The Bears are in the playoffs, and with that comes a new opponent to scout in the Philadelphia Eagles. They ride into Chicago on the wave of three consecutive victories and as the defending super bowl champions, but they bring with them a defense that has been rendered below average by injuries despite a very good front four.
This is my scouting report on the Eagles’ defense.
I like to start these reports with either the defensive line or the team’s best player. Fortunately, there is no conflict between the two in Philadelphia thanks to Fletcher Cox, a dominant force on the interior.
He plays the three-technique position on most downs but he can man nose tackle when Philly expects a pass. He doesn’t move his hands as rapidly as other dominant linemen like Aaron Donald or Akiem Hicks, but he might be my pick for the strongest player in football. He keeps his feet churning constantly and can produce Khalil Mack-like long-arm moves to run his opponents over, which is incredibly difficult when not rushing off the edge.
Elsewhere on the starting line, Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham occupy the defensive end spots, and both of them are capable of sliding to three-technique on passing downs. Graham’s sack production isn’t where it was in the past and at 30 years old, he isn’t quite the athlete he used to be. He’s still disruptive against both run and pass, however, and stays disciplined in his rush lane, unlike the Eagles’ other edge defenders.
Bennett gets off the ball like his hair is on fire, as he was known for during his tenure in Seattle. He’s relentless in getting after the quarterback, but he can lose contain and he has shown a vulnerability to crack back blocks on play action boots. Chris Long has played a similar style as a pass rush specialist, sometimes rushing out of a two-point stance – he can scream off the edge but he can be reckless in holding his rush lanes.
Haloti Ngata is the starting nose tackle, and he more than holds his own in the middle as a big part of their run defense.
When he’s healthy, Jordan Hicks plays Mike linebacker. I say “when he’s healthy” because that isn’t as often as the Eagles would like. He’s good at shooting gaps and he has a pretty strictly downhill, attacking play style. A few trips to the weight room would make him a very good linebacker, but for now, he doesn’t have the strength to complement his tendencies.
Nigel Bradham is their other starting off-ball linebacker. He is tied for the team lead in tackles and does a nice job in the box, though he will have an occasional lapse in coverage. When Hicks is out, Kamu Grugier-Hill will take over. His great deal of special teams experience helps him out as a tackler, but the Eagles don’t play him much in passing situations.
The linebackers share an aggressiveness in attacking the run, though Hicks is probably best at it. The other group characteristic I noticed is that they take deep drops zone coverage, which opens up gaps underneath and in between the middle of the field defenders.
The leader of this team is Malcolm Jenkins, the only Eagle defender to play every single snap this season. He will line up literally everywhere except for deep centerfield (strong safety, slot corner, inside linebacker, edge defender) and all he does is make plays, exemplified by being deadlocked with Bradham at 97 tackles. He has great instincts, takes good angles to the ball and will finish tackles with physicality.
Corey Graham, a former Bear, starts beside him, mostly manning the centerfield spot. He will line up in the box with Jenkins in their three-safety personnel package when Tre Sullivan takes his spot as the single-high man. Usually, they’ll use this look against running downs, so Sullivan doesn’t have to do much back there. Graham, on the other hand, utilizes decent range and tackling ability. He likes to play as deep as possible in the secondary, which can open up a window between the safety and the cornerback in cover two.
Except they won’t, because Darby and Mills are on injured reserve and Jones is not expected to play. This is where the Eagles have been destroyed by the injury bug, though their replacements are about as good as fourth, fifth, and sixth corners can possibly get.
Avonte Maddox is their best one right now. He’s an aggressive, physical player and he’s unafraid to challenge bigger receivers. On tape, you can tell he has that swagger that you want in a DB. If there’s a silver lining to Philly’s injury issues, it’s that they’ve found a keeper in Maddox.
On the other side, Rasul Douglas is playing corner out of necessity but he’s a better fit at safety. He leads the team in interceptions, despite his snap count on the season being at around 50%, and shows why on film as a natural ballhawk – he will bait the quarterback into making a throw they regret. The downside to this is that he can be caught playing too far of a receiver and give up short catches. He can also be caught watching the QB’s eyes and give up touchdowns, and he doesn’t have the make-up speed necessary to compensate.
