Is The Eagles Defense One Competent Safety Away From Success?

Alright, no.

But as I was watching the Eagles-Giants game on Sunday, I was drawn to this question. The Eagles defense has problems across the board. The new corners can at least tackle better than their predecessors, but remain inconsistent in coverage. Even at their best, neither Cary Williams nor Bradley Fletcher scares an opposing quarterback. Meanwhile, the front seven is a transitioning mess. Sopoaga barely shows up, and two-gapping hides last year's stud Fletcher Cox. Connor Barwin has been solid, but Trent Cole is hit-or-miss at OLB. Mychal Kendricks makes terrifically athletic plays, then falls down in coverage. The responsibilities in the run game are unclear. The pass rush is nonexistent, which has led to the bizarre move of making Brandon Boykin a rush linebacker.

This is all granted. It's a bad defense with a lot of personnel and scheme questions. But unlike the offensive side of the ball, where a great quarterback or running back can carry a team at times, defense often seems to be about your weakest link. A smart, patient, accurate quarterback can find your weakness and exploit it. Such was evident against the Peytons, but I'm not sure how much there is to learn from a drubbing at their formidable hands.

The Elis posed a much less dangerous threat. The Giants offense only scored 7 points in the two previous games. Yet they put up three times that on Sunday. Why? Again, there are many problems with this defense. The front seven, most notably, failed to register a sack until the end of the game, against a banged-up Giants offensive line.

But looking at the tape and the numbers, I'd single out safety as by far the biggest problem. The Giants only had three scoring drives. The officials gifted them the last one on a bogus pass interference call on Brandon Boykin. On the other two, 80% of the Giants' total yards were gained on four plays of 20 yards or more. What all four plays had in common was the Eagles' safeties.

On the Giants' first drive, Hakeem Nicks caught a 49-yard bomb from Manning, the second attempt in a row to split Nate Allen and Bradley Fletcher. Two plays later, David Wilson plunged into the end zone.

The second scoring drive, in the third quarter, started with a 26-yard pass to Brandon Myers where the tight end found a huge hole down the middle between Allen and Earl Wolff. Two plays later, Manning found a wide open Reuben Randle for 20 yards. Looked like Wolff should have been covering that zone, but ran with Myers over the middle instead.

Finally, the drive culminated in a disgustingly easy 24-yard TD pass to Randle. We don't have All-22 yet, but let's break that one down anyway. The Giants have three WRs, one TE, and one RB. The Eagles are going to play what looks like (again, pre-coaches tape) a variant of Cover One Robber. The defense is in man-to-man across the formation. At the snap, Allen (in blue) is going to drop into a centerfield role while Wolff rolls into the short middle. The rookie's job in Robber coverage is to help in run support if necessary, then read the QB's eyes and jump into those short and intermediate crossing routes.

Below, you can see what happens after the snap. Kendricks has blitzed, and DeMeco Ryans is looping around him (and possibly reading the running back). That leaves Wolff as the sole middle-of-the-field defender. At the top, Randle is going to run a slant against Fletcher.

Below, Manning has stared down Randle, but as he throws, Wolff hasn't moved much. Meanwhile, Fletcher is dropping further back guarding against getting beat deep in man. This leaves a big hole in the zone where Wolff ideally should be:

As Randle catches the ball below, the defense has failed. He's about to pick up a first down because neither Fletcher, who dropped way back, nor Wolff were there to stop an easy slant. Still, with three guys converging -- including Allen from his deep role -- at least it should stop there...

Except wait, no, that's not what happens. You can see below that Wolff was not only late, but he took a terrible angle at Randle and didn't even lay a finger on him. Ditto for Allen, who does this all the time. Randle scampers in for the easy touchdown.

It's worth pointing out that Boykin (bottom) is basically standing still in the last screenshot. If you re-watch the play you'll see that he slows down, seeing what we did, that the Eagles have three defenders set to shut Randle down. As the receiver breaks free instead, Boykin has an "Oh $&!#" moment, where he briefly tries to recover and help out. But it's too late.

