Eagles analysis

Eagles explain benefit of flip-flopping defensive linemen

The Eagles have been moving around their defensive linemen this season in an attempt to find advantageous matchups.

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Eagles defensive tackle Milton Williams grew up playing defensive end, so he doesn’t mind when the Eagles ask him to bump outside.

In fact, he enjoys it.

“It’s fun to be back out there sometimes,” Williams said. “But then you gotta go back in there and get the dirty work done.”

Through two games, we’ve seen quite a bit of this from defensive coordinator Sean Desai, sometimes playing his defensive tackles on the edge and bumping select edge rushers inside. Just in Week 2 alone, we saw snaps with Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett playing the 4i technique and Fletcher Cox, Milton Williams and Jalen Carter playing on the edge.

Why do the Eagles do this? 

The answer is pretty simple: To find advantageous matchups.

“Really, we are always looking for different matchups and trying to create different angles and rush points and create different matchups for our guys vs. their guys,” defensive coordinator Sean Desai said.

“So, all that goes into that process of where we want to align guys from the front structure, and then you see it from the backend similarly of how we try to coordinate some of our coverages along with that. That's really it. Trying to find different matchups and different points for our guys to go and be aggressive at.”

Here’s a look at some of the unique D-line combinations the Eagles used against the Vikings in Week 2:

Eagles D-line vs. Vikings

While none of those snapshots above feature Brandon Graham inside, he knows all about playing in there as a defensive end. In fact, he lined up inside on the biggest play of his career, which was also one of the biggest plays in Eagles history. He was inside for the strip sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII.

So this is nothing new.

But it’s worth noting just how much Desai has been doing it early on in games where the Eagles have built considerable leads.

“It’s all about matchups,” Graham agreed. “I might be quicker than a guy that’s inside. You have guards that’s more of like maulers and for us it’s all about our get-off on the inside. You’re hoping it’s a pass too. Because they like to run on 3rd down sometimes because they know the look with guys that’s not D-tackles are in the middle. As long as you can hold your own, coaches trust you to go in there.

“I know I’ve been trusted for years to go in and I’m always thinking about that. But at the end of the day, you gotta use your hands and it’s all about the matchups. That’s why we do it.”

The point about using these combinations in passing situations is key. Ideally, you don’t want a bunch of undersized ends on the interior of the defense trying to stuff the run. That’s why most of those photos above are from 2nd- or 3rd-and-long or late in the game when the Vikings needed to pass to mount a comeback.

Williams explained that his technique and rushes have to change depending on where he lines up.

“Inside, the process is faster,” Williams said. “You want to process your steps and your hands faster. Outside, you got one extra step. Inside it’s two, really one sometimes. Outside, it’s three.”

It’s not easy for offensive linemen either. Jack Driscoll has played and started games at both tackle and guard during his four-year NFL career so he’s seen a lot of different looks. Driscoll stressed the importance of his set lines while dealing with different types of rushers but also said it’s important to know personnel. So while a starting offensive tackle or guard will have to study the guy he’ll likely see most in a game, putting more on tape creates more homework for the offense.

The Eagles already have a dangerous pass rush with guys like Sweat, Reddick, Williams, Cox, Carter and Jordan Davis. Their personnel alone is impressive. 

Although the Eagles have just four sacks through two games in 2023, those numbers are going to come. They had just three through the first two games last year before going on to lead the NFL with 70.

With these rushers, they’re eventually going to get to the quarterback. And the swapping along the line is just another tool to utilize.

“You already know we got so many D-linemen that rush differently,” Sweat said. “Now all of a sudden, you got an edge in there. All of sudden, you got two edges on one side. It’s like, ‘What do we do?’ You have to respect it.”

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