By Nick Shook
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The showdown began with a thinly veiled, critical characterization of Atlanta’s passing game, but when it was all said and done, Philadelphia backed it up on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles held Matt Ryan and the Falcons — the second-best offense in the league — to 15 points and just one touchdown through the air. The teacher had rounded up the schoolyard.
Julio Jones still posted a box score worth writing home about, but he was shut out of the end zone and harassed by various Philadelphia defensive backs for much of the afternoon. A look at the film shows an increased emphasis on targeting Jones that almost felt forced. The Eagles made it their mission to obligate Ryan to look elsewhere, and he struggled.
So how does a unit put the clamps on a passing attack that operates out of many different formations and personnel groupings, and has experts touting this as Ryan’s greatest season? It started with a some guts.
Although ranked seventh in average passing yards allowed per game, the Eagles are given more defensive credit for their front seven than their secondary. But on Sunday against Atlanta, Schwartz called an early game that relied heavily on man coverage with a single-high safety, which flies in the face of criticism of the Eagles‘ defensive backs. It’s as if Schwartz walked into the defensive meeting room during the week, threw the greatest of cheesesteaks on the table (was it from Pat’s? Geno’s? Jim’s? Sonny’s?) and offered it as reward, employing the “nobody believes in us” mantra and challenging his defensive backs to prove their worth. And prove, they did.
Philadelphia went Cover 1 on 18 of 37 passing plays (which includes plays negated by penalties), and chose a Cover 2 defense on 16 of 37 plays (15 were zone; one was a blitz that rushed six and left three in man coverage with the safeties splitting the field into deep halves) in the entire game. In the first half, the Eagles leaned on Cover 1 early, choosing the scheme on eight of the first 12 passing plays before shifting to Cover 2 and 3 to keep Atlanta’s offense in front of their defenders with time winding down at the end of the half.
This meant tight single coverage on every Falcons receiver from the snap to the whistle. Jones had an average of just 1.8 yards of separation from defenders when targeted (15th lowest among receivers with three or more targets in Week 10), per Next Gen Stats. Atlanta wanted to air it out long — it just didn’t work very well.
Jones lined up wide on 13 of his targets (81 percent), making the task even more difficult for Jalen Mills, Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin, who each traded the responsibility of covering him. As the game progressed, Philadelphia alternated between Cover 1 and Cover 2, which also meant switching between man and zone coverage, taking a bit of the load off the corners and incorporating more linebacker help over the middle. They even upped the confusion by showing Cover 2, then pressuring and playing Cover 1 on a play that took an incredible throw from Ryan to both avoid a sack and complete one of his longest passes of the day.
Ryan did strike deep once, finding Taylor Gabriel wide open thanks to a deftly run stop-and-go route that fooled McKelvin and left only free safety Rodney McLeod to chase Gabriel in vain, as the receiver hit a top speed of 20.8 mph (third-fastest ball carrier on a touchdown-scoring play in Week 10; fastest among ball carrying, scoring receivers) on his 76-yard sprint to the end zone.
Jones again put up big numbers, catching 10 passes (more than half of Ryan’s total completions) for 135 yards. Ryan’s passing chart is telling, though.
As Philadelphia pushed its lead to 21-15, and later, 24-15, the Eagles turned to more Cover 2 to again keep the Falcons in front of them. All of those passes completed at 10 yards or less are a sign of this, and the pressure the Eagles managed to put on Ryan, who finished among the bottom third of passers in time to throw at 2.84 seconds per pass in Week 10. Too often, Ryan found himself in third-and-long situations without enough time for his receivers to get open as rushers bore down on him.
It eventually devolved into Ryan, in clean pockets, taking shots of blind faith as Jones was covered in man with safety help.
Atlanta called for a flag, while Philadelphia players celebrated another crucial stop in a game in which the Eagles played inspired defense from the start. They capped it with McKelvin’s interception on a play during which Ryan tried to thread the needle in a closing passing window between two defenders in zone coverage.
We all know the result: a remarkable containment of the Falcons‘ fearsome offense, even if Jones still broke 1,000 yards receiving on the year. Atlanta might need to take a step back and incorporate some other receivers at a higher clip if it wants to remain among the league’s best offenses.
Other notes from Week 10 in Next Gen Stats:
1. Remember that Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run at which we all marveled? The one with the phenomenal blocking by Ronald Leary and Tyron Smith? I’m surprised the grass didn’t catch on fire, because according to Next Gen Stats, Elliott was the second fastest touchdown-scoring ball carrier of the week, hitting 20.93 mph on the 32-yard run. Elliott also finished fourth in the top five of the same category, reaching 20.39 mph on his 83-yard screen for a score.
2. DeMarco Murray tossed a touchdown pass, and also finished as the second-fastest ball carrier in Week 10 at 21.44 mph.
3. The Titans had to give maximum effort on both sides of the ball to take down the Packers on Sunday. While Marcus Mariota led an offensive explosion, Tennessee defenders were busy covering 15,913.5 yards of combined total distance. Speaking of covering some ground, Chargers safety Adrian Phillips traveled the longest average distance per tackle, covering 28.9 yards per tackle (seven).
4. Bring in the receivers! Eleven personnel (one running back, one tight end) led three of the top five personnel groupings in Week 10.
5. Before there were maps, there were explorers and cartographers like Lewis and Clark. And now, there must first be passes thrown and routes run before we can get our weekly helping of charts. Luckily, brave men have done us a great service, and we have a new batch to check out here.
6. The Browns are still winless, but Terrelle Pryor has been a bright spot. Weeks after being held below a yard of separation when targeted, Pryor had a whopping 7.3 yards of space when the ball was headed his way on nine targets in a loss to Baltimore.
At the other end of that spectrum lies Devin Funchess, who had just 0.7 yards of separation per four targets.
7. I am very anti-receiver-as-a-running-back. Ty Montgomery doesn’t care what I like. The Packerstrotted the versatile player out to the field 22 times, and he lined up in the backfield on 20 of them for a season high 90.9 percent of plays. He finished with five backfield touches. My skin crawls typing this.
8. Jay Cutler again became Jay Cutler in Week 10, but at least he can air it out. Cutler’s longest completed pass traveled 65 yards in the air, six yards better than Ryan Tannehill, who finished second.
9. We’re getting smashmouth, we’re getting exotic and above all, we’re having fun on the ground in Nashville and it has nothing to do with country music. DeMarco Murray had the most carries against eight-plus defenders in the box and averaged an eye-popping, jaw-dropping 8.9 yards per carry (107 total on 12 carries) in such scenarios. Denver’s Devontae Booker had just nine yards on seven carries in similar scenarios.