The Philadelphia Eagles run a unique system on offense. It is both incredibly simple from a scheme perspective and perfectly designed to enhance the strengths of quarterback Jalen Hurts, his decision-making, and his athleticism. Philly believes that they have better personnel than their opponents and can out-execute any defense. Nine times out of ten this season, they have been right about that.
In football, teams win with scheme or coaching or both, but they also win with better players and execution. Right up until the injury of top-five tight end Dallas Goedert, the Eagles won games because A.J. Brown was just better than whatever corner was covering him.
In Week 11, it was harder for the offense to execute. Goedert’s injury was part of the reason for that being the case. So was all of the man coverage the Philadelphia Eagles have faced during their most recent game in Indianapolis.
While Hurts can have a more active role as a runner and excel in that role against man coverage, Shane Steichen can schematically Joe Barry’s defense. He’s the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator, and much of what he likes to do mirrors Vic Fangio’s approach, someone whose name has grown more and more popular among Birds fans.
Coach Fangio’s Cover 6 Defense
As quarterbacks Josh Allen and Pat Mahomes have shredded the single-gap and single-high defenses from a decade ago with the ability to make any throw, defenses have adapted. That has led to quarterbacks having to pick their shots and be more methodical in terms of matriculating the ball down the field.
Coach Vic Fangio was the head coach of the Denver Broncos and was a defensive coordinator in the league for years. Recently, he was hired to be a consultant for the Philadelphia Eagles. What sets Fangio apart is how he views defense and roster priorities. His focus has often been on limiting cheap or free yards over the top.
Fangio has more of a philosophy than a ‘system’. Still, we’ll try and explain said system to help fans better enjoy Eagles games.
The Cover 6 defense, also called Quarter-Quarter-Half (QQH) is a split safety defense (two high safeties) where half of the defense runs Cover 2 zones and half the defense runs Cover 4 zones (hence the name Cover 6). The Quarters side or Cover 4 side is the side with more eligible receivers. The Half side or Cover 2 side has fewer eligible receivers.
How the Philadelphia Eagles should align versus the Cover 6 defense
Teams, especially the Philadelphia Eagles, align in Doubles – a 2×2 Alignment – where two receivers are on one side of the formation and a tight end and receiver are on the other. 11 Personnel – one running back and one tight end – is the new base offense and the Eagles ran nothing but 11 Personnel in the second half of the Colts game.
While the Eagles should consider diversifying their personnel packages to either go fat (12 and 13 personnel) or go fast (00 and 10 personnel), they also have the option of aligning their weapons to minimize the loss of Dallas Goedert for the next few weeks. Specifically, we will look at 3×2 sets and 4×1 sets to combat the Cover 6 defense.
Eagles fans know that the Birds’ running backs suck in pass protection. Most of the protection calls going back to Andy Reid’s 2002 and 2010 playbooks call for ‘scat protection’ – six-man protection including a running back. When personnel is an issue, it is best to test the margins and rely on high-variance plays.
The Philadelphia Eagles can use the 4×1 Alignment against the Cover 6 defense
Routinely, the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen not to add a pass protector to the scheme but instead to have five eligible receivers, usually from an empty backfield. As such, a Doubles or 2×2 Alignment becomes a 3×2 Alignment and a 3×1 Alignment can become a 4×1 alignment. NFL alignment rules make this a difficult set to live in but the Kansas City Chiefs are getting a lot of use out of it.
Miles Sanders has natural hands and Boston Scott can do anything the Eagles coaches ask of him. The running backs can line up as wide receivers, slot receivers, or in the backfield. Kenneth Gainwell has been a disappointment as a receiver but has a nice role as a short-yardage and goalline back if he wants it.
Teams win based on angles, spacing, numbers, and leverage. The advantage to running a 4×1 Alignment against a Cover 6 defense is that the offense has a numbers advantage on the strong side of the formation with four eligible receivers aligned across from the field corner, nickel corner, and strong safety. The middle linebacker is usually responsible for hook zone coverage and receivers can get outside leverage on him easily.
The advantages and disadvantages of the 4×1 Alignment against the Packers’ defense
The disadvantage to using 4×1 Alignment against Cover 6 defenses is that in an era of match zone defense, teams often coach the weakside corners to play man coverage (Man Everywhere he Goes – MEG) on the weakside receiver. While Hurts has improved exponentially this season, he still struggles against blitzes and tight-man coverage.
On top of that, while Jaire Alexander isn’t great as a boundary corner or in zone coverage, he is elite playing the slot and playing man press coverage. While Barry’s defense is often frustratingly safe to Packers fans, Barry sends a lot of blitzes and rotates his safeties to replace his blitzing defenders.
This safety rotation moves the strong safety, usually Adrian Amos, into the box and moves the free safety into a single-high post-defense alignment. This alignment singles Jaire Alexander or Rasul Douglas up on A.J. Brown or DeVonta Smith in man coverage. While both are capable receivers, Alexander and Douglas’ strength is playing man coverage.
Another adjustment that Cover 6 match zone teams make, and an advantage for the Eagles, is that they put the weakside safety (free safety), usually Rudy Ford, in coverage against the #3 receiver (the inside slot receiver). While Ford is a massive upgrade over Darnell Savage, Quez Watkins could have quite a day as a slot receiver and make up for some of Goedert’s lost production for the next few weeks.