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NFL Rewind: How the Eagles got here up ’empty’ against Dak Prescott and the Cowboys

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The Philadelphia Eagles have shredded the NFL this season, on either side of the ball.

Their offense is certainly one of the league’s best with a balanced attack featuring an S-tier offensive line, a dynamic quarterback in Jalen Hurts and a showstopping trio of weapons in A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and a now healthy again Dallas Goedert. The Eagles’ defense has been no slouch either, especially against the pass. Through the season’s first 15 weeks, the Eagles graded because the NFL’s top pass defense and its fifth-ranked D overall by Football Outsiders DVOA metric. It also ranked top seven in defensive EPA per play, defensive success rate and defensive pass success rate.

If there was a downside, nevertheless, is that the Eagles’ run defense sits within the league’s bottom half, using those the identical metrics. It’s a reality that may be chalked as much as injuries, just like the one which sidelined first-round selection Jordan Davis for a month, or blamed on a scheme that may be too static in its ways (more in that in a moment). It’s also something the Eagles have attempted to deal with with mercenary free-agent signings like Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh.

Despite that (and a recent shoulder injury to Hurts, which hopefully won’t sideline him for much longer), the Eagles flew right into a Week 16 road game against divisional rival Dallas with just one demerit on their record. The Cowboys tacked on a second blemish, 40-34.

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But this isn’t about how the Cowboys’ strong run game marched on the Eagles’ Swiss cheese(steak) run defense. The truth is, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard rushed for just 74 yards on 25 combined carries Saturday — it’s never a superb day on the bottom when an offense averages under 10 feet per rush. As an alternative, let’s have a look at how the Cowboys took the Eagles’ preferred defensive type of play and used it against them like a Judo throw to crank out some easy gains through the air.

The Cowboys emptied (pun intended) the chamber of their six-shooter in a way that’s seldom been seen from their offense in 2022 and, satirically, features the least threat of a run: the empty formation.

(All data via TruMedia unless otherwise noted.)

An empty formation puts the quarterback alone within the backfield with the opposite five skill position players all split out in a roundabout way, shape or form. Of the 33 NFL quarterbacks to register 200 or more pass attempts through Week 15, Dak Prescott ranked thirty second in percentage of dropbacks that utilized an empty formation. Stretched over the complete season, his 5.6-percent rate would have been the second lowest of his profession, well below his 2021 mark (16.9 percent) and a decent-sized dip from his typical average (between 8 and 10 percent).

It makes some sense why the Cowboys haven’t pulled this particular tool from the toolbox much this season. Empty formations don’t give the specter of running the football, outside of motion or using the quarterback (which has change into more popular because the QB position has grown more athletic). And Dallas’ running attack is a strength. It ranked tenth in rushing success rate and fourth in rushing DVOA entering Week 16.

However the Eagles loaded up fronts with Joseph, Suh and Davis aligned across the inside, to dissuade the Cowboys from leaning on their diverse run game:

The Cowboys stared on the wall of mass and knew it could be a troublesome day to tear off efficient chunks on the bottom. Spoilers: It was! The Cowboys’ rushing success rate of 34.6 percent on Saturday was the bottom it’s been since Prescott returned from injury in Week 7.

So, the Cowboys as a substitute knew that they had to create width of their offense and spread things. A approach to do that was to benefit from the Eagles’ standard coverage usage.

The Eagles are certainly one of 4 NFL defenses that plays either Cover 4 or Cover 6 on 30-plus percent of total snaps — their 30.1-percent rate ranks below only the Vikings, Jets and Seahawks. The philosophy of those quarters-based defenses is to squeeze space for passing games by getting bodies into throwing lanes or, on the very least, causing some hesitancy from quarterbacks attempting to slot in throws. Additionally they hope to force quarterbacks to be patient and progress through their options to search out their second or third receiver (or check the ball down).

A approach to manipulate defenses steadfast of their coverage ways is to create space for route concepts and cleaner reads for quarterbacks, with an emphasis on attacking the center of the sphere, where potential mismatches against linebackers in space may be found. Consider quarters defenses against empty formations like putty that’s been stretched until it starts to thin in the center.

