The New York Jets shouldn’t be afraid of the Philadelphia Eagles’ pass defense
In 2022, the Philadelphia Eagles established themselves as arguably the best pass defense in the NFL. With a relentless pass rush and a ball-hawking secondary, Philly finished first in each of the following categories:
- Passing yards per game allowed (179.8)
- Net yards per pass attempt allowed (4.9)
- Sack rate (11.2%)
The Eagles were also second in EPA per dropback allowed (-0.13), fourth in interceptions per game (1.0), and fourth in passes defended per game (5.0).
So far in 2023, Philadelphia’s pass defense has not been nearly as dominant:
- 25th in passing yards per game allowed (247.6)
- 10th in net yards per pass attempt allowed (5.7)
- 19th in sack rate (6.9%)
- 17th in EPA per dropback allowed (-0.04)
- 23rd in interceptions per game (0.4)
- 17th in passes defended per game (4.2)
Ultimately, the Eagles have allowed an opposing passer rating of 98.2 this season, ranking 24th in the league. This is despite facing a fairly soft schedule of opposing quarterbacks that includes Mac Jones, Baker Mayfield, and Sam Howell.
Even with the league’s top-ranked run defense in terms of yards per game (61.2), the Eagles’ issues against the pass have caused them to become a mediocre defense overall. Philadelphia ranks 20th with 2.04 points allowed per drive.
This isn’t the Philadelphia Eagles pass defense of yesteryear. Zach Wilson and the New York Jets passing attack have a good opportunity to continue building on the momentum they’ve accumulated over the past two weeks.
Let’s identify some of the top reasons Philadelphia has declined against the pass and break down how the Jets can exploit those issues.
Darius Slay’s decline
Darius Slay was one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks last season, earning his fifth Pro Bowl appearance. Out of 82 qualified cornerbacks (min. 500 defensive snaps), Slay allowed the 13th-fewest yards per cover snap (0.78) and the 14th-lowest passer rating (82.4), per PFF.
Now 32 years old, it appears Slay may have hit a wall. Slay has been a liability in this coverage this season. Among 84 qualified cornerbacks (min. 150 defensive snaps), Slay is 64th in yards per cover snap allowed (1.34) and 49th in passer rating allowed (102.7).
Two weeks ago, Slay got cooked by a Sam Howell-led Commanders offense. Washington targeted Slay 11 times and completed 10 of those passes for 126 yards and six first downs. That was in Philly, too. If Howell and the Commanders can exploit Slay to that degree on the road, then Zach Wilson and the Jets can do it at home.
The Jets shouldn’t be afraid of Slay. In fact, they should go after him often. Whenever Zach sees Garrett Wilson in a one-on-one matchup with Slay, he should take a shot and trust Garrett to win the battle.
Sky-high efficiency allowed to opposing tight ends
Philly held opposing tight ends to inefficient receiving numbers in 2022. With 801 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 120 targets, the Eagles allowed the sixth-fewest TDs per target (0.025) and the 10th-fewest yards per target (6.7) to tight ends.
Largely because the Eagles also snagged four interceptions on passes intended for tight ends, they allowed the fifth-lowest passer rating (80.2) and the third-fewest EPA per target (-0.05) on passes to tight ends.
This year has been the polar opposite. Tight ends are scorching the Eagles. Seemingly every throw to a tight end results in a big play.
While the Eagles have only faced 29 targets to tight ends (tied for 10th-fewest), they are allowing absurdly high efficiency on a per-target basis. Those targets have been converted to 24 receptions for 254 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Philadelphia is fourth-worst in yards per target (8.8) and fourth-worst in TDs per target (0.103).
Altogether, the Eagles are allowing the highest passer rating (137.6) and the most EPA per target (0.76) on passes to tight ends.
This decline is no surprise. All of the Eagles’ top linebackers and safeties from the 2022 season found new homes in 2023.
In terms of total defensive snaps, the Eagles lost each of their top two linebackers (T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White) and each of their top two safeties (Marcus Epps and C.J. Gardner-Johnson). The replacements have not come close to replicating the production of their predecessors.
As the Jets seek to exploit this weakness, the primary player they should go after is linebacker Zach Cunningham.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cunningham has yielded a total of 8.3 EPA as the nearest defender in coverage on targets to tight ends. That is the worst total of any defensive player in the NFL (side note: the Jets’ Jordan Whitehead is one spot behind him at 7.2).
Free safety Reed Blankenship is another player to aim for. Blankenship has allowed the sixth-most total EPA as the nearest defender in coverage against tight ends (5.6). Not far behind Blankenship is fellow safety Justin Evans, who is ninth-worst at 5.1.
The Jets should heavily feature their tight ends in the passing game on Sunday. The more targets the Jets feed to their tight ends against the porous coverage of Philly’s linebackers and safeties, the better.
Last week in Denver, Tyler Conklin came through with some huge catches when the Jets gave him isolated route-running opportunities against linebackers. Conklin is an excellent route-runner and deserves more chances to flaunt that part of his game – the Broncos game provided glimpses of what Conklin can do with those types of opportunities.
Nasty route by Conklin (right side of screen) vs Singleton.
Gets vertical off of the snap, closes ground on the LB, uses a rocker step at the top of the route paired with a hard head fake outside getting the LB to bite outside.
Leaving Conklin wide open over the middle. pic.twitter.com/N97qSHTqN5
— Joe Blewett (@Joerb31) October 11, 2023
This is the perfect week for New York to unleash Conklin to a degree we haven’t seen yet during his Jets tenure. Featuring Conklin as the primary read against Cunningham is an extremely juicy matchup that Nathaniel Hackett cannot let go to waste.
First down passing has neutralized Philadelphia’s strengths
While the Eagles are struggling against the pass, they have been lights-out against the run. Philadelphia is allowing the fewest rushing yards per game (61.2) and the fourth-fewest yards per rush attempt (3.4).
Considering the Eagles’ woes against the pass and their dominance against the run, it’s clear: The Jets cannot use the same ground-and-pound approach they used against Denver.
New York has to rely on Zach Wilson to make plays against Philly’s secondary. Wilson’s arm must be the offense’s primary weapon. If the Jets try to go run-run-pass all day long like they did in Denver, they’re going to keep running into brick walls and asking Wilson to throw out of third-and-long. That’s a recipe for disaster against this defense.
Philly’s pass defense is performing below expectations, but that is mostly due to the coverage. The pass rush remains tremendous. The Eagles are fourth-best with 7.8 quarterback hits per game – they’re just having trouble converting hits into sacks because of the poor coverage. Philly’s defensive line still boasts a frightening lineup of Jalen Carter, Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Graham.
It’s on third-and-long where the Jets can still run into trouble against this Philly pass defense. Even if the coverage is subpar, the pass rush can make plays on third-and-long since the offense is going to hold the ball longer to let the routes develop beyond the sticks. The pass rush also doesn’t have to respect any possibility of a run, so they can just pin their ears back and go full-speed.
Especially now that Alijah Vera-Tucker is sidelined, the Jets are simply not constructed to beat the Eagles on third-and-long. But if they trust Zach Wilson to throw on first down, they can exploit the Eagles’ weaknesses in coverage and silence their electric pass rushers. Other teams have used this formula to succeed offensively against Philadelphia.
On first down, the Eagles rank 20th in EPA per dropback allowed (0.06) and 27th in passer rating allowed (103.8). Not only have opponents been efficient at throwing the ball on first down against Philly, but they have been aggressive: the Eagles have faced 79 first-down dropbacks, the fifth-most.
Passing on first down has been an ideal way to maximize both of the Eagles’ primary issues in coverage: their inability to stop tight ends and Darius Slay’s decline.
With the linebackers and safeties respecting the threat of the run on first down, teams have been able to throw the ball behind them to the tight ends. Of Philadelphia’s 24 total receptions allowed to tight ends, half of them came on first down. The Eagles have yielded 12 grabs on 16 targets for 117 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions (134.6 passer rating, second-worst).
First down has also been at the root of Darius Slay’s struggles. With Slay as the nearest defender in coverage on a first-down pass attempt, teams have completed 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions (136.6 passer rating, fourth-worst among CB with min. 10 first-down targets).
Meanwhile, on first-down rush attempts, the Eagles are allowing just 3.0 yards per carry (fourth-best) and -0.36 EPA per attempt (second-best). In turn, teams have tended to avoid running against the Eagles on first down. They have faced the fourth-fewest first-down rush attempts (54).
Running to set up the pass is a futile endeavor against Philadelphia. The Jets must let Zach Wilson air it out on first down early and often. That is the best way to exploit Philadelphia’s weaknesses in coverage while minimizing the impact of Philadelphia’s strong pass rush and run defense.
Then, as the game goes on, if Wilson is able to demand respect from the defense, the Jets can begin to rely more heavily on the run game as the Eagles begin to back off and play the pass.
This leads us to another trend that has shown up in Philadelphia’s games. In the second half, the Eagles are allowing 4.3 yards per rush attempt (25th) and 0.09 EPA per rush attempt (30th). It’s in the first half where they smother the run, ranking first in both yards per rush attempt (2.7) and EPA per rush attempt (-0.33).
You can run on the Eagles in the second half if you soften them up with efficient first-half passing. That’s what the Commanders did in Week 4 on their way to scoring 31 points.
In the first half, Washington ran for 44 yards on 15 carries (2.9 YPC). But Sam Howell threw the ball often in the first half and threw it well, completing 13 of 17 passes for 161 yards. With respect gained through the air, Washington proceeded to run for 63 yards on 12 carries in the second half (5.3 YPC).
Achieving offensive balance against Philadelphia can only begin with letting Wilson sling the rock on first down early in the game. In particular, Wilson should look for two favorable matchups: Tyler Conklin (or the other tight ends) against the Eagles’ linebackers and safeties or Garrett Wilson in one-on-one situations against Darius Slay.
The Eagles are the undefeated reigning NFC champions, but they’re not playing quite as well as that label would suggest. The Jets have a very realistic chance to beat this team – but only if they don’t play scared.
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