Following a Legend

Paul Domowitch continues his road trip visiting former Eagles. This time he checked in on Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott:

"Following somebody who has had a lot of success, the expectations are almost unfair," [Panthers Head Coach Ron] Rivera said. "When I was playing for the Bears, Vince Tobin came in and replaced Buddy after he left to become the Eagles' head coach. Vince never got the respect he deserved because it was Buddy this, Buddy that. But when you look at some of the things Vince did, you say, ‘Wow, that's pretty doggone good.'

“So when I look at Sean's situation — and Andy and I talked about it — just the expectation level was so great, Andy thought this would be a great opportunity for Sean to come down here and reinvent who he is."

Our memories of McDermott's convoluted schemes are certainly tempered by Juan Castillo's disastrous coaching job last year. I wonder how much following Jim Johnson really doomed the former Eagles coordinator. Certainly we know that he struggled to command respect from veteran players.

Dawkins Considering Retirement

Paul Domowitch:

Brian Dawkins said yesterday that he hasn’t yet made a decision on whether he wants to play a 17th NFL season.

The 38-year-old, nine-time Pro Bowl safety, who has played the last three seasons in Denver after leaving the Eagles as a free agent in 2009, missed four of the Broncos’ last five games, including both of their playoff games, with a neck injury. He will be a free agent in March.

The Eagles defense still hasn’t recovered from losing Dawkins and Jim Johnson after the 2008 season. Those were good times.

Why Castillo? Look to Sean McDermott

Sean McDermott

Others have tried to explain what exactly Andy Reid was thinking when he promoted Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. For the record, I didn’t understand it to begin with:

Even scarier is that Castillo seemingly has no conceptual plan for the defense… Washburn runs the defensive front autonomously, and Castillo’s going to plan the back seven to “complement” his ideas? That doesn’t sound like a defensive coordinator with a coherent plan… At the end of the day, Reid couldn’t justify this decision with Castillo’s experience or knowledge or preparation. He had to fall back on “desire” and even an outlandish connection to the risk other people took when promoting Reid himself (under much more logical circumstances).

The best explanation I can come up with nine months later doesn’t actually have much to do with Castillo himself, but rather his predecessor Sean McDermott.

To start, I don’t think Reid is particularly partisan when it comes to defensive schemes. He was happy to bring Jim Johnson and let him run his blitz-happy system, although if Johnson was a Cover Two guy, it might not have made much difference. Reid has always been an offensive coach, and making sure he had a defensive coordinator who could pick a successful system and run it without help must have been the goal.

When Johnson died in 2009, Reid promoted McDermott, hoping that the young secondary coach could carry the defense forward. And if you remember, all of McDermott’s statements echoed that call for stability. Like this one:

“There is one thing I know, and that is that this system,” McDermott said. “It works. Jim has spent a considerable amount of time in his coaching career researching and finding things that work and finding things that didn’t work, quite frankly, and I’m going to respect that and we’re going to build on that. From there we’ll add wrinkles.”

Not only did the Eagles not have the time to conduct a full coordinator search, Reid was hoping that McDermott could keep everything going in such a way that the head coach wouldn’t have to worry about things on that side of the ball.

Obviously it didn’t work out. But what problems did McDermott have that Reid felt he couldn’t ignore? The first was tactical. McDermott’s schemes were often overly complicated. His “wrinkles,” like frequently dropping Trent Cole back into a zone or having a linebacker race across the defense to cover a tight end or running back, hurt more than they helped. Complicated schemes made the players seem a step slow. McDermott also lost the respect of the players in the locker room. Reporters started to hear off-the-record bad mouthing of the coach that never would have happened during Johnson’s time.

If those were your two biggest problems, I could see where it might seem logical to find someone as opposite of McDermott as possible. That’s where Castillo comes in. The man has always been respected and praised by his unit. He’s an enthusiastic, energetic leader. Plus, without a deep background in defensive coaching, a simpler scheme was almost guaranteed:

“First of all, what we’re going to do is be fast and physical, and we’re going to be fundamentally sound. We have good players here. This is the NFL, you change, you upgrade, players get hurt, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

As Sam Lynch noted, Reid’s course correction away from the McDermott errors may have been the right move in theory. But, clearly, Castillo’s promotion took the idea at least a a few steps too far.

Photo from Getty.

Andy Reid, Trying Something New On Defense

Andy Reid Philadelphia Eagles Coaching Scheme Change

One item picked up around the blogosphere recently is a quotation by soon-to-be-former Eagles safety Quintin Mikell as told to Geoff Mosher:

“I kind of get that vibe,” Mikell said, when asked if the Eagles were shifting from an aggressive, blitz-happy attack to a tempered Cover 2 scheme. “I know Coach Reid has wanted to run the Cover 2 for a long time. It seems like the past couple of years we’ve been slowly progressing toward that. It might be moving toward that. I think he [Castillo] is going to kind of tweak things here and there. It’s gong to be kind of the same 4-3 but I think it’s going to be a little less based on scheme and more based on guys just kicking somebody’s butt.”

The Cover 2 defensive scheme has a number of variations, but overall it is the opposite of the blitz heavy system that the Eagles have employed through the tenures of Jim Johnson and Sean McDermott. Cover 2 typically involves a lot of zone coverage and preventing big plays rather than pressuring the quarterback above all else. And there are a lot of reasons why such a system makes more sense for this Eagles team.

However, what really strikes me is not the formation change, but the notion that Andy Reid may have wanted to try a different scheme out for a long time. NFL coaches typically spend their entire careers emphasizing the same system with the same type of coaches. Especially guys like Reid, long term successes, don’t often change their ways. But that is exactly what Reid has done, both on the offensive line, bringing in Howard Mudd, and on defense, where he seems to be letting Juan Castillo change a system that has largely been the same for the last 12 years.

