Rule Emphasis Affects Man Coverage, Benefits Eagles

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

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.

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  • MediaMike

    We’ll see how much of this carries over to the regular season. The games are already unwatchable due to flags in the pre-season and the overall quality of the NFL game wasn’t being hurt by what the refs allowed last year. There are already too many rules that favor the WRs as is, we don’t need more.

    • DoctorRick

      Holy cow! I agree with MediaMike.
      If the number of flags slows the game down and number of viewers drops, the league (refs) will get pressure from TV and advertisers to speed it back up.

      • southy

        It’s kind of sad that this is what we have to rely on.

      • Jason

        I disagree, college basketball went thru the same thing with the hand check rule. And everybody still watched march madness. Players will adjust real quick if the officials continue to be consistent with it. My biggest concern is the consistency of the call.

        • DoctorRick

          We’ll find out. If the refs don’t continue to call it the same way they will lose credibility. If they do continue to stay tight the players will have no choice but to adapt. I agree with the consistency thing.

    • Reef215

      If the Eagles want to have a chance of playing Seattle in the NFC championship game they NEED this rule. And this isn’t to beat them, that’s just to get there. Because there’s only one team that doesn’t have a 5 yd defensive holding penalty and that’s the Seattle Seahawks.

  • furiousxgeorge

    Some people have suggested being shut down by physical play is part of why they let DeSean go, does this new emphasis mean that was maybe a mistake or was his big problem getting off the jam which is still a legal part of coverage?

    • cliff h-MOAR white goons

      i dont think so. now more than ever you’ll need to beat physical press. almost have to be able to get to qb or throw off timing of route. let any WR have free release, with these rules, even mid level WR will be open. the better CBs will be the ones who are better jammers.

      • MediaMike

        Which is why people thinking this rule emphasis hurts Seattle are making me laugh.

        • cliff h-MOAR white goons

          taking away rules that help the lesser talented players never hurts the better ones. see it in Marsh, he went from maybe a 5th corner pushing for a spot to shouldnt even a camp bad.

        • Bullwinkle

          Seattle will jam them, but can slower guys like Sherman (4.54 40) run with the receivers after the jam without using the types of tricks Todd Lyght describes above?

          • Kleptolia

            If he jams them right, he won’t have to run. They’ll be on the ground….

          • Rockedupeaglesfan

            How many time have you seen Sherman jam someone to the ground?

          • Kleptolia

            Oh, boy.

          • Rockedupeaglesfan

            Yawn

          • Kleptolia

            *stretch*
            *cough*

            [crickets]

          • Rockedupeaglesfan

            Sorry, the grown-ups were talking, but you felt like you weren’t getting enough attention. Sooo are we done here, do you feel validated?

          • Kleptolia

            Sorry, man. I didn’t see that this was the grown-ups chamber, what with not being able to see you and all.
            I’ll see myself to the Kiddie Korner.

            ….BGN, right? Or is it Iggles Blitz?

          • MediaMike

            He can certainly cover “sorry” players like Crabtree

      • Rockedupeaglesfan

        I respectfully disagree. The jam hasn’t changed, except now it’s a true 5yd area not a fuzzy 6-7 yrd contact zone. But with zero tolerance for down field contact Djax will be cut lose to run free through secondaries. Plus, DBs previously were given an extra chuck downfield when a QB scrambled, I bet that is gone. So you have Djax with a mobile QB extending plays, I think it’s trouble, if Griffen can stay healthy.

        • cliff h-MOAR white goons

          jax is good, he’ll still make plays. but if they werent getting him within 5 yds, they werent near him at 7 or 8, so what’s the difference? all you are describing is jax w/ vick, it doesnt work consistantly.

          • Rockedupeaglesfan

            Jax with Vick with point of emphasis in their favor.

