All-22: Dissecting the Eagles’ Defensive Breakdowns
Knowing that he was about to field several questions about the defense’s near-meltdown against the St. Louis Rams, Billy Davis went for the humor route as he walked up to the podium Tuesday afternoon.
“You guys rather have [special teams coach Dave] Fipp?” he joked. “I can bring Fipp up. He deserves it.”
The first nine possessions against the Rams resulted in one touchdown, five punts and three turnovers. However, the Eagles allowed three touchdown drives of 60+ yards in the final 18 minutes and needed a late stop to hang on to a 34-28 lead.
Davis fields questions about his starting cornerbacks on a weekly basis. On Tuesday, he offered a passionate defense of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. He also provided context for some of the team’s late-game breakdowns.
THE 30-YARD TD TO KENNY BRITT
According to Pro Football Focus, no cornerback in the NFL has been thrown at more than Fletcher (44 targets). With the Eagles up 34-14 in the fourth quarter, Rams QB Austin Davis scrambled, bought time and threw at Fletcher in the end zone. The result was a 30-yard TD to Kenny Britt.
But Fletcher wasn’t the only player at fault on the play.
The Eagles are in two-man coverage. That’s man coverage across the board with two deep safeties providing help over the top. Malcolm Jenkins and Nate Allen split the field in half and have deep responsibilities.
At this point in the down, everything’s going according to plan. The safeties stay deep, and the man defenders are all matched up.
But Austin Davis breaks the pocket and rolls to his right.
“We had a contain element in the pass rush that lost contain that let the quarterback out,” said Davis, referring to Bennie Logan, who was supposed to keep Davis from getting outside.
Another problem: Jenkins is supposed to have deep responsibility, but he cheats up, either to try to chase Austin Davis or to help on an underneath route. Fletcher is in man coverage, but he’s supposed to have help over the top on this play.
As Jenkins cheats up, you can see Britt with his hand up, calling for the ball.
“I went back, I know everybody is on the corners, but man, I went back and looked at every play,” said Davis. “We did as a staff over and over again. And the corners have their share, but it is not them and them alone. I can break down every play that they had and tell you multiple other people that had a breakdown on that play.
“For instance, on Bradley Fletcher, the throw‑up, it was just really almost a Hail Mary type thing where you threw it up, but we had a half safety that came out of the half, so there should have been two players there. So there was a series of breakdowns, and then at the end, Fletch still should have made the play. He still should have finished through the hands like he did in the first half when he had a similar play down their sideline and he made it. So it’s just a consistency of play that we’ve got to get done.”
Speaking of Jenkins specifically, Davis said: “He shouldn’t have [come up]. He’s a half defender. A half defender stays in the half, especially with that lead. He knows that. He came out and he shouldn’t have. We had a guy that was coming back out to get a contain. But in that situation with that lead, we stay deep and we cover our area.”
Fletcher had good coverage late in the down.
But he failed to make a play on the ball. Eagles defenders are taught to turn around and find the ball, when possible. When they can’t turn around, they are taught to play through the receiver’s hands. In other words, if they get their hands in between the receiver’s two hands, there’s no chance for a reception.
Fletcher said when he watched film, he wished he would have gotten his head around sooner.
But the result was a 30-yard touchdown.
THE 5-YARD TD TO BRIAN QUICK
On the next touchdown, Davis said he had no teaching points for Williams.
The Rams got Brian Quick isolated on Williams to the top of the screen. Allen is going to blitz off the edge.
“Cary’s touchdown, the one that they threw the back-shoulder fade, we were in an all‑out blitz, and they took three receivers and put them into the short boundary, leaving Cary the entire field to handle by himself with no safety help,” Davis said. “[I asked him] to take away inside moves, ask him to take away fades. The last ball that he has to play to because he has the whