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.

Tackling: Eagles Linebackers vs. DeMeco Ryans

DeMeco Ryans Tackle

If you’re like me, you haven’t seen many Texans games and you don’t know much about DeMeco Ryans other than by his reputation. Some folks study by watching game film, and I highly recommend you read up for that perspective. My habit is to reach for the stats.

The stats, of course, are incomplete. This is especially true when trying to quantifying the production of a middle linebacker. With defensive linemen you can look at sacks. With corners you can look at interceptions and yards per attempt against. But middle linebackers are tough.

Largely we look at tackles to tell us about our linebackers, but that’s by far from a perfect statistic. Tackles are influenced by the broader scheme, the intricacies that make even 4-3 defenses different, and the performance of players in front and behind the defense’s middle management.

Still, it’s all we have, so we might as well use it up. Jimmy Kempski, that mustachoed maven of the NFC East, wrote a post yesterday in which he pulled “Snaps Per Tackle” from 25 inside linebackers last season.

To take what he’s done one step further, and give it a more Eagles-bent, I used similar data from Pro Football Focus. However, I only looked at snaps and tackles in the run game. Below you can find the middle linebacker performance of both Eagles linebackers and Ryans since 2008:

Eagles Linebackers DeMeco Ryans Tackling Stats

Because of all the factors involved (as well as inevitable inconsistencies in the original data), I wouldn’t blow any one of these numbers out of proportion. Tackles, missed tackles, and stops all together can give us a interesting look at production.

Examining the Eagles stats first though, it looks like stop percentage may be the most relevant stat of the bunch. Tackle percentages are all over the map, and missed tackles can depend so much on just a few plays. But stops — not tackles for a loss, but prevention of a “positive” play — seem to correspond to what our eyes tell us is a good linebacker play. For example, both Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews scored very poorly in 2011 by this measure, while Chaney’s moments of glory at the end of 2010 account for his high marks then.

Looking just at Ryans’s stats, it’s obvious that he had a down year in 2011. Not only did the new 3-4 scheme limit his playing time, but he was less productive across the board on a per snap basis. Ryans’s stop percentage dropped dramatically last year, and is the lowest figure on among all players listed above. Prior to his 2010 achilles injury though, he posted solid, if not spectacular numbers. Missed tackles were really his only run defense problem in 2008-2009.

At the end of the day, the numbers suggest some cause for worry, especially about his most recent performance. However, if Ryans can return to his pre-injury performance in a 4-3 scheme, the Eagles have found a very solid middle linebacker going forward.

Photo from Getty.

The Truth About Bad Luck

Riley Cooper Philadelphia Eagles

Friend of the blog Justin F. wrote a post at Bleeding Green Nation in which he calculated the Eagles’ Pythagorean win percentage, a metric that estimates a team’s wins based simply on points scored and allowed. Justin notes that the Eagles jump up to just over .500 if you calculate win percentage using the Pythagorean method (compared to .385 in real life). Then he offers a common explanantion:

So why is there a such a discrepancy between the Eagles’ actual win percentage and Pythagenport win percentage?

A very good question, and the answer probably is not what people want to hear and/or believe, although it is true. In one word: luck. In two words: bad luck.

What follows in the comments at BGN is a discussion that unfortunately devolves into rambling incoherency, where the luck explanation is aligned with a belief in stats and doubters read like WIP callers. But the truth is more nuanced.

Explaning the difference between actual and Pythagorean win percentage as “bad luck” is overly simplistic. That is one possible explanation, but should not be used as an all-encompassing default. Rather, we must examine whether bad luck is actually the cause.

There are certain well-known measures for luck in the NFL. For example, fumble recovery, field goal percentage, schedule strength, and injuries. However, the Eagles haven’t had a problem with any of those.

The Eagles have recovered 48 percent of fumbles, just barely below average. They’re 10th-best in field goal percentage, with Alex Henery hitting 86 percent. Meanwhile, Eagles opponents are actually worst in the NFL, making only 65 percent of their attempts. The Eagles have faced the 18th-hardest DVOA schedule, and the three games Michael Vick lost to injury were average. No evidence of bad luck here.

However, there are plenty of other non-luck outlying factors that could account for the actual-Pythagorean discrepancy. Factors like:

  • 30th in the NFL in opponent red zone TD percentage.
  • 26th in fourth quarter points allowed.
  • 32nd in interception percentage.
  • 25th in first down-inducing penalties.
  • 19th in DVOA variance.
  • 27th in missed tackles (as of week nine).

If you’re going to call the 2011 Eagles underachieving — a label I’m not adverse to using — don’t blame it on the easy out. Luck is always involved, but it shouldn’t be an automatic determination. The above factors are much more likely to be the cause.

Photo from Getty.

Fundamentally Sound

“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.”