          • cliff h-MOAR white goons

            sure, you’ll see some highlite plays. that doesnt win consistantly, think we all know this. before CBs might be able to get by that werent good jammers if they got some refs help. now, every single CB will have to jam. you cant jam, you cant play, unless elite cover guy, and only 2 or 3 of them. i dont think Jax will get better at battling thru 5 yd contact faster than CBs will get better at jamming. what they did with Barwin at LOS beating 1 guy up, taking his timing out will have to be common place.
            .
            start doing trips, quads and stacks to hide him, then alternate choice is to kill qb. dont know how else to defend. we better hope scheme gets those free rushers.

          • Kleptolia

            I wonder what would happen if you went nickle and doubled certain receivers at the LOS. Keep them from getting off the line and you could negate speed.
            Of course, that would force a linebacker or safety to fill an extra hole.
            However, if done right and used sparingly, it MIGHT be an effective techinque.
            Of course, I’m not a coach, so…..yeah. Ask Reasonableeaglefan about it.

          • cliff h-MOAR white goons

            depends if teams are willing to run. and if your nickle can defend run. also will really help if you can have cover safeties and stay in base in early downs. why these rules should help Eagles. you have to jam, but if jamming, better have over-top help, basically cant load box. kelly will just spread you out more and more, and run right up a light box.

          • Kleptolia

            Yep. These rules obviously benefit the offense. However, the Eagles were able to play well on Antonio Brown, and he’s not slow.
            It will be encouraging if they get the same secondary play during the regular season.

          • Rockedupeaglesfan

            It’s funny how many people around here are ok with the concept that the scheme will generate free rushers, but they didn’t want to back the idea that Chip could scheme Jax free releases. I’d love to see Chip be creative with formations, motion, etc and see what Jax would do with the new point of emphasis.

          • Andy Six Score and Four

            Define: “back the idea that Chip could scheme Jaccson free releases”?

            I don’t recall anyone denying that he could. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that we saw a stat that all but 14 of his receptions came with free releases (that’s off of memory so the number might be a little off).

            Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with you, mainly because it’s not clear what you’re accusing the nameless masses of.

          • Rockedupeaglesfan

            The nameless masses, put forth the idea that he couldn’t be beat pressand that that the league figured him out. My thoughts are that he could thrive in an offense where chip schemes his releases, and the league has cut back the amount of contact allowed in the secondary

          • Kleptolia

            I agree with this.
            I think Kelly just didn’t want to have to explain to Jackson what was expected of him every single day.
            I think the release of Jackson was about personality, to an extent. Kelly and Jackson just couldn’t see eye to eye in a football environment.
            One of them had to go, and Kelly’s the coach.

          • Andy Six Score and Four

            No one said the league has figured him out. That’s just not… reasonable. And of course he could thrive in a offense where Chip schemes his releases. We just watched a full season of exactly that.

          • cliff h-MOAR white goons

            i would have kept d-jax for another year. but a, it freed up a ton of money and b, kelly might have hated jax just that much. also, think if you asked kelly about scheming for 1 player he’d think he could get any very good player jax’s numbers. as fans, we’re impressed w. 1350/9, just wonder how impressed kelly was. he might think with all the effort and focus offense put behind jax, should have been alot more than that. kelly does not lack confidence in his scheme,lol

          • DoctorRick

            I think his size had a lot to do with it with the idea that the bigger receivers will have an edge that D couldn’t have.

          • paul from nc

            Kelly said that his size comments do not apply to skill positions.
            Hence the Sproles pick up

    • DoctorRick

      In addition to getting off the jam, I think a big part of how well DJ does will depend on the Wash O line and how long they can protect the QB so the play has enough time to let DJ get downfield. It takes time to create the space that DJ needs. I’m also not convinced that either of the Wash QBs can get him the ball consistently. We’ll see.

    • paul from nc

      If it was true that DJax couldn’t beat the press, which I think is over hyped, why wasn’t he sent in motion more often? Especially in our offense.

  • cliff h-MOAR white goons

    beat up WR at LOS, cause once their off, it’s no touch. would think advantage bigger guys, both on CBs and WRs. if cant throw off timing, what diference will size make once in pattern. or, beat the bejesus out of QB

  • Rockedupeaglesfan

    “All these techniques are knocked out of the ballpark now. Now it’s a complete footrace”

    If only we had a guy on the outside who could win at a footrace

  • Andy Six Score and Four

    All of this assumes the refs will continue to call it this way when the real games start and continue to do so though out the season and all through the playoffs. I don’t think that’s especially likely. At all.

