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.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Safety

Eagles Safeties

What the Eagles did: Did you notice that safety was the only defensive position the Eagles left alone this offseason? They didn’t sign any free agents. They drafted no one to compete, not even a late round pick. The front office clearly trusts the young players already there. Whether that trust is warranted is a whole different matter.

At linebacker, which was probably the bigger disaster last year, the Eagles elected to try to replace two-thirds of its starters. That plan may or may not work, but the team certainly wasn’t content to wait and see if Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle, Casey Matthews, and others could improve. The team took the opposite approach at safety though. The plan appears to be giving third-year players Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman every chance to improve from last season.

This decision seems at least partially justified. Unlike the linebackers, both Allen and Coleman have had multi-game stretches of solid play. After falling out of the starting lineup completely in training camp while suffering lingering effects of his 2010 torn patellar tendon injury, Allen bounced back at the end of the year. While not a dominant athlete, Allen has all of the physical and mental tools necessary to be an above-average safety. Hopefully a healthy offseason will finally be the springboard to be that consistent in 2012.

Coleman has much more meager physical skills. He’s smaller and slower than Allen, which is why he was only a seventh-round pick in the same year. Overall, Coleman’s ceiling just isn’t very high. That said, he can be an average, or even good safety at times. He had eight or more tackles in four games last year (although that may speak more to LB quality) and, of course, his three interception game against the Redskins. Unfortunately, as Tommy Lawlor detailed a few weeks back, Coleman frequently screws up in the mental part of the game.

Jaiquawn Jarrett’s name should probably come up here. The former Temple product has his backers, although there’s little evidence the coaches are enamored with him at all. Despite being a second-round pick in 2011, Jarrett hasn’t even been in the conversation to start in 2012.

After that it’s unclear who will make the Eagles roster. Colt Anderson was a Pro Bowl-caliber special teams player last year but tore his ACL in December. Tom Nelson took his place and didn’t show much in the last few games. Philip Thomas, two-year starter at Syracuse, is an undrafted free agent the Eagles took a flier on. Nothing to count on.

What I would have done: Was there no veteran capable of competing with these players? Yeremiah Bell? Anyone?

Right now the Eagles have two players who have never demonstrated they can consistently start and three more who haven’t proven they even belong in the NFL (plus one injured special teams maven). That doesn’t inspire confidence.

Way-too-early prediction: Despite the fact that the Eagles have completely ignored the position, I still feel relatively optimistic. The assembled group is probably the weakest unit on the team (not counting fullback?), and I’m not expecting either Allen or Coleman to be world-beaters. In fact, I’m resigned to them both being below average. So how is that optimistic? Only because I think improved units in front of them and (hopefully) less convoluted coverage schemes will make their coverage screw-ups and poor tackling less noticeable.

As to Jarrett, I’m starting to wonder if he might not be around in a year’s time. The coaches have demonstrated absolutely zero faith in his abilities, and reports are that he has failed to bulk up like the team wished. Even more disturbing is that Jarrett couldn’t play special teams last year. He has time to turn things around and there’s quite a low bar of competition in training camp, but the signs thus far have been disconcerting.

Photo from Getty.

Bye McNabb and Kolb, Hello Defense

Sheil Kapadia has the breakdown of the complete haul the Eagles received for our revered blog namesakes:

McNabb and Kolb = Nate Allen, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Casey Matthews, Vinny Curry, Brandon Boykin, and DeMeco Ryans

Remains to be seen how all of these players will turn out but on the surface: not too shabby.

Will Nate Allen Finally Break Out in 2012?

John Breitenbach, for Pro Football Focus:

Having said that, Allen’s performances late in the season can give Eagles fans hope going into 2012. Following that New England debacle, he graded positively in each of the last five games, amassing a grade of +7.2 in that span. Overall, he finished at +3.8, good enough for 15th in the league last year. He looks ready to break out if he can remain fully healthy in 2012.

Over the last two seasons, Nate Allen has had stretches of games where he’s looked like an above average starter with good coverage and acceptable tackling ability. In his third season, maintaining that level through all 16 games would be a big boost to the Eagles defense.

Also check out Breitenbach’s take on some potential low-cost veteran additions to compete for the other safety spot.

Howie Roseman Reevaluating the Draft Process

Jason Pierre-Paul

One of the headlines coming out of Howie Roseman’s comments yesterday (here and here) was that the Eagles GM is open to changing his draft strategy, given the results so far. His exact words were:

“I think those are things that you have to look at and kind of evaluate and see if maybe you’re putting too much weight on one area and not another. Those are the things that you got to learn from and figure out.”

It was a vague statement, but one I’m glad to see. The last two drafts have been poor overall, and it’s vitally important that Roseman reevaluate his decision-making process going forward.

Regarding that process, Roseman had a few more quotes that shed light on some of the areas we had only assumed from his draft results. For example, Howie admitted that drafting the best player on the board is difficult when “human nature” gets involved and “you are pushing things up because there are things you want and whether that’s a specific position or a specific quality in a player — whether that’s toughness, intelligence, leadership.”

I’ve noted in the past that Roseman has almost exclusively drafted high character players with proven track records from big schools. Perhaps that’s a winning philosophy in general, but it has caused some notable misses (including everyone’s favorite bugaboo Jason Pierre-Paul).

Roseman expanded those thoughts regarding Brandon Graham:

“We’re talking about a guy that played four years at Michigan, was a two-time captain, averaged ten sacks a year. There was a great track record of success. I think for us, it wasn’t so much about the other players as it was the consistency he showed in college. A lot of times when you’re into the draft you have these decisions about making kind of what we talk about — doubles vs. Dave Kingman trying to go for the long ball. I’m not talking about a particularly player here, but those are some of the tough decisions that you have because you have other factors involved.”

Kingman, the 6’6” slugger/strike out artist from the ’70s and ’80s, sounds like an oblique reference to Pierre-Paul, but the point applies generally as well. With picks like Graham, Nate Allen, Danny Watkins, and Jaiquawn Jarrett, Roseman has tended toward safe, “doubles” players with leadership and steady performance — if not tremendous upside.

Maybe that’s reassuring, since all but Jarrett have at least shown the ability to be solid NFL starters. But we’re also not looking at any of these guys saying, “Wow,” like we are with DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy — players who had big questions marks coming out of college but also amazing star potential.

The final comment I want to highlight stems from a rewriting of history that Roseman supporters have often used:

“We feel like we’re having success, and if you get five or six players in every draft who make the team and three of them are starting, you’re drafting pretty well. Do we want impact guys in the first round? Of course we do. We want to draft those Pro Bowl guys and hit on every guy in the first round, but we’re going to look under every rock for impact guys, and if we get them in the sixth round or from the CFL or in free agency, the main thing is getting good players who can help us win.”

Roseman has done well at finding contributors in the later rounds, guys like Jamar Chaney, Kurt Coleman, Brian Rolle, and Jason Kelce. But other than Kelce (whose rookie season was overrated), none of these guys look like starters on a playoff team. They were starters for the Eagles in 2011 because of failures in the earlier rounds, and performed at about replacement level. More “successful” results like that won’t help the team get back to the Super Bowl any time soon.

At least Howie seems to realize that.

Photo from Getty.