Nodding…

NFL Missed Tackles 2011 Weeks 1-9

(Data from Pro Football Focus)

Michael Vick is a Scrambler, Not a Runner

Michael Vick Philadelphia Eagles QB Scrambling

What made Michael Vick so much better in 2010 than he was in 2009? To some extent we already know the narrative. Vick needed a year to mature, to learn the system, to shake off the rust, to get back his trademark speed.

But I wonder now how much was really physical improvement from year one to year two and how much was simply opportunity. Obviously such a question is hard to measure.

One statistic does make that case, though. If we look purely at Vick’s running chances, we see that he didn’t really improve - he just had different (read: better) opportunities.

In 2010, according to Pro Football Focus, Vick was in on 21 planned runs, not including QB sneaks or kneel downs. On those runs, which were mostly wildcat plays, Vick averaged only 3.9 yards per carry and caused only three missed tackles. I wouldn’t necessarily call him ineffective just based on those numbers, but everyone wondered if those snaps were better spent with Donovan McNabb at the helm.

Fast forward a year, and Vick had almost the exact same number of planned runs. In 29 chances, Vick ran for 3.8 yards per carry and four total missed tackles. Those numbers are almost identical to 2009. He didn’t show any increased speed or agility in that category of plays.

Vick’s “newfound” speed in 2010 manifested only in scrambling attempts. In that subset of runs, Vick averaged 9.6 yards per scramble, scored 10 touchdowns and broke 22 tackles in 62 attempts. Since Vick wasn’t on the field to pass in 2009, he never got the opportunity to scramble. Yet that was where he was most effective - and where I’d reckon he has always been most effective.

Vick isn’t a really a “running quarterback.” Like many others before him, Vick is a scrambler. That’s what separates him from the pack, or, more accurately, from the defenders. When he wasn’t utilized that way in the last two years, he was ineffective.

Hopefully, in 2011 the Eagles will leave the planned runs to LeSean McCoy and let Michael Vick do what he does best: improvise.

Photo from Getty.

Why "Be Fundamentally Sound" is a Worthless Strategy

Every NFL coach or coordinator who’s ever taken a job has emphasized “fundamentals.” On the defensive side, you have to play aggressively, be physical, make sound tackles. Yet, according to his statements over the last few days, that’s essentially new Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s entire plan: “be fundamentally sound.”

Certainly we wouldn’t expect Castillo to lay out his whole defensive philosophy in his first press conference. But two years ago, when Sean McDermott replaced the late Jim Johnson, we did get an immediate sense that McDermott had a clear idea of his Xs and Os. On his first day, the former coordinator said:

“There is one thing I know, and that is that this system, 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.”

McDermott obviously had a plan to take the blitz concepts and continue to tinker with them. When asked basically the same question, Castillo replied:

“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.”

Since Castillo has defended those talking points recently on the radio as being the key to his success as an offensive line coach, we can assume for now that it’s essentially his philosophy. At this point you might say: what’s wrong with emphasizing fundamentals? McDermott was a scheme guy, and that didn’t turn out particularly well. Maybe if we get a coordinator who puts a priority on tackling and other basics, that will be enough to put the defense over the top.

There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, teaching fundamentals alone won’t set you apart. Doesn’t every coach teach fundamentals? You don’t think Super Bowl defensive coordinators Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers put their teams through endless tackling and other drills in practice? Of course they do. But they also have talented players and put them in good positions to succeed through complex coverage and pressure schemes.

The second problem is that this theory is based on an underlying bias we have toward valuing what we can see. The biggest example of this is missed tackles. Every fan and their grandmother can see when Asante Samuel whiffs on a running back coming right at him or Juqua Parker comes up empty on an easy sack. At the end of the game, we tend to blame these mistakes for the defense’s failure and make comments like, “they need to go back to fundamentals.”

Yet missed tackles are only one tiny part of a horrible defensive play or series. Think about everything else that went into that: bad play calling, inadequate scheme, unbalanced one-on-one match ups, lack of player talent, poor decision-making and play recognition, failure to get off blocks or take a correct angle on the ball-carrier, even luck. All these factors matter much more than a given missed tackle, but we only remember Nate Allen diving for the running back’s ankles and coming up empty.

Statistically, though, fewer missed tackles has zero correlation to a better defense. There’s no connection between missed tackles and opponent yards, points, or touchdowns per drive. Why? Because while missed tackles stick out in our minds, there aren’t enough to radically affect the success of defense. The difference between the very best and very worst tackling teams in the NFL in 2010 is about three missed tackles per game. Insignificant.

That’s why it’s worrisome to hear that Castillo’s only talking point is that the defense in 2011 is going to “be fundamentally sound.” That might work in the offensive line trenches, but in the grand chess match of offensive vs. defensive coordinators, fundamentals just don’t make as big of a difference.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.