disrupt the passing lanes. McLeod did just that, swatting this pass straight up into the air for linebacker Mychal Kendricks to run under for the turnover inside the 10-yard line. It was one of many plays Kendricks would make on the night.

Later in the quarter on first-and-10, the Bills are hoping to hit tight end Charles Clay on a screen pass to the left. By running it off play-action, the hope is that the linebackers will get aggressive against the run fake to help create space for the tight end to work. Kendricks did a great job here of staying home, not getting too nosy, and reading this screen pass from the jump. He met Clay at the catch point and brought him down for a 5-yard loss.

In the second quarter, Kendricks came up with a sack of Taylor in the backfield on another Cover 0 pressure from Schwartz. Kendricks positioned himself along the line of scrimmage in the B gap (the space between the guard and the tackle), and the offensive line slid away from his side. This left the athletic linebacker one-on-one with fullback Mike Tolbert, a veteran in this league for a long time and an accomplished pass protector. Kendricks made quick work of Tolbert with a sudden swim move, and finished the play with a tackle of the elusive Taylor for a sack. With a sack, interception, and the play in the screen game, Kendricks had one of the most productive and disruptive nights of any defensive player in the league this summer.

The Eagles' defense was relentless on Thursday night both against the pass and the run. I've highlighted some of the blitzes that the Eagles rolled out against the Bills which led to some big plays, but I think it's just as important to show how disciplined this group was against the run as well.

In a one-gap scheme, every defender is going to be responsible for one gap on pretty much every play. And with only so many defenders available to eat up all of the gaps along the offensive line, it means that the defensive backs are going to have to show up as run defenders. On the opening play, we saw Darby miss a tackle as a backside defender against McCoy, but overall I thought the secondary defended the run very well. There were a handful of plays, in particular, that stood out to me, and it involved the first-, second-, and third-team units at different stages of the game.

There is a trio of plays all portraying the same thing. First, the defensive starters fit this run play perfectly. Every defender was in his gap, forcing McCoy to cut this back against the grain. Malcolm Jenkins filled in the backside D gap (between the two tight ends) and made a stop in a one-on-one situation. Next up, the second-team unit faced a similar situation. The front locked in all of their gaps in the run fit, forcing a cutback in the backfield. This time it was Corey Graham flying downhill, filling the C gap this time, and making the stop right at the line of scrimmage. Later in the third quarter, the same situation happened on second-and-10, and Terrence Brooks made the stop in a one-on-one situation. Having secure tacklers at the safety spot is a "must" in this defense, and the Eagles' safeties were up to the challenge on Thursday.

It was also very important to see several young players on this defense perform well in this game, and the young player who everyone has been buzzing about is the first-round pick from this year's draft, defensive end Derek Barnett. After a two-sack debut last week in Green Bay, Barnett was even better against Buffalo.

This is Barnett's first rep in the game. It's second-and-9 in the first quarter, and he's lined up against Buffalo tackle Seantrel Henderson. Barnett beat the talented blocker with a bull rush, collapsing the pocket, and forcing Taylor to tuck the ball and run. It wasn't a sack or a tackle for loss or a huge hit that got the crowd roaring, but it was another example of the rookie continuing to work on a variety of moves in addition to his effective outside rush techniques.

Later in the game, Barnett won inside yet again, this time converting his bull rush to an inside swim move to help get a hit on quarterback Nate Peterman. One of the things I love to see from a pass rusher is the ability to string multiple moves into one rush attempt, and Barnett did just that on this play to force a quick throw short of the sticks.

On the very next play, Barnett and the defense faced a third-and-3. This time, he won with one of his go-to moves, a violent chop that knocked the left tackle's hands down as he showed off his flexibility turning the corner, accelerating into the quarterback, and bringing him down for a sack to force a punt.

Barnett played a majority of his snaps this summer at right defensive end, but they've slowly worked him in from the other side as well. Barnett did the same thing in college. He doesn't get the sack here, and in fact, the Bills picked up a first down, but watch Barnett's motor. He used that chop move again to run the hoop and help force the quarterback to break the pocket. He chased Peterman down outside the numbers and dove as he tried to get him out of bounds to force a punt. Barnett plays the game the way it should be played, and this is a great example of why I think Philadelphia is going to love this kid for a long time. Barnett wasn't the only Eagles rookie who stood out on Thursday though because I thought Rasul Douglas had another good showing.

Douglas was in the slot on this play with both receivers lined up on the defense's left side. In an isolated position on a bit of an island, Douglas didn't panic. He disrupted the route at the top of the stem, felt the throw coming, and got his eyes back to the football. He knocked it to the ground to force an incompletion and bring up third-and-long.

Douglas also showed off his motor against the Bills, as you can see this infectious attitude that the entire defense plays with. Douglas chased this play down from behind. It ended up coming back on an offensive penalty, but it's great to see the hustle and effort from the rookie defender, who also saw an uptick on special teams reps this week as well.

A lot of fans are focused on the battle in the secondary this summer, but another position battle to watch on defense is at linebacker. There are a handful of young players who are battling for backup positions on the roster. Rookie Nathan Gerry (who, like Douglas, saw a lot more first-team reps across the board on special teams against Buffalo) and second-year players Kamu Grugier-Hill, Joe Walker, and Don Cherry are four names fighting for what will likely be two or, at best, three spots. Grugier-Hill got a sack in the game and also made a great tackle on special teams in punt coverage. Walker and Cherry each had standout moments as well.

Here's one of a handful of stops by Walker in the game. Lined up as a stacked player inside, Walker remained square to the line of scrimmage, stayed alive against a cut block, and met the ball carrier in the hole for a one-on-one tackle. The former Oregon Duck was known for his athleticism coming out of college a year ago and is still somewhat working his way back from a torn ACL last August. I thought that Thursday was a big step in the right direction for Walker.

While Walker spent the 2016 season on Injured Reserve, Cherry spent the year on the Eagles' practice squad. The Villanova alum received fewer special teams reps this week, but also made more plays on defense. The biggest play came on a strip in pursuit against a ball carrier who wasn't even his responsibility. Cherry started the play in man coverage against a tight end, and when he saw that his assignment stayed in to pass protect, he's got one of two choices. He can either take off after the quarterback as a blitzer, or he can drop back as an extra man in coverage. He chose the latter, and thankfully so because after a blown coverage the running back leaked out of the backfield and caught a pass. Cherry got on his horse, chased the ball carrier down, and got the ball out for an Eagles turnover.

Another fun battle on the back end of the roster is at defensive end. With the top four spots pretty much set in stone with Graham, Vinny Curry, Barnett, and Chris Long, the Eagles have a couple of other players battling it out for the final one or two spots. Second-year pass rusher Alex McCalister and Steven Means are the ones who have stood out the most.

McCalister was known for his ability to bend the edge and turn the corner during his days at Florida, and he's now a little bit bigger while still maintaining that flexibility. He got a sack against Green Bay and showed off his freakish length with the strip sack in the first play above, but don't miss the two stops in the run game as well.

Steven Means, meanwhile, just keeps doing what he's always done, and that's chase quarterbacks with a relentless nature. He did it last summer, and we've seen more of the same since the games started last week. Means is violent with his hands, has some movement to him, and has a motor that is always running hot. I'm really enjoying watching these two guys compete on the third-team defense.

Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.

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