So overall, what do we learn? The Eagles defense has a lot of problems, but the biggest mistakes all came from the two safeties. I'd venture that without those, the Eagles might have held the Giants to only 7 or 10 points. That's why I wonder how much better this defense would be with just one competent safety. Getting Patrick Chung healthy again will certainly help some, but I'm already looking ahead to the 2014 free agent class. Jairus Byrd? Donte (W)Hitner? An above-average player at that position would do wonders for this team.

Eagles-Jaguars Preseason Thoughts: How To Combat The Scrape-Exchange

Is it too late to talk about the Eagles' third preseason game? Hope not, because that's what I'm about to do. 

  •  When we last talked, I was remarking about how bad Trent Cole looks in his new role. Shocker: he's still bad. In the few nickel snaps that he put his hand in the ground and rushed the passer, Cole got some good pressure (as he always has). But putting him in space does no one any good in coverage and it has so far hindered his naturally good run defense. Especially bad: any play that has him line up over the slot receiver and blitz. First, it's not fooling anyone. Second, he's too far away from the quarterback to do any damage.
  • Luckily, the rest of the linebacking core is shaping up well so far. DeMeco Ryans has been solid, if unspectacular. Mychal Kendricks was a force all over the field against the Jagurs, and was often brought on blitzes up the middle (with Cole dropping back though). On the other side, Connor Barwin continues to impress. His interception was the most athletic feat we've seen an awhile at linebacker. Interesting note: on that play, the Eagles kept their base defense in on Jacksonville's 2nd and 19, against 4 WRs and 1 TE. Odd choice.
  • I am a paying member of the Patrick Chung fan club. He's not a star, but watching him come up and make solid tackles is a revelation. 
  • I didn't think Michael Vick was as horrible as the post-game narrative suggested. He held on to the ball too long a few times and threw one bad pick. But Vick also made some laser completions and showed ample mobility. He was never going to be as perfect as he had shown through the first two contests. Plus, the offensive line wasn't exactly in peak form early.
  • In truth, the offense Chip Kelly had Vick run seldom resembled that of the previous games. There was more under-center snaps and down-the-field passing routes than we were shown before. As some remarked, it looked at times more like an Andy Reid offense than one run by Kelly.
  •  Sheil Kapadia has a good breakdown of what looks like the Jaguars using the scrape-exchange to combat the zone read. Here's what it looks like below. As in their typical zone read play, the Eagles let the defensive end go unblocked, with Lane Johnson crashing down on the guard, and Todd Herremans releasing to the second level. However, in the scrape-exchange, the defensive end is trained to immediately come down the line at the running back, forcing the QB keeper. The linebacker Herremans must reach arcs around the outside instead (away from the would-be block) and gets in Vick's face right away:
Scrape Exchange.png
  • It worked great in the above play, but not only is the scrape hard to pull off, it's not all that difficult to combat either.  The first way is simply for Vick to get better at running the QB keeper and executing the second option. On this play he ran vertically too quickly instead of laterally, negating any chance to throw the quick bubble screen to DeSean Jackson.
  • The second way is even easier: just don't run the zone read. Think about what happens in the above play if the Jaguars defenders get too comfortable executing the scrape, only to have the Eagles block normally. If Johnson and Herremans take on their defenders straight up and the linebacker comes around the edge instead of up the middle, there's going to be a huge hole for the running back. The offense can use further deception with an H-back in the backfield. That player come across the formation to lead blocker with multiple choices about who to attack. The below image comes from Chris Brown's (always excellent) breakdown of this technique:

  • Want another option? How about stop reading the defensive end? By mixing up the read, you can keep defenders unsure of their responsibility. Last time we talked about a play where the Eagles read a defensive tackle. Here's a similar play in which Vick reads the linebacker(s):
  • And here's even more variation. This time the Eagles read the end, but if Vick keeps it he's running behind a pulling guard in Evan Mathis. Bryce Brown picks up 11 yards to the left on this run after the zone read freezes the unblocked defender, but I wonder how many yards Vick would have gotten had he pulled it down himself to the right:
  • By the way, Jamar Chaney did seemingly everything possible to try to get cut over the last couple of years. What finally did him in? Not being able to block a punter on special teams. Ouch.
  • And what is the Toddfather doing below cavorting with the enemy, aka Jason Baboon?
Babin Herremans.png

