The Eagles red zone defense has been strong for quite some time. In 2017, the defense allowed an opponent to score points on just 50% of their journeys inside the 20. That number has somehow come crashing down again through the opening three games of the season, sitting at 33%.
The dominance started right out of the gate, when the Eagles held Matt Ryans and a lethal Falcons offense to just 15 plays, 11 yards and 8 incompletions inside the red zone. The Colts didn’t fare much better, converting on just 20% of their red zone drives.
“It’s just part of what we do. Really no different than any other team that I’ve been a part of.” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday.
“Obviously, they’re big plays in the game. I always say I only care about a win, and then after we get the win it’s points allowed, and then the things that affect points allowed, like third-down percentage and red zone.
You get a red zone stop, it’s potentially a four-point play for the defense. If they miss the field goal, it’s a seven-point play. If you get a third-down stop, you’re stopping drives, getting the ball back for your offense.
I thought both of those — it wasn’t just red zone; [but] third down also. Colts came in as the No. 1 third-down team in the league. I mean, [it’s a] small sample size, two games, but that was a big matchup. Hold them two for 12, and they had very little production even in those two plays that they did make, and I don’t think they had one conversion in the second half.
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I think that had as much to do with keeping the score down and keeping us in as the red zone stop still.”
As elite as this defense has been when backed up inside the 20 however, they face a very different challenge in week 4. A road game in Tennessee not only boasts a run-heavy team that will insist on running up the gut over and over regardless of success in order to wear down a defense, but its secret weapon just so happens to be the most dangerous red zone quarterback in the NFL.
Marcus Mariota has scored a stunning 39 consecutive red zone touchdowns without throwing a single interception. He faces this relentless red zone machine in the Eagles defense in a few days time. What makes Mariota so dangerous is that while he’s deadly accurate in short-yardage situations, he’s just as explosive with his legs.
“…you have to treat them like running backs.” Jim Schwartz said of dual-threat signal callers. “Mariota is that way. He’s probably the fastest quarterback in the NFL right now. He has got a lot of experience running those things.
It’s not just zone read and sort of designed runs. He’s a really efficient, bootleg quarterback. Get him on the move, and he can really stretch your defense with his speed. He’s not easing into his boots, he’s running. Looks like a 40-yard dash he’s running so fast.
Yeah, makes you play clean across the board. You can’t concentrate on one thing. You not only have to cover receivers, but you also have to be disciplined in pass rush and be able to clean up pass rush if he does escape. Then it adds a new layer to the run game.
It’s certainly a challenge. Those guys used to be unique. You would see them once or twice a year. Now it seems like every other game, you’re seeing a quarterback like that.”
To make life even more challenging, a seemingly banged up Mariota saved the day on Sunday, coming into the game in relief of Blaine Gabbert and throwing for 100 yards, completing 12/18 passes and tallying 51-yards on the ground. He may not be 100%, but it didn’t stop him from overthrowing arguably one of the leagues most vicious defenses.
This is bound to be a popcorn worthy matchup but if the Eagles are going to sustain their red zone success, they’ll have to stop arguably the best quarterback in the league when it comes to converting when inside the 20.
Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports