Here are some observations and notes after re-watching the Eagles’ 30-17 loss to the Falcons on Sunday:
ON SECOND THOUGHT
The wide-nine is not so much a scheme as it is a gimmick. While it is true that gimmicks can often work, they are not sustainable over the long haul.
Jim Washburn did not invent the wide-nine. He is not the only defensive line coach to line his ends up in the nine-technique. But he may be the only one that teaches his players to think pass-rush first on nearly every play. If he doesn’t, it wasn’t evident on Sunday when the Falcons consistently burned the Eagles with screen passes used to take advantage of an over-aggressive front.
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The most egregious example came on Atlanta’s first two drives of the second half. On the first possession, faced with second down and ten, the Falcons ran a wide receiver screen to Julio Jones. All four Eagles linemen – ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole and tackles Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox – were unblocked as the Falcons linemen ran up field. All four linemen didn’t realize that when they’re not blocked a screen pass is usually in the works. Quarterback Matt Ryan hit Jones with the quick throw and the receiver, with blockers, ran for a 37-yard gain.
A series later, the Falcons ran the same play and the Eagles’ linemen reacted – or failed to react – the same way. Babin and Cole made futile attempts to get to Ryan as he zipped a toss to Jones, who zig-zagged his way for a ten yards and a first down.
There were several running back screens over the middle that effectively used the left defensive end’s assertiveness against him. On the Falcons’ second touchdown, Ryan drew Brandon Graham to him and flicked a short throw to Jason Snelling, who ran three yards virtually untouched into the end zone. In the third quarter, Atlanta converted on third down with a shovel pass to Snelling that went by the over-pursuing Babin.
Generally, primary responsibility for stopping screens doesn’t fall on the linemen, but there’s hardly ever a competent attempt to read the play and then react. Washburn, who has the league’s pass-heavy numbers committed memory, preaches the importance of pressuring the quarterback, but his system fails to account for offenses that expertly execute a short-passing game like the Falcons.
Last year, the line recorded 46 of the Eagles’ 50 sacks, and the flaws in the wide-nine design were excused. This season, the front four accounted for only six sacks in the first six games, but the defense was stronger on the back end. On Sunday, when the entire until failed to execute, not even wide-nine devotees could defend the wide-nine.
REWIND THE TAPE
Even before he was named defensive coordinator two weeks ago, several players had praised Todd Bowles for his preparedness. But the Eagles defense, especially the secondary, looked anything but prepared on the Falcons’ first drive.
The resulting touchdown came when four defenders bit on a Ryan pump-fake on third and seven at the 15-yard line. Receiver Drew Davis was lined up in the slot. Jones was outside to his right. Cornerback Brandon Boykin was opposite Davis and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was ten yards off Jones. Safety Kurt Coleman was deep, a shade behind and to the right of Rodgers-Cromartie. DeMeco Ryans was in the box, so it’s difficult to assign any blame to the linebacker when he bit on the screen fake to Jones.
Boykin went for Jones and handed Davis off. The primary culprits in leaving Davis alone in the back of the end zone were Coleman and Rodgers-Cromartie, who both tried to jump the route. Kurt Coleman said after the game that it was a look the Falcons hadn’t shown inside the red zone this season.
Eagles coach Andy Reid, in typical fashion, did not call out any individual players.
“It wasn’t as much a busted coverage as we needed [to] be softer,” he said after the game. “We were bailing on that.”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
1. In his first career start at right guard, Dennis Kelly did not make any colossal mistakes. That’s about all you could have probably asked out of the fifth-round rookie. The Eagles’ offensive game plan was designed to aid the struggling offensive line. Michael Vick threw downfield beyond 20 yards only twice all game. Kelly seemed to get stronger as the game progressed. His worst moment may not have even been entirely his fault. When a defensive tackle looped inside, Kelly had no one to block and failed to pick up a blitzing Sean Weatherspoon. Vick, who threw an incomplete pass just before he got decked, should have probably recognized the blitzer, too. It’ll be interesting to see if Danny Watkins still has his job when he returns from an ankle injury.
