On Monday morning, Earl Wolff woke up, got something to eat and turned on the tape.
He had made his first NFL start about 20 hours earlier in Denver, going up against Peyton Manning and a potent Broncos attack. Even though the Eagles suffered a 32-point loss, there were plenty of lessons to be gained for the rookie safety.
“As soon as I woke up, I ate breakfast, watched the game, went back through a lot of plays,” Wolff said. “I watched it about two or three times. I watched every play about three times and just was trying to figure out what I can do better in certain situations.”
Wolff is not hiding. Did he make his share of mistakes? Absolutely. But he holds himself accountable and is confident he’ll get better each week.
One learning moment came at the end of the first half. The Broncos faced a 2nd-and-12 from their own 8 with two minutes left. The Eagles showed a two-deep safety look before the snap.
But after the snap, Nate Allen moved up as an underneath defender, and Earl Wolff dropped back into the deep middle of the field as the free safety.
It was Cover-3 (full explanation here from Matt Bowen). The three deep defenders split the field into thirds. The cornerbacks maintain outside leverage with their backs to the sideline, knowing they have a middle defender for help.
Wolff’s responsibility here was to maintain depth over the top. But that didn’t happen.
Here, you can see Wolff was in trouble. Eric Decker ran a deep post against Cary Williams, and Wolff was caught playing too shallow.
“I should have been there to help Cary a little more because Cary was on the outside,” Wolff said. “But when I got to the post… I didn’t bite on the run or anything. I played the post. I didn’t get just slightly deep enough.”
It wasn’t a huge distance, but Wolff didn’t maintain his depth, allowing for the big play.
As you can see, Wolff has speed and made up some ground. But all it took was a couple missteps and a perfectly-placed Manning pass for a 52-yard gain.
“All I needed was about two or three more steps, man,” Wolff said. “And I feel like that game just allowed me to just realize what I need to do better. Just little things. Because I kind of like weaved to the post. If I would have opened up, I would have been deeper, which would allow me to make a better play on the ball, and Peyton might not have even thrown it.
“I’m glad those things happened. They happened early so I can learn from them and not make the same mistake.”
There’s also the question of how Billy Davis is deploying his personnel. We must first add the caveat that Manning is carving up defenses on a weekly basis. But certain aspects of the game-plan are worth zeroing in on.
For example, Wolff said he knew he was in trouble before the ball was even snapped on Wes Welker’s first-quarter touchdown.
The Broncos set up in a bunch formation, Davis blitzed Brandon Boykin, and the Eagles were in straight man coverage. That made Wolff responsible for Welker.
“Honestly, there’s not a whole lot I could have did there,” Wolff said. “I’m lined up inside and the only route that will get me is the out route. And that’s basically what it is. No lie, before the snap, I lined up, I said, ‘If he runs an out route, it’s a touchdown.’ That’s what I told myself, man. I was like, ‘I hope he doesn’t run an out route.’ And I kind of figured he was because on film, that’s what they did when they were in the bunch, No. 3 mostly runs an out route.”
No. 3 is the inside receiver in a bunch formation. An obvious question is: If Wolff knew the route was coming, why didn’t he cheat over more before the snap? But it’s not that simple.
“The thing is, Wes Welker, he’s the type of receiver to where if you’re lined up outside, he’ll run inside. Him and Peyton have option routes,” Wolff explained.
Here, you can see Wolff was doomed. If he cheated outside, the middle of the field would have been wide open for Welker. Both inside linebackers were blitzing. If he stayed inside, the out-route would have been open for a score. And that’s what happened.
“I was lined up inside, and coach basically [doesn't want me] showing it that much,” Wolff said, meaning Davis wants to disguise the look. “But when you’re in the red zone, you kind of have to tighten down, so I still was kind of over a little further.”
Wolff had no shot as Welker scampered in from 6 yards out.
The Eagles also had trouble getting the right personnel on the field at times. For example, on the Demaryius Thomas 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter, the Eagles were in their base 3-4 even though the Broncos were in ’11′ personnel with one RB, one TE and three wide receivers.
The Broncos again used a bunch look. This time, Brandon Graham was one of the three cover guys on that side of the field.
The Eagles blitzed from distance all game long, and it never worked. The All-22 shows why. The Broncos had a quarterback in Manning who gets rid of the ball quickly, and they were only 15 yards away from the end zone. Look at where Graham was rushing the QB from here.
That may be the longest arrow I’ve ever had to use in these All-22 breakdowns. Graham might as well have had to count to Six Mississippi. He had no chance of getting to the quarterback in time.
And as Derek Sarley pointed out over on Philly.com, that left the Eagles with 2-on-3 in coverage. Manning threw the screen to Thomas, the left tackle took out Wolff, and Welker blocked Williams as Thomas got into the end zone.
Earlier in the game, it was the opposite. The Eagles got caught in their nickel defense against 2-TE sets from Denver.
That’s Boykin at left outside linebacker and Trent Cole at defensive end. DeMeco Ryans got taken out by a pulling lineman, Wolff was blocked by a wide receiver, and Williams missed a tackle as the Broncos picked up 16 yards.
“That was my mistake,” Davis said. “I believe they were in three-wide receiver personnel grouping, so I got caught in a personnel I didn’t want to be in versus the no-huddle. So you can’t fix it in one play. I think they ran a sweep to the sideline and I fixed it. So that was my fault.”
One thing I’ll say about Cole: His effort really shows up on tape. At times, he’s being asked to two-gap against bigger guys as a down lineman (see above photo).
At other times, he’s lining up in space and dropping into coverage, dealing with a quickness disadvantage (yes, that’s Welker).
And there’s even a little Wide-9 throwback from time to time.
Cole has no sacks and two hurries, but is playing better than the numbers indicate, especially when you consider what’s being asked of him in certain situations.
Again, the Broncos are averaging 44.8 points per game. So the Eagles are not the first team that has looked this bad.
The decision has been made to push forward with the two-gap 3-4. Cedric Thornton even said yesterday that Davis is still showing the linemen Steelers tape as a teaching tool.
The hope from many Eagles fans is that this team stays competitive enough to be playing meaningful football in December. The Giants and Bucs rank 31st and 30th, respectively, on offense according to Football Outsiders. We’ll have a good idea 10 days from now whether this defense can be competent enough to keep the Eagles relevant in the months ahead.