Eagles' D improves against tight ends

Jamar Chaney and the Eagles shut down Jason Witten (82) last week. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

After Tony Gonzalez caught seven balls for 83 yards against the Eagles in Week 2, the Birds' struggles against opposing tight ends became a widely-discussed topic of discussion.


It seems like the Birds have had issues keeping tight ends in check for years.

But maybe, just maybe, that's finally changing.

I was combing over Football Outsiders' stats yesterday and noticed a surprise in their breakdown of how defenses perform in the passing game.

Specifically, they rank the Eagles second in covering tight ends. That's not in yards per game, but rather DVOA, Football Outsiders' metric, which includes strength of opponent, game situation and more. Even if you just look at yards per game, the Eagles are sixth-best.

The best example of the Eagles' improvement came last week when they shut down Jason Witten. Witten had been averaging 74.8 receiving yards per game, but he caught just four balls for 28 yards (a season-low) against the Eagles. Before Sunday, Witten's catch rate (receptions per targets) was 69.2 percent. But his four catches vs. the Eagles came on 12 targets (33.3 percent).

So, how'd the Eagles stop him? They used a variety of coverages. I took another look last night, and while there's some guesswork involved with TV angles, the player who was on Witten the most was Nnamdi Asomugha. He lined up on Witten on 12 of 40 pass plays. Jamar Chaney covered Witten on eight pass plays.

There were also several instances where the Eagles were in zone, and Kurt Coleman, Nate Allen, Joselio Hanson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie each had turns taking Witten. Juan Castillo mixed up coverages, and pretty much everything worked. Witten's longest catch went for 12 yards, and it came in the second half, with the game in hand.

Overall, on the season, opposing quarterbacks have an 84.7 rating against the Eagles, which ranks 20th. They are completing 58.7 percent of their passes (12th) and averaging 7.4 yards per attempt (tied for 17th).

Here's a general overview of how the passing numbers break down by position:

  Targets Catches Yards TDs
Running backs 49 33 390 3
Tight ends 54 31 330 3
Wide receivers 112 64 885 6
TOTALS 215 128 1,605 12

Football Outsiders breaks it down further and provides better context. Here's where the Eagles rank (using DVOA), in terms of covering the different positions:

No. 1 WR 17
No. 2 WR 19
Other WR 15
Tight ends 2
Running backs 30

That last row is of particular relevance this week. Bears running back Matt Forte leads the team in targets (51), receptions (38) and yards (419). He's averaging an impressive 11.0 yards per catch. To put that into perspective, Brian Westbrook's best yards per catch number in a single season was 10.1 in 2005. LeSean McCoy is averaging just 6.0 yards per catch this season.

Tight end will be less of a concern this week. Chicago's Kellen Davis has eight catches for 107 yards. But Castillo needs to come up with a plan for keeping track of Forte in the passing game.

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