The Eagles’ defense is strikingly bad. They’re bad statistically and aesthetically. Every drive seems to include at least one play where the whole unit goes down like bowling pins or hey-look-no-one-covered-that-guy-again.
Another multi-shot look at all the coverage breakdowns would be way too depressing for me to write or you to read, so let’s instead pick out some of the more idiosyncratic plays of the past couple weeks.
Isaac Sopoaga: The Man In the Middle (Except When He Runs The Other Way)
With Damion Square deactivated in favor of Vinny Curry, Isaac Sopoaga saw his snaps go up against the Chiefs. He’s still a bit player in this defense (even with no real backup he played fewer than half the defensive snaps last Thursday) and his playing time might trend down again if Davis decides that Cedric Thornton’s performance in the middle was as solid as it seemed to be live. But let’s take a moment now to celebrate one of the rare characters in the modern NFL.
In the San Diego game, quarterback Philip Rivers kept surveying the defense before the snap and then changing the play calls to better attack the Eagles’ alignments. Early in the third-quarter, he saw that the Eagles had a numbers advantage on the strong side, so he audibled to a weak side counter:
The Eagles knew something was up, as you can see with DeMeco Ryans yelling at Mychal Kendricks. But no one was as ready as Sopoaga (#97):
At the snap, he darted immediately to his left, causing the down-blocking right guard to completely whiff on him. As Thornton crashed down the line, chasing the nonexistent strong-side run, Sopoaga calmly sets the edge, attacks the fullback, and keeps his ‘backers clean to make the tackle:
Later that quarter, Rivers again audibled to the same formation. Sopoaga was sure he knew just what the play would be again … except this time guessed wrong:
Sopoaga was also involved in a fun play during the Chiefs game, although this one was more pre-planned stunt and less improvisational riffing. The Chiefs will run an outside zone play up front, with the H-back moving back across the formation to mess with the linebackers:
Geathers and Sopoaga have an end-tackle stunt called:
What ends up being really cool about this play is that by crashing Geathers inside, the entire horizontal movement of the offensive line is brought to a halt. He stacks up three different Chiefs linemen inside on the play:
Sopoaga shows great play recognition, so instead of crashing into the hole that was called for him the way 99 percent of NFL linemen would have, he stays off the line and sprints to the sidelines. This ended up being important because both linebackers will be fooled by the H-back’s movement across the formation and Barwin is going to just miss the tackle on the edge:
Sopoaga just might be the league’s best 330-pound inside linebacker.
Why Earl Wolff Shouldn’t Be Starting; Also, Why Earl Wolff Should Be Starting
This play is a microcosm of the Billy Davis experience so far. It begins with a double outside blitz, with Ryans coming from the slot (yellow arrow) and Brandon Boykin looping around him from the inside (blue). This leaves Earl Wolff and Cary Williams alone outside on the two wide receivers:
At the snap, Wolff and Williams are playing deep/short. You can see Alex Smith is focusing on the outside receiver, Donnie Avery, as he cuts under the slot man on a crossing route:
Wolff already isn’t in great position to pick up Avery, but it gets worse as he somehow fails to recognize this is his coverage responsibility:
Now, if we ended the story there, the lesson would seem pretty straightforward. When 10 players are executing their assignments (or 9.5 – Kendricks isn’t in great shape up top) and the rookie can’t figure things out, clearly the rookie needs to sit out and study the white board awhile longer.
But look again as the catch is being made. The Eagles are in “Cover 1” or “man free,” meaning there’s a safety – Patrick Chung in this case – who’s supposed to have everyone’s back if they make a mistake. Meanwhile, Wolff is hopelessly out of the play and even moving away from the action.
And yet Chung is about to blow the tackle:
And Wolff will be the one who finally chases down Avery 51 yards downfield:
The sad truth is that none of the Eagles safeties is particularly good right now. But Wolff is the fastest of the top three guys and at least when he makes a rookie mistake it’s because he’s a rookie. Let him take his lumps.
It Sounds So Crazy It Just Might Work!
I lived in Washington, DC, during Steve Spurrier’s two-year reign as head coach of the local football team. The old ball coach might not have won many games, but I can’t imagine anyone’s ever had a more entertaining local radio show.
In the midst of a brutal 5-11 campaign his second year, an array of callers would phone in with advice for “things he could try.” And whereas most NFL head coaches feel the need to constantly remind fans and/or reporters that they’re the ones who really know football, Spurrier’s usual response was something like, “Well, you know, we could do that. We sure need to try somethin’ to get things goin’.”
Right now, Billy Davis is the king of tryin’ things to get things goin’.
It’s clear he doesn’t have the horses, particularly on the back end. Kansas City matched up against one of the most dangerous offenses in the league by rushing four and playing man. That’s it. Juan Castillo could coach a defense with that much talent.
Meanwhile, Billy Davis writes down all his players’ names on Ping-Pong balls, shakes them around awhile and then tries a new combination:
Yes, that’s Casey Matthews and Brandon Boykin at outside linebacker, with Vinny Curry and Trent Cole flanking Bennie Logan inside. Just the way they drew it up back in August.
I also froze the frame here because it’s a good example of why Curry can be so difficult to block. Look how quickly he’s gotten upfield and how low he’s staying as he slams into the right tackle. He’s undersized for this defense, but his incredible quickness and leverage is why he keeps making plays.
On the other side, Brandon Boykin will be pass-rushing on this play. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Boykin rushed on 11 of his 46 snaps, which is a high number for a guy who might be the team’s best cover corner. Surprise trickeration aside, it sure seems like it would make more sense to send one of those guys who keeps blowing coverages after the quarterback, rather than someone who can actually stick with a receiver inside.
Here’s another odd alignment from Davis:
You’ll notice there’s no outside linebacker where Trent Cole usually stands. I wonder where that guy is:
Of course! Brandon Graham is lined up way outside on the wide receiver, with Cary Williams directly over him, because there’s no way in the world Brandon Graham should be outside covering a wide receiver if we can help it.
You’ll never guess what two things then happen on this play:
Yep. That’s Graham covering the back running a go route down the sideline without deep help and Alex Smith escaping pressure to his left because – of course – there was no outside linebacker there to stop him.
Hard to argue with the coverage, though.