Offensively the Eagles under Chip Kelly have been outstanding, but it’s their defense under Billy Davis that has largely been responsible for this team’s turnaround in the second half of the season.
Davis uses a 3-4 scheme that plays with a very active group up front. There is a great deal of movement of the front, with several different looks in the way they position their players.
The ideal is not to give the offense the same look consistently. The linebackers are very aggressive in the way they attack the line, and you will see snaps where the safety is down to help in the running game or in coverage. Where the Eagles get you in this scheme is with the movement. They have big, athletic bodies that if they get on the edge can be hard to handle.
Bennie Logan, a rookie out of LSU, anchors the nose and can be a hard guy to move one-on-one. Where Logan can also cause problems is he is not one of those nose men that sit down and try to take up space.
You will see him work wide to the tackle box and get in on plays to the edge. He can get pressure in the middle through push and power. Their best defensive lineman in my opinion is Fletcher Cox, who lines up at end.
When Cox was drafted out of Mississippi State, I thought he would be outstanding as a 3-4 defensive end, but in his rookie season, they played him as a tackle. This is a much better fit for him and he is playing at a much higher level.
He is extremely long and powerful. When on the move, he can cause some issues. When he gets a step, he can push inside, get his arms up and affect the flight of the ball. He is solid in the running game as well. He is not one of those guys that just gets washed out of the play.
He has the anchor to hold things down and stack blockers. Like Logan, when on the move, he doesn’t stop his charge. You have to make sure that he is secure when you block him in the running game, because he will chase the ball.
The linebackers on this defense are very aggressive and active. Connor Barwin is their best rush man and when they get in the nickel, he is going to put his hand on the ground and get up the field. Davis likes to line him up in different spots to also take advantage of his ability to create problems.
Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans play on the inside and do a great job of rallying to the ball. Kendricks is interesting to me because I don’t think he has ideal height, but he is fearless in the way he attacks the offensive scheme.
He has a really nice feel where he fits and when the ball comes at him, he can make the wrap-up tackle. Where these Cowboys offensive linemen have to be careful is in the way they handle Kendricks because of the way he runs.
If you think he is going to be in a spot when the ball is snapped, you are wrong. He is not one of those defensive players that is killing grass just standing around. Kendricks is outstanding as well when it comes to blitzing. He has a real knack for knowing when he needs to rush and making the timing work.
DeMeco Ryans is a very similar player to Kendricks, but I always viewed him as a better player in a 4-3 scheme than 3-4 because there are times where he does get hooked up on blocks. He has nice awareness and lateral quickness but getting off blocks is not one of his best strengths.
Trent Cole is in a new position as an outside linebacker from years of playing with his hand on the ground. What is interesting about Cole is that despite standing him out, he has not lost that ability to rush the passer or play against the run. Usually scheme changes late in a career hurt a player, but not in this case at all.
When these two clubs met earlier in the season, I felt like the biggest issues for the Eagles was their secondary. Against the Vikings, I thought where they struggled the most was when they played zone coverage.
In facing the Bears last week, I thought they were much better in zone but where they were also good was when they played man on Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. The fact that they had a lead against the Bears really helped, but they were in much better position to defend the ball.
There were games earlier in the season, such as the Giants game where they were all very soft and played like they wanted nothing to do with the physical side of the game. The way they line up is with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher as the corners and Nate Allen and Patrick Chung as the safeties. When they go to their nickel package, Brandon Boykin comes into the game and plays the slot. Williams is the best of the corners and Chung can cover tight ends.
I have had my questions about Cary Williams and Nate Allen as tacklers in the open field because they tend to go low. There have been games where receivers were able to get inside on them and run routes without any problems.
I believe that these Cowboys receivers will need to still take the fight to them and make these corners have to play a physical game like the Vikings did. Billy Davis will use the safety blitz when lined up in the box.
This Cowboys offense will need to be ready for movement up front from the defensive line, along with the linebackers trying to be disruptive as well, with an occasional safety blitz to try and cause problems.
There will be opportunities to run the ball if you catch them moving the front, then securing the linebackers but when throwing the ball, if the protection is accounted for, there are some plays to be made on a secondary like the Vikings were able to make, but if they have a lead, then watch out, they are going to bring the pressure.