Football and combat sports get compared to each other a lot. When two great teams meet up with the highest stakes on the line, it gets called a heavyweight fight. Those two teams turn the game into a slow, grinding, and physical battle on the line of scrimmage, which gets called a slugfest.
What we rarely see is how NFL teams adjusting their gameplan and making minor tweaks is much like any prizefighter in combat sports. When UFC Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre lost to Matt Serra in 2012, he knew he had to adjust. Jonathan Snowden wrote in 2012 wrote about GSP’s comeback from that loss, and one of the things St-Pierre’s trainers said was that GSP adapts to movements right away, and you can see that in his fights.
In the NFC Championship game, the Philadelphia Eagles were the closest NFL equivalent to Georges St-Pierre in their 31-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Eagles all season have been able to adapt to whatever defenses throw them. If opposing defenses want to limit the explosive passes, they batter you in the run game. If the defense decides to load up and stop the run game, they can hit the explosive passes. However, in the title game, the Eagles’ passing offense left a lot of meat on the bone. QB Jalen Hurts went 15-25 for 121 passing yards, but only 4.8 yards per completion. The explosive passes downfield just weren’t happening, save for a miraculous Devonta Smith catch (that might not have been a catch). Star WR AJ Brown only had four catches for 28 yards, on eight targets. Seems like that leans in the Niners favor, right?
The Eagles ran for 148 yards as a team, and a stellar 0.15 EPA/attempt, over their season average of 0.072. What was really cool to see was how the Eagles adjusted to the curveballs thrown by the Niners in the run game. Much like a UFC champion, Philly made adjustments midgame, and hammered away at San Francisco.
The Niners are a very well coached defense, and had a lot of the Eagles favorite run concepts scouted out the entire game. Philadelphia loves to run zone read with a TE as a split zone blocker, to get a lead blocker out ahead of Jalen Hurts. The Niners were prepared for this, and as you can see here, Nick Bosa was having none of that.
Another staple concept for the Eagles is tackle trap, or “dart”. RT Lane Johnson pulls across the formation, and the left guard and center bluff towards the opposing DL and get vertical, to get to the second level as quickly as possible. The Eagles hit on the play earlier in the game, but on this play, DE Samson Ebukam either makes a great read, or the Niners put in a run stunt to get Ebukam free to make the tackle.
So, how would the Eagles adjust now that the Niners had seemingly stolen back momentum, at least on the defensive side of the ball?
They solved that problem by using the Niners defensive alignment against them. When the Niners line up defensively, and the Eagles had their offensive strength to the field, it meant that LB Fred Warner (who is the MIKE), and DLs Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa were also to the field. The defensive tackle opposite Armstead was getting worked all night, so what the Eagles did was run inside zone, a run that goes away from the strength of the numbers. This put the opposite DT in the run fit, and because of both Hurts’ threat as a runner and the threat of the RPO, it held Warner on the other side of the ball.
Once the Eagles found that weakness in the Niners suit of armor, they hammered at it relentlessly. Notice Warner doesn’t move initially because of the bubble action to the numbers side.
This one led to TD. Starting to see a trend, right?
Of course, the 49ers saw the trend too. What they did to counteract this, was show the same look as all the previous times with safety Talanoa Hufanga up in the box. But this time, Hufanga was away from the numbers, and blitzed off the edge. In addition, Bosa and Armstead were both away from the numbers side, but Warner was still on the numbers side. Thus, advantage: San Francisco. The blitz added in another guy for the run fit, and Bosa was able to win crashing inside and getting a tackle for loss.
However, if the Eagles got hit with it once, they were going to notice it the next time the Niners threw that punch. This time, though the numbers may be to one side, Eagles RB Boston Scott was not to that side. This was so he could take on the blitzing Hufanga, and leave LT Jordan Mailata to deal with Bosa. Center Jason Kelce folds in and takes on Dre Greenlaw, who is the only linebacker to that side because of the numbers threat (the 49ers might have been in man coverage as well). Jalen Hurts keeps it and gets 17 yards.
Winning is really hard to do in the NFL, especially now. Every NFL offense and defense comes from the same few coaching trees and philosophies, and nothing is new under the sun. However, what the Eagles have done is created a sustainable offense through adjustments and execution, and it’s gotten them to the doorstep of immortality: as Super Bowl champions.