Eagles Secondary Holding Back the Defense

Through the first 4 weeks of the Eagles’ season, fans and the media seemed to center their anger around how disappointing Carson Wentz and his injury-riddled offense have been. However, the Eagles Defense has been pretty underwhelming in 2020. And it was this side of the ball, particularly the secondary, that let the team down against the Steelers in Week 5.

29 points, which the Eagles Offense scored against one of the better defenses in the NFL, should have been enough for a defining early-season win. However, a lack of execution and awareness on the back end of the Eagles Defense proved costly.

The front seven played well, as they have all season. The Steelers were unable to run the ball consistently and the pass rush was able to win 1-on-1 matchups against Pittsburgh’s offensive line. However, the effectiveness of the pass rush was negated by a secondary that allowed way too many easy completions and big plays in key moments.

Take this 3rd-and-11 in the first half. Even bad defenses in the NFL should at least be able to make the offense have to fight to get a first down on 3rd-and-long. But that’s not what we saw here. Focus on cornerback Darius Slay. He was playing quarters coverage here, which means he was responsible for the #1 vertical to his side (Chase Claypool). Look where Slay started in relation to the first down marker (that big red line) and look where he dropped to.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Slay played with cushion initially and never allowed Claypool to get within 5 yards of him.

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That’s way too easy on 3rd-and-11. You can argue that the underneath defender to that side was supposed to undercut Claypool’s route and get to the flat but couldn’t because the #2 receiver pinned him inside. Still, why play with so much Cushion? If you look closer at Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, the Eagles’ pass rush was starting to close. Yet, that was negated because he was able to get rid of the ball so quickly. Why do nothing to challenge or disrupt Pittsburgh’s receivers and give the pass rush a chance in an obvious passing situation?

Maybe this next play provides the answer. This was later on the same drive, a 3rd-and-6. Focus on Jalen Mills over Claypool this time. The Eagles would ultimately rotate to man-free robber coverage, with the safety to the opposite side of the field dropping into the underneath middle zone.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Perhaps to help sell the Robber disguise, Mills was playing with an outside shade on Claypool, who was in a plus split 2-3 yards outside the numbers. Claypool released outside initially. Instead of calmly reacting to that release and then squeezing Claypool to the sideline (where most of the routes he could run would be eliminated), Mills quickly jumped outside of him. Unfortunately, with no help in the immediate area inside due to Claypool’s outside release and due to the underneath help cheating to the other side of the field, Mills was susceptible to a slant.

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The missed tackle by safety Marcus Epps didn’t help the situation, but that’s poor awareness and execution by Mills, who got completely turned around. I guess we know why the Eagles don’t want to play man press at the line as frequently.

In the 4th quarter, the Steelers’ game clinching score was another example of poor awareness and execution. This was 3rd-and-8. The Steelers were in an empty formation. To the bottom of the screen, the Eagles matched up with quarters coverage. Focus on safety Rodney McLeod and linebacker Nathan Gerry over wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

If the backside safety in quarters coverage cannot push to the front side and provide help (as was the case here because the Steelers had two receivers to the backside), the front-side safety (McLeod) has to split the difference between the #2 and #3 vertical routes. Here, that was JuJu and Claypool. The middle linebacker needs to then carry the #3 inside vertical to provide some help to the safety, who is put into conflict. Here, however, McLeod did not split the difference. Instead he cheated more to Smith-Schuster’s route.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

This left Claypool isolated on a linebacker, a severe mismatch.

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The other element of this play was that the outside receiver to the 3-receiver side didn’t release off the line at the snap. That immediately changed who the vertical threats were. JuJu became the #1 vertical, and the cornerback to that side, Jalen Mills, began squeezing towards him. At very least, McLeod should have been quicker to start cheating towards Claypool if not outright playing over top of him. Either way, the Steelers were able to get another way-too-easy completion on 3rd down, and this time it all but ended the Eagles’ chances.

Pittsburgh finished the day a whopping 11 for 15 (73.3%) on 3rd down. Throw in another three pass interference penalties by Slay and Mills for 47 yards and you’ve got yourself a pretty disastrous day as a secondary. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz will have to find ways to get his defensive backfield to play smarter and more competitive football to complement a front-7 that is among the best in the game.

The challenge won’t get any easier for the Eagles this week against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Offense. Baltimore frequently uses the threat of its dangerous running game to get wide receivers in 1-on-1 matchups downfield against cornerbacks and safeties. If Philadelphia doesn’t get things buttoned up on the back end in a hurry, it could be a long afternoon.

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