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.

How Not To Cover Larry Fitzgerald

There's a logical way to cover Larry Fitzgerald: in man coverage, with safety help. That's not what the Eagles did. Time to break down this down using the All-22 coaches film.

Let's start with the first three Cardinals pass plays, each of which went for a first down. In the first one, Fitzgerald lines up to the bottom. To call him a decoy would probably be generous. What we're really looking at is another classic example of "Putting Nnamdi Asomugha in a zone."

Pre-snap alignment. Asomugha (in red) to drop into zone.

With the Eagles in Cover 3, Nnamdi drops way back, leaving space open.

Next play. This time we're going to Fitzgerald. He's in the slot, opposite Boykin. The post route by the tight end inside of him is going to draw Mychal Kendricks and Nate Allen away, leaving a one-on-one matchup against the rookie corner.

Pre-snap alignment.

Easy pitch-and-catch. Then Fitz breaks Boykin's tackle attempt.

Two plays later: Fitzgerald is a decoy again. He comes across the formation pre-snap, pulling the linebackers to his side.

The tight end to the left runs a pick on Kendricks, leaving the RB open in the flat.

Later in the game, here's another time the Cardinals isolate Fitzgerald on Boykin:

Easy throw to the outside.

The Cardinals kept picking on Boykin, even when he didn't line up across from Fitzgerald:

Eagles are in Cover 2. Fitz runs a slant away from Nnamdi.

Nnamdi stays outside, Boykin drawn to slot receiver. Easy catch and run for Fitz.

To be fair to Boykin, I doubt Asomugha was supposed to let Fitzgerald run clean to the inside on that route. One of the things you notice with Asomugha is that he's rarely the cause of major coverage breakdowns. However, he doesn't seem particularly interested in working extra hard to cover up other defenders' mistakes either — whether it's on this play, where he doesn't even try to run inside to tackle Fitz, or on the touchdown catch (See Chris Brown's thorough examination of that one). Asomugha is a limited player these days, and sometimes it looks like he would rather make sure everyone knows it's not his fault than actually go 110% to make up for his own deficiencies.

In other, non-Fitzgerald news, it would be nice if the defense didn't miss tackles like it's 2011. Yes, I know this play was called back, but still:

1. DeMeco Ryans

2 & 3. Asomugha and Kurt Coleman

4. Allen

5. Kendricks

Go DRC! It's only a 79 yard gain.

More to come from the All-22 tomorrow.

All-22 Odds And Ends From Week Two

There's always more to discuss, so while we're still in awe at Fletcher Cox's skills, let me sneak a few more All-22 nuggets under the wire before tomorrow's game.

First things first. Brandon Boykin needs to run to space when returning kickoffs, and use his blocker (Stanley Havili, marked in blue) as a guide. If he had picked the right hole below, he could have been one-on-one with the kicker.

You're going the wrong way!

You're going the wrong way!

Here's a really simple play that drew a big gain for the Eagles: 28 yard pass to Brent Celek. The funny thing about this play is, there are actually only two pass routes.

Jackson's end-around fake will suck in the Ravens LBs and CB, leaving space behind.

Jackson's end-around fake will suck in the Ravens LBs and CB, leaving space behind.

Leaving both Maclin and Celek wide open down the field.

Leaving both Maclin and Celek wide open down the field.

Finally, I don't understand what the Eagles are doing when it comes to "safety valve" routes, where Michael Vick can throw when everything else is covered and/or he's under pressure. In most cases, when Vick even has a checkdown, it comes from LeSean McCoy blocking, then releasing into the middle.

That's tremendously ineffective for Vick. First, because he isn't tall enough to see over the line for McCoy. Second, because he's his own backup plan in the middle of the field. Having McCoy park there just draws defenders where Vick wants to scramble — like in this play below:

Vick can't even see McCoy. Plus, he's keeping defenders inside, where Vick wants to scramble.

Vick can't even see McCoy. Plus, he's keeping defenders inside, where Vick wants to scramble.

Compare that to a typical Ravens play, where Joe Flacco has two easy options in the flat.

Compare that to a typical Ravens play, where Joe Flacco has two easy options in the flat.

If you haven't seen it yet: check out my All-22 looks at Cox, Danny Watkins, and the Eagles first drive.

Other folks are also doing great stuff with Coaches Film too. See Derek Sarley here and here, Jimmy Kempski here, and Sheil Kapadia here and here.