How Philadelphia Eagles Took the Fight to Tennessee Titans
NFL Week 14 - It’s something different with the Philadelphia Eagles every week. Whether it’s the offense changing its tune to dismantle whichever defense is in front of them or the defense stepping up to meet the challenge, the Eagles continue to prove they can win any kind of game any kind of way. Sunday's 35-10 blowout over the Tennessee Titans was a combination of both, but it's time to give the Eagles defense some shine.
The Eagles never let the Titans get into their groove. With offensive line injuries all over, the Titans' run game has been hit-or-miss as of late, and the Eagles made sure to make this game a miss. Without the stability of the run game, the Titans had to become the dropback passing team they would rather not be. The Eagles’ dominant coverage unit, now second by DVOA, handled the rest once the Titans surrendered on playing the game their way.
This was the first play of the game. Naturally, the Titans came out in 12 personnel (two tight ends), motioned another receiver into the formation, and ran duo. Downhill runs to set up their play-action game is what the Titans are all about; it's their bread and butter. The Eagles, unconcerned with the Titans passing game, had zero reservations about responding with their base defense and loading the box to slow those runs down. Not only do the Titans fail to get much push on either double team, but Eagles safety Marcus Epps (22) reads the play perfectly and fires into the backfield, coming across Robert Woods' (2) face before he could fit inside of the two tight ends to make the block. Derrick Henry had nowhere to go but into the waiting arms of linebacker T.J. Edwards.
The following drive started off in almost identical fashion. Though a different run call from the Titans, the Eagles again responded to the offense's heavy personnel with their base defense and rolled Epps into the box. The Titans try to run a double trap play with the fullback (Chigoziem Okonkwo, 85) leading the way opposite the trap pullers. In some ways, the play works as designed. The nose tackle is cut off by the trap while the left guard (Aaron Brewer, 55) gets a good angle towards the weak linebacker (Kyzir White, 43) and the right guard (Nate Davis, 64) can seal out the strong-side defensive lineman (Fletcher Cox, 91), opening up the hole for the lead fullback to take on the remaining linebacker one-on-one. However, the Eagles have too many bodies for every Titans blocker to have a good angle on their opponents. Wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (15) draws the short stick having to dig out Epps (22) at a tight angle 5 yards away. Epps triggers fast enough to beat the angle and stifle another Titans run, leaving the offense behind schedule.
Later in the quarter, the Titans hit a different button and ran outside zone with a tight end (Geoff Swaim, 87) coming across play-side to double the defensive end. Both the Rams and 49ers have called this concept over the past couple seasons, and it is a good way to clear out the off-tackle area. The Eagles weren't having it. Ideally, the play-side tight end and the one coming across the formation get a clean double on the defensive end, but the Eagles' eight-man box allowed them to have Josh Sweat (94) play the inside gap on everything while Epps flows over to cover the edge. With Epps and the rest of the Eagles defense swarming outside, Henry got bottled up enough for Sweat to recover and tackle him.
That was more or less when the Titans gave up on running the ball and when the Eagles gave up on loading the box. Tennessee admitted defeat in their typical offensive formula, and then their game plan devolved into a dropback passing affair. That's an uncomfortable position for the Titans to be in generally, but especially so against an Eagles secondary that appeared to have the offense's play calls from the first pass of the game. The Eagles smothered the Titans' passing game all day, save for a couple of heroic catches in traffic over the middle of the field.
The Eagles aren't playing fancy coverage here. At its core, this is just Cover-3 with the down safety (Epps) playing as the strong hook defender. The difference is in how they're running it on this snap, perfectly calibrated to take away the Titans' play call. The Titans are running a version of Double China-7 with two whip routes and a corner route from the No. 3 (innermost) receiver. Both Epps and Edwards (57) push heavily towards the trips side, completely unconcerned about any crossing routes from the No. 3. Edwards in particular moves right into the window of both in-breakers as if he knew full well that was the route concept, a testament to how well-prepared Jonathan Gannon's coverage unit is. The muddiness of the underneath windows bought the Eagles pass rush just enough time to get after Tannehill for the first of six sacks on the day.
Same down, same offensive play call, same result here in the red zone. The Eagles are in quarters coverage this time around, but the end result is the same. Both the strong safety and cornerback squeeze the corner route, while Edwards slides right into the first in-breaker window. Edwards' presence forces the receiver to work back towards the line of scrimmage to get around him, derailing the timing of the play for a route that is now short of the sticks. If Tannehill had been a beat quicker, he may have been able to throw the second in-breaker, but Sweat got to him in the nick of time for another Eagles sack. The ensuing field goal, with about three and a half minutes left in the first half, would be the Titans' last points of the day.
Even some of the Eagles' more ambitious coverage calls were exactly what the doctor ordered. In this clip, the Eagles rotate to Cover-3 out of a two-high shell with dime personnel (six defensive backs). The extra defensive back, Zech McPhearson (27), starts in the box before bolting to the deep middle of the field. Both safeties do the opposite and come out of the roof to play underneath. The rotation directly attacks the Titans' play call, getting Epps rolling down into the hook to cover the short in-breaker at the sticks in the middle of the field and McPhearson flying to get right on top of the vertical route. Again, if Tannehill was playing to the absolute limits, he could have worked back-side to the tight end working outside as a potential answer, but instead his "I am about to get sacked" timer went off and he bailed the pocket, ultimately taking a sack anyway. All game long, Philly's secondary took away Tannehill's early options and made him uncomfortable.
Throws behind the line of scrimmage were not safe either. In a game filled with examples of the Eagles' coverage players being a step ahead of the offense or running routes for receivers, no play highlights how well-prepared they were better than this screen defense from James Bradberry (24). Likely a product of film study, and also Chigoziem Okonkwo's (85) tilted body alignment towards the quarterback, Bradberry instantly triggered on this screen. Bradberry was almost too fast to the ball, if anything, but nearly stole away an interception and killed a play that should have earned a few cheap yards for the Titans.
The Eagles broke the Titans' will to run the ball and smothered all of their passing concepts. Some of that is a product of the Titans' middling personnel right now—no field-tilting receiver (like A.J. Brown perhaps) and a disheveled offensive line littered with backups forced into action—but this was a serious beatdown that goes beyond personnel discrepancies. The Titans just never got to play their game, a situation made worse as they fell further and further behind the scoreboard to Jalen Hurts and the Eagles' offense.
For many teams, this would be their best performance of the season. For the Eagles, it’s just another stepping stone along the way to the first seed in the NFC and, they hope, a deep playoff run.