In the slot, we have another old friend: Cre’Von LeBlanc. Yes, the Eagles are desperate. He’s a decent athlete but he exhibits poor technique. He will be caught flat-footed off the ball and be burned often, and he showed a susceptibility to double moves. He is a starter for the Eagles because they run a nickel set most often and he is undoubtedly their weakest link.
Lastly, I want to point out some repeated mistakes that I saw that should terrify Philly against Mitch Trubisky. The back seven as a whole can fall asleep in spots while the quarterback is outside the pocket. Throws will be there when Trubisky escapes.
Defensive Coordinator: Jim Schwartz
Bears fans may know Schwartz from his days of being handed the division on a silver platter in Detroit and proceeding to chuck it in the trash can. That being said, he has a long history, before and after his stint with the Lions, of running successful defenses.
He runs a pretty standard 4-3 base package, but they will take a linebacker out and put in LeBlanc or an extra safety (usually LeBlanc) most of the time. The 4-3 look is almost impenetrable against the run, and the nickel package can come with a stuffed box as well – on run-heavy downs, they will put Jenkins and LeBlanc/Graham in the box alongside the linebackers.
Jenkins’s placement determines most of their formations. The one shift from the normal DL/LB alignment comes in their under front, in which Jenkins will position himself in a way similar to that of a Sam backer or a 3-4 edge rusher. Their secondary usually aligns itself with a safety (usually Graham, sometimes Sullivan) deeper than the rest, even in a cover two look. If Graham starts to walk down towards the line of scrimmage, it’s a red flag for cover zero and an all-out blitz.
The other formational tendency is that the cornerbacks usually line up with one close to the LOS and one farther away. When they both are off of it, it indicates cover three.
Other than those two tells, Schwartz disguises and mixes his coverages quite well. I wouldn’t say that they have a go-to coverage scheme. They may show a two-deep safety look and rotate to cover one robber (with Jenkins roaming the intermediate middle) at the snap.
Blitz package wise, Philly doesn’t send extra rushers very much. They will send some run-conscious LB blitzes, especially on first down, but per NFL Matchup on ESPN, the Eagles have one of the five lowest QB blitz rates in football at about 16 percent. This makes sense, as the strength of the team is the defensive line. They can’t afford to take guys out of their coverage spots for extra pressure, and they trust their front four to get to the quarterback.
They will show linebackers and/or Jenkins in the A, B, and C gaps, in combinations of one, two, or three. More often than not, they will back out into their drops. They do this so that the offensive linemen have to account for the possible blitzes so that Cox can get more one-on-one matchups.
Schwartz will give leeway for the secondary to use their individualized play styles in coverage. For example, Graham likes to play deep in cover two but Jenkins likes to play more shallow. If the team has talented, experienced that use their techniques to their advantage, that is a good thing. But with a young secondary like this and a linebacking corps that has their own coverage tendencies, that can be problematic.
This can open up far too many gaps in zone coverage – between Maddox and Graham, underneath the LBs, and over the top against Douglas – that teams have used in order to hit big plays.
Matchup the Eagles can exploit: Michael Bennett and Chris Long vs. Bobby Massie
Massie has impressed in pass protection this year for the Bears, turning in an above average performance. However, he has been prone to losing to guys with great get-offs and speed off the edge. Dante Fowler Jr of the Rams, in particular, beat him almost untouched in Week 14.
Bennett and Long specialize in quick jumps off the line of scrimmage. If they time the snap count right against Massie, they could wreck a drive or two.
If the Eagles watched the tape of the Bears’ first game against Detroit, they know that when Allen Robinson lines up in the slot, matching him up with a subpar cornerback is a terrible idea. Cre’Von LeBlanc fits that bill. Schwartz is smart, and he will likely opt against man coverage for the majority of the afternoon. When he occasionally uses it, though, look for Trubisky to target Robinson every time.
Because of this, I think Trey Burton is getting eight to 10 catches on Sunday. The Eagles’ linebackers don’t space themselves well in their zone drops, and Burton knows how to take advantage.
Aside from LeBlanc and maybe Douglas when he’s playing out of position, this team doesn’t have too many blatant weak spots. However, the secondary’s strengths don’t really gel with those of the linebackers, and that creates a weak pass defense.
It will be tough to run on them, but if Trubisky is on his game, he finds enough open men and create enough opportunities with his legs to get the job done. Assuming the Bears get “Good Mitch,” they will move onto Los Angeles.