2. It is fair to say that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had his worst game of the season. Aside from his involvement in the Falcons’ first touchdown, he had other low moments. He was soft on Jones when the receiver caught a 7-yard pass on third down and four in the second. He was whistled for two penalties – holding and pass interference – when Jones turned him around later on the same drive. And he made a half-hearted effort to tackle Jacquizz Rodgers after a Nate Allen whiff. The running back ran 43 yards on the play.
3. Jason Babin, who had been playing more than any other defensive end, saw his snap counts decrease as Graham got more playing time. Babin played 33 of 75 possible snaps and Graham played 31. Babin went his fourth straight game without a sack and he was credited with only one tackle. His pass interference penalty on third down and ten on the Falcons first drive was a killer. Bowles called for a fire zone blitz and Babin stayed with Rodgers as he went out for a pass. Babin isn’t asked to pass defend much, but he blatantly grabbed the running back ten yards shy of the marker. Graham, meanwhile, was pretty much the only Eagles defensive end to help with stopping the run. He could start ahead of Babin on Monday night against the Saints.
The Eagles have been outscored in first quarter, 40-7. Only the 1-6 Chiefs (six points) have scored less than the Eagles in the first, and only the Chiefs (-48) and the 3-5 Titans (-33) have a worse point differential. Reid’s teams, in his previous 13 seasons, have outscored their opponents by 230 points in the first quarter.
THIS AND THAT
-- For all the talk about Bowles adding the blitz to his defense, he ended up sending very few extra pass rushers. He blitzed three times on 34 drop-backs. Ryan completed 3 of 3 passes for 36 yards when blitzed. There were two other blitzes but the Eagles were called for penalties – Babin’s and Rodgers-Cromartie’s pass interferences.
-- It was only one series, but not having Mychal Kendricks hurt when the Falcons converted on third and two on the opening drive. Casey Matthews, in for Kendricks at strong-side linebacker, was clearly in the wrong spot at the snap and it threw off the Eagles’ entire coverage. Ryan hit receiver Roddy White for a 10-yard conversion.
-- After a dubious display during their only possession in overtime against the Lions, the Eagles offense picked up where it left off on their opening drive against the Falcons. On first down, tight end Brent Celek dropped a pass that was thrown slightly behind him. On second down, LeSean McCoy was strung out when center Dallas Reynolds was beat inside and Celek and fullback Stanley Havili couldn’t hold their blocks on the outside. On third down, Vick was sacked when he failed to pick up a deep blitz by safety Thomas DeCoud.
-- Cedric Thornton had a solid game. The defensive tackle picked up his first career sack, but he stood out more against the run. He wasn’t credited for dropping Michael Turner two yards behind the line in the first, but Thornton busted up the rush in the backfield. He did a decent job of reading screen on first play of Atlanta’s second drive.
-- The disparity between the Falcons’ efficient no-huddle and the Eagles’ Atari-era version was abundantly clear.
-- Baring injury, King Dunlap should onto the left tackle spot ahead of Demetress Bell. He isn’t a stellar run blocker, but he doesn’t make obvious mistakes using Howard Mudd’s blocking methods.
-- Reynolds is best as a run blocker and when he’s asked to seal off defenders. The center did an effective job helping to create lanes on back-to-back 7-yard carries from McCoy in the first.
-- Reid actually made good use of a timeout on the Eagles’ first touchdown-scoring drive. The extra time allowed McCoy, who had left with a brief injury, to sub back in for Bryce Brown. McCoy ran two yards for the score off the timeout.
-- The first audible “Fire Andy!” chants came after Allen’s missed tackle on Rodgers.
Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs? Yeah, we’re talking about playoffs. Believe it or not, the Eagles still have postseason life in the NFC. But they have to start winning – like now. If they lose to the Saints and fall to 3-5 they’ll have a significant climb. Right now, the Falcons (7-0), Bears (6-1), New York Giants (6-2) and 49ers (5-2) are the division leaders. The Packers (5-3), and Vikings (5-3) would be the wild cards.
If the Vikings, as expected, trail off, a number of teams would be brought back into the fold. No team stands out among the pack which consists of the Cardinals (4-3), Seahawks (4-4), Cowboys (3-4), Bucs (3-4), Lions (3-4) and, yes, the Eagles (3-4).
There is still hope, although it is flickering.