I thought Denver had the NFL’s best defense. Then last night happened, a 23-10 home loss against the previously winless Giants.
To be fair, New York wasn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut on Sunday night. Eli Manning threw for only 128 yards and the Broncos turned it over three times in the defeat. Where the Giants excelled was with their 32nd ranked running game, adding 148 ground yards against the league’s best run defense.
For what it’s worth, the Broncos didn’t allow a rushing touchdown in the loss and still haven’t allowed one this season. The Giants scored on a touchdown pass, a bunch of field goals, and a 43-yard pick-six.
But the rushing yards did enough damage to knock Denver down to second place in yards-per-game allowed on the ground:
You see the Birds are now first in that YPG number and first in attempts per game, because they essentially shut down your running game and force you to throw the ball.
They lead the league in making opponents one-dimensional.
They’re only 9th in points allowed per game (20.3), 19th in total yards allowed per game (339.2), and 29th in pass yards allowed per game (273.5). That’s a natural tilt created by a dominant run defense that often plays with a lead. Cam Newton threw the ball a career-high 52 times on Thursday night. Carson Palmer threw it 44 times last week and Eli Manning threw it 47 times earlier this year.
That skews the statistics to get a pair of Eagles into a top-10 category. Jalen Mills is tied for second with nine passes defended and Patrick Robinson is tied for sixth (8 PD). The team is tied for 5th in that category obviously because they face more pass attempts from teams that can’t run the ball and are playing from behind.
That’s about it. The Birds don’t have a top-ten performer in tackles (solo or combined), sacks, sack loss yardage, forced fumbles, or basically anything else you can think of, because they play a team game that really does feature blanket contribution from 11+ guys. This team has dropped multiple interceptions and really should be doing better in that category, considering that opposing quarterbacks are usually heaving the ball under pressure in every game.
The Eagles are also number in time of possession, which means that the defense spends less time on the field than any other unit. Fletcher Cox and company are out there an average of 25:07 per game. Second in the NFL is Carolina at 27:02. Denver is fourth at 28:00.
It’s obviously a combination of a few things.
- Defensive stops put the offense on the field.
- The offense’s high third-down conversion rate keeps the offense on the field.
- The Eagles’ turnover margin is +4, with the defense contributing five fumble recoveries and six interceptions. The team is 6th in the league in giveaway/takeaway margin.
When you’re fresh, it’s easier to continually stuff the opponent’s running game and pressure the quarterback.
No shit, right? This isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. But go back to bullet point #2 and consider that the Eagles’ offense is #1 in the league with a 50.6 third-down conversion rate:
The Eagles are the only team in the NFL converting more than 50% of third down attempts. They’re also one of just three teams converting more than 80% of fourth down tries.
The only one they didn’t convert?
4th and 8!
Anyway, I wrote a bit last week about how the defensive line gets incredible push on opponent’s running efforts, oftentimes getting well beyond the line of scrimmage before the hand off.
Case in point, plays like this, where Brandon Graham sets the edge on a run-pass option, then slides inside to make a combo tackle:
By the time Newton has to make his decision here, there are already four defensive linemen above the line of scrimmage with all three linebackers waiting to collapse:
That run went for a one-yard gain.
The Eagles’ defense has also been elite in its ability to cover the width of the field with numbers.
On plays like this, they move side-to-side as a group, showing early recognition of where the ball is going, then swarming the carrier:
They held Christian McCaffrey to a season-low 5.6 yards per reception.
Check out the reaction to the play as the ball leaves Newton’s hand:
Same thing here on a designed quarterback run.
Watch Mychal Kendricks shed his block and make the tackle for loss:
Again, the Eagles penetrate so far up the field that Newton really only has one running lane. Even if Kendricks doesn’t shed the block and make the play, Newton is probably tackled by Nigel Bradham, who was all over the place on Thursday night:
Rasul Douglas also does a nice job of running right by Kelvin Benjamin, who didn’t even try to throw a block. The Panthers’ receivers were really poor in blocking on Thursday night.
One more clip, this one from what I think might have been the most underrated play of the game and an example of situational smarts and clock awareness.
It’s Bradham again, the play right before halftime where he tracked down Newton and didn’t allow him to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Carolina had zero timeouts remaining and this tackle kept the clock rolling:
That’s a huge stop.
Take a look at where Bradham is when Newton hits the line of scrimmage. He’s about 11 yards away but hits that angle so hard and so fast that he makes the tackle inbounds near the 40 yard line:
It was, by far, Bradham’s best performance in an Eagles jersey.
So that’s what the defense does; they sniff out plays, get penetration, and swarm the ball. The dominant run stuffing forces teams to pass, making them one-dimensional. With the Birds’ offense converting on third downs and controlling time of possession, it keeps Jim Schwartz’s unit off the field more than any other NFL defense, so they’re rested and ready to roll when called upon.
Keep in mind that they’re doing this with their best cornerback on the shelf and a less-than-perfect secondary, so this isn’t some comprehensive and lights-out defense. This group has some very specific strengths that make opponents unwillingly play a different ballgame.