No tight end is more familiar with the Philadelphia Eagles than Jason Witten. The Cowboys veteran, on Radio Row promoting Schwan’s and their food donation program for the underprivileged (a program Witten has been involved with in Dallas and, this week, in Minneapolis), took a few minutes to break down film on the Eagles’ looming matchup with Rob Gronkowski.
“One of the things that makes Philadelphia so interesting up front is they play these wide-9 techniques, they’re tilted in, with all their weight in their hands. [Notice left DE Brandon Graham.] All they’re thinking is up field. What makes Brandon Graham so good is, these ends really cheap jerseys play 9-techniques. Very rarely do they [align tighter] inside and play 6-techniques, 7-techniques on the tight end. When they do, it’s when the defensive end anticipates a run to the weak side, because he knows he can’t make the play from so far out, so he’ll tighten it up and shoot the gap. Graham times it up well. Literally, I have about 50 plays I could show you where the tight end has no chance to even block Graham. It’s just ‘down, down, set, hut!’ and Graham’s hitting it hard inside.
“On this play, he does that. I don’t think he knows it’s a bootleg, I think he’s just timing it up. He thinks it’s a run to the weak side. He’s playing the run there, which is good [for the offense] and now we’re able to [bootleg] outside of it and throw.”
The Patriots do not run bootlegs, so Graham’s inside-attacking aggression might be without consequence on Sunday. But there was another important aspect to this play: the awareness of safety Malcolm Jenkins (No. 27, on the left).
“They’re in man to man here. Jenkins has me, but he converts it to zone because he sees that run and because he sees me blocking, so he leaves me. You see his eyes right here, he’s looking to see if [WR Terrance Williams] is gonna block. As soon as Jenkins sees Williams go out in a route, he knows it’s a pass. If he thought it was a run he would have definitely attacked the backfield from this position.
“Malcolm just plays it really well, he gets down in the box, he’s a good man coverage player and he tackles well. His background really was as a corner—and corners aren’t known for tackling. He’s made this transition really well.
On another play, the Cowboys throw to the outside on a high-low route concept against Philly’s staple Cover 3 zone. But before releasing into his low route, Witten delivers a quick chip-block on defensive end Derek Barnett. Chip-blocks are a way to slow down aggressive, dynamic edge rushers like Philly’s, and you might see the Patriots employ them in third-and-long situations.
“We’re just trying to get a pass off and we know they’re going to be rushing up field, so it’s a way for us to get two helps on these guys. You have to chip these guys, slow them down and then get into your routes behind it.
“Really all we’re trying to do is deviate Barnett’s rush; you want to affect him. He goes inside on his own here and runs right into my left tackle, we’ve done our job.
“When you have a great rush, you say, ‘Well, you have to max protect.’ The problem with max protection is, the defense is only rushing four, so do we really need six or seven guys in protection when they’re only rushing four? So one of the counters to that is, let’s chip and get those chippers out in routes. In theory it’s a five-man protection but at some point it looks like a six-, seven- or eight-man protection. So, just slow them down, stop their initial rush and then get out in the route. I think you’ll see New England do that on Sunday because they’ve done it for a long time and they think the Eagles have a good rush.”
The question is, will the Eagles sacrifice one of their edge rushers by jamming Gronkowski off the line on Sunday? Just like chips can slow a pass rusher, a quick jam by a defensive end can slow a tight end.
“I often wonder: Would the Eagles ever adjust and tighten their defensive end alignments? Really, they believe so strongly in their system, it’s straight get off the ball and rush. So I would be surprised if they pushed or hit Gronkowski. But I’ll tell you, tight ends, when D-linemen jam like that, it can really slow you down in your route because the clock in your head goes off. It’s a nice formula, but I don’t see Philadelphia doing it, I think they have a lot of confidence in their back end and their coverage ability.”
So what would Witten say if Gronk called him for advice on Philly’s defense?
“They really play aggressive, they hunker down and they’re daring you to beat them. Their corners have been beat on double moves maybe as high as anyone in the league. The thing is, those defensive backs have so much confidence in that rush that they hover around that first down marker. They really get on their heels and hunker down because they’re almost daring you to run by them. So for a tight end who’s running a lot of intermediate routes—and Gronk’s inventory is a little more vertical than most—with that, you have to expect the defenders will be hanging around those first down markers. So you have to use deception in your route concepts with your leverage and how you attack to get separation.”