by Ben Muth
The NFC East showdown between the Cowboys and Eagles last Sunday featured two of the three teams I’m covering this year. It had all the makings of a good old fashioned shootout. Neither the Dallas nor the Philadelphia defenses had really stopped anyone all year, and both offenses had shown the ability to score points in bunches. So, of course, the game was 3-0 at the half and ended 17-3. And it was somehow less exciting than that score would indicate.
Before we get to the meat of the column, I do want to make a quick plug. Watching this game live was terrible. Watching half of this game on coaches film on NFL Game Rewind was actually fairly interesting. It’s amazing what kind of added perspective two extra camera angles can bring.
Watching the game live, you see Nick Foles bounce a pass to Jeff Maehl and you just shrug your shoulders. Watching it on the coaches film, you see Maehl is wide open seven yards earlier. Foles inexplicably waits to throw it, then, despite staring right at him, bounces the throw to him because he doesn’t want to lead him into a defender. At first glance it’s just a terrible throw. Upon further review it’s an inexplicable read, then a below-average throw. Somehow, the second option is far more interesting. So if you haven’t, you should probably look into getting Game Rewind. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The biggest issue with the Eagles offense Sunday is that their quarterback play was terrible. Foles was bad. Matt Barkley was worse. I could elaborate, but this is not what I’m here to do -- this column isn’t about quarterback play, it's about line play. There was plenty of bad up front that contributed to Philadelphia's low point total. Really though, the Eagles had two main problems on Sunday: Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee.
Hatcher jumped off the film all day for Dallas. I think Todd Herremans got the worst of it for the Eagles, but Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis struggled with Hatcher as well. Hatcher was very quick reading his keys.
A defensive lineman's key is typically the near shoulder of the offensive lineman he is lined up on. If his key was moving away, he crashed right down off the lineman’s hip, closing space and not allowing a backside offensive lineman to seal him off. If his key was trying to reach him, Hatcher got outside and up the field and turned everything back inside of his gap. If he saw a pass set, he was up field and coming with violent and effective hand-fighting. He absolutely schooled Herramans for a sack on a first-and-10 -- it's always impressive notching a sack on first-and-10. There were times that Hatcher was reacting so quickly that I had a hard time telling if he just happened to be slanting right into the play or he was reacting to the blocking that quickly. Most of the time, I think it was just great get-off and reaction on Hatcher’s part.
But where Hatcher’s dominance was most felt was when the Eagles tried to run their single-back power scheme. I think it’s something the Eagles thought they could have some success with based on the tape, but they couldn’t get it going because Kelce couldn’t handle Hatcher by himself. The Eagles went to it a couple of times and never really gained much yardage from it, largely because of Hatcher. Let’s go to a play in the third quarter.
The Eagles are in a shotgun formation with Brent Celek and Jason Peters flipped, meaning Peters is aligned where a tight end typically would be and Celek is on the backside of the formation where a tackle would be. Obviously, the Eagles would rather have Jason Peters manned up on the defensive end to the playside, while Celek is lined up on the backside.
From there the Eagles are running a basic single-back power scheme. They double the three to the first linebacker backside, and pull and lead on the playside linebacker. Kelce is one-on-one against Hatcher.
I will say that the bang technique used by Celek here, where he bangs off the defensive end before climbing to the nickelback, is unusual. Most teams just have the backside tackle (in this case a tight end) step in for a runthrough before peeling back on the defensive end. That’s because most teams don’t run this play versus seven-man boxes -- they audible out of it. But the Eagles stick with it, and I really like the technique they use to account for the extra man. I wouldn’t mind seeing more teams try this, especially if the seventh man in the box is a defensive back.
As the play develops you can see that Eagles have got something going here. Peters is getting beat inside a bit, but he widened his man enough with his initial punch that it’s not a big issue. The double team has driven the three-technique right into Lee’s lap, and Mathis is kicking out Bruce Carter.
The problem for Philly is that Kelce is getting walked back into the hole. Hatcher did a great job of feeling the back block by Kelce and bench pressing the center off him while maintaining his gap. Now Hatcher can start to squeeze the hole down while still occupying his own A-gap.
Once LeSean McCoy commits to the playside A-gap, Hatcher pull himself across Kelce’s face and makes the play. It was a great play from a physical standpoint -- never a bad sign when you bench-press and walk back a 300-pound man -- but what I really liked was how disciplined a play it was. Hatcher knew what the play was right off the snap. But instead of attempting to immediately cross the center’s face to try to make a tackle for a 3-yard loss, and risk McCoy cutting it backside and gaining 10, Hatcher held his gap, squeezed the hole, and made the tackle right at the line of scrimmage. Just a good, smart, football play. Hatcher also blew up a couple of other power plays from the backside where he didn’t make the tackle, but was just as effective.
As for Lee, he truly is a sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker, and he makes it hard to get anything going outside of the tackle box. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an inside linebacker so good at scraping inside-out to make plays on outside runs. Let’s go back to the third quarter to show you what I mean.
At this point in the game the Eagles had given up trying to block Hatcher in the middle, so they were going to run the mid-line option and read him. On the frontside the Eagles have a pin-and-pull scheme where Lane Johnson down blocks on the defensive tackle and Herramans pulls and leads up on a safety that is not in the picture. You’ll notice once again that Peters is essentially playing tight end here, so he can handle the defensive end one-on-one.
On the backside the Eagles are running a fold scheme, where the tackle (Celek, because of what they're doing with Peters) fires out for the linebacker and the guard folds behind him to kick out the defensive end. The reason they’re blocking it like this is that if Foles does decide to keep it, they want to make sure they have Mathis making the hole Hatcher would’ve just vacated as wide as possible.
Luckily for all of us, Hatcher feels that he’s being left unblocked and sits down. That’s an easy give read for Foles, and we are all spared the ignominy of watching Nick Foles on a designed run up the middle.
Once again, the Eagles have something going except for one block. Here, it’s Celek who can’t make the play. This play doesn’t translate to still photographs all that well. On video you can see Lee take off like a cannon to the point where it doesn’t look like Celek is even going to lay a hand on him. But then Lee feels Celek coming, so he slows down just a bit and stiff-arms him before he accelerates again. Lee slows down for that half-second because he doesn’t want to overrun the play. The coaching point for linebackers on these types of plays is to be on the ball carrier's inside hip. That’s exactly where Lee is in the photo above. Textbook stuff from Lee.
There’s Lee meeting McCoy right in the hole. Now McCoy has to cut it back into the unblocked defender, who in theory should never be able to make the play if Foles reads it right (he did). You can see that if Celek would’ve gotten Lee blocked, the Eagles have everyone else playside taken care of.
And that shot right there is the game in a nutshell. Lee and Hatcher making a Shady sandwich for a very short gain.
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It wasn’t all negative for the Eagles on offense. I thought both Mathis and Peters played pretty well overall. (I should note that "pretty well" is below Mathis' standard, though.) I also think that ohnson is getting better week to week, which is what you want from a young guy. The big thing with Johnson right now is that he seems to have only one pass set. It doesn’t matter what the quarterback drop is, who the rusher is, or what the down-and-distance is: Johnson is going to set the exact same on every dropback.
On the other side of the line, Peters will mix in a couple of different things to keep pass rushers off balance. He’ll jump set guys right at the line of scrimmage, he’ll set really wide if he knows he has inside help, he’ll set completely vertical at times. He’ll change up his punch timing as well. With Johnson it’s a not-quite vertical set, with a punch on the third kickslide every time. His set looks pretty good and his punch has improved a lot, but he really does need to add a little variety as the season goes along.
Follow Ben on Twitter at @FO_WordOfMuth