The Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals square off Sunday in a midseason heavyweight battle between two 5-1 teams. This game pits one of the league's most explosive offenses against a stellar defensive unit that has played surprisingly well despite a bevy of key personnel losses. The looming chess match between Chip Kelly and Todd Bowles inspired me to take a look at the All-22 Coaches Film to unearth potential strategies for each wily play caller.
While I examined the Eagles' offense a few weeks ago, I wanted to look at the challenges this unit will provide for Bowles as he attempts to build a winning game plan this week. Here's my take:
The Eagles' personnel
LeSean McCoy, running back: The 2013 rushing king is the straw that stirs the drink in this offense. McCoy's explosive running skills are accentuated in the team's zone-based scheme, which features the inside- and outside-zone plays prominently in the game plan. With McCoy adept at turning the corner on perimeter runs or attacking cutback lanes on inside plays, the Eagles' zone-read concepts challenge opposing defenders to remain disciplined in their gap assignments. In the passing game, McCoy is an outstanding playmaker on screens. He patiently sets up his blocks at the point of attack and is nearly impossible to tackle in space when he gets to the second level. Consequently, the Eagles routinely get him the ball on a variety of slow and slip screens to take advantage of his home-run potential, particularly in long-yardage and red-zone situations.
Nick Foles, quarterback: The Pro Bowler has failed to live up to the lofty standard that he established in 2013 -- when he compiled a ridiculous 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- but he remains a dangerous playmaker in Chip Kelly's scheme. As a passer, Foles is a quick-rhythm thrower with above-average arm strength and ball-placement skills. When throwing from a clean pocket, he is as good as any quarterback in the league from an accuracy standpoint. However, Foles has been shaky under pressure, showing a propensity to throw the ball up for grabs when attacked with persistent blitzing. As a result, he has turned the ball over 10 times in six games, putting the Eagles in adverse situations due to his questionable judgment.
Jeremy Maclin, wide receiver: The sixth-year pro has stepped into the lead role as the designated playmaker in the Eagles' passing game. While his numbers don't jump off the stat sheet (27 receptions for 445 yards and four scores), Maclin has been Philly's home-run threat on the perimeter. With underrated running skills and slick route-running ability, Maclin has produced seven receptions of 20-plus yards and two receptions of at least 40 yards in 2014. After missing the entire 2013 campaign, Maclin is gradually regaining his speed and explosiveness, giving the Eagles a dangerous perimeter player who must be accounted for at all times.
Zach Ertz, tight end: The second-year pro is the X-factor in Philadelphia's lineup. He presents a tough challenge for opponents with his size/speed combination as a "move" tight end. The Eagles take advantage of his athleticism on the perimeter by displacing him from the line and frequently using him as a quasi-receiver in spread formations. Additionally, Philly will use him as part of a double-tight end formation (with Brent Celek) and have him work across the field on drags/shallow crossers to capitalize on his ability to run away from tight coverage. Given the heavy amount of man coverage opponents throw at the Eagles to slow down the Kelly's spread scheme, the use of Ertz on rub routes has been one of the team's most effective counters.
Darren Sproles, running back: The Eagles acquired Sproles in an offseason trade to add another dynamic weapon to the lineup. The 10th-year pro remains a constant big-play threat, exhibiting speed, quickness and acceleration on draws, delays and screens out of the backfield. Sproles suffered a sprained MCL in Week 6, but he returned to the practice field Tuesday. Although he has been used primarily as a complement to McCoy in the backfield, the Eagles will trot him onto the field to serve as a change-of-pace back on draws, screens and option routes. Sproles also must be accounted for in the kicking game due to his elusive running skills and uncanny knack for finding creases up the gut. With a 15.6-yard punt-return average (and an 82-yard touchdown) on the season, Sproles is a two-phase playmaker with game-changing ability.
The Eagles' plays
Philadelphia's bread-and-butter play is the inside-zone run. The Eagles run it from a variety of formations (shotgun and under center) with multiple personnel groupings on the field, but the play is simply designed to get the ball to the running back on an inside play that can hit in either A-gap, depending on the flow of the defense.
