The Philadelphia Eagles defense won't remind anyone of the early to mid-2000s Jim Johnson-led crew that blitzed teams into submission. But, there's little debate that Bill Davis' defense will send heat at the Houston Texans, especially when the Texans align in an empty formation. And, why not? The Texans have struggled to pick up the blitz the past few weeks and allowed a number of sacks to the Titans and the Colts, in particular, against pressure.
So, can they beat the heat? Well, the Arizona Cardinals gave the Texans a fairly good clue as to how to turn the tables on the Eagles, even when the Eagles have seemingly outnumbered the five offensive linemen up front. Here are two examples from the Cardinals 24-20 win over the Eagles last week.
Just after halftime and trailing the Eagles, 10-7, the Cardinals faced the following situation.
The Cardinals came out in a four wide receiver set then motioned RB Andre Ellington to the left side of the formation to create a three man bunch set, with stacked twin receivers to the left. In the following picture you can see both QB Carson Palmer and Eagles ILB Demeco Ryans used hand signals to alert their respective teams to the play call.
The three Eagles defensive backs to the bunch side were in man coverage on the three WR to the left and the two defensive backs to the opposite side planned to 'banjo' the two receivers to the right - Larry Fitzgerald and Ted Ginn. Banjo coverage is like a matchup zone in basketball, to a certain extent. The DB won't lock onto a particular receiver but he'll match up with the receiver that enters his "zone". As such, the outside DB locks on the outside route runner and the inside DB locks on the inside route runner. As such, the two defensive backs would switch responsibilities if the receivers switched theirs by crossing each other during the route. And, there was precedent for that and we'll get to that in a bit.
However, the Cardinals don't switch routes, in fact, Ginn drove hard at the inside DB to block him and Fitzgerald stayed "on the rail" right behind him, which gave Palmer a clean window to throw him the rock.
Ginn got a great block on the Eagles safety which opened a lane for Fitzgerald to sprint to the end zone.
Speaking of end zone...let's take a look at the end zone view to see truly how this all came together.
In the above shot, it's clear Ryans wanted the Eagles in a particular defense as he signals to each side with a chopping motion.
The key to this play is two fold. One, the offensive line slid its protection to the offense's left to account for all the blitzers in the play, even if one dropped off as Ryans did on this blitz scheme. The slide protection gave Palmer the confidence that he'd have no leakage from his blind side.
The second key was that Palmer knew that one Eagle, Connor Barwin, was unaccounted for on the blitz and to have a successful play, he needed to beat him with his throw. But, because the Cardinals slid the protection, Palmer could see the one guy that was an issue.
On the above picture, it's clear Barwin had an open run to the QB, set up by design of the protection and the play design and Ryans dropped looking for a quick slant or shallow route from the three receiver bunch side.
Too late. Palmer flicked it to Fitzgerald before Barwin got in striking distance. Ginn threw a magnificent block. Fitzgerald made the outside DB miss. Result?
But, that play was set up, in some sense by a similar situation early in the first half.
Backed up near their own end zone, the Cardinals had a TE in the game, aligned to the offense's right side. Regardless, he eventually became part of a 3-WR bunch to that side.
On Fitzgerald's touchdown, the Eagles expected some sort of combination switch route (slant/wheel, Post/corner, shallow/fade) because the Cardinals used it on the two WR side on this play.
As you can see above, the Cardinals inside receiver John Brown ran the fade down the left sideline and RB Andre Ellington ran the underneath shallow route, drafting off of Brown to the inside. The Eagles blitz design was perfect to take away Ellington's shallow as Ryans, as he did on the TD throw to Fitzgerald, dropped right into the shallow route path, which you can see in the next picture.
The other thing you can see in the previous picture is that Eagles OLB Trent Cole was a free rusher, just as Barwin was on the later play. The Cardinals slid the protection to Palmer's right side this time and left Cole as a free blitzer. But, Palmer knew "his read" was Cole, he could see him clearly and he knew he needed to get rid of the ball with the Pro Bowl OLB drawing a bead on him. He did and he won.
It's a game of inches and that became crystal clear in the last picture. The ball had just left Palmer's hands before Cole planted his helmet in Palmer's chin (yes, Cole got a 15 yard penalty for helmet to helmet hit on a QB). Palmer dropped a beautiful dime on Brown 25 yards downfield. The speedy rookie made a tremendous catch for a first down to beat the Eagle DB.
In empty sets, the Cardinals knew that one Eagle would eventually come free when Philadelphia loaded up the LOS to bring pressure. But, if the interior took care of the rest by sliding protection, then Palmer's rapid decision making and quick release would finish the job on the one free rusher. He beat it. Twice.
The Eagles will show the Texans this blitz package; there's little doubt. That said, the Cardinals gave them not just one, but two ways to beat this seemingly complicated, pressure-packed blitz scheme out of the team's dime personnel. This will be one of the most important aspects to this game on Sunday and the Cardinals wrote the Cliff Notes version of this blitz novel last Sunday.