So long as the Philadelphia Eagles are wielding magic weekly, we might as well speak using its terms. Sometimes the illusion of choice is the best tool to fool. Call it a “force.” An “equivoque,” if you want to get fancy. But under the pretense of perceived freedom, a person may not recognize the trap they’ve already entered.
Enter Stefon Diggs. Among all the mind-bending implausibilities that happened in the Eagles’ 37-34 overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, the most pivotal defensive play within a 10-point, fourth-quarter rally can easily get lost. The Bills were leading 24-21 with 12:52 left in regulation when Eagles cornerback James Bradberry jumped Diggs’ choice route for a game-shifting interception.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) November 27, 2023
Beyond further fueling momentum for a Philadelphia offense that seized the lead three plays later, Bradberry’s timely (and tricky) takeaway fielded the long-awaited flex from a secondary that’s often hampered the playoff-bound Eagles while surrendering the NFL’s fourth-most passing yards per game (255.7).
Josh Allen’s 339 yards on Sunday still made him the fifth passer to throw for over 300 yards against the Eagles in 2023. It’s yet another foreboding figure for a team that gets to enjoy the paradox of owning the NFL’s best record at 10-1 while still sorting out its self-inflicted problems. But Bradberry’s interception opened a wider window into first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai’s recent experimentations with coverage schemes to further support a young secondary that’s cycled through injuries.
The Eagles have had eight different starting lineups in the secondary in 11 games. Darius Slay, whose only absence was a Week 6 loss to the New York Jets in which he was sidelined with a knee injury, has been the secondary’s most consistent member. The five-time Pro Bowler began the 2023 season positioned almost exclusively as Philadelphia’s outside left cornerback. Philosophies vary, but some defensive coaches prefer their cornerbacks to stick to one side of the field, which can eliminate a lot of back-and-forth movement between plays that can needlessly wear out a defensive back who’s already doing plenty of running.
Desai, a former safeties coach for the Chicago Bears, seemed to initially hold the same view. Slay spent 80.9 percent of his defensive snaps positioned wide left during his first seven games, according to Pro Football Focus. In the last three, Slay’s commitment to that position has been nearly sliced in half. He has spent almost equal time split wide left as he has wide right in that span, and his usage in the slot has nearly tripled.
Slay’s position flexibility
|Darius Slay Positioning
The trend began against the Dallas Cowboys. CeeDee Lamb caught 11 passes for a career-high 191 yards against the Eagles, often exploiting their lack of experience at the nickel spot. Slay told Eagles defensive backs coach D.K. McDonald near the two-minute warning that he’d be shadowing Lamb, even in the slot, for the remainder of the game. The Eagles flipped their coverages frequently against the Kansas City Chiefs — when they held Patrick Mahomes to a season-low 177 passing yards — and, against the Bills, Slay spent the majority of the game shadowing Diggs in man coverage.
It was a notable decision by Desai, who, with 10-year veteran Bradley Roby back for his second straight game after a midseason shoulder injury, could field his most reliable option at nickel corner since Avonte Maddox suffered a torn pectoral in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings. Still, Desai had Roby roam elsewhere against the Bills. Roby spent 57 snaps defending various other receivers in the slot and logged a season-high eight snaps as an outside cornerback.
While the decision projects less confidence in the future for Roby — who nearly surrendered a game-winning score against the Chiefs that was dropped by wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling — it was a largely effective plan that slowed the NFL’s seventh-leading receiver.
Before Bradberry’s interception, Allen was 15-of-24 passing for 194 yards (an 87.9 passer rating) when Slay shadowed Diggs. Allen was 7-of-10 passing for 58 yards and a touchdown (a 117.9 passer rating) when Diggs faced someone else. Diggs hauled in back-to-back receptions late in the first and early in the second quarter that totaled 20 yards against safety Kevin Byard and Bradberry, respectively. Allen later fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to Diggs just before halftime while Byard trailed in coverage.
Slay’s devotion to a single receiver revealed schematic limitations. Allen still found other mismatches and exploited them. While Slay focused on Diggs on a second-and-6 situation in the first quarter, Bills running back James Cook sprinted past linebacker Nicholas Morrow on a wheel route. Had Cook not dropped the would-be touchdown, Buffalo would not have eventually punted. Allen fit a 31-yard pass to Khalil Shakir along the left sideline between Bradberry and second-year safety Reed Blankenship in the second quarter. To begin the second half, the Bills cleared a large portion of the right sideline by sending Diggs on a deep go-route, and, since Slay followed, an underneath crosser to Gabe Davis easily gained 23 yards.
That the Eagles surrendered such explosive pass plays while attaching Slay to the Bills’ best receiver perfectly spells out the problem Desai is dealing with. If the Eagles had more reliable matchup winners in the secondary, they wouldn’t need Slay to shadow anyone. He could stick to one side of the field, as most cornerbacks do. But these chunk plays could become the sunk cost of what may be Philadelphia’s best strategy against teams that are deep at receiver. The NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers, who have four players with over 380 receiving yards, should provide a proper test.
“(The Bills) still had yards. They had a great offense,” Roby said. “Josh Allen does great at extending the plays. So, they still made some plays. But we made the stops when we needed them. So, s—, that’s all that matters.”
Ah, yes. The critical stop. Bradberry said the Eagles noticed that when Diggs lined up in the slot throughout the game, he often ran what’s called a “choice” route. Essentially, it’s a flexible route that allows a receiver to break in different directions depending on the way the defense plays him. In this case, on second-and-8 with 12:52 left in the game, Diggs broke left toward the sideline when linebacker Christian Elliss blocked off the seam.
But the Eagles helped him make that choice. By presenting a “Quarters” coverage look, which signals four-deep defensive backs with three others defending the zones beneath them, Diggs would have likely noticed before the snap that he wasn’t going to sprint past both Elliss and a deep safety on a go-route. And, since Davis himself was running a go-route, Diggs would’ve likely known there would be at least some vacancy along the left sideline.
Said Bradberry: “We kind of anticipated that.” The ball snapped. Allen took three steps. Diggs broke left. Bradberry jumped the route and snagged his first interception of the season, the sixth total for an Eagles defense that’s tied for the third-fewest picks in the NFL.
The Bills nearly stole a victory later in the game with another Allen touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Jake Elliott’s 59-yard field goal forced overtime, in which Philadelphia’s defense limited Buffalo to its own field goal on the opening drive.
But without Bradberry’s pick, the Eagles would’ve needed even more magic. Perhaps too little to prevent their second loss of the season. Still, questions remain whether Desai will break out the game plan again this season, or if it will continue to keep that second loss off the board.
“It definitely worked. We won. So, that’s all that matters,” Bradberry said. “They had a lot of success on offense. We’ve got to go back and look at the film and make some corrections. But, at the end of the day, we made enough plays to win.”
(Photo of Darius Slay and Stefon Diggs: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)