    I’m sure it will be called somewhat tighter than in years past, but don’t expect anything extreme, either in how it’s called nor in its impact on the game. Not saying no impact, just not extreme.

    • Kleptolia

      I’m not so sure. The “party line” from the officials is that they will call it the same way during the regular season.
      For the sake of sanity, though, I hope you’re right.

      • A Roy

        They say that on every point of emphasis during the preseason. Regular will be a mix of players being more careful and refs giving a little.

        • Andy Six Score and Four

          Exactly, I’ve been through this song and dance too many times before. Not just in football either. NHL is probably the biggest culprit.

          • Clamdigger

            Last year’s SB was a disaster for the NFL. This is the perfect knee-jerk reaction.

    • cliff h-MOAR white goons

      really dont have a problem with after 5 yard contact. these guys will figure it out. eagles made huge progress in a week. the call that has to be figured out is when DB is standing there and WR runs into him. like a bball charge. long as it’s not called 1-way. think offensive pi needs to be called more.

      • Andy Six Score and Four

        Yes, offensive pass interference needs to be called more often… on Michael Irvin.

        And of course, it sure seems to get called on us more than enough already. I can only assume that’s homerism coloring perception.

        • cliff h-MOAR white goons

          it is, everyone thinks their team is getting called more. the team how can play within rules faster, will be at huge advantage. why i like kelly’s attitude.

          • Andy Six Score and Four

            No homerism in being pissed at how much OPI Irvin got away with though. Bobby Taylor was the only guy I ever saw consistently overcome that.

      • southy

        I have zero confidence that they will call it routinely on offensive players. In fact, it’s called so little that it becomes a part of offenses’ play design through pick plays. When’s the last time you saw a RB called for leading with the helmet?

        • cliff h-MOAR white goons

          being called more often, probably not enough.
          .
          ask squares about rb leading w/ helmet. not sure i’ve ever seen that called

    • Septhinox

      The VP of officiating said nothing would change. They will call games like this in the regular season as he believes players will adjust.

    • Clamdigger

      You’re in for a rude awakening.

    • paul from nc

      Totally agree,
      If they keep calling it like preseason, it will be unwatchable.

  • SoCalEaglesFan

    If this does carry over, DeSean Jackson is going to have a monster season with these new rules. Kelly really blew the pooch on that one. There’s only two or three corners in the NFL who can run with Jackson without putting their hands all over him. Neither of them are on the Eagles. If Washington switches to Cousins over Griffin, Jackson might go over 100.

    • Token

      People are Cousins believers again? That just wont die will it….

      Just because one option isnt great doesnt make the alternative great. Kirk Cousins isnt very good.

      • SoCalEaglesFan

        Have you seen Griffin play this pre-season? Cousins has done a notably better job all summer. Not saying he’s all-pro or anything, but RGIII is looking all the world like a classic bust. Vince Young-esque.

        • Token

          Havent we already seen what Cousins starting looks like?

          • SoCalEaglesFan

            To be clear, this is a joyful turn of events.

          • DuckHunterSThompson

            Yeah, but that was during those ‘real’ games during the season. We’re talking summertime football here.

        • Rockedupeaglesfan

          Cousins stinks. He’s their Matt Barkley. They wasted a draft pick on a guy with an inadequate arm

    • Clamdigger

      Actually, Jackson typically got jammed off his route within 5 yards and then would give up on the play. I’m not sure how much more this will benefit him than any other receiver.

  • Token

    Interesting nugget from Davis. Said Graham, Cole very close right now in skill set. “We have to pick one” to start, Cole still ahead now” – tweet from Moser.

    Interesting. Could we see Graham start over Cole?

    • Kleptolia

      Maybe by mid-season. Could happen sooner, but I think Cole starts at the beginning.

