The NFL is an ever-changing landscape and for coordinators and coaches alike, adapting to the current surroundings and being open to change can often be the difference between success and failure. Just ask Doug Pederson, who implemented elements of Chip Kelly’s offense, Andy Reid’s offense and some collegiate concepts during his Super Bowl winning season.
There’s one NFL rule change that’s caused quite the stir recently and I’m sure by this point, you’ll already know what I’m talking about. With a new focus on reducing the amount of concussions within the league, the NFL has introduced a rule that seeks to prevent defensive players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact. Preseason has proved that this is going to be extremely difficult for defenses to make those hard-hitting plays, because they simply can’t drive into the tackle and will risk being ran over by the ball-carrier.
How a Safety is supposed to lower their body to tackle a player like Darren Sproles is now a complete mystery and there will need to be some fundamental coaching changes to how tackling is nurtured at the NFL level. However, Jim Schwartz may have just found the Kryptonite to get around this rule and decimate as his defense did in 2017.
To understand what this is, we first need to look at the development of the Eagles defense since his arrival. In 2016, the Eagles defensive tone was set. Heavy pressure up front would be the focus with the front office building through the trenches on both sides of the ball, but although the Birds began to feast on opposing quarterbacks, they were hampered by secondary setbacks.
The Eagles gave up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more during the 2016 season, the most in the NFL. The 4-3 scheme requires a lot of man-coverage and aggressive play and a pass-rush is only as strong as its backbone. This led to some big offseason moves, including the acquisition of Ronald Darby and the free agent signing of Patrick Robinson as a slot corner. The team also bought in Corey Graham at Safety, which neatly brings us onto the next development. After deploying ‘off-coverage’ to move his corners further away from the ball and give them time to make a play, the pass-rush saw a dramatic increase in production. But that’s only part of the fun.
With every team in the NFL utilizing nickel packages the majority of the time, the rise of the hybrid safety has become widespread. Some teams choose to specialize a corner or two (Patrick Robinson) in the slot, while other teams cross train multiple players to play inside on any given play. The teams who choose to employ extra cornerbacks on the field inherently open up a new problem – opposing offenses can now punish them via the running game or by throwing to tight ends. The counter for this, for many teams, has been to find versatile safeties (many times with a history at cornerback) that thrive in coverage and out in open space. 2017 was a prime example of this for the Eagles, but what we will see moving forward is step three in the Jim Schwartz masterplan.
If you look across the defensive depth chart, what you’ll often notice is that there are players who could frequently split starting roles and possess contrasting skillsets. A perfect example of this is the current battle in the nickel between Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox.
As I pointed out in the breakdown, it really wouldn’t surprise me to see the two split nickel reps. Sidney Jones always has been and likely always will be a ballhawk; someone who feasts at the point of the catch and makes his names by picking off stray passes and breaking on balls. Maddox on the other hand is a much more compact prospect who hits hard, possesses tremendous burst and was used frequently as an extra blitzed during his time at Pitt.
Another example would be at linebacker, where Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill are in a similar spot. While Gerry is built in the ‘Kurt Coleman’ mold as a hybrid Safety, Grugier-Hill’s sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability make him far better suited to picking up screens and blowing up plays that stretch the field, whereas Gerry’s skillset matches up perfectly with Malcolm Jenkins.
The same mantra can be found at defensive end with Derek Barnett and Chris Long, at DT with
Jernigan Ngata and Fletcher Cox, Safety with McLeod and Graham and the list goes on.
It’s well known that the Eagles led the league in QB pressures last season, amassing a stunning 342 despite the fact they rarely blitzed, bringing the extra man under 1/4 of the time. On 1st down, the Eagles barely blitzed at all, but on 3rd down, the team were more likely to send the Kitchen Sink to disrupt the passer. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t, although the overwhelming majority was positive. But now, with all the pieces in place, the final stage of Schwartz’s defensive masterplan will come to fruition.
We got our first glimpse of this last Thursday against the Cleveland Browns and yes, I’m referring to the eight-man rush that put actual hearts in my eyes. This was mixed in with zone blitzes, three-man rushes and the notorious ‘speed’ package that sees three defensive end storm the offensive front. Are the Eagles going to blitz more? Maybe not, but we can expect a surge in production for two reasons.
1) Schwartz finally has the personnel needed to truly harness the potential of his defensive scheme. If the offense is showing a 21 personnel look, adding Avonte Maddox at nickel corner and bringing Malcolm Jenkins into the box on a blitz look will be absolutely terrifying, mainly because no matter where that ball goes, there’s going to be a hard-hitting defender waiting to make a play. The infamous ‘NASCAR’ package (four defensive ends) now has enough versatility to completely throw off a quarterback who will have no idea where the main alarm bells will begin to ring.
By having two very reliable corners playing in off-coverage and a consistent safety over the top, Schwartz can finally experiment more with his work closer to the Football, knowing that its simply not a case of throwing up a prayer, knowing the miracle will land for opposing quarterbacks anymore. It’s no longer a liability to have his corners standing on an Island with a dominant receiver and this gives him the confidence to not just send the Kitchen Sink, but also the Oven and the Fridge and any other household appliance he can find.
2) Most importantly: How does one over override a new rule that strips down the art of tackling and makes it nearly impossible to land a clean hit? By avoiding that road altogether and redirecting traffic. If you can throw 5-7 players at an offensive line when they know it’s a clutch situation and a big play has to be made, the chances of the quarterback having enough time to allow the play to develop, scan through his reads and get the ball out cleanly will be absolutely minimal.
The Eagles already had the most QB pressures in the NFL last season and now with added fire from Michael Bennett and versatility from players like Gerry and Maddox, the Eagles have all the ammunition in the world to make life torrid for offensive fronts. If you can’t tackle without running the risk of a penalty, why run the risk to begin with? Why not cut the head of the Snake instead of waiting for it to crawl through the grass and bite when you least expect it?
If the Eagles have enough pieces to matchup toe-to-toe with any skill position player or any offensive look, can you really stop them? If there’s a versatile back, the Eagles can still send pressure knowing they have some of the finest coverage linebackers in the NFL and now have the added explosiveness of Gerry and Maddox. If it’s a three-tight end set or a look that has wideouts spread across the line of scrimmage, the Eagles have a plethora of corners who can hold their own, allowing Jenkins, Gerry and Michel Bennett to become unpredictable X-factors on any given play, disrupting the pass.
You can’t be penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit if the tackle doesn’t need to be made to begin with. Making sure the ball doesn’t reach its intended target every now and then will go a long way in achieving that.
I’m not saying that Schwartz will suddenly blitz 50 times a game, but what I am saying is that if there is a defense in this league that’s primed to work around a rule that’s chaining teams down, it’s this one.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports