The Eagles had some of the worst Red Zone defenses in NFL history just a few years back. Now the team is 6th in the NFL in that category and is on a major hot streak. How can a unit that gives up yards left and right be so good in a critical area? What gives?
I think the biggest thing is that the Eagles lack speed on defense. That’s a major issue when covering the whole field. The Red Zone is a confined space. Size becomes more important. Quickness can be a big help, but flat out speed has its limitations. There just isn’t enough room to run by people.
You can use speed to move laterally, but the Eagles do a terrific job of playing the edges. Connor Barwin and Trent Cole are not dynamic pass rushers, but both guys are strong, tough, physical run defenders. They will set the edge on run plays and make it very difficult to run by them. The ball-carrier can go further behind the LOS to avoid them, but that allows pursuing players to run to the ball.
The Eagles also have big DBs. They are more effective in a confined space. They can be physical with receivers and not worry about getting beat deep. Some of the Eagles biggest RZ problems have come when they played off coverage and let receivers catch slants and other short, safe throws.
Bill Davis and the coaches have done a terrific job of teaching the players the scheme. You don’t see a ton of confusion or blown assignments. You will see the DBs pointing to players and talking about who has who. This isn’t a sign of confusion. This is the players making sure they are all on the same page. In order to avoid “I thought you had him” type of mistakes, you must talk before and sometimes during the play. The Eagles can’t blame problems on a lack of communication (any Ratt fans?).
Tackling is vastly improved. That simple fact means a lot in the Red Zone. You must get players down quickly. One broken tackle can mean the difference in a FG attempt and a TD.
Players are also making timely plays. There is no specific reason for this. Brandon Boykin has 2 INTs and a FF in the Red Zone. Connor Barwin had the strip sack on Sunday. Guys are just making plays. That didn’t happen in recent years.
This is a more physical, more aggressive unit than some recent Eagles defenses. All 4 of the top CBs will hit and tackle. Patrick Chung and Earl Wolff are good hitters and tacklers. Nate Allen is playing more physically than ever before. DeMeco Ryans is a tough guy in the middle. The D-linemen aren’t firing upfield to penetrate. They are firing off the ball and hitting blockers. That keeps blockers from getting free and it sets a tone that offenses aren’t going to have it easy. You have to physically control Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton on a given play in the Red Zone to score a TD. That’s not easy.
We also have to acknowledge that the Eagles haven’t faced a slew of deadly QBs. You might see young guys like RG3, Scott Tolzien, Terrelle Pryor or Mike Glennon make some good throws and big plays, but they are going to have issues in the Red Zone. Passing windows get tight in there. The Eagles have big DBs so it can look intimidating to a young passer that wants to find an open receiver.
Imagine how good this group can be when they add a CB and OLB with speed and playmaking skills.
It seems forever ago that Matt Ryan and the Falcons were 5 for 5 in the Red Zone on their way to winning 35-31. That was early in 2011. The Eagles have made a lot of changes since then and they are paying big dividends in the Red Zone.