As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
EAGLES’ RUN DEFENSE
Statistically, the run defense doesn’t look great allowing 5.0 YPC, 28th in football. A bit of a misnomer because their run defense isn’t bad and they’ve done a nice job not allowing big plays on the ground. A top ten defense, 9th overall, with only 18 runs of 10+ yards against.
Linebacker T.J. Edwards easily leads the team with 55 tackles. The next closest player only has 37. Edwards has rarely come off the field this season (96% snap count) and him and Kyzir White have held talented rookie Nakobe Dean off the field this season. Former first round pick Josh Sweat leads the team with six tackles for loss.
It’s a 4-3 front, same as it’s been, but they run a lot of five-down fronts on early downs, 1st and 2nd down. A lot of 5-1 or 5-2 looks that leans on their strong and deep defensive line, a unit that’s even stronger following this week’s trade for Bears’ DE Robert Quinn. An example of that five-man front.
The Eagles like to change looks late. They’ll often present light box counts as the offense gets to the line before rotating and spinning players down and adding numbers late in the playclock. Here, they present an even box count, 6v6, which makes it look attractive to run on. But the safety comes down late as the 7th player, making the defense +1, and unaccounted for as he makes the tackle. Watch #22.
It’s an athletic front seven with freaks at defensive end a former safety like Kyzir White playing linebacker. Getting cute with receiver runs probably isn’t the way to go. The Eagles have the speed and pursuit to stop those perimeter plays.
Some other defensive notes. They’re allowing only 17.5 points per game, 4th best in the league. They’ve allowed 17 or fewer points in four of their six games and given up more than 21 just once this season. Pittsburgh’s high is 23 points as a team and just 20 as an offense so those numbers are concerning. The Eagles weak point may be in situational football, 29th on third down (44.6%) and 19th in red zone defense (57.9%). Pittsburgh must win those weighty downs and moments.
EAGLES’ PASS DEFENSE
A very formidable unit, the Eagles are strong in virtually every category. Opposing QBs are completing just 56.8% of their passes, making the Eagles’ second-best in that category. They’re allowing just 5.5 yards per attempt, tied best in the league, while they’ve allowed only seven touchdowns (tied 10th best) and picked off nine passes (2nd most) while their 17 sacks are also tied top ten. Overall, opposing QBs have a QB rating of just 66, the worst mark against any defense in the league. Overall, the Eagles have forced 14 turnovers, #1 in football, with an equally top +12 turnover differential. By comparison, the next-closest team sits at +6, meaning the Eagles have doubled second place.
Five Eagles have 2+ sacks as they add Quinn into the equation. Hasson Reddick leads the way with 4.5. Their d-line has five forced fumbles with Reddick again leading the way with three of them. They blitz at a low rate, 21st at 22.8% of the time but they’re a top-ten pressure unit, 7th at 25.2%. Ideally, that’s what you want from your defense. Low blitz rate, high pressure rate.
All nine INTs Philadelphia has this season comes via their secondary with the versatile Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, traded over from the Saints this offseason, and CB Darius Slay tied for the team lead with three picks each.
This defense keeps a lid on things too. Only nine passes of 20+ yards (#1 in football) and just two completions of 40+ yards (tied 4th in football).
Coverage-wise, they mix things up well with man and zone. A fair amount of post-snap rotation and disguise like the Miami Dolphins did well last week. It’s a talented, veteran secondary that can rotate and spin coverages without many breakdowns. QB Coach Mike Sullivan’s “boss/bowed” rules are going to be key trying to identify rotations. Here, watch the linebackers are bossed – shifted to the TE – which hints the safety is going to drop down. And he does.
They do play a fair amount of split field coverages, different coverages to each side. Examples
Down in the red zone, they do tend to man up and play more Cover 1.
The cornerbacks are quick-trigger on the quick pass game and tackle well in space. The line runs some stunts but generally, they rush their front four and win their 1v1 battles and do a good job of generating consistent pressure by constantly rotating in fresh bodies, very similar to what the Bengals’ defense did in its prime. Seven defensive linemen are playing at least one-third of the defensive snaps this season.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost on Sunday Night Football to the Miami Dolphins in a game where the defense stepped up in the second half, keeping the Dolphins off the scoreboard, but the offense yet again let the team down by only managing to score ten points. Things won’t get any easier for Pittsburgh as they travel to Philadelphia this weekend to play an Eagles squad that is off to a 6-0 start as the only unbeaten team remaining in the NFL.
While the Eagles’ ascension is thanks in-part to the improved play of QB Jalen Hurts on offense, the defense for Philadelphia has been a stingy unit, ranking fifth in the league in passing yards allowed 12th in rushing yards allowed, fourth in total points allowed, and first in turnovers forced.
This Eagles defense runs deep in the trenches at both defensive line and edge rusher. GM Howie Roseman and Philadelphia’s front office has always placed a premium on trench players, and it appears to being paying dividends with both the OL and DL ranking near the top in the league.
The DL is led by veteran #91 Fletcher Cox who has been the man in the middle for the Eagles since 2012. A six-time Pro Bowler and first team All-Pro back in 2018, Cox is a strong, powerful player that takes on double teams routinely and closes running lanes. He’s also a productive pass rusher, using his strength to overwhelm opposing blockers into the pocket. Still, Cox tends to get high at times off the snap, leading to him giving ground on well-executed blocks.
