Eagles

Eagles' defense on historic run of eliminating big plays

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Eagles' defense on historic run of eliminating big plays

Big plays killed the Eagles last year. They allowed the second-most 20-yard plays in the NFL, the third-most 30-yard plays and the third-most 40-yard plays.

Those plays have largely evaporated this year, and the Eagles' ability to reduce — and lately eliminate — big plays has contributed tremendously to their eight-game winning streak and NFL-best 9-1 record.

“We're just all doing our job, nothing more, nothing less," Patrick Robinson said. "When the plays are presenting itself, we make those plays. It’s been huge for us so far. Make them throw it down in front of us." 

After last year's barrage of long passes and big runs, the Eagles this year rank third in the NFL in 40-yard plays allowed, third in 30-yard plays and second in 20-yard plays.

The improvement is astonishing.

It's been a month and a half since an opposing offense last hit a play longer than 32 yards against the Eagles — the Chargers game, to be specific. 

That's six straight games without allowing a big play.

That's the Eagles' longest stretch without an opposing play longer than 32 yards in at least 25 years.

“Last year, it was something we wanted to correct going into this year," Malcolm Jenkins said. "Big plays, it’s a group effort. And that’s the D-line included in that, linebackers, DBs. 

"I think one of the factors when it comes to passes down the field, I think the corners and the guys on the outside are doing a good job challenging down the field and quarterbacks don’t have a lot of time to throw it down the field, so we get hit with a lot of quick plays, and we’re tackling well, so we don’t have those missed tackles and plays going for 20, 30 yards. 

"All those things are contributing to it. And we’re doing a great job on third down, so we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to get off the field, and we’re not allowing them to score quickly. They’ve got to dink and dunk it, and eventually, we win on third down."

Let's take a look at the longest plays the Eagles have allowed in each of their last six games:

Cardinals [34-7 win]: Passing - 28 yards, Rushing - 14 yards
Panthers [28-23 win]: Passing - 20, Rushing - 20
Redskins [34-24 win]: Passing - 32, Rushing - 15
49ers [33-10 win]: Passing - 24, Rushing - 12
Broncos [51-23 win]: Passing - 32, Rushing - 9
Cowboys [37-9 win]: Passing - 19, Rushing - 22

During that same span, there have been 233 offensive plays league-wide longer than any play the Eagles have given up.

Like Jenkins said, it's going to be difficult to drive 80 yards down the field against the Eagles without hitting any big plays. They're ranked second in the NFL on third down conversion rate at 29.1 percent, behind only the Vikings (28.5 percent).

And during these last six games, the Eagles have allowed only eight offensive touchdowns. Three of them came on short fields. So they've only given up five TD drives longer than 52 yards since Week 5. Just one in the last three games.

Limiting big plays means limiting touchdowns. And that wins games. It's a pretty simple formula.

"Defensively, there are a lot of different things you want to do, but the very first thing you want to do is stop a drive," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.

"The thing that correlates the highest to scoring plays, whether it's a field goal or ends up being a touchdown, are plus-20 [yard] plays. You don't want to play conservative. There's a fine line there, too. You [might] not give up [a 20-yard play] the whole time and just let somebody matriculate down the field. 

"I think we're a good tackling team. I think we're a good communicating team, and we've had a lot of different guys get experience. Our lineup was a little bit different just about every game early in the season. Some guys got hurt early in games, and they were filling roles. I think as the season has gone on we've settled down. I think that's probably the biggest part of that."

Of the eight plays of at least 35 yards the Eagles have allowed this year, three were Philip Rivers passes, two were Alex Smith passes, one was an Eli Manning pass and the other was a 35-yard run by Austin Ekeler of the Chargers on his first carry of the year.

When you tackle well and communicate well, those big plays just aren't going to happen. 

For the sake of comparison, since the Eagles last allowed an offensive play longer than 35 yards, the rest of the NFC East has allowed 27 of them.

“I’d say communication (is) definitely a big factor," Nigel Bradham said. "And also chemistry. Guys understand the scheme and how to play together with one another and have a good understanding of the scheme. It’s our second year in the scheme, most of us, some guys in their first year contributing, but we’re learning and everybody’s just feeding off each other.

"We just motivate ourselves. We trying to get off the field and get our offense on the field. We know what we have on the offensive side of the ball. Their ability to put up points is unbelievable. So we’re just trying to get them on the field as much as we can."

Eagles hoping no-risk, high-reward veteran signings can rekindle past success

Eagles hoping no-risk, high-reward veteran signings can rekindle past success

When you’re in salary cap hell, you have to be creative when building a roster.

And one tactic Howie Roseman used when putting together the Eagles team that begins training camp Thursday is signing a handful of no-risk, high-reward guys.

Players trying to revive their careers. Players trying to reclaim past glory. Players running out of chances.

These are no-risk, high-reward guys. They could become contributors, but if it doesn’t work out? The Eagles can release them before the season with modest or no cap ramifications.

