Not all blitzes are created equal. That much was evident when reviewing how Billy Davis made calls in his debut as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator last week.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Birds sent five rushers or more at Robert Griffin 22 times. On those plays, he went 9-for-20 for 78 yards, an interception and was sacked twice. Keep in mind, as a rookie, Griffin completed 69 percent of his attempts against the blitz, throwing nine touchdowns and no interceptions, per Stats, Inc.
Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the Eagles rushed four 77.8 percent of the time, tops in the league. But that number is going to take a dip in 2013.
“The scheme is built to where any member of the defense can be blitzing at any given time,” Davis said. “We have blitzes for every position – corners, safeties, nickels, dimes, mike backers. Anybody can be a blitzer. Either through an active call or a check.”
Last week’s game plan focused on stopping the run early. Once the Eagles built a lead, Davis was able to dial up some extra pressure and fall back into deep zones. Either the Eagles were going to get to the quarterback, or Griffin was going to have to settle for an underneath throw. Griffin only completed two passes that traveled more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, and both were late in the fourth quarter, per Pro Football Focus.
One of the reasons Davis was able to mix things up is because he feels he has some versatile pieces on defense. For example, let’s take a look at the Cary Williams interception in the third.
Here, you’ll see both safeties – Patrick Chung (left of your screen) and Nate Allen inching up towards the line of scrimmage. They’re both going to blitz off the edges. The Eagles have three down linemen, including Trent Cole, who is set up Wide-9ish at right defensive end.
Connor Barwin (red arrow) is used in a variety of places in the Eagles’ nickel package. Here, he’s threatening the line of scrimmage, but is actually going to drop back.
The Eagles are in a three-deep zone, but look at who is acting as a free safety: It’s linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
“I feel like coaches will put certain things in, certain packages for me and other players and really utilize our skill set and put us in the best position to make plays, so I’m excited,” Kendricks said.
“I’m gonna get me a pick,” he added, when asked about this play specifically.
The blitz didn’t get home, Griffin made a poor throw, and Williams made a great play to come up with the pick.
All summer, we’ve been asking Brandon Boykin about playing outside corner. But maybe we should have been asking him about playing outside linebacker instead. Take a look at this setup in nickel.
Allen comes up to press the receiver, and Boykin sets up outside the left defensive end.
Barwin confirmed that in this nickel look, he and Boykin are essentially the outside linebackers. Barwin usually plays on the left side, but here he moves over to the right. The Eagles have three down linemen, including Cole.
“I do enjoy it,” Boykin said, when asked about going after the quarterback. “I got kind of close to him one time and was able to get my hands on him. I like to think that I helped get the ball out early, so hopefully I’ll have a lot more of that going on this year.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Boykin rushed the QB five times vs. the Redskins. In all of 2012, he rushed a total of six times. This isn’t to say that he’s the next Bruce Smith. But disguise is a big part of Davis’ defense, and in the opener, he showed a new wrinkle with Boykin.
“What I was trying to do was keep them off balance, and I keep coming back to that,” Davis said. “I think the best defenses are the ones that keep an offense’s rhythm guessing.”
Jon Gruden called it a “green dog.” Barwin called it a “hug rush.” Both titles refer to a player keying in on an offensive player and deciding what to do based on that player’s actions.
Said more simply: If the player goes out into a route, you’re in coverage. If he stays in to block, you are free to blitz.
Here, again, you see Boykin basically set up as the right outside linebacker. Ryans starts about 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. The player he’s keying in on is running back Alfred Morris.
When the ball is snapped, Morris stays in to block Boykin off the edge, and Brandon Graham, who was set up at right defensive end, rushes inside, taking left tackle Trent Williams with him. That opens up a nice lane for Ryans.
“Just read it, saw the hole open up and just took it,” Ryans said.
Added Barwin: “There’s certain read blitzes where you have coverage, but if your guy stays in to block, you blitz. …I don’t think we blitzed very much at all. They max-protected. They kept in six, seven guys to protect, put out three receivers. You’re gonna have those guys as soon as those guys stay in to block. So it looks like a blitz, which that is what you want people to think, but I don’t really think we dialed it up that much.
“You don’t cover grass. You go and rush.”
There are different definitions for blitz. In this space, we’re generally referring to a pressure of five or more defenders. But Barwin’s point is that not all of those plays were called blitzes by Davis. Some were just the result of defenders reacting to what the offense was doing.
“Through the system and through the week, depending on what formations we’re getting and what protections, there’s so many things that go into it, but anybody can be a blitzer at any time,” Davis added.
Of course, there still were several called blitzes, like this one where Kendricks crushed Griffin.
Here, you see the pre-snap look. The Eagles are threatening six rushers: the three down linemen, Ryans, Kendricks and Barwin.
Take note of a couple things here once the ball is snapped. The first key on the play is Barwin. Even when outside linebackers drop into coverage, they are often taught to take a step forward first. That draws the attention of the offensive lineman who is responsible for them. Here, left tackle Trent Williams is preparing to block Barwin.
The other blue arrow shows Ryans. He’s charging hard into the A-Gap between the center and left guard. And right behind him is Kendricks.
Barwin drops back into coverage, and Williams tries to help on Cole. The running back and center both react to Ryans rushing. And Kendricks comes free, crushing Griffin as he releases the ball.
“It was an amazing game that he called,” Kendricks said of Davis. “We all got home, so any time that happens, you can’t complain, and I’m not gonna.
“We could do a lot better. There were a couple mess-ups on our part. Yesterday, when we came in, he said the same thing about himself. We all have things we need to fix across the board. So with him saying that and him trusting us in doing what we do, we give him the same respect and we trust him too.”
Late in the game, the defense faltered for a variety of reasons. Their cornerbacks got a bit banged-up, and the backups didn’t play as well. Davis kept blitzing, but the Eagles played soft coverage in the back end, allowing the Redskins to move the football methodically up and down the field. And Griffin started to make more plays.
But for the first three quarters, the ‘D’ was arguably the biggest surprise in the game. Davis passed his first test. With a wide variety of offenses on the schedule, he’ll likely need to cook up something different for the Chargers at the Linc Sunday afternoon.
Tim McManus contributed to this article.