The Dallas Cowboys shocked the NFL world with their dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. The much-maligned defense held the Eagles -- second in the league in scoring -- to just three points, leaving coach Chip Kelly searching for answers to coordinator Monte Kiffin's clever tactics. Given a couple of months to prepare for the rematch with the long-time defensive wizard, Kelly will, I believe, unveil a strategy that is vastly different from his original script.
WHAT THE COWBOYS DID TO WIN IN WEEK 7
1) Overload the box to stop the run.
Stopping the Eagles' top-ranked running game was clearly Kiffin's priority in the first meeting. The wily defensive coordinator kept extra defenders in the box against the Eagles' spread formations, particularly on early downs. While this tactic has always been a staple of Kiffin's defenses, the Cowboys deployed more man coverage at the expense of their traditional zone-based schemes (Cover 3 or five-man zone blitz). The shift to Cover 1 allowed the Cowboys to aggressively pursue Eagles running back LeSean McCoy without having to worry about zone drops against play-action. Additionally, the presence of Nick Foles -- and his 5.14 40-time -- under center virtually eliminated the threat of quarterback runs, allowing another defender to creep into the box on pursuit.
The following screen grabs show how the Cowboys' Cover 1 scheme put them in optimal position to defend the run. On this play, the Eagles are aligned in a split-back gun formation, with McCoy motioning to the outside. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, assigned to him, walks out of the box with the motion. At the bottom of the screen, safety Barry Church walks into the box as an extra defender against the run:
2) Eliminate the quick game and bubble screens.
One of the keys to stopping the Eagles' offense is taking away the quick-hit plays in the passing game. Kelly's offense is built upon a variety of quick-rhythm concepts, such as bubble screens and three-step routes, that allow the quarterback to get into a groove with high-percentage throws. Additionally, the quick routes accompany the zone-read run game to give the quarterback an effective counter to overloaded boxes.
In their first meeting, the Cowboys essentially eliminated the short passing game by aligning their corners in press-man coverage for most of the day. The suffocating man coverage kept Foles from delivering the ball to DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper on "now" screens on the perimeter. Moreover, the Cowboys disrupted Foles' timing with his pass-catchers, forcing him to make hurried decisions from the pocket.
When the Eagles attempted to exploit the extensive man coverage by using a series of pick-and-rub concepts across the middle, Dallas countered by playing Cover 1 "cut" for most of the day. This is a version of man-free coverage (man coverage with a deep middle safety) with the middle linebacker playing as a robber between the hashes on short and intermediate routes. He is instructed to jump or bump the first receiver running a short crossing route in his area, while the receiver's assigned defender retreats and looks for a deeper crossing route from the opposite side.
In the following set of screen grabs, the Cowboys are again in Cover 1 cut coverage, with Lee positioned in the middle:
Lee quickly diagnoses the pick-and-rub play -- which is usually an effective call against man coverage -- jumping the first crossing route in his area and disrupting the offense's timing, thus preventing Foles from completing a pass:
3) Keep the ball in front of their defense.
The quickest way to lose football games in the NFL is for a defense to allow opponents to throw the ball over the top. Big plays result in points and demoralize a team's spirit.
In their first meeting, the Cowboys kept the Eagles' explosive passing plays to a minimum. Foles connected on just 11 of 29 passes for 80 yards. Most impressively, he didn't have a single completion of more than 20 yards, which is an astonishing feat, considering the Eagles currently lead the NFL with 75 completions of 20 yards or more.
4) Tackle well in space.
For all the praise the Cowboys' defense deserves for its performance in the first contest, it was the unit's solid tackling that led to the win. Looking back at the game, I counted fewer than five missed tackles (good defenses set a goal of 11 missed tackles per game) and didn't see many defenders on the ground.
HOW THE EAGLES WILL ATTACK IN THE REMATCH
1) Use more misdirection runs.
These multi-action plays have been a part of Kelly's repertoire since his Oregon days, though he's added a few wrinkles to the mix. From using the wide receiver in orbit motion to pull defenders out of the box to incorporating a "kick" blocking scheme with a tight end or wing back, Kelly has forced opponents to defend tricky backfield action on the Eagles' base run plays. With each of their runners possessing home-run ability, the slight deception has produced several big gains for the Eagles' top-ranked rush attack.
Here are a few examples:
Stretch with WR orbit motion
On the snap, the Eagles run a stretch play into the boundary with McCoy. With Jennings out of the play, McCoy turns the corner with a lead blocker in front, resulting in a 19-yard gain:
The following set of screengrabs, also from the victory over Chicago, illustrates Philadelphia's zone-kick scheme. The Eagles are aligned in a Tight Wing Slot formation out of Ace or "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers). McCoy is running an inside zone to the left, with Foles executing a fake bootleg action to the right. James Casey is working across the formation to kick out the left defensive end:
The defensive end overreacts to Foles' movement, allowing McCoy to cut back and pick up 15 yards:
The zone-kick concept is effective against all fronts, including eight- and nine-man boxes with no safeties deep. In a Week 14 win over the Detroit Lions, the Eagles ran a zone kick against a nine-man box. Even though the Eagles are outnumbered at the point of attack, the misdirection creates hesitancy and allows Polk to find a seam on the backside for a 38-yard score:
2) Turn more to the movement passing game.
Though the Eagles don't have a speedy, quick-cutting quarterback, their zone-read running game is still effective. Philadelphia has relied on a complementary bootleg passing game that exploits overaggressive defenders and forces defensive ends to stay home. This is problematic for opponents, especially down in the red zone, where defenders are prone to lose discipline with their eyes. Looking at the Eagles' scoring plays over the past few weeks, it's clear their use of naked and bootleg action has been key to their success.
In the video clip above and to the right, you will see the Eagles break the huddle in a heavy formation, with Cooper positioned as a wing back (notice how he is aligned in a three-point stance to sell the probability of a run play). On the snap, Foles will fake an inside handoff to McCoy before rolling to his right and finding Cooper dragging across the back of the end zone. As the Eagles repeatedly fool opponents with these deceptive passes, I'm sure they'll dial up a few against the Cowboys to exploit their undisciplined defensive backs.
3) Stick with pick-and-rub routes.
Although the Cowboys stifled these routes in their first meeting, I expect the Eagles to stick with crossing patterns. But rather than run the patterns out of stack or bunch formations, the Eagles will run crossers from spread or tight alignments to prevent the Cowboys from switching on receivers in the middle, as they did in their first meeting this season.
In the set of screen grabs below, taken from the Week 11 win over the Washington Redskins, the Eagles are running a shallow crossing route concept similar to the one used vs. Dallas. The difference is the use of multiple pickers to exploit "cut" coverage over the middle. Jackson is running a short crossing route from his slot alignment on the left, while Jason Avant is motioning into a tight alignment to run a dig route over the top of a shallow cross from tight end Brent Celek:
Celek sets a pick on the Jackson's defender, creating space for the speedster to break away from tight coverage. Notice Avant running his crossing route over the top of the short crossers. He is positioned in the middle of the field to give Foles an outlet against "cut" coverage underneath:
The execution is perfect, with Jackson gaining 26 yards on a "catch and run" route over the middle.
The Eagles will also use multiple pickers on red-zone routes to spring Celek from one-on-one coverage over the middle. In this set of screen grabs from the Bears game, Celek runs a return route over the middle from a traditional alignment. Zach Ertz follows Celek on a shallow crosser, with the intention of setting a pick on the defender assigned to shadow Celek:
Ertz sets a strong pick on the Bears' middle defender, and Celek runs away from coverage into the flat for an easy catch-and-run score:
4) Feature their deceptive screen game.
The beauty of the Eagles' offensive scheme lies in the subtle deception used on running and passing plays. Kelly has done a masterful job creating plays that force defenders to work in one direction before attacking them in the opposite direction. In this vein, the screen game could be a major factor in their success this week.
The Cowboys' use of man coverage and a handful of blitzes knocked the Eagles out of rhythm last time around, leaving them in several long-yardage situations. On Sunday, look for Kelly to use a variety of screen passes early and often to slow down the Cowboys' pursuit. The All-22 footage of the Eagles' recent games against teams that dialed up pressure or played a lot of man coverage showed that Kelly frequently attacked them with throwback screens. By motioning a defender to the field and executing a pump fake, the defense is forced to flow to the field, creating creases for a screen on the backside.
Additionally, a screen gets the ball into the hands of a playmaker with multiple blockers. With defenders keying their receivers -- and thus, not the quarterback -- a short toss to the boundary can result in a huge gain for the offense.
In a game likely to be decided by big plays or turnovers, the Eagles' ability to get an explosive play on a tricky screen could be the difference between claiming the NFC East title and looking toward next season.