When you’re in salary cap hell, you can’t sign all the free agents you want. So you sign the free agents that you can. And you do that by signing players nobody else wants. Guys with no leverage.

One tool Roseman likes to use is the NFL’s minimum-salary benefit, which gives teams some salary cap relief when they sign veteran players to certain deals.

The minimum-salary benefit can be used only for veterans with at least four years of experience who sign one-year minimum-wage deals with combined bonuses equalling $90,000 or less. 

Here’s a look at four of these no-risk, high-reward players the Eagles added this offseason.

Markus Wheaton

The Eagles signed Wheaton to a one-year deal with a $790,000 base salary (sixth-year minimum) with a $45,000 signing bonus, a $45,000 workout bonus but a cap number of $720,000, thanks to the minimum-salary benefit.

If the Eagles release Wheaton before the season, he would count just $90,000 against the cap, the value of his two bonuses.

Wheaton is only 27 and should be in his prime but has done nearly nothing the last two seasons after two very good years.

In 2014 and 2015, he combined for 97 catches for 1,393 yards, seven touchdowns and a 14.4 average. He had seven catches of 40 yards or more during those two years. Pretty good production.

But the last two years, Wheaton had just seven catches for 102 yards and one TD for the Steelers and Bears.

If he’s healthy and can be even half the player he was in 2014 and 2015, he could really help as a fourth receiver.

Matt Jones

The Eagles signed Jones to a two-year, $1.51 million deal that includes base salaries of $705,000 this year and $805,000 next year with no bonus money, which means no dead cap money if he’s released.

Even though Jones’ deal is not subject to the minimum-salary benefit, his base salaries of $705,000 and $805,000 are minimum wage for a third-year veteran in 2018 and a fourth-year vet in 2019.

Jones was one of the NFL’s best running backs the first half of 2016. Through seven games, he had 460 yards and a 4.6 average with three TDs. In a mid-October win over the Eagles at FedEx Field, he ran for 135 yards, the most rushing yards against the Eagles the last two years.

But he hurt his knee and never got his job back, then was released before last season. He resurfaced with the Colts but had only five carries all year.

Jones is only 25 and is a good enough receiver that he caught 19 passes for 304 yards and a TD as a rookie reserve.

With LeGarrette Blount gone, Jay Ajayi on a pitch count because of chronic knee soreness, Corey Clement’s role still undefined and Darren Sproles likely to be limited on offense at 35 years old, Jones will have a chance to work his way into the mix.

And if it doesn’t work out? No cap hit.

Richard Rodgers

The Eagles signed Rodgers to a one-year, $880,000 contract that includes a $790,000 base salary, a $45,000 signing bonus, a $45,000 workout bonus and a $720,000 cap figure, courtesy of the minimum-salary benefit rule.

If the Eagles release him, he’ll count $245,000 in dead money, the amount of guaranteed money in his one-year deal.

As recently as 2015, Rodgers caught 58 passes for 510 yards and eight touchdowns, which ranked him 12th among all NFL tight ends in catches and fifth in TDs. But he dropped to 30 catches in 2016 and just 12 last year.

Rodgers is only 26 and should be in his prime, but he’s reached only 30 yards twice in his last 31 games.

With Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, the Eagles have a potent 1-2 punch, but if Rodgers can regain his form of 2015, it would give Doug Pederson even more options in a ridiculously talented array of skill players.

LaRoy Reynolds

The Eagles signed Reynolds to a one-year, $880,000 contract that includes a $790,000 base salary, a $90,000 roster bonus and a reduced $720,000 cap figure.

Because there’s nothing guaranteed in his contract, the Eagles would not absorb any dead money under the cap if they release him before the season.

Reynolds, now with his fourth team in four years, has played in 68 games with seven starts. He’s only 27 and is considered an above-average special teamer and adequate depth linebacker.

The Eagles have some big question marks at linebacker, with Paul Worrilow (Reynolds’ former teammate) out for the year, Mychal Kendricks now with the Browns, Nigel Bradham suspended for the opener and Jordan Hicks able to finish one of his first three seasons.

Reynolds will have a chance to work into that mix. If not? No harm done.

More on the Eagles

Eagle Eye: When does a contract negotiation become a problem?

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USA Today Images

Eagle Eye: When does a contract negotiation become a problem?

In the latest edition of Eagle Eye, John Clark and Barrett Brooks are pumped for the start of training camp. Following MLB Commissioner's comments on Mike Trout's marketability, the guys discuss if it's on the player or the league to market an athlete? The Falcons said they will not give Julio Jones a new contract. At what point does a public contract negotiation become a distraction in the locker room?

1:00 - Guys are excited for the start of training camp.
4:45 - Is it on a player or a league to market an athlete?
11:00 - When does a Julio Jones contract situation become a locker room distraction?
18:00 - When money starts dividing a locker room.

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