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Game Planning Against the Broncos Defense

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Offensively, the Philadelphia Eagles face two major challenges from the Denver Broncos Defense.

  1. Who is getting open?
  2. How do you slow down the Broncos wood chipper pass rush?

First, the good news. TE Zach Ertz, who was a surprise addition to the Injury Report with a hamstring, is playing. Head Coach Doug Pederson said there was only tightness in the hamstring, so they were precautionary in their actions. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 2nd most advantageous TE match-up this week against SAF Will Parks, who is surrendering 1.81 yards per coverage route.

(*UPDATE* Now the terrible news, at 11:30am, Ertz was ruled out. Struggled in warm ups and they yanked him *UPDATE*)

That’s crucial, as Pro Football Focus doesn’t have us in a plus match-up for any of our wide receivers. Let’s examine that…

WR Alshon Jeffery is unlikely to draw shadow coverage and by historical alignment will see a good deal of CB Bradley Roby. PFF has this -27% for Jeffery, and with good reason, Roby has been solid on the outside where he only surrenders 1.09 yards per coverage snap. Targeted 32 times, Roby has allowed 19 catches, 202 yards, 2 touchdowns and has snatched 1 interception.

Jeffery’s catch rate of 45.2% points to chemistry issues with QB Carson Wentz, but isn’t too far off his 56.2% career average. Jeffery hasn’t had a double-digit catch game since 11/09/15 or a 100-yard outing since 9/11/16 and I would expect that holds against the pesky Roby.

Slot man WR Nelson Agholor will see a ton of CB Chris Harris Jr., a top 5 nickel corner practically every year. PFF has this -3% for Agholor and you could argue that they’re being generous. Agholor has been dependent on the big play this year, averaging 14.5 yards per catch. Harris is only allowing .78 yards per coverage snap from the slot and surrendering a catch 1 in 17.5 snaps, 2nd best in the league.

The worst match-up of the week, in any game, is WR Torrey Smith against the chain snatching CB Aqib Talib at -66%. Teams generally shy away from targeting Talib, who’s 25 targets is only 3 more than Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson has seen. Smith has hit 5 catches only 2 times since the start of the 2015 season.

If the Broncos decide to follow Alshon, it will be with Talib. Jeffery has only been shadowed twice this year. Against the Cardinals, Peterson lined up across from Jeffery on 77% of the coverage snaps, only allowing 2 receptions for 26 yards on 2 targets. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, CB Casey Hayward covered Jeffery on 74% of his routes, with Jeffery being targeted 4 times for 1 catch and 13 yards.

With Ertz as the only plus match-up in the receiving game for the Eagles, the Broncos will likely throw extra attention his way. How do we combat this? First, getting the run game going will be a must, and we hold a +3% run blocking advantage per PFF. Second, utilizing alignments and motion to create mismatches will be key.

Watch how the Chargers did that with TE Hunter Henry against the Broncos. Henry is initially going to be covered by SAF Darian Stewart, but motion causes those duties to switch to LB Todd Davis, who summarily blows his coverage biting on play-action:

The Eagles have done well to get Ertz into space and in favorable situations, especially in the red zone, which I wrote about here. This week they must pull out all the stops.

The second question posed, “How do you slow down the Broncos wood chipper pass rush?” is a tricky one. The good news is PFF has us at a +20% pass blocking advantage, but that’s debatable given the struggles the offensive line showed in the first half against the San Francisco 49ers.

The main concern is limiting OLB Von Miller, who has over 500 career pressures and 7 sacks on the season. Miller takes 79% of his snaps on the left side of the defense, where he will see Johnson. However, they will move him around occasionally and use him on E/T stunts from the inside. Regardless of where they line him up, Miller is producing a pressure on 1 in every 5 snaps and he must be the central focus of the pass blocking game-plan.

Their other pass rushers, the returning Shane Ray and the rotational Shaquil Barrett, are disruptive as well, combining for a pressure on 12.8% of their snaps.

Two things will help offensive tackles Lane Johnson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The first is tempo. We all saw the offense sputter against the Washington Redskins two weeks ago, only kicking into gear when the Eagles went with the no-huddle. Tempo will force the Broncos to give vanilla looks, limiting their ability to mix it up with stunts, which the Eagles struggle to pick up last week. It will also slow down the pass rush from an energy standpoint and give more basic coverage looks for Wentz to dissect.

The second is presenting their pass rushers with trash. I expect to see more 12 and 13 personnel sets this week that will essentially lengthen the offensive line.

The Chargers did this against the Broncos and not only had success in slowing down Miller on this particular play, but also got TE Hunter Henry isolated with SAF Darian Stewart on a route I believe Ertz wins 9 out of 10 times:

Not only did Miller have to wait for a TE to clear on his inside, limiting his options, but when he kicked it up the arc, there was a RB releasing to the flats, further limiting his options. Stripping Miller of the two-way go helps the offensive tackle out immensely in this situation.

The problem happens when nobody gets open, as seen below. Miller has a full 4 seconds to bull-rush the RT and ends up taking QB Philip Rivers down for the sack.

These types of coverage sacks will happen when you have a secondary like the Broncos, but if you are able to effectively scheme against their coverage and pass rush via alignment and motion, you can limit the impact in which they have.

Michael is an NFL Draft enthusiast, aspiring scout, and grandson of longtime East Stroudsburg (Pa.) HS football coach John P. Kist. He hosts Locked On Eagles and writes for Inside the Pylon & Breaking Football.

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