March '23 Blitz of the Month - The Eagles' Safety Simulated Pressure
MatchQuarters looks at a clever simulated pressure Philadelphia used in their Divisional matchup against the Giants.
Rewind to the end of the ‘21 season, and the Eagles’ defense was ranked in the lower third of the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, their overall DVOA had them ranked 25th in the league. Their porous secondary and limited run-stopping ability held back the team as they finished the year 8-8 and an eventual loss to Tom Brady and the Bucs in the NFL’s Divisional Round.
The organization made moves in the ‘22 offseason to ensure Philadelphia accelerated the clock on a championship, especially with QB Jalen Hurts on a rookie deal. No one could have predicted the meteoric rise of Hurts, but it is no surprise that one of the better offenses in ‘21 exploded in ‘22. Trading for the Titans WR AJ Brown ensured that defenses would have to play with a lightbox to counter the explosiveness of DeVonta Smith and Brown.
Defensively, the front office went after free agents to shore up their porous defense. CB James Bradberry, Safety CJ Gardner-Johnson, EDGE Haason Reddick, and LB Kyzir White were integral to Philly's growth on the ball's defensive side. Bradberry gave CB Darius Slay help on the other side, while Gardner-Johnston (when healthy) gave the defense a dynamic Safety who led Philly in interceptions with 6. Reddick had a tremendous year, as he finished with 16 sacks. Finally, LB White solidified the middle of the box for the Eagles.
In all, the additions allowed Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon to implement more of a “Fangio” feel to the defense. In what was probably the worst kept secret in the NFL, former Broncos Head Coach (now Dolphins DC) was a consultant for the Eagles all year. Gannon used the knowledge from Fangio to create one of the best pass coverage units in the NFL.
Though the run numbers were not great (21st in Run DVOA), most pundits acknowledged the talent in the front line. Reddick would combine with Josh Sweat (11 sacks/15 TFLs) to bookend the Eagles Penny package or 5-1 alignment. Inside, Fletcher Cox (7 sacks/7TFLs), Brandon Graham (11 sacks/11 TFLs), and Javon Hargrave (11 sacks/10 TFLs) created a formidable wall against most opponents’ offenses.
Gannon leveraged his defense’s ability to rush the passer and lockdown WRs into one of the best units in the NFL. Football Outsiders had them as the #1 unit in Pass DVOA, four percentage points ahead of New England and Dallas. In the modern game, stopping the pass is a premium, and for the most part, you can sacrifice your run defense on your way to the QB.
Though the Eagles came in at 23rd overall in rush/EPA (-.023), they made up for it by being the #1 defense against the pass (-.087). The Eagles proved in ‘22 that you don’t have to be great at stopping the run to be a top-tier defense. Gannon and Co. rode their elite air status all the way to the Super Bowl, with Gannon eventually landing in Arizona, where he is the newly appointed Head Coach.
Like other Fangio iterations, the Philly defense was Cover 3 dominant (~37%) and used Cover 1 on medium downs when they wanted to play tight coverage near the sticks (~28%). With two good CBs outside and talented Safeties, it freed up Gannon to focus on the front six. As stated, the front five used by the Eagles put on a masterclass in rushing the passer.
The defense in Philadelphia was not built around the need to blitz at a high tick because of the talent up front. In fact, the Eagles only blitzed on around 25% of their plays. That number would place them 14th overall in the NFL. On passing downs, that number stayed relatively the same (24.9%).
During the regular season, if the Eagles were going to bring pressure, it was usually with five defenders, which makes sense considering their high use of their Penny package (5-1). 86% of their pressures were five-man rushes. The Eagles finished the year only running simulated pressures (four-rushers) on about 3% of their passing downs (PFF).
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