Preseason is not the ideal time to evaluate schematic changes heading into the new season. Doug Pederson’s offense ended up looking wildly different in the regular season compared to the preseason iteration. But there is still some worth in evaluating changes in approach which we might see come opening night against the Falcons.
Jim Schwartz blitzes infrequently. He prefers to rush four and use seven on the back end in coverage. However, Schwartz does mix in blitzes occasionally in certain situations. He tends to become more aggressive as the offense drives down the field, sending extra rushers as opponents close in on scoring position. He’s similar to the legendary Jim Johnson in that regard. Although Schwartz is less renowned for zone blitzing, we saw a couple new wrinkles in the second preseason game that provided a nice homage to the former Hall of Fame defensive coordinator.
The perfect blitz engineers free rushers. Timing and disguise are essential for the efficacy of blitz schemes. As with the offense, defensive fronts want to work different plays off the same look. It is difficult for the Eagles to create disguise out of their base 4-3 look, with the linebackers a good 4 to 5 yards off the ball. To address the issue, Schwartz has introduced odd fronts (ie the 3-4) to provide greater variety when he wants to get aggressive.
Both the plays below show a front-adjustment, as a preface to a zone blitz.
The type of blitz in each case differs, however. Schwartz uses the first blitz package to setup the second.
Below you can see how each blitz is designed. The top play is an overload, with the strongside end (Chris Long in this instance) dropping into the flats. On the other side, the weakside and middle linebackers blitz, creating a 3 on 2 on the left side of NE’s line.
Ultimately, the Patriots do a pretty good job of blocking it up (with the help of the tailback), giving Brady enough time to throw. The design, however, sets up the ensuing blitz for success. The front is very similar – if anything there’s an even greater overload on the strongside – which forces the Patriots’ front five to respect the blitz from their right. They all slide that way, which opens up a huge A-gap hole for Nate Gerry to come free and disrupt the timing of the screen.
By bringing just a solitary extra rusher early in the first quarter, Schwartz is able to generate free pressure from just a four-man rush later in the game. The Eagles still have seven defenders to play their base cover-3 scheme, with the added bonus of a free rusher right in the quarterback’s face. You can see the entirety of each play below.
Here's the first zone blitz from the game vs NE, overload weak. Patriots do a good job picking it up, but they overcompensate on the following play when faced with the same look. pic.twitter.com/HnsZoDLdT3
— John Breitenbach (@eagleslinc) August 18, 2018
And here's the second play. With the front heavily stacked to the strongside, Pats slide right, opening up the weak A-gap for Gerry to come untouched. pic.twitter.com/4pP5lIF2CB
— John Breitenbach (@eagleslinc) August 18, 2018
Interestingly, both blitzes came on second down. Specifically, second-and-long. We’ve seen Schwartz be quite conservative on third downs throughout his tenure with the Eagles, preferring his back-end to sit very deep to guard the sticks, before closing on the ball underneath. In contrast, he tends to be more creative with his blitz packages when opponents are facing long yardage situations on second-down, hoping for a turnover or sack to effectively end drives prematurely. It’s unorthodox yet logical, helping the Eagles become one of the league’s best defences last season.
Schwartz manages to be creative with his coverages, despite the fact he runs almost exclusively single high looks. In both plays above, however, it’s the trademark 3-deep zone he prefers. The vast majority of preseason coverages are likely to resemble the base defense, and Schwartz rarely strayed from it against the Patriots, keeping the back-end somewhat vanilla. However, just because the coverage itself is broadly standard, it can still be disguised. The first blitz is one of the few times the Eagles showed a two-deep shell pre-snap, with McLeod only walking down into the box at the last minute. The late adjustment ensured the pass fell incomplete, as Brady was forced to throw high and around the Eagles safety.
Beating quarterbacks of Brady’s calibre is not easy. They can pick apart traditional coverages without breaking a sweat. Jim Johnson was the master of creating disguise, outduelling some of the greatest signal-callers of all-time. Quarterbacks like Brady and Peyton Manning, who read defenses so accurately and efficiently, have to be presented with looks they’re not expecting. The Patriots preseason game illustrated that perfectly. On the few occasions the Eagles mixed it up defensively, they enjoyed some success. Otherwise, it was a pretty tough night against one of the league’s best.