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It’s not pure coincidence that the Vikings, Eagles and Jets — three of those 4 teams that rely most on Cover 4 and Cover 6 — even have faced the best percentages of dropbacks out of empty formations this season. They’re the one three defenses that land above a 20-percent rate:

  1. Vikings: 21.8 percent
  2. Eagles: 20.3 percent
  3. Jets: 20 percent

While the Eagles’ defense has been among the many league’s best against the pass, its numbers begin to take a success as offenses spread things out. Here’s a comparison of the Eagles’ statistical ranks when facing non-empty formations and empty formations, through the season’s first 15 weeks:

Non-Empty (Rank)Empty (Rank)

Def. Pass Success Rate

59.4% (4th)

57.1% (nineteenth)

Opp. Explosive Play Rate

8.6% (1st)

12.5% (twentieth)

Def. EPA/Dropback

.12 (2nd)

.04 (twelfth)

There’s a reason that the Eagles have seen the second-most snaps against empty formations this season (125, trailing only the Vikings’ 145). Opposing teams have noticed those discrepancies. The Cowboys and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore definitely did.

Prescott had only registered 18 dropbacks out of empty before Saturday’s matchup with the Eagles, but he had 13 dropbacks from that formation in Week 16 alone. He continued his brutally efficient play in those spots, too. His line on those 13 plays: 9-for-11 passing for 81 yards, 1 TD, 4 first downs and a scramble for 13 yards (and a primary down). The Eagles got him for one sack.

Initially, those numbers aren’t overwhelming, but bear in mind that they got here against certainly one of the NFL’s top pass defenses. A key a part of the offensive formula for winning football is being efficient and churning out positive plays when your run game is mediocre at best. On those 13 plays, Prescott posted an EPA per dropback of .28. For reference: Patrick Mahomes leads all QBs this season with an EPA per dropback of .30.

Moore and the Cowboys’ coaches used those plays — and the entire day, really — to spotlight wide receiver CeeDee Lamb in favorable matchups and to create benefits for other players, like tight end Dalton Schultz.

Here’s an idea with Lamb within the No. 3 spot (consider where a good end often aligns) and the Cowboys clearing out, essentially for Lamb to search out space together with his route over the center. (This known as a “balloon” route in certain offenses because … a balloon can go anywhere. Football coaches, everybody!)

Lamb does that and settles between two Eagles linebackers in a Cover 3 look:

Moore adds a pleasant amount of window dressing to tuck Lamb into that spot. The Cowboys are in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) and shift from a “hip” formation into empty. Notice how the tight ends stay on the identical side of the formation and running back Tony Pollard (No. 20) moves to an out of doors alignment at the highest of the screen, thus “hiding” Lamb.

Schultz also benefitted from that package of plays. Here’s an earlier snap with the Cowboys running a stick concept to the three-receiver side (bottom of the frame) and a “smash” high-low concept at the highest.

Most empty passing concepts feature each a three-man concept and two-man concept for the quarterback to progress through. On this instance, Pollard again splits out to get Prescott a man- or zone-coverage indicator:

Later, Schultz records a 21-yard reception to place the Cowboys firmly within the red zone. Pollard is back in an out of doors position — he was on the sphere for eight of the 13 empty-set snaps.

This time, you possibly can see the good thing about Prescott having that man- or zone-coverage tell.  Watch Eagles safety Marcus Epps (No. 22, at the underside of the screen) run out to cover Pollard just before the snap of the ball, which indicates to Prescott that Philadelphia is in man (or pressure) coverage. It’s an ordinary Cover-1 coverage, with a hole player as a substitute of a blitzer.

Coverage defenders will play with outside leverage since their assistance is coming from the center of the sphere. So, with Schultz running an over route within the Cowboys’ number of a four-vertical concept and Pollard’s alignment providing the man-coverage indicator, Prescott has the reply key:

Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards (No. 57) has outside leverage on Schultz, which leaves him playing catch-up the entire time. It results in a clean, explosive play for the Cowboys. (Side note: Typically in Cover 1, inside linebackers are the person defenders on running backs and safeties on tight ends. However the Eagles probably didn’t just like the Pollard-on-Edwards matchup, which is why you see Epps covering Pollard and Edwards on Schultz).

