Going into the 2018 season, the NFL scheduled their biggest international game ever in London, as they announced that the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles would travel to England’s capital to square off against the Jaguars, who were coming off an AFC Championship game loss. To have two of the final four teams of last year battle it out overseas was very uncommon, as most matchups abroad prior to this one seemed to either be lopsided from the start or included a rather odd pairing of teams. However, as we are on the brink of reaching the mid-season mark of this NFL season, both these teams stand at 3-4 and this Sunday’s matchup looks like anything but a potential Super Bowl preview. While there’s still plenty of games to be played after this weekend and both teams don’t have a clear favorite in their division, this game to me feels like it could decide the fortunes of Philadelphia and Jacksonville. Since I’m flying over for this matchup myself, I thought it would make sense to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of either squad and look at how they can exploit them respectively. Will the Eagles soar high in their first trip to the UK or can the Jags take advantage of what has to feel like their home-field almost, playing at Wembley for their sixth straight year now?
Their road here:
After winning the Super Bowl on miraculous run with backup quarterback Nick Foles, the Eagles looked like one of the heavy favorites once again throughout the offseason. They were scheduled to get back their MVP candidate quarterback Carson Wentz, potentially Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters, starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks and other valuable parts, such as the versatile Darren Sproles and a Pro Bowl special teamer in Chris Maragos. In addition to that, they acquired Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to improve on an already impressive defensive line and the few players they did give up, they replaced with comparable assets for the most part. However, what has hurt them so far this season has been the fact they saw their quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo take the Vikings’ OC job and their offensive coordinator Frank Reich took over a surprising opening for the head coach gig in Indy when Josh McDaniels pulled himself out at the last minute. Nevertheless, this team was loaded with talent across the board and there were no obvious weaknesses to be found.
Philly started the season with a 18-12 win over the Atlanta Falcons, a matchup in which the offenses struggled and that was very reminiscent of the last year’s Divisional Round when these two teams squared off against each other. When they lost 27-21 to Tampa Bay in game number two we already saw some of their deficiencies, but all concerns seemed to vanish when Eagles fans saw Carson Wentz return from his torn ACL and they won versus the Colts. Since then they have lost three of their last four games. They gave up a 17-3 lead at Tennessee in the second half and lost in overtime, gave the Vikings their revenge after a blowout in the NFC Championship game, then won versus a pathetic Giants team and last Sunday they were up 17-0 heading into the fourth quarter versus Carolina and surrendered another big lead.
Why can’t they recapture that magic from last season? I have already mentioned the departure of the two most important members of the offensive coaching staff outside of Doug Peterson, but I see more of a psychological shift and a regression in some areas for them offensively, while the defense can’t seem to close games for them in 2018.
First of all, they have not found a dependable running game. Last season Philly was third in the league in rushing yards and tied for third in terms of yards per rush, gaining 4.5 yards per carry. They also led the NFL with 19 runs of 20+ yards. The regression of their ground attack comes down to two things – the offensive line taking a big step back and their running backs not being able to get more than what’s in front of them.
While center Jason Kelce has once again been a stalwart, Jason Peters and Steven Wisniewski have been in and out of the lineup, Brandon Brooks has struggled to some degree and even Lane Johnson, who I always say is the best right tackle in football, has already allowed five sacks, after he surrendered just 3.5 all of last season. What made that unit special last season was the way they could task just about anybody to pull or down-block in their gap schemes as well as reach or stay engaged in the zone game. Moreover, none of their backs have really done anything outside of just running through the assigned gap or cutting it upfield. Jay Ajayi was one of the least dynamic starters in the league before heading for IR, Darren Sproles looked good in the season-opener but there hasn’t been a sighting of him since then and Wendell Smallwood is leading them in backfield snaps despite being more of a nice RB3 for most teams. The only guy I believe in is Corey Clement and he has fumbled three times already.
This team’s identity on offense was built around their elite offensive line and a versatile rushing attack, that would tire out defenses and be most effective in the fourth quarter. This season they have been average at best in those areas. That has forced them to fundamentally change their offensive approach. Not only did they run the ball effectively on early downs and use numbers advantages on so-called “passing downs”, this also set up their play-action passing attack and the deep shots coming off it. Moreover, this has made the those RPOs way less effective. Defenses are not afraid of isolating their best corner on the backside of potential running plays and ask them to be aggressive in press coverage. With Alshon Jeffery back they have more of a threat at that spot, but the Vikings matched him with Xavier Rhoades and that was that. They have now turned into this high-volume passing team that throws a ton of quick screens and passes short of the sticks. In the fourth quarter versus the Panthers they called just one run out of their 13 plays despite starting with a 17-0 lead. That’s not what them successful in 2017.
Defensively, the Eagles are still sixth in the league in points allowed and second in rushing yards surrendered. They are middle of the pack in sacks, first in QB hits and third in third down percentage. So overall they get people off the field, but for some reason that pass rush just doesn’t get home in the fourth quarter. Fletcher Cox was a monster early on and they have a multitude of veteran rushers to go along with him, but when they have really needed them most Philadelphia has not been able to take opposing quarterbacks down. Since the season-opener, the Eagles have recorded just four sacks in the fourth quarters of those last six games, with half of them coming against the Giants’ lackluster O-line. Closing games with their defensive front is what made them great last season and even in a Super Bowl that produced crazy offensive numbers, it was a strip-sack by Brandon Graham that decided the game.
The second major factor for their problems on defense is a combination of personnel and play-calling. We all know defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz loves to be aggressive with blitzes and leave his corners on islands, but he just doesn’t have the right guys on the outside to follow that approach. Outside of Ronald Darby I don’t feel like they have anybody who can hold up in true man-coverage consistenty. I like what Jalen Mills does in terms of supporting the run and shutting down short passes when he plays the flats, but he is liability downfield. He can’t stay with speedy receivers out of their breaks, often times even falling down, and his coach treats him like a shutdown guy. I’m curious to see how Sidney Jones would look like outside, because I did have him as my number two corner in last year’s draft until he got hurt, but I just believe that the play-calling has to get a little more conservative.
This team came into the 2018 season with their highest expectations in franchise history possibly. After nine straight non-winning seasons and six consecutive of five wins of less, Sacksonville emerged is the big bully of the AFC. They won the South for their first time in the 2000s with the league’s number one rushing attack and the most talented defense in football, which was second only to the Vikings in yards and points allowed. With the addition of All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell there should have only been more room for their sledgehammer Leonard Fournette to punish defenders at the second level, they brought in a high-upside tight-end in Austin Seferian-Jenkins as a big target in the passing game and they brought everybody back on defense plus they had another year to grow together. While the re-signing of Blake Bortles to a 54-million dollar contract was highly questionable for most people, their identity of pushing people around on either side of the ball combined with the attitude and talent their players brought to the table, made the Jags look like one of the favorites to make it to the conference championship game once again.
They started their season in the Meadowlands with a 20-15 win over the Giants, which looked good back then considering all the talent those guys have at the offensive skill positions, and then they really put their name on the national radar with a 31-20 win over the Patriots. Blake Bortles had a career game with over 400 total yards and four touchdowns. However, since then their only win came over the Jets and in their four losses, they have averaged just 8.5 points per game and their QB has been so bad, that he ultimately got benched last Sunday versus Houston. Outspoken guys like Jalen Ramsey have started to get very quiet and the feared “Sacksonville” even allowed 40 points to the Cowboys, who had been averaging under 14 a game at that point.
So what happened to our favorite new loud team, that beat down opponents and told reporters about how much better they are anybody they were facing? Well, while the defense hasn’t been nearly as dominant as they were last year, I think this all comes back to the offense and their inability to keep drives moving, which leads to the defense being on the field constantly.
I simply believe the offense is extremely limited by the abilities of quarterback Blake Bortles. I had him ranked as the second-worst starter just behind Eli Manning when I did my quarterback index and he proved me right on Sunday once again. His numbers might not look quite that bad, but most of those have come in garbage time and when you put on the tape you see that their passing game lacks any intermediate attack and opponents are not afraid of sitting in underneath zones and allowing any shots over the top. Pretty much exactly half his yardage total has come after the catch and it’s not like he is putting the ball out in front of his receivers on post or deep-in routes. He is consistently throwing the ball short of the sticks and while his guys have some room to work, they rarely can get past the first down marker. This is what Bortles did with the offense over their last three games – against the Chiefs they gained one first down on each of their first two drives followed up by four straight turnovers by their QB, against the Cowboys they got two total first downs in their first seven drives and versus the Texans Bortles started off with a fumble inside their own 35 before converting on third down once in their next three drives.
That lack of a consistent passing game is only amplified by the fact that their ground game has not been nearly as dominant with Leonard Fournette banged up. The Jags actually rank 23rd in total rushing yards at this moment. They have rotated guys, brought in a Jamaal Charles coming off his couch and now even traded for Carlos Hyde from the Browns. I think Yeldon has looked pretty good in limited action, but even going back to his days at Alabama, he has never been a workhorse for an offense. He is at his best as a change-of-pace guy who can help out on passing downs, but without their number one back they relied on Corey Grant to actually play Yeldon’s role. While the offensive line has been underperforming to some degree and a lot of that has to do with the loss of left tackle Cam Robinson, they have never opened up space with traps and angles, but rather with raw power and pushing people off the line. That fits perfectly with a truck like Fournette, who has no problem just banging into blockers and bursting through cracks. Without him they lack that element of punishing defenders once he gets a full head of steam and that pure straight-line speed once he sees daylight.
On defense, I see a fundamental problem with these Seattle-type single-high safety schemes that play cover-three and bail man for the most part. If you have the right personnel, you can force offenses to throw it underneath and then rally to bring down the pass-catchers for short gains and I believe Jacksonville has the best collection of players to run it, but there are some obvious weaknesses. These offensive coaches are getting so good and more importantly so used to that scheme, since about half the league is running it, that they find ways to exploit it. There are some obvious tells in the Jaguars’ principles. When Tashaun Gipson is lined up over the tight-end they probably play cover-one, against trips sets they usually play a combo-coverage with one of their All-Pro corners in man against the single receiver and the rest of the defense rolls into a cover-three shell, plus the further the distance is on third downs the more conservative they got in their coverage calls. These are all areas you can exploit, even when the opposition has elite talent.
The other part that opponents have taken advantage of is the fact that their run defense has been underwhelming so far. They Jaguars are 25th in rushing yards allowed and teams have run the ball on them with fourth-highest rate, because they are pretty small and built on rushing the passer. Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus bring some beef on the D-line, but their linebackers are undersized. Telvin Smith and Myles Jack have been on the field for every single defensive snap, but their next-closest linebacker has recorded just 12 percent. Last season they still had veteran Paul Posluszny as the MIKE of their base 4-3 and then substituted him on passing downs. Now they just don’t have a lot of size, when offenses start to run right at them. That influences the way Smith and Telvin have to react to play-fakes and more importantly offenses don’t get into third-and-longs that often, which doesn’t allow their pass rushers to get loose and blitz that much on third down. Of course constantly being on the field and playing from behind make all of this even harder.
Eagles offense vs Jaguars defense:
So how can the Eagles attack that Sacksonville D that has shown some cracks? Well, first of all it is imperative for them to not give up on the run game. They need to eat away with easy rushes and stay ahead of schedule. Their offensive line was dominant last season and probably the biggest key to them winning the Super Bowl. You don’t have to run wide zone and stretch against the Jags. Bring in an extra body and create numbers advantages to get someone onto their linebackers. They are super fast and can run ball-carriers down from sideline to sideline, but they don’t like to take on blockers and defend the power run game. To mix things up you can call counters and trap their defensive tackles if they get too far upfield.
Secondly, assuming you did all your film work, you know all the answers about the Jags coverage tendencies and principles. I have already mentioned some of them, but the sum it all up in a short version – when Tashaun Gipson is lined up over the tight-end they likely run cover one, if he’s in the box but on the opposite side he will probably drop into the flats in cover-three, when you run trips against them, they will likely play a combo-coverage where they man up the single-side receiver and play the deep two thirds away from him and the longer the yardage to gain is on third downs, the more likely is it that they play two high safeties and keep it safe with cover-four. Since we know that know, here are some of the ways I would attack them:
Versus 21 personnel the Jags usually move down one of their safeties and depending on where exactly that is you can strongly guess the coverage. This is a fast-flowing defense, so you want to use that aggressiveness against them by booting away from play-fakes and set up easy completions. In this case you have Gipson in an outside linebacker spot away from the TE, so he will probably take the flats. What the Cowboys did here was they cleared out the boundary corner and then brought two crossers on different levels from the opposite side, putting the safety in a bind of which one he takes.
Another thing I would exploit is the space I have when I put Jacksonville into one of those combo-coverage with man on their single receiver. Their defense has a ton of speed, but if you run a post route with that solo receiver that also holds the free safety in the middle and pretty much gives you that entire side of the field to work with. Once again you can bring deep crossers or such as, but what I like even more is the matchups you get with your guys out of the backfield. Corey Clement is one of the premier receiving backs in the game and if you let him break out to the sideline or run a wheel route, you can create big plays that way.
Overall I would look to use Zach Ertz in a multitude of ways. He is a top three tight-end in this league and more so than with any other guy at the position, the Philly runs primarily through him. They love to split him out wide anyway, so you can easily indicate coverages by seeing who follows him, send him down the seams with a slot receiver from the other side against single-high alignment and force that deep middle safety to commit either way and what I would love to run against the Jags are double-post concepts on one side with Ertz coming on a deep crosser from the opposite one. That’s the go-to route combination to beat the cover-three in my opinion.
And finally I think you have to slow down Sacksonville’s pass rush. When you get behind the sticks and have to drop back constantly, these guys on their D-line can just tee off and get after Wentz. So you have to keep them off balance with the screen game. And I’m not talking about all those bubble and slip screens they throw anyway – actual delayed screen passes. I still believe they have one of the better screen games in the NFL. Therefore I want them to use their backs and tight-ends on misdirection and throwback screens, which I have seen work beautifully.
Jaguars offense vs Eagles defense:
The task of attacking the Eagles defense is a little trickier since all you have to work with is Blake Bortles and if really necessary Cody Kessler. With that being said, there are some ways to make Bortles feel comfortable and there are definitely areas of the Philly D you can exploit. While I think it will be a tall task to run on them, I think the addition of Carlos Hyde will give them more of a steady presence and earn some extra yardage to keep them on schedule. However, I want to focus more on how you can help out Bortles here.
I said last week that all the Jaguars QB does is throw shallow crossers and fade routes. Well, he loves to put it out in front of receivers coming across formations and there are opportunities to give him those easy completions and set up some run-after-the-catch yardage. The most apparent way to open up one of those is when you get into a tight bunch and have your tight-end as the single guy on the opposite side. The Eagles usually drop into a cover-three to counter that set, putting the corner on that TE side into the deep third. I think the Jags have enough of a vertical threat at that position in Seferian-Jenkins that they can occupy the corner when you let him run down the seams and force one of the linebackers to run with a receiver crossing from that bunch and if that is Dede Westbrook or Keelan Cole, I like that matchup a lot. If they did adjust and roll towards the tight-end side, you can go back to running sail or flood concepts to that trips side again.
I think it makes sense to stack your receivers more often in general because if the Eagles play man-coverage, you make it tough on a cornerback group I don’t have much trust in anyway outside their number one guy, but even more so you can take advantage of how the line up against that stack for the most part. In this case the Vikings are in an ace set to the right, signaling the strong side, which makes the Eagles bring down Malcolm Jenkins onto one of their tight-ends and shifts their linebackers that way. However, that leaves a ton of space between the guys around the line and those stacked receivers. When you get it out to one of those guys on a simple slip screen and you get that block on the corner, you basically have a one-on-one matchup with that second defender. Off that you can also fake that quick screen and take shots on a fade route or clear out room to work underneath with a vertical route.
You have to punish that man-coverage and force the Eagles defenders to switch responsibilities. When you see Malcolm Jenkins line up over the opposing tight-end they are either in cover-one or he drops into a hook zone. If you want to clearly identify if it’s man or zone, you can use motions and see if someone trails the receiver. Then you can not only force inside-out switches out of bunch and stack sets, you can also do what the Panthers did against them. They got Christian McCaffrey one-on-one with one of their linebackers out of the backfield and they run a simple pick to spring him free on what basically turns into a swing screen. If I’m Jaguars OC Nathaniel Hackett, I want to get the ball out of Blake’s hands quickly and force the defense to communicate and adjust instead of having his QB scan the field.
And finally, I think Blake Bortles’ ability to run could play a huge role in this contest. We know the Eagles like to blitz a lot and play man-coverage behind it. There is nothing more dangerous against that then having a quarterback get past the initial rush and head upfield. I might not call many actual quarterback draws or whatever, but if there is one thing that he excels at, it is escaping the pocket and scrambling for first downs. Bortles is sturdy and has a strong lower body. When he doesn’t like his initial read and he sees an opening, I want him to get upfield and gain as much yardage as possible. There have been games where he could barely complete a pass, but at least he kept drives going with his legs.
Both these teams are at their best when they are bullies. Unfortunately for them they have been down a lot recently and they haven’t played with the same type of attitude and swagger we are used to with them. This is a desperation game and both these squads will put it all on the line to salvage their season, so being the more confident group will go a long way in this matchup. Another huge factor will be the turnover battle. Right now the Eagles are minus six in that give-take department and Jacksonville is just behind the 49ers at minus 12. Whoever can create a few big plays while taking care of the ball will have a leg up. While the Jaguars have won their last three games at Wembley, most recently blowing out the Ravens 44-7 last year, the Eagles seem to be at their best when nobody believes in them and some of their players probably think about bringing the dog-masks back already. I think this should be a great game and I can’t wait for it. The winner has a chance to re-establish themselves as contenders while the other team might be removed from the playoff conversation sooner rather than later.