Film breakdown: The anatomy of an Eagles special teams disaster
A look at special teams mistakes, defensive head-scratchers and the problems of protecting Michael Vick.
Film breakdown: The anatomy of an Eagles special teams disaster
On Sunday, the Eagles got whacked by the Broncos across every phase. Let’s go right to the autopsy, starting with special teams.
According to the secret sauce calculations of Football Outsiders, through four games the Eagles have the second-worst special teams unit in the League. If that ranking holds, it will continue the unbroken pattern of annual decline since 2009 (the year DeSean blew up as the league’s best punt returner).
The unit turned in a strong performance in week one under new coordinator Dave Fipp, but things have been ugly ever since. Against Denver, their mistakes included a blocked punt, missed field goal and kickoff return that went for a touchdown.
Here’s the kickoff coverage, using the end zone angle we never get to see during the game:
This is the base coverage scheme Fipp is running this year. The six interior players try to present a unified front in the middle of the field. On the outside, the fourth and fifth players (counting out from the kicker) cross each other as they run down the field. Number four on each side has outside contain responsibilities (yellow arrows), while number five hangs back slightly and then rallies to the ball. Downfield, it looks like this:
These shots show the kickoff return in the third quarter of the Kansas City game, which went for 36 plus15 yards after kicker Alex Henery got his money’s worth and was flagged for both a horse-collar tackle and grabbing the returner’s face mask. As you can see, the positioning of the players is mostly fine on this play, Chung just missed the tackle when the returner cut inside him:
Against Denver, Trindon Holliday’s touchdown return was the result of a similar, though more egregious, individual mistake:
As the coverage team reaches the 35-yard line, the setup is good. Jordan Poyer, circled in blue in the first frame, is playing the free tackler role usually filled by Cary Williams. (It’s possible the Eagles didn’t want their starting defenders sprinting downfield at altitude.) In the second frame, a cutback lane has opened, which Jeff Maehl is going to close on from the outside. Poyer isn’t being blocked yet, but instead of attacking the gap, he instead starts to backtrack, which takes him right into the blocker sealing him inside. That’s all the room Holliday needs to take it to the house.
A Day of Weird Defenses
There are more writers doing these sorts of breakdowns than there used to be. I’m trying not to cover the same things everyone else is, which means you’ll have to get most of your Brandon-Boykin-As-Outside-Linebacker-Makes-No-Sense criticism elsewhere. But I do want to talk about the first touchdown to Welker, which I think a lot of people are getting wrong.
Boykin will blitz off the slot and Earl Wolff will rotate behind him into coverage. Note that Boykin is lined up way inside the receiver (you can just see Welker’s shadow) and had rushed the previous play, too. There was zero surprise factor in this blitz.
From the side view, look how much ground Wolff would have to cover (and how many bodies he’d need to weave through) to catch up to Welker outside, if that had truly been his responsibility against these routes. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis has done a number of head scratching things so far, but it’s doubtful that’s the way he drew it up. It’s much more likely that this was a three-man, “triangle” zone coverage, where Allen is responsible for the shorter of two receivers either inside or out. At the snap, however, he gets jacked up by tight end Julius Thomas:
By the time he comes off of the reverse jam, he’s lost Welker in the flat. Wolff races behind him, too late to catch anything but the blame.
(NOTE: Earl Wolff talked to Bird 24/7's Sheil Kapadia Wednesday and said he actually was in man coverage on Welker. So the error is on Davis for a bad scheme, not Allen's execution.)
Moving to the third-quarter screen TD to Demaryius Thomas, yes, it’s pointless to rush Brandon Graham at the quarterback from that far away and, yes, it’s unfortunate to run a blitz right out of the area the screen is headed, but those are really secondary concerns with this alignment, once we can see the all-22:
Where’s the third coverage guy? Heck, the Eagles struggle to cover anyone when the numbers are even.
Something’s getting lost in translation between what Davis thinks he’s calling and what the defense is actually running, which may be why someone like Mychal Kendricks “thinks a little bit too much and doesn't … just kind of pull the trigger and go.”
This is How to Two-Gap
The defense had some better moments during the day. It’s been noted that Cedric Thornton might be the Eagles’ best nose tackle. This play is a good illustration of why:
At the snap, he’ll be two-gapping the center, who initially gets the best of him and starts riding him out of the hole. But just when he looks out of it, he’s able to fight off the block, sling the center past him, and make a diving stop on Moreno, who might have deked DeMeco Ryans enough out of position to blast through for a big gain if he hadn’t. That’s exactly what Billy Davis wants to see out of his new defense, for once.
Protecting Mike Vick
Honestly, I thought the offensive line held up pretty well most of the day. The real problems didn’t start until the Broncos were up big in the second half, at which point every offensive line in the league struggles against pass rushers who’ve stopped worrying about the run.
When there were individual breakdowns, there really wasn’t much of a pattern. All five guys made mistakes at various times. Johnson is probably the least consistent, which makes sense for a rookie.
In the second half, Vick also wasn’t helping his blockers much. We’ve seen before that when he starts feeling pressure, his drops on mid-range pass plays become deeper. This is calm, well-protected, first-half Vick:
You can see that where he’s standing, both edge rushers will need to work back inside to get to him. And though pressure is about to come up the middle, he still has room to step up and throw.
Now, here’s late third-quarter Vick:
At this point, his back foot is more than 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. And those same edge rushers can keep working outside to this new aiming point, which starts making things harder for his tackles.
Once Vick starts getting into this habit, he does it even when there’s no pressure:
It’s a small thing, certainly, but Vick can already be a hard guy to block for at times. This doesn’t make it any easier.
Also, not to keep picking on Vick, but Riley Cooper isn’t magically getting any faster. Vick could start throwing the ball earlier on plays like this one in the red zone:
DeSean Jackson battled with former Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie all day. On this play, he beats him on a nice comeback route to the front pylon. Unfortunately, as is Vick’s wont, he waited to throw the ball until he saw Jackson was open, which meant DRC had enough time to recover and slap away a pass that was also misplaced a bit inside.
Until the Eagles start consistently beating man coverage, they’re going to keep seeing these looks. That starts with better anticipation on Vick’s part, because if he waits for better receivers, he may not be here when they arrive.