Alongside Cox is a player Steelers fans are well-acquainted with #97 Javon Hargrave. The former Steeler signed a three-year contract with the Eagles back in 2020 and has been a quality player for them since. He notched 7.5 sacks last season, having the quickness to beat slower interior lineman across their face while also using his sturdy base well in the gun game. His production is down this season but remains a solid player on the Philly DL.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that rookie #90 Jordan Davis is “backing up” Cox and Hargrave at DT, but that’s where we are at with the embarrassment of riches the Eagles have upfront. The 6’6, 340lb behemoth in the middle is playing 35% of the snaps so far but is making his presence known as the ideal run plugger. His size and strength make him almost impossible to move off his spot and while Davis isn’t a fine-tuned pass rusher, he has shown promise in that area of his game. Also serving as depth for the Eagles DL is #93 Milton Williams and #95 Marlon Tuipulotu.
If you thought the Eagles’ DL room was scary, you may want to run and hide from what they got on the EDGE. Even after losing Derek Barnett in Week 1 for the season, Philly has the ability to send in wave after wave of pass rushers on the QB.
One of those guys is recent FA signing #7 Haasan Reddick. Reddick cashed in this offseason after a stellar 2021 season with the Panthers, taking his pass rush prowess up north to Philadelphia. More of a tweener, Reddick will play on the edge or off-ball, using his speed, bend, and acceleration to hunt down the QB. Still, while Reddick isn’t the best run defender, he has shown that he can play with power and hold his on at the point of attack as well as switch up speed to power as a rusher.
Alongside Reddick is grizzled veteran #56 Brandon Graham who is in his 13th season with the Eagles. While he has never been a prolific pass rusher, Graham has consistently posted between 5-8 sacks on a yearly basis while being one of the team’s best run defenders. #94 Josh Sweat recently signed a contract extension to stay in Philly as he has developed into a quality pass rusher in his own right, having great length, speed, and explosiveness to get around the corner while possessing sneaky strength to defeat blocks in the run game.
As if the Eagles didn’t have enough help, they just went out and acquired Robert Quinn from the Chicago Bears. Quinn has been hunting QBs since 2011 and has become one of the most decorated pass rushers over that time span, amassing 102 sacks and 32 forced fumbles. While he is getting long in the tooth, Quinn still has impressive pass rush juice, having freaky bend around the corner to flatten the angle past OTs into the pocket with the QB in sights. Look for him to get in at least in a few pass rush situations this weekend.
The linebacker position has always been a problem for the Eagles in the past, but they are getting solid play from the guys they have in the room this season. #57 T.J. Edwards had himself a great career at Wisconsin but managed to fall through the cracks and into the Eagles’ waiting arms. He became a full-time starter in his second season as has been steady as a run defender while becoming a reliable pass coverage defender after struggling there to start his NFL career. Beside him is former safety-turned-linebacker #43 Kyzir White. White came over from the Chargers as a free agent this offseason and has been a welcomed addition, getting his nose dirty against the run while representing himself well in zone coverage.
Behinds those two are #54 Shaun Bradley, rookie #17 Nakobe Dean, #48 Patrick Johnson and #58 Kyron Johnson who all provide depth and contribute on special teams units for the Eagles.
The Eagles have possibly one of the best CBs tandems in the league right now with #2 Darius Slay and #24 James Bradberry. Slay has been with Philadelphia since 2020 and has made the City of Brotherly Love his home, providing the Eagles with as close as a shutdown corner that they have had in nearly a decade. Slay struggled his first season in Philly, but has since rebounded to provide the Eagles with a man-to-man CB that can run with the best receivers in coverage while also having a knack for taking the ball away he has three picks and seven PBUs so far this season and can be dangerous if allowed to sit on a route in zone coverage and use his instincts to play the football in the air.
Bradberry was released by the Giants in a cap saving move and chose to sign with Philly to pair with Slay. The two are near the top of the league in terms of passer rating against as Bradberry is a big, strong, physical CB that matches up well with outside receivers and battles them on possession catches. He can run with receivers across the middle and benefits from a great defensive front, having the ability to break off and go play the football when he knows his has help over the top. Slot CB #29 Avonte Maddox rounds out the starters as a fast, yet exploitable cover man with #27 Zech McPhearson and #33 Josiah Scott rounding out the CB room.
On the backend for the Eagles, Roseman again saw a need on the roster and went out and addressed it by trading for #23 C.J. Gardner-Johnson before the start of the season. Johnson is the definition of a chess piece, having played the Star position back at the University of Florida thanks to his versatility and has continued that role in the league. He will play rolled up near the LOS as a box safety or in the slot as a nickel defender, but also will drop deep as a split zone or centerfield safety, playing the free safety role on the defense.
Gardner-Johnson is off to a hot start in his first season with Philly, having 31 tackles, two TFLs, four PBUs, and three INTs to his credit in six games played. #22 Marcus Epps plays alongside Johnson in the secondary, entering his first season as the full-time starter playing primarily the strong safety role. He’s a quality run defender and plays physical with backs and TEs in coverage, having the athleticism to run with them when in man. Backing up Johnson and Epps at safety are rookie #32 Reed Blankenship and core special teamer #42 K’Von Wallace who sees some action on three safety packages.