The Philadelphia Eagles have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. The combined talent of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long is difficult to deal with on its own as an offensive line. However, it isn’t just talent that enables this unit to consistently get after the quarterback. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz does a great job of using alignment to manufacture 1-on-1’s and mismatches across the board. One just needs to look at the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings to see some of the ways Schwartz has been able to do this.
On Patrick Robinson’s pick-6, which completely turned the game on its axis, defensive end Chris Long got his hand on Case Keenum as he was throwing, which disrupted the pass. The alignment of Philadelphia’s front-4 helped make this happen, though. As you can see below, the Eagles aligned with a defender over the center, right guard and right tackle. Pay special attention to how far outside of the right tackle that Chris Long was aligned (a “Wide-9” technique).
Not only did this front ensure 1-on-1 matchups to the offense’s right side, but Chris Long had a better angle from which to rush the quarterback off the edge.
Below, you can see the 1-on-1 matchups that transpired. Notice how Long was able to easily get by the right tackle, who had no help and was unable to push Long around the pocket.
The result was a game-changing play.
Later in the first half, the Vikings were threatening to keep the game close. They had the ball deep in Eagles territory and faced a 3rd-and-5. Again, Schwartz struck with a front-4 alignment that put Minnesota in conflict.
Below, notice the wide alignment of Philadelphia’s 2 interior D-linemen as well as their edge rushers, Chris Long and Derek Barnett. Also notice that defensive end Brandon Graham was aligned inside.
The center had no clear-cut responsibility here, and the Vikings had a difficult choice to make. They could have their guards and tackles take the Eagles’ 4 down-linemen in 1-on-1 matchups, with the center picking a side, as illustrated below.
If the center helped out the right guard, who was in a 1-on-1 matchup with a defensive end (not ideal), this would have left Fletcher Cox in a 1-on-1 matchup inside. Also not ideal.
If the center went left to help out with Cox, the right guard would be left alone against a defensive end, as previously mentioned.
The Vikings decided they would go for the best of both worlds. They would have the center help out to the right side, and then have their left tackle and left guard double Fletcher Cox, as shown below.
They would have their tight end, initially aligned on the right side, come across the formation at the snap to take the remaining down lineman, Derek Barnett.
A tight end on a defensive end is a huge mismatch. But then again, the Vikings had to pick their poison. Minnesota clearly hoped that the tight end coming across the formation could catch Barnett off guard, and a cut block could get him to the ground for just enough time to let Keenum deliver the ball.
However, because of Barnett’s initial “wide-9” alignment, not only did he have a more direct line to the quarterback, but he could see the tight end coming at him early in the play and prepare himself.
Barnett was able to avoid the block without severely altering his path and get to Keenum as he delivered the ball.
The result was a sack-fumble that the Eagles recovered.
The examples illustrated here are just two of the many ways that the Eagles manufacture pass-rush pressure with their defensive line. This is something the Patriots are more than aware of and will be sure to prepare for, first and foremost. Expect New England to use plenty of max-protect play-action, screens, and even draws in the Super Bowl to try and prevent the Eagles from dictating the game with their defensive line.
Philadelphia definitely has the talent and scheme up front to give Tom Brady and the Patriots offense all sorts of headaches. It will be interesting to see exactly how New England chooses to respond.