    • cliff h-MOAR white goons

      well, Cole is 32. some point he’ll need to get less reps. if Cole is better at setting edge in 3-4 base, that’s fine, to me it looks pretty obvious he is. let BG soak in oxygen and reload batteries with Curry for sub packages. doesnt bother me slightly if we need 2 guys combined to make 1 above average olb. besides Eags and Denv, think every team subs in for 3rd and longs.

  • southy

    I have no issues with them calling games consistent with the rules. But
    1) There has to be such a thing as incidental contact. We going to start flagging defenders for trying to fight through rub and mesh concepts now?
    2) You cannot put the onus of compliance with the rule completely on the defense. Just like with the defenseless receiver rules, the fact that the league is telling officials “when in doubt, throw the flag” is unacceptable. It’s completely unbalanced and an insult to the game. You have guys going out of their way to comply with the rules and getting flagged because the refs didn’t see the play perfectly. Demeco Ryans’ hit in the last game comes to mind.

    I don’t care if it favors what the Eagles are doing on offense.

    • furiousxgeorge

      There was also a play I saw highlighted were the offensive player pretty much ran right into the defender. Flag on the defense of course.

  • 370HSSV 0773H

    I like it when receivers and DB’s battle it out a little. So what if the defender is touching the receivers jersey? As long as he doesn’t knock him off his route, he’s not interfering with him.

  • Kleptolia

    Thanks for making me look not so bad.

  • Max Lightfoot

    It seems to me that every year, especially during the preseason meaningless practice games, the league reacts in some way to “level the playing field” – in this case, apparently, to control Seattle’s mauling bum-rush defense. One year it was hands-off-the-quarterback. Another year it’s staying away from the knees. If a speed team like the Eagles wins it all, they will probably find some way to slow it down.

    If it’s too homogenized it all becomes mush, IMO. Hopefully, the zebras will belay their flags somewhat for the regular season. We shall see.

  • TNA

    This affects Cooper’s style of play. Think back to how many times he would extend his arm to create a little bit of space. The DB would also be trying to grab Cooper, but more often than not Cooper won those battles because he’s a big physical receiver.
    This really benefits Ertz and other guys that run really precise routes that break in and out constantly. No linebacker is going to be able to keep up with him. They’re going to need safety help. And that’s going to leave guys like Sproles and Shady and the receivers going wild up the sideline.
    We’ll see how things play out, but this definitely changes a lot. I hope Watkins and his supposed 4.2 speed gets a lot of reps ASAP.

  • Jerry Pomroy

    I’ll wait till the season starts to see if they’re going to keep to these rule changes and how strict they’re going to call them. This may be much ado about nothing.

  • Jim Breslin

    Good reporting Sheil. Here is a re-post of a comment I made on the birds 24/7 article “Physical, No More”:

    This is going to help the eagles. We face more man than anyone. Teams know playing zone against us will get you a trip to Canton and not in a good way. So what is more difficult to do without making contact playing man or zone? Advantage Eagles. And for those young-ins out there who think the flags will fly all year I give you the 1988 baseball season where they cracked down on balks. Pitchers were balking guys around the bases at the beginning of the year. Then a funny thing happened because the umps called it consistent. The players adjusted. Now you rarely see a balk not get called and you rarely see balks. The nfl players will adjust and those that don’t will be cut.

  • MFlick

    I wonder if these rules will help the smaller quicker WRs. If it comes down to a footrace Desean should benefit while Cooper will not.

  • knighn

    As I argued all off-season (even before the emphasis on illegal contact downfield was ever announced):
    STOP saying, “Defense Wins Championships”!

    Outside of the Seattle Seahawks and Petyon Manning’s recent chokefest, this just hasn’t been true in a while. I also said: if things ever swing too far in advantage of defense, the league will change the rules or officiating to further benefit the offense.

    The NFL wants to watch Basketball-like scoring, not soccer-like scoring. It is more important in the current NFL to have a good-to-great offense than a good-to-great defense. Next time you even think about uttering “Defense Wins Championships” remember to correct yourself with these updated phrases:
    “In today’s NFL, Offense Wins Championships.”
    “Defense could help… maybe.”
    or
    “Defense… it’s still there. Kind of like Special Teams.”