Billy Davis felt like words alone couldn’t get his message across, so he reached over and grabbed the sleeve of a reporter’s shirt with his thumb and index finger.
“They’re throwing everything. They’re not playing. That one that got us off the field… [Tom] Brady to Curtis Marsh, the 3rd-and-3. I swear, it was that,” he said, barely yanking on the sleeve. “But it was that. He did it. So the flag was our’s. But it was only that. It wasn’t the pull where it moved his body. It was a feeler cloth deal. Can’t complain because we did it, but…”
Defensive coaches at the NovaCare Complex are walking a fine line. They don't want to make excuses when asked about the new emphasis on illegal contact downfield. But they want to be honest in explaining that the job of defenders in coverage just got a whole lot more difficult.
What's perhaps more fascinating, though, when it comes to the Eagles is how the emphasis affects the other side of the ball.
"Everyone tried to play a lot of man, but now with these new rules, you don’t know cause you can’t really put hands on people down the field, so we’ll see," said Brent Celek.
Beating man coverage became Chip Kelly's obsession this offseason. He saw how teams played the Eagles last year, crowding the box and stationing one deep safety. The strategy was clear: Hone in on LeSean McCoy and force the receivers to win one-on-one matchups.
But if the games continue to be called like we've seen in the preseason, playing man coverage will be more difficult. It will require superb technique and top-level athleticism from NFL cornerbacks.
Todd Lyght started 167 games throughout the course of a 12-year career. He is now the Eagles assistant defensive backs coach. Lyght recently recalled the different tricks he'd been taught to stick with and slow down opposing receivers.
"In the middle part of the route with physical play, getting your elbow out, pushing off on a receiver, maybe grabbing their wrist or slapping the hand or even putting your hand on his legs to keep them from getting their knees high so they’re not able to run fast," he said. "That was a technique that was used back in the day. All these techniques are knocked out of the ballpark now. Now it’s a complete footrace. So guys that are great athletes are gonna be the ones that are gonna be able to adapt. The lesser athletes are gonna really struggle."
Even though he's a defensive coach, Lyght shared his thoughts on how the changes will affect the Eagles' offense.
"What a lot of people did against us last year was play a lot of man to man in order to take away all that space that was given in zone concepts," he said. "I’m not sure with the rule changes if they’re gonna be able to play as much man against us this year as they did last year. So it’s gonna be interesting to see how people attack us defensively."
Asked if he agreed that playing man would be more difficult, wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell said: "I hope so. I think that regardless, just watching when our officials were here and seeing how they were calling it, I think it will be a more fair and true interaction between DBs and wide receivers. It is true now. We are running routes. They are covering routes. We are not pushing off or shoving and fighting to get off and all those types of things. And they’re not grabbing and holding us.
"I don’t know if it changes the scheme. That’s what we’ll have to see. I don’t know if it makes people say, ‘You know what? We can’t really just tackle everybody, so let’s play a little more zone and let’s do those things.’ But that remains to be seen. Obviously, we’re ready for anything."
The Eagles' offense is based in large part on how many defenders are in the box and where the safeties are stationed. They want to spread defenses out and run the ball whenever they can. That's Kelly's philosophy, and it suits the personnel (McCoy and a strong offensive line) perfectly.
"No one is going to play us in two‑deep because if you play us in two‑deep, we can run the heck out of the ball," Kelly said earlier this summer.
Added Zach Ertz: "If teams are gonna play with two high safeties, we’ve got an extra guy blocking. And if we’ve got an extra guy blocking, we should be able to crease ‘em every time with LeSean [McCoy]. He’s gonna pick the right hole and he’s gonna make somebody miss, and we’re gonna be out the gate. So if teams play zone, it’s tough for them to stop us."
In many ways, the rule emphasis is playing right into Kelly's hands. Beating man coverage (or at least drawing flags) should be easier. Because of the Eagles' ability to run the ball, their use of packaged plays and a focus on putting defenders in positions of conflict, playing zone will not be easy either.
Of course, Kelly is not willing to admit any of these things until he sees how the regular season games are called.
"The rule is the same rule it's always been," he said. "It's just I think after 5 yards, some teams got away with things 6, 7, 8 yards down the field, and that's where those are the rules. So I don't think they're doing anything different. But that first 5 yards, it’s still a battle. That's what the teams that still have big, physical corners are still going to be. [They’ll] have big, physical corners. You just can't continue it after 5 yards."
Added Lyght: "We want to be physical at the line of scrimmage, but like I told our defenders, we’ve only got 5 yards. You have to put in all your work at 5 yards. After that, it turns into a footrace."
Davis, meanwhile, pointed out that the emphasis will affect zone coverages as well.
"It doesn’t matter if it’s man or zone because in a lot of our zones, we press and cover," he said. "It’s about hands down the field. A lot of times, a defensive back, just to get a feel, you may be looking in a zone, you have zone eyes [towards the quarterback], and you may just put your hands out to feel where he is because you’re not looking at him. That is now a flag. The feeler touch that we’ve been doing is what we have to eliminate. That’s our goal."
The difference in opinion between the guys on offense and the guys on defense is stark. The defenders are scrambling, looking to refine their technique and avoid flags now that they've seen how the officials are calling it in the preseason.
The offensive players, meanwhile, are licking their chops. With the league again catering to their side of the ball, the emphasis should make their lives easier.
"Here’s the bottom line," said Bicknell. "We teach guys, 'OK, we’re gonna run a certain route. We’re gonna get to 10 yards, we’re gonna stick our foot in the ground and we’re gonna go on an angle or whatever it is.' When you do that and you feel that stick and they grab you by the shoulders or they’re tackling you and there’s no call, I might have gotten away, but I’m too flat or I’m too high or I’m spinning around. Any receiver will benefit from that. I think if you’re a quick guy, it benefits because you’ll be able to work off the line. If you’re a fast guy, it benefits you because people won’t be able to slow you down. If you’re a big guy, it benefits you because they won’t be able to grab your shoulders."
Asked if it would be easier to get open downfield, Riley Cooper said: "Yeah, I’d imagine. … It’s very beneficial to the offense and receivers getting open. Them not being able to touch you after 5 yards is obviously big. That has been the rule forever. Why they got away from it, I have no idea. But I’m glad they’re starting to call it."
The seeds for the changes were planted at the owners meetings down in Orlando, Fla. back in March. Officials visited Eagles training camp to go over the details with the players this summer. But it took until preseason games for everyone to realize the extent of the enforcement.
Clearly, the defense faces a serious challenge as it tries to improve on last year's performance. But if teams have difficulty playing a lot of man coverage, the Eagles' offense is in position to take advantage.