The game-winning touchdown from last year's Eagles-Cardinals game came on the big screen in a production room at NFL Films' Mount Laurel campus Friday morning, and Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge both saw exactly what happened in the Birds' loss. They had studied the film throughout the week. Jaworski, the former Eagles quarterback, and fellow ESPN analyst Hoge identified the play as a key discussion point for Sunday's rematch.
After seeing how the 75-yard touchdown catch exposed a major threat to the Eagles defense, they turned their attention to a blitz in a Cardinals-49ers game on Nov. 29. It was a "triple-A gap blitz" - the type of jargon former players use when they speak freely about football.
Jaworski and Hoge were minutes away from discussing the plays on ESPN NFL Matchup, a weekly program that previews NFL games by dissecting game film. The show is first telecast on ESPN2 at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
One segment focused on the Eagles-Cardinals game. The Inquirer attended the taping and reviewed film with Jaworski and Hoge to see why these plays are important. There are enough story lines for this mid-December game with postseason implications to fill newspapers and radio airwaves for a week, but Jaworski and his colleagues at the program operate with a simple premise.
"The film doesn't lie," Jaworski said. "If you use the film as the guide and keep your comments and conversations to the tape, it keeps you out of trouble."
Stopping the X-plays
In Week 8 last season, the 5-1 Eagles had a 20-17 lead over Arizona with 93 seconds to go. On a third-and-5 play at the Cardinals' 25, wide receiver John Brown faked a route inside and ran deep past Cary Williams and Nate Allen.
To the naked eye, the explanation was simple - the Eagles, prone to allowing big plays, were beaten over the top. But the analysts understood all that had gone into the game-winning touchdown - including patterns run earlier in the game that had set up the play.
The Cardinals lined up with two wide receivers to the left and two to the right, and Hoge pointed out the two receivers on the right ran route combinations to simply get first downs. But on the left side, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians devised a route for Brown based on the defensive look.
"If they get quarters [four-deep] coverage, which they do and they'd been working on this throughout the course of the game, you have an opportunity for a touchdown," Hoge said on the program. ". . . When they had a shot, they took it."
The Eagles are aware of this. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he expects the Cardinals to try six to eight deep passes. The Cardinals have a league-high 59 passes of more than 20 yards this season.
Coach Chip Kelly said the area that was the Eagles' Achilles' heel last season is better this year. The Eagles have allowed 44 20-plus-yard passes, which is tied for 13th most in the NFL. They allowed a league-high 72 last season.
"We've got to stay disciplined," Davis said. "On that one [last season], we just didn't have good eye discipline; we were in quarters coverage and really should have had two guys deep on it. They have got great speed and ran behind us, and then it was a great vertical throw on us to really put them ahead to win the game."
The Eagles have changed almost their entire secondary since last season. Even the newcomers are well-versed on what happened with Brown's touchdown.
Both Jaworski and Hoge said the Eagles cannot afford to blitz. One of the reasons the Eagles defense played better the last two weeks was its ability to get pressure with three- and four-man pass rushes, which Jaworski identified as a key. The Eagles blitzed heavily against Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, and the result was 45 points.
"They're too good at wide receiver," Jaworski said of the Cardinals. "The Eagles on defense, if they blitz, they'll be in trouble."
He called the Brown touchdown a "great play call" because the Cardinals revealed one pattern throughout the day, and then sent Brown deep at the right time. There's a lesson for the Eagles defensive backs.
"Keep your depth," Jaworski said. "Deeper than the deepest. Do not let a ball go over your head. Keep everything in front of you."
Beating the blitz
The Eagles defense must avoid blitzing, but the key for the offense is stopping Arizona's blitz. The reason Jaworski showed the Cardinals' "triple-A gap blitz" is not just because it was used in the 49ers game.
"They ran that same blitz four times against the Eagles last year - and [Nick] Foles was 0 for 4," Jaworski said of the play, in which the Cardinals send four defenders up the middle of the line, with the safety coming unblocked.
The Eagles have seen blitzes on about 18 percent of their snaps, which is the lowest in the league. But the Cardinals blitz as much as any team, so the Eagles can expect it Sunday.
Quarterback Sam Bradford completes only 48 percent of his passes when blitzed. Jaworski saw times when Buffalo threatened to blitz last week against the Eagles and the middle of the field was open, but Bradford could not audible out of the play.
"I had hoped by now that this offense would have evolved more to where they can check the plays, check protection, get opportunities to have big plays," Jaworski said in his office. "The concepts in this offense are just not there. It's more about tempo. . . . I think there are a lot of opportunities."
(Kelly said last week that the Eagles "do that now, so that's a big misconception," and that Bradford "does a lot of things for us at the line.")
Jaworski said that when he played quarterback, he loved getting blitzed because it meant there were more opportunities downfield. But that also puts the onus on the Eagles' wide receivers, who have a "huge" responsibility.
The Eagles average only 6.7 yards per pass attempt, fourth worst in the league. Their 42 passing plays of 20-plus yards ranks 18th in the NFL - a drop from No. 3 last year and No. 1 in 2013. One of the reasons was apparent to Jaworski when he watched film of last year's Eagles-Cardinals game: The Eagles don't have as much speed.
"That's the part that bothers me against a blitz team, because you want it to [develop] quickly," Jaworski said. "I've been seeing more of the blitz adjustments have been hitch routes out here, 5-yard stops."
He broke down some of the Eagles' deep pass attempts last week. On Nelson Agholor's 53-yard touchdown catch, Jaworski raved about Bradford's pocket presence and Agholor's catch. But there was another opportunity when Bradford didn't make the right throw, and another time when Agholor didn't run a good enough route. Jaworski counted 21 dropbacks on which the Bills did not have a deep safety.
"In this league, quarterbacks salivate for this type of look," Jaworski said. "What troubles me a little bit is the Eagles don't have an audible system. . . . You can't allow teams to play you this way."
Jaworski was optimistic about the way Bradford has played recently, pointing out how calm his feet have been because "if their feet are calm, their mind is calm." Bradford's performance against the blitz could determine whether the Eagles keep pace with the Cardinals.
The staffers and analysts combined for hundreds of hours of film study last week, and they picked out those two plays - the touchdown pass and the blitz - because, in their eyes, the film doesn't lie.
"When you look at this, you see every play, every guy, what his responsibility is, and you make a value judgment," Jaworski said. "I'm not saying I'm always right, but you base it on what you see on the tape."