All-22: Issues Plaguing the Eagles’ Defense
Billy Davis has had to strike a balance quite a bit since taking over as the Eagles defensive coordinator last year.
He is honest in admitting when his unit doesn’t play well, but he’s also a positive person by nature and tries to look ahead. After all, it’s not like the defense is loaded with talent, and the team is 3-0 heading into Sunday’s game against the 49ers.
“We weren’t playing well at all in that game, and we gave up a lot of yards and all those things,” Davis said Tuesday. “And most teams I’ve been with would let those bad plays ‑ we had five X plays. Most of the time you get in such a tank that at the end of the game when you have to defend 6 yards to win it, you don’t have the mental toughness to do it because you’re still frustrated from the bad game you’re playing. And our group didn’t show any signs of that. They showed such mental toughness and strength that we had to defend 6 yards for four downs, and they stepped up and got that done.”
On seven of 12 possessions, Washington’s offense either scored a touchdown or set up for a field goal. Kirk Cousins went 30-for-48 for 427 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. While Malcolm Jenkins and Brandon Boykin made some nice plays down the stretch, this was the definition of a defense getting picked apart.
Cousins played at a high level for most of the game, getting rid of the ball quickly and making some impressive throws into tight window. But this is the NFL, and there are a lot of good quarterbacks. At some point, just giving the other guys credit is no longer valid.
Keeping that in mind, below is a look at some of the key issues that hurt the Eagles Sunday. And in case you missed it, yesterday we provided a player-by-player breakdown.
Whenever a defense struggles against the pass, coaches point to two things: breakdowns in coverage and the lack of a pass-rush. The issue for the Eagles was more the former. Cousins was not holding onto the ball very long, which made it difficult for the rush to get home. In those situations, coverage needs to tighten up. And that didn’t happen.
On Washington’s first touchdown to fullback Darrel Young, the offense used late motion to change its look, going from an I-formation to an empty backfield.
You can see Connor Barwin moves towards the line of scrimmage, and Jenkins shifts to the top of the screen to join Bradley Fletcher.
“What happened is they shifted and we got to a check so everything was happening late,” Davis explained. “They hurried up their empty knowing that we would probably check, and when we did, we didn’t get up and aligned quick enough because it was a shift, set, hike. So it was just a matter of timing. We’ve got to have our tempo a little bit faster.”
In the image above, you can see Washington stacks its receivers to the top of the screen. Offenses do that so opponents can’t press both receivers at the line of scrimmage. It creates a natural separation and traffic allowing for picks, depending on the route combination.
When the ball is snapped, Fletcher knows he has Darrel Young, but look how far off he’s playing.
Cousins knows exactly where he wants to go with the football, and Fletcher has not shown the ability to recover in these situations. He ended up allowing the completion and tried to rally for the tackle, but Young found his way past the goal line for the score.
“On the Young one, he could probably just get a little bit closer,” Davis said.
The problem was this didn’t happen only once. Washington used the stack look on multiple occasions to create space and convert third downs (8-for-15 overall).
“Not having a lot of separation between you guys,” said Boykin, when asked what the key is to defending the stack. “When they stack up, they know that somebody’s gonna have to be low and another defender’s gonna have to be high. And that’s what they really try to attack is the guy that’s 7 yards off and run a quick out to get yards after the catch. So if you can take away that separation initially, you can get to the ball.”
On Washington’s second touchdown, Fletcher got beaten again – this time by Pierre Garcon.
The Eagles are in man coverage. Garcon takes an initial step outside and gets Fletcher to turn his hips to guard against the fade. From there, the slant is wide open, as Fletcher fails to get a hand on the receiver at the line of scrimmage.
You can see the other Eagles defenders are hugged up on the receivers, but Garcon has a free release to the end zone.
Despite Fletcher’s struggles on Sunday, Davis says he’s sticking with the same starters at cornerback.
“If you want to start [Boykin] at corner, then you say he’s better than Fletch and Cary [Williams] out there,” said Davis. “And right now we’re in a place where we think that the starting corners… obviously we start who we think are the best players at those positions.”
Part of the reason Williams sounded off after the game was because he felt his teammates were not doing their jobs. A perfect example: DeSean Jackson’s 81-yard touchdown.
Here’s the pre-snap look:
The Eagles crowd the line of scrimmage, but eventually are going to drop eight into coverage and play a three-deep zone.
You can see Washington only has three receivers in routes. The Eagles outnumber them by five.
So where did things go wrong? Allen (No. 8 in the photo) didn’t take care of his responsibility as the deep middle safety.
You can see Williams (No. 7 in the photo) zone-turns as he drops back into coverage. That means he’s got his back to the sideline. He’s playing with inside leverage because Allen is supposed to help if the receiver runs a post.
But Allen loses depth and zeroes in on the route being run in front of him. At this point, the ball’s already out of Cousins’ hands. Eagles defensive backs are not going to be able to stick with Jackson downfield on a play like this.
In theory, a post should never be completed against a three-deep zone because the deep middle safety is responsible for taking that route away. Allen failed to do so in this instance.
Overall, the Eagles allowed five X plays, defined as plays that gain 20+ yards.
The first was tight end Niles Paul beating Fletcher on an out and up for 37 yards. The second was a 23-yard completion to Garcon, who made a great catch on a perfectly-placed ball against Williams. The third was the touchdown to Jackson. The fourth was a 43-yard completion to Garcon down the sideline where Williams got beaten, and Cousins made another fantastic throw. And the fifth was a 55-yard screen where several Eagles failed to get off their blocks and took poor angles.
The defense has played well in spurts this season, but overall the Eagles are allowing 26.0 points per game (26th).
Under Chip Kelly, this team will be defined by its offense. But given the state of the offensive line, at some point the defense will have to pick up the slack. And that means playing a lot better than it played on Sunday.