- The first in a four-part series of how the underdogs can prevail on Wild-Card weekend. A look at how the defending champs match up with the Bears in Philly’s first road playoff game since the Any Reid/Donovan McNabb era.
On Wild-Card weekend we’ll find out how magical Nick Foles really is as his Eagles face what is easily the best defense of 2018. The Eagles offense vs. the Bears defense is a fascinating battle of styles.
Chicago’s defense is great because they’re so nuanced and blurry in zone coverage. The Eagles’ offense is built around beating zone coverage. The Eagles will flood one side of a zone with three receivers, often with one deep, one intermediate and one underneath. On the other side, they high-low individual zone defenders, usually with either plus-sized wideout Alshon Jeffery or likely-to-be All-Pro tight end Zach Ertz executing the “high” route.
But these zone-beating route combinations only work if the quarterback knows what type of zone he’s seeing. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme makes that hard. Plus, the Bears have answers for many zone-beater designs because their back-level defenders are so well-schooled at converting zone coverage into man coverage. The tricky part is that not every Bears defender will do this on a given snap; some might convert to man while others remain in zone—you get a lot of hybrid coverages.
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But even well-played hybrid coverages with ball-hawking stars like safety Eddie Jackson and corner Kyle Fuller can break down late. Foles doesn’t have the mobility to extend plays outside the pocket, but during his magical run—both this year’s and last year’s—he had an uncanny knack for extending plays within the pocket.
The Bears traded for Khalil Mack to prevent QBs from extending plays, but the Eagles might be the only team whose right tackle, Lane Johnson, is equipped to spar with the superstar defensive end. When Johnson’s mechanics are in sync, he’s by far the game’s most athletic pass-blocking right tackle. In fact, two weeks ago, he won a four-quarters mano-a-mano battle against J.J. Watt. If Johnson can block Mack one-on-one, the Eagles can double-team Mack’s fellow superstar, Akiem Hicks, and still get all five eligible receivers out in routes.
Defensively, the Eagles, especially on first and second down, often have one safety deep and play straight zone coverage. That’s exactly what a misdirection offense like Chicago wants. Zone defenders easily eye the backfield and the ball, and so they see all the moving pieces of Matt Nagy’s scheme: pull-blockers, jet-sweepers, ghost reverse receivers, orbit-motion receivers, backside-blocking tight ends and, of course, the ball. The Bears employ many of these tactics simultaneously, and in all different directions. It’s imperative that Philly’s linebackers and defensive backs stay disciplined. They must zero in on tailback Tarik Cohen (the key to many of the misdirection tactics) while staying mindful of weapons like Trey Burton and (assuming he’s back in the lineup) Allen Robinson.
The Eagles play predictable zone coverage because they trust their defensive line to quickly wreck plays. That D-line, which headlined Philly’s 2017 Super Bowl run, is finally rolling after a lethargic September, October and November. Inside, Michael Bennett and especially Fletcher Cox threaten to penetrate with quickness and/or power. Bears right guard Kyle Long recently returned from an eight-week absence due to a foot injury; Bennett and Cox will try to find out just how healthy (and fit) Long really is.
Disrupting Chicago’s interior O-line accomplishes two things: 1) It breaks down the ground game’s foundational zone blocking, and 2) It gets quarterback Mitchell Trubisky playing fast.
Trubisky is a sharp timing and rhythm player when his pocket is clean and the first read is clear, but muddy those waters and he’s quick to rely on his legs. Yes, those legs make him dangerous (as both a runner and scrambling thrower), but only if they’re used later in the down, once the coverage has started to unravel. Get Trubisky moving off his spot early, when your defensive zones are still stable, and you get turnover opportunities.
Chance of an Upset: 45%. The Bears are the better team, but the Eagles’ experience counts for something.
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