The Eagles’ defense had a bad day Sunday against the Chargers, for reasons that ended up being more complicated than they first appeared (as usual).
The overall problem is not the new two-gap 3-4 scheme that defensive coordinator Billy Davis installed at the behest of Chip Kelly. There are specific players who are still adjusting to the new techniques required in this defense – notably Fletcher Cox – but as a group, the front seven is playing pretty well.,
It’s also not the case that the defense is always or even mostly playing in odd two-gap fronts. When the Eagles bring an extra defensive back onto the field – which they did on 47 of 83 plays last week – they often align in a pass-rushing even front that should look pretty familiar:
It’s going to take some time to get used to the new base defense. At their worst, the read-and-react techniques being used by the three down linemen look like patty-cake to a fan base more accustomed to the bloodthirsty hordes unleashed by Buddy Ryan and Jim Johnson. But to understand what’s really been wrong so far with the defense, we need to focus on the guys behind the guys. Just like last year.
We’ll start with a fourth-quarter play where the coverage breakdown is clearly caused by confusion. Patrick Chung will blitz off the slot (1) and DeMeco Ryans will hug the line of scrimmage. With six defenders committed to the pass rush, that leaves the back five playing straight man coverage (2). The safeties disguise this by lining up in a cover-two shell, but neither attacks quickly enough when his receiver runs an underneath route (3). Even as Allen is finally coming up to make the tackle on receiver Eddie Royal in the middle of the field, Earl Wolff is just visible at the top of the screen racing to meet up with Ryan Matthews in the flat (4).
We saw more confusion earlier in the fourth quarter:
Again, there’s a blitz off the slot (1). Trent Cole, savvy vet that he is, notices this will leave only two defenders covering three receivers and endeavors to communicate this fact to his teammates (2). Unfortunately, while he’s talking, the ball is snapped and Danny Woodhead zips into the flat behind him, as Cole turns back to the quarterback and never sees the release (3). The three-on-two coverage bust on the other side ends up not even mattering. Davis can call as many blitzes as he wants, but if the coverage behind them is this poor, quarterbacks will just keep picking them apart.
Oh, Those Safeties
Overall, the safety play was rough all day, but this particular play was still surprising once the all-22 came out:
Before the play, the safeties align in another cover-two shell (1). At the snap, they rotate to what looks like a three-deep zone, with Nate Allen sinking towards the line and Earl Wolff moving to the middle of the field (2). What’s bizarre about this play is that Wolff doesn’t back pedal or slide over – he actually puts his head down, turns away from the quarterback and races back to a spot. He has no chance to see what’s happening while he does that and by the time he gets situated he’s way too late to provide any help on the receiver outside (3).
Among the safeties, Wolff obviously wasn’t alone in his struggles:
Davis again hollows out his coverage with an all-out blitz (1). He called a lot of these, despite the fact that Rivers rarely held the ball long enough for the pressure to get home. The Chargers run a basic pick play on the outside (2) and by the time Nate Allen gets around the “block,” he has no angle to make a play on the ball or the receiver.
Clearly Allen is too far off the wide receiver (staggering the depth of the defenders helps avoid pick plays near the end zone), but if he’d been up in a press position, odds are pretty good Rivers would have just audibled to running that guy up the seam, right past Allen. These are just not defenders you can trust to cover without help.
Chung had a similar issue on the play he got called for holding. Once the two inside linebackers blitz, there’s no support in the middle of the field:
If there’s anything that’s big-picture disconcerting about Davis’ game plan, it’s this post-game criticism: “His predictable ways continued today, often blitzing on third downs instead of double covering Antonio Gates like he should have been.”
Yes, that’s from 2010.
What About Zone?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. In contrast to what we saw against the Chargers, in the second half against Washington Davis mostly had his defense sit back and play zone. Once we had access to the all-22 film, we could see just how many breakdowns the Eagles had doing that, which is what allowed RGIII to find his rhythm and move the football:
Those are busted coverages all over the place, many of which seem to be the fault of Mychal Kendricks. In fact, at one point Kendricks was so slow to react to a Washington pre-snap shift that Brandon Boykin literally shoved him outside to his area of responsibility:
The Offensive Onslaught Continues
I’ll close with a few plays from the offensive side of the ball, because it wasn’t all bad news on Sunday. First, perhaps you noticed the Eagles ran the same “packaged play” we talked about last week, only this time with DeSean:
The fake handoff to McCoy (1) pulls the linebacker (2) inside just enough to open up a huge void for DeSean (3). Again, it’s the same look we saw last week, just with different personnel. Even when Kelly’s offense isn’t exactly the same, it rhymes.
This next play is not something I remember seeing to this point. If I told you there would be two pulling lineman blocking to the left for McCoy out of this formation, you’d probably expect something like this, based on the alignment of the defense:
That’s two easy down blocks and then a couple of pulling guards. Normal stuff. Of course, what we actually see is this:
Not only does Kelly pull left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce, he doesn’t even call on right guard Todd Herremans to “reach” block that defensive tackle! Herremans instead runs to the second level after a quick chip to ensure the other DT lined up over Jason Peters can’t crash inside and blow the whole thing up before it starts. It’s actually right tackle Lane Johnson who’s asked to jump over a full gap-and-a-half to secure that player in the middle.
Post-snap, the whole craziness looks like this:
Continuing with the run game, this play, which preceded the James Casey drop, shows just how important the small things can be:
Pre-snap, it looks like the Chargers have every gap covered, but Kelly has called his counter, which flows away from all the inside and outside zone read action and pulls the off-side guard (in this case Herremans) to lead block. In the second frame, you can see Lane Johnson (yellow dot) is staying engaged on the tackle double team, even as the linebacker #56 is starting to flow into the hole. This may be the way he’s coached on this play, but if he’d slid off the DT onto the linebacker a moment sooner, Herremans would have been able to blow up the safety instead (dotted line to #37) and Brown would have walked into the end zone.
On a final note, it’s worth talking quickly about the difference between pre-snap and post-snap reads in this offense. On a lot of Kelly’s plays, there may be three or four different options, but only a couple will be live once the ball is snapped, based on the way the defense lines up. For example, if this happens:
The ball is going to DeSean – every time. Maybe on the next one he’ll get a better block.