In the play depicted just below -- a play taken from the Eagles' Week 6 win over the New York Giants -- McCoy is getting the ball on an inside zone, with the H-back (Ertz) coming across the formation to kick out the defensive end (Jason Pierre-Paul). Ertz successfully kicks out Pierre-Paul at the point of attack, leaving a crease for McCoy to exploit on the back side. McCoy slips past the safety in the hole and rumbles for an 18-yard gain on the Eagles' favorite play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Eagles also feature the outside-zone play in the running game. The play is designed to get the running back on the perimeter with a couple of blockers leading the way.
In the following play breakdown, the Eagles are giving the ball to McCoy heading to his right, behind the blocks of center David Molk and right guard Todd Herremans. As McCoy nears the corner, he will read the flow of the defense to determine whether to bend (cut back), bounce (take the ball around the corner) or bang (attack an inside crease). With the outside available, McCoy follows Molk's lead on the perimeter and turns the corner for an 11-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Eagles' screen game is devastating with McCoy and Sproles in the backfield. Each player is slippery and elusive in the open field. The Eagles will use a variety of slow screens to take advantage of overaggressive defenders, while giving McCoy and Sproles additional opportunities to touch the ball in space. Kelly loves to call the slow screen in third-and-long and red-zone situations to take advantage of possible blitzes.
In the following play, taken from Philadelphia's preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Eagles are running a slow screen from their shotgun, two-back personnel package. Jordan Matthews will begin "fast motion" prior to the snap to pull the defense away from the play side. Foles looks and eventually pump-fakes in Matthews' direction, which pulls the Steelers' second-level defenders to that side. McCoy disappears in the middle of the pocket before leaking out to the other side to receive the screen. When McCoy snatches the pass, he has three offensive linemen escorting him down the field. He picks and weaves through traffic on his way to a 22-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Philadelphia is one of the most effective play-action teams in the NFL. Kelly has cleverly designed a complementary vertical passing game that features a variety of run-action fakes, particularly off inside-zone action, to lure defenders to the line and create big-play opportunities down the field. From pop passes to seam concepts, the Eagles attack the second level of the defense with vertical throws following ball fakes in the backfield. With most defender intent on slowing down McCoy's efforts as a runner, this produces fireworks for Philly.
In the Week 5 win over the St. Louis Rams, the Eagles used their seams concept off play-action to take advantage of an aggressive defense. In the following GIF, the Eagles are aligned in an Ace-Wing formation with Maclin positioned in the slot. At the snap, Foles will fake an inside handoff to McCoy to lure the linebackers and defensive backs to the line. The ball fake freezes the Rams' second-level defenders, allowing Maclin to sneak down the seam. Foles sees his No. 1 receiver streaking behind the defense and hits him with a perfect strike for a 24-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Cardinals' defensive keys
1) Use a variety of defensive fronts to create confusion during pre-snap phase.
One of the reasons why the Eagles operate at such a fast pace is to reduce the amount of exotic fronts they can face over the course of a game. Defenses are unable to shuttle various personnel onto the field due to the rapid pace between plays. As a result, most teams are forced to stay in the same personnel package (and utilize the same generic fronts) for much of the game. However, the Cardinals have a dynamic lineup with versatile players at every level, which affords Bowles the opportunity to switch up defensive looks without changing personnel. The coordinator can float from traditional nickel packages to "Big Nickel" sets and dime groups without shuttling in personnel. Thus, he retains the ability to create confusion at the line of scrimmage by varying looks out of the same personnel package. Let's take a look at some of the fronts we could see from Arizona on Sunday:
a) Three-man front (base defense)
The Cardinals operate out of a base 3-4 set on early downs. The team will angle and stunt the defensive linemen in various gaps and instruct the linebackers to flow quickly to the ball and close down any available windows at the point of attack. The clever utilization of movement has helped Arizona build a wall at the line of scrimmage and effectively neutralize the opponent's running game.
b) Four-man front (2-3-6-dime package)
The Cardinals have unbelievable depth and versatility in the back end, which allows them to use multiple sub-packages to defend spread personnel. Bowles will sprinkle in some dime personnel packages (six defensive backs) out of four-man fronts to change the look for the offense. While a four-man front should be easy to block in pass protection, the use of six defensive backs makes it challenging for the center to identify the "Mike," due to the constant movement and exchanging of roles in the secondary. With confusion creating hesitancy in the minds of the blockers and opposing quarterbacks, the Cardinals' multiplicity can create mental mistakes in the pre-snap phase. Against a team that uses a zone scheme with some pulling and trapping, Arizona's exotic deployment could make it challenging for the Eagles to hit their designated assignments in the run game.