This offseason was really the first chance Reid had to shake things up on defense. Even when Jim Johnson passed away, it happened too close to the start of the season to let anyone other than McDermott carry on. But with that chapter closed, Reid can start fresh. And he appears to be taking full advantage of that opportunity. We’ll see how it turns out.

Photo from Getty.

Friday Figures: Blitzing Tony Romo (or Not)

Tony Romo Sacked Philadelphia Eagles Defense Sean Jones Trent Cole Juqua Parker

Just a quick stats post here for people to ruminate on over the weekend, before I hit you with some big news on Monday…

Today over at Iggles Blog, Derek has an insightful breakdown of the situational blitzing differences between the late Jim Johnson and rookie defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. His analysis led me to look back over the two sample game charts Football Outsiders released: the first halves of the two 2009 regular season Eagles-Cowboys games.

2009 Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush Blitzers by DownFirst of all, let me just throw up the numbers for all of last year’s blitzing on the right. Overall, McDermott seems to have brought a few more blitzers on third down than JJ, but other than that the defensive playcalling was fairly consistent from 2008.

But were the game plans for the Cowboys games very different? Absolutely. In fact, the two were completely opposite. Here they are.

Eagles Blitzing against Dallas Cowboys Week 9 17 First Half by DownOn top you can see the differences in percentage from the season average for the first game. In this one the Eagles blitzed constantly, sending five, six, and seven guys after the quarterback way more than average. In fact, only on first down did McDermott blitz less than half the time.

Then a complete reversal for week seventeen. In every area where the defense had blitzed more than average in the first game, they did the opposite for the second meeting. Compared to 16 blitzes in the first half of week nine, come January the Eagles only blitzed four times! Perhaps the Eagles coaching staff thought that they had failed with the blitz in the first matchup, or they believed a coverage-based approach would surprise Dallas. Either way, the about-face is startling.

Eagles Blitz Effectiveness against Dallas Cowboys Week 9 17 First Half by DownOf course, we know that this change didn’t work too well. Which leads us to the final charts of the evening (at right), which shows the  effectiveness of the two game plans. I’m not sure that this can be extrapolated out for more than this particular case, but here the results suggest one thing.

Blitzing when the Cowboys didn’t expect it, i.e. on first and second down, was fairly successful. Outside of one long second down pass, the Eagles stifled Tony Romo with the blitz. But on third down, the roles were reversed. At least in these two halves, dropping players back into coverage was slightly more effective than blitzing.

Friday Figures: Eagles 2009 Pass Rush Numbers

Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush 2008 2009 Sack Ben Rothlisberger Dan Klecko Juqua Parker Omar Gaither

One of the biggest stories of the offseason (second only to the reason I started this blog) has been the complete retooling of the Eagles’ defensive line.

While the Eagles still blitzed a lot with new Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, the coaches clearly wanted better production from the front four:

“It would be nice if we’re able to get pressure from just rushing four and not [have to] rely on the blitz as we had to last year to some extent,” McDermott said. “When you can get pressure from your front four, that alleviates a lot of your problems.”

But was the front four really the problem? Looking at PFF’s defensive stats from the last two years, we can see how effective various parts of the pass rush were from the late Jim Johnson in 2008 to McDermott in 2009. The chart below shows the change in percent of total rushes and negatve plays (Sacks, Hits, Pressues, Batted Passes) made by each unit.

Eagles Pass Rush Efficiency by Position

In case the chart isn’t completely intuitive, “DE % Rush” is the percent of total “Pass Rushes” by defensive ends (including the DEs that move inside on passing downs). “DE % Eff” is just the negative plays caused by this group, divided by their number of rushes. Then there’s the year-over-year difference.

As we’ve talked about on multiple occasions, the pass rush from defensive tackles is basically non-existant. Although guys like Bunkley, Patterson, Laws, and Dixon were in the game on more than one quarter of pass plays, they caused negative plays for the offense less than five percent of the time. That’s the most obvious sign yet that the Eagles are getting no pressure from those big fellas.

The linebackers, despite the drastic injuries, seem to have come out pretty much even on blitz pressure. The defensive backs definitely were less effective — but they account for only seven percent of all pass rushes. Still, perhaps because their blitzing was so infrequent, it was more effective than anything else.

So that brings us back to the defensive ends, the guys who are being paid pretty much exclusively to get after the quarterback. How’d they do? Pretty much the same overall from 2008. There was a drop by a little more than a percentage point. This is a much bigger portion of the total rushes, so one percent means a lot more, but it still doesn’t tell me that the Eagles got significantly worse all of sudden along the front line.

What if we compare by player? Here’s 2008 and 2009, for every player who rushed the passer at least 20 times (“Per Game” stats are based on ~62 offensive plays, all passes).

2008 Eagles Pass Rush by Player

2009 Eagles Pass Rush by Player

All of the defensive ends outside of Trent Cole and Victor Abiamiri declined from 2008 to 2009. And considering none are really up-and-coming youngsters, it probably was a good idea to bring in some fresh blood.

Other interesting things: Sheldon Brown went from 35 blitzes under Jim Johnson to a mere five with McDermott. A healthy Joselio Hanson looks like his still and effective blitzer from the slot. Surprising no one, Asante Samuel has only blitzed six times in in the last two seasons.

Omar Gaither is a really effective blitzer. Too bad his days in Philly seem numbered. And here’s yet more evidence that Chris Gocong probably should not have been stuck at SAM linebacker.

I really kind of like this “Negative Plays Per Rush” stat. It might be interesting to compare various players, such as Trent Cole, to others around the NFL at their positions…