The Cowboys follow up with one other snap of empty three plays later, on third-and-goal from the Philadelphia 12. It ends in a touchdown, as Prescott extends the play out of the pocket.

Clutch TD Michael Gallup!

📺: #PHIvsDAL on FOX
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/Gd75wOq015 pic.twitter.com/Q9f4unMHuv

— NFL (@NFL) December 24, 2022

That rating tied the sport up at 27 late within the third quarter:

It also was certainly one of several empty snaps on which Prescott prolonged the play, which may be essential out of that alignment since most quarterbacks are unable (or assume they’ll be unable) to progress from the pocket with only five offensive linemen protecting. They’re not at all times “hot” on those plays, but they’re definitely warm and keeping track of the period of time (or lack thereof) they’ve. Amongst Prescott’s other prolonged plays Saturday was a 13-yard scramble that picked up a primary down.

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Those 13 dropbacks out of empty were essentially the most in a single game of Prescott’s profession, in accordance with Next Gen Stats. The sport now tied for second? The Cowboys Week 3 matchup against the Eagles throughout the 2021 season. That game featured 12 Prescott dropbacks from empty; he’s only hit double digits 11 times in his profession. With the identical Cowboys offensive coordinator (Moore) and Eagles defensive coordinator (Jonathan Gannon) in place as this season, the Cowboys scored 41 points and Prescott recorded a hit rate of fifty percent on his empty passes.

Moore and the Cowboys’ offensive coaches could be on to something here. They could even turn the knob higher if there may be a playoff rubber match between these two team.

So, what’s a way for the Eagles to bolster this a part of their game as they storm toward the playoffs? You might have noticed the coverages the Eagles showed within the clips above weren’t the aforementioned Cover 4 or Cover 6. Unlike other teams that lean into those coverages more against empty formations — likely since it is an ordinary check that defenses have in certain situations or personnel groupings — the Eagles stay at in regards to the same rate against empty and non-empty looks alike:

Non-EmptyEmpty

Cover 1

19.8%

16.8%

Cover 2

6.0%

4.0%

Cover 3

36.3%

36.8%

Cover 4

21.3%

22.4%

Cover 6

8.4%

9.6%

Blitz

24.0%

26.3%

There’s one particular line in those numbers that might provide a possible answer for Gannon and the Eagles, though: blitz rate. It stays nearly the identical against empty and non-empty formations, however the Eagles’ overall defensive effectiveness is drastically higher after they heat up the opposing quarterback and offensive line. The Eagles’ blitz rate against non-empty formations (24 percent) ranks twentieth within the NFL, but that 26.3-percent clip against empty formations sits third and the Philadelphia defense is several tiers higher when it decides to get frisky.

(Numbers through Week 16.)

Non-Blitz (rank)Blitz (rank)

Dropbacks

87

31

Def. Pass Success Rate

54% (twenty seventh)

64.5% (4th)

Opp. Explosive Play Rate

13.8% (twenty fifth)

9.7% (eleventh)

Def. EPA/Play

-.12 (twenty sixth)

.46 (4th)

The Eagles brought only one blitz against the Cowboys on Saturday, and it actually got here on Dallas’ first snap of empty. They managed to get pressure with it, but Prescott — on one other of those prolonged plays — calmly escaped the pocket and located Pollard for an 11-yard gain.

These empty looks accounted for a little bit over 1 / 4 of the full plays between these two units on Saturday, but NFL matchups are built off these mini-battles like this.

The Eagles and Cowboys are each superb teams that, despite some injuries, have established themselves at the highest of the NFC. With each teams headed to the playoffs (and Hurts attempting to come back back soon), I’m excited not only to see how each teams adjust and refine at the top of the regular season but in addition whether this game throughout the game grows into something larger come January.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic;
Photo of Dak Prescott: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)

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