The Cardinals have dime personnel (2-3-6) on the field, but linebackers Sam Acho and Alex Okafor are positioned as defensive ends in this setup. Larry Foote is the "Mike" aligned in the A gap, with the rest of the lineup filled out with defensive backs at the second level. Here's a look from the end zone angle:
c) Two-man front
The Cardinals' depth and versatility allows them to play hybrid defensive fronts from the same personnel packages, namely a 2-3-6 dime package that creates chaos at the point of attack. Once again, the quarterback and offensive line have a tough time identifying personnel, and such uncertainty leads to blown assignments at the point of attack.
Take a closer look at the 2-3-6 setup (defensive linemen are highlighted in red, linebackers in yellow and a defensive back in green):
Given the exotic deployment of personnel, it will be challenging for Foles and Co. to make the right checks at the line of scrimmage.
The Cardinals have been beset with injuries and suspensions that have robbed them of top playmakers, but Bowles has kept the defense performing at a high level by cleverly using a variety of high-pressure schemes to disrupt the timing of the offense. From traditional zone dogs (five-man rushes with three underneath droppers and three deep defenders) to Cover 0 "hit its" (all out blitzes without a free safety in the middle of the field), Bowles attacks the opponent with relentless pressure. While the blitz-heavy schemes seemingly would leave the defense vulnerable to big plays, particularly in the passing game, the Cardinals are willing to take the risk to eliminate the threat of the run. Consequently, the defense ranks first in rushing yards allowed and routinely forces opponents into one-dimensional approaches.
In the example below, taken from the Cardinals' Week 6 win over the Washington Redskins, the defense is executing a "Mike B" blitz with Larry Foote instructed to blitz through the B-gap. The veteran linebacker creeps to the line prior to the snap and then explodes right into the gap between the right guard and right tackle. With two guys forced to block Foote at the point of attack, defensive end Ed Stinson comes down the line unblocked to hold Alfred Morris to a minimal gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Just below is another example from the Redskins game. Kevin Minter is positioned in the box as the Will linebacker. He is executing a "Whip B" blitz through the gap between the right guard and right tackle. Minter shoots the gap with a vengeance and attracts the attention of multiple blockers. This penetration blows up the Redskins' blocking scheme, freeing up Acho to make the tackle (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) Challenge Philadelphia's receivers at the line of scrimmage.
The use of press coverage is required to stop the Eagles' version of the spread. Foles will pick apart opponents unwilling to walk up their defensive backs to the line of scrimmage with a variety of bubble screens and pop passes. Given the number of missed tackles in the pro game today, the Eagles' clever use of catch-and-run plays produces big yards in the passing game without significant risk. Additionally, these throws help Foles get into a rhythm and develop confidence to push the ball down the field as the game progresses.
Thus, the Cardinals would be wise to instruct Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie to play some form of bump-and-run coverage all day long against the Eagles. These two long, rangy cover corners are faster and more athletic than the Eagles' receivers, so their aggressiveness would come with minimal risk on the edge. Sure, the Cardinals must be prepared to deal with the pick plays and rub routes that are routinely used to free receivers from tight coverage, but Riley Cooper, Matthews and Maclin lack the explosiveness to run away on vertical routes down the boundary. While Philly's wideouts might make a play or two against Cromartie and Peterson, the aggressive tactics should force Foles to rely on his tight ends and running backs to move the ball down the field.
Harrison: Power Rankings, Week 8
The Eagles' fast-paced spread offense presents a huge challenge for the Cardinals' stingy D this weekend. Philly's frenetic tempo forces defenders to quickly communicate calls and make swift adjustments to the personnel groupings/formation changes. While Bowles should be familiar with the tactics, having faced Kelly's Eagles last December, he must get his play calls in quickly and allow his defenders plenty of time to adjust. Additionally, the Cardinals have to take away McCoy and put the game on Foles' shoulders. The third-year quarterback has turned the ball over at an alarming rate this season; he could wilt under the Cardinals' relentless pressure.
If the Cardinals can force Philadelphia into a one-dimensional approach in front of their home crowd, they could leave the field Sunday with a full two-game lead in the mighty NFC West.