Eagles-Patriots Preseason Thoughts: This Offense Is Going To Be Fun

  • I'm not fretting about Fletcher Cox. As Derek Sarley laid out quite plainly, the problem on those first few run plays was much more about spacing in the new 3-4 defensive lineup. The bigger problem was Trent Cole, who looked totally out of place as a stand-up linebacker. Maybe he'll get better, but I wouldn't count on it. The sample size wasn't large, but I thought Brandon Graham looked a lot more comfortable out there. 
  • In nickel packages the Eagles tended to switch to a four-down linemen look, and Cole looked like his normal self there. Back in April I suggested that the coaches keep Cole as a down rusher -- even consider starting him at 3-4 defensive end. That latter option is probably off the table now that Cole has slimmed down for his OLB role, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him has a dedicated pass rush specialist in exclusive four-linemen looks before long.
  • As a broader point, the 3-4 defensive transition is going to be rough. Not only do some of the players not fit into their defined roles, but the spacing issues will probably continue. Good offensive coaches will exploit this inexperienced front, and Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans are going to get mauled at the second level.

  • On the touchdown pass, Sheil Kapadia says:  "Vick said [DeSean] went deep because the Patriots had a single high safety." Jackson's ability to stretch coverage is even more necessary now that Jeremy Maclin is out for the year. If can't keep safeties honest, the run game and short passes become difficult.
  • Zach Ertz looks like he needs some serious work. He's not a speedy receiver (only 4.68 second 40 yard dash) and he looks totally lost blocking. Here Ertz is at the top of the formation letting Jerod Mayo (admittedly a good linebacker) get by him without so much as slowing him down. While the offensive line is getting a good push up the middle, Mayo comes in off the edge unblocked and makes the tackle:

  • Here's a cool play: a zone-read design where the quarterback is looking at the defensive tackle instead of the end. It's the Eagles' fourth play from scrimmage, with Vick deciding whether to hand off to Chris Polk or keep it himself. The typical zone-read we've seen in the NFL so far (and we also saw from the Eagles on Friday night) involves letting the defensive end come upfield unblocked. If he goes for the QB, you hand it off. If he goes for the RB, the QB keeps it. Same idea here, but Vick is reading Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle. If he had sprinted to his left to get Polk, Vick would have had a huge hole up the middle. Because he stayed in his lane, Polk gets the hand off and has two double teams to run behind on the right (click to embiggen):
  • Just as I was drawing this play up, Chris Brown posted an extensive review of Chip's play calling, including this one (with a gif). You should definitely check that out.
  • Brown talks about "packaged plays" as well, and Sheil has a glorious medley of screen caps on those run-pass options.
  • However, my favorite play of the night was the one below. What looked like a zone-read play to the left was really a play-action rollout to the backside. Vick has a clear run-pass option on this play and it's killer for the defense. This is something Foles doesn't present -- a dangerous running threat out of the backfield. The Patriots defenders who weren't sucked in by the play action aren't sure whether to converge on Vick or cover their receivers, so neither happens. Easy 19-yard completion to Riley Cooper:
  • Lane Johnson looked athletic and powerful. Sheil had good shots of him pancaking defenders and getting to the second level: here and here
  • Fellow Eagles Almanac scribe Dan Klausner is trying to convince me that Chris Polk is ready for the big time. I'm open to the idea, but haven't seen it yet. Certainly he is the better pass blocker (see Sheil's screencaps here), but Bryce Brown is a much more dangerous weapon. Watching him explode through holes or grab passes out of the backfield, it's obvious that Brown's someone you want to have the ball. Perhaps it's a silly hypothetical, but I can't shake the feeling that Brown would have exploded through that hole for a first down on the Wilfork zone-read.
  • Nick Foles moved the ball very efficiently in the Eagles' first real up tempo test. See more from Jimmy Kempski.

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