Friday, December 10, 2010

Game Plan Friday: Offense vs Eagles


There are certain characteristics in the NFL that seem to stand the test of time. It seems that more often than not, the Chicago Bears are always going to be a physical team that makes you hurt of defense. It always seems the San Diego Chargers are going to be able to pass the ball over the place. It always seems the Oakland Raiders will lead the league in penalties. The names may change, but these characteristics seem to get in the DNA of a franchise from generation to generation. And of course, the Philadelphia Eagles always seem to blitz. And they always seem to get wonderful results from the pressure.

Tim Layden, the noted football historian, wrote a story in Sports Illustrated last season about Jim Johnson's innovations as the master of the "Double A-Gap" blitz and how the Eagles would bring pressure through the years. It was a most informative read, and you should click the link, but here is the most basic explanation:

Two linebackers blitz—or threaten to blitz—from positions on the left and right shoulders of the center (the A gaps), trying to get immediate pressure on the quarterback via the shortest route and forcing the offense into a series of quick and potentially dangerous decisions. "Every team in the league has a Double A Gap Blitz," says Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice, "and it's a hard thing to block."

It begins most often with the defense's nickel personnel—five defensive backs—on the field with four down linemen and two linebackers in a 4-2-5 configuration (although it can be run from various other sets). As the offense reaches the line of scrimmage, the two linebackers move menacingly into the A gaps. If the quarterback is under center, the 'backers are eye-to-eye with him. "At that point it's mental gymnastics," says Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Bucs coach who's now an analyst on Monday Night Football. "There's no doubt there's going to be some penetration in the middle if they blitz, and it's going to mess with your blocking schemes."

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub says, "We don't want to have somebody in my face right away. So the first thing the offensive line is going to do is adjust to protect those A gaps."

Again, the names change. Jim Johnson passed away 2 years ago; With Brian Dawkins and almost every key player from this decade's defense has been replaced along the way . But when you look at the Eagles in 2010, they still generate gigantic defensive plays off the pressure and stress generated by the fact that a Philadelphia Eagles defense will still scheme to bring the noise as early and as often as they possibly can.

And what are the results? The Eagles defense, in 2010, causes more turnovers (28), more interceptions (20), and more negative plays (-358 yards) than any defense in the National Football League. They are quietly winning games by getting stops and generating back-breaking moments while the national spotlight is distracted by Michael Vick and the big-play offense.

The Eagles defense is their constant. From year to year, their blitz is where you must spend your week planning. And the Cowboys actually may have some level of a plan here.

Let's elaborate:


1) - Slow the blitz with the normal diet of screens - No team in the NFL is harder to deal with when they blitz. The Eagles have generated so many negative plays by blitzing that they are ranked #1 in blitz situations, so because of these great results, they blitz more and more. 13 sacks and 9 interceptions have been generated in "blitz" situations, and opponents pass at a 64.54 pass rating in this situation. So, how do you deal with the #1 blitz defense in the NFL? You unleash the #1 blitz offense in the NFL, right? One of the most bizarre and difficult to believe statistics that 2010 has given us is that of the 32 teams in the NFL, no team has had greater success passing against the blitz than the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have a 109.7 passer rating against the blitz. 10 TDs and 2 Ints, with only 7 sacks against in 146 blitzes. Why are they so good at dealing with the blitz? By starting to catch teams with quick slants (Hou, NO) and big screens (NY, DET). The best way to back off pressure is to throw right over the top of it and gash it hard with a big gain. And the numbers say that the Cowboys are great at it. I must confess, I would never believe that Dallas is #1 ranked in this statistic, so I would not argue that this is their greatest strategy, but that is what the numbers say.

2) - Attempt to isolate the LBs in space - If there is one spot on the Eagles where they have had a revolving door over the last few years, it would have to be their Linebacking group. This group seems to be one of those spots on every team where the organization believes they can plug in just about anyone and they will be fine. It was sure interesting to see Peyton Manning go after Stewart Bradley repeatedly when they met last month and really, during the season, it seems like Bradley is the guy most QBs try to go after. After watching a few games in a row, I conclude that the Eagles don't ask their safeties to worry about TEs down the seam, but rather live with Bradley trying to stay with them. Nate Allen (a Cowboys wish on draft day) has had a fine year, but they are not asking him to do too much. That is always a good idea for a rookie safety.

3) - Blitz Pickup from RBs must be sound - This is the most basic and obvious of items, but it is worth noting that traditionally, this has been one of the main reasons why Marion Barber is on the field the most often - he seems to always know his assignment, and almost always gets the guy blocked. So, with no Barber, who do the Cowboys trust to be on the field to always decode a complicated Eagles blitz package? Felix Jones and Tashard Choice are both interesting RBs, but there is no topic that is more emphasized by coaches but more ignored by fans than simple pass protection basics by a Running Back. Aside from the Double A-Gap, the Eagles have a large assortment of variations of pressure, and then they will spend much of the evening bluffing the blitz and trying to get you to misdiagnose their intentions. It is a wonderful chess game that plays out inside the game itself. Also, don't forget to the elite rusher, Trent Cole over there on the edge against Doug Free. For, Jones and Choice, I suspect this will tell us plenty about what they think of each guy - let's see how they deal with the test.

4) - Figure Out How to Generate Big Plays Without Dez - Since Dez Bryant and Felix Jones were the players with the big play splashes at Giants Stadium against that intimidating front, we must figure out how to generate similar large plays with Miles Austin and Roy Williams which are both extremely capable. Again, to steal from the Colts, the best way to attack inside pressure is quick passes to the perimeter, something Dallas does pretty well. Bubble screens, smoke screens, and various variations of ways to get the ball to Jones, Austin, Williams, and even your TEs should be considered at the proper time. And let us not forget that Kevin Ogletree, now finally active again (he was healthy scratched from week 5 until last Sunday), perhaps they revive one of his one shining moments from the win last year at Philly:

Summary: There is no doubt that the Cowboys will need to generate offense to keep up with the Eagles. For the 3rd straight week, we enter the game assuming 28 points from the offense will not likely be enough. Clearly, losing Tony Romo has not cut down on the production like we thought, so let's take Dez Bryant away for the final month and see what difference that makes. I assume they will not attempt nor succeed at running the ball anywhere near as well as Sunday at Indianapolis, but they will need a fair amount of that to keep the Eagles on their heels and of course eat up some clock to keep Michael Vick's opportunities to a minimum. Should be an interesting test.

Bob Sturm is host of BaD Radio on The Ticket 1310 AM Mondays through Fridays at 12-3 p.m. He also hosts The Ticket's Cowboys pregame show. Follow Bob on Twitter at Bob offers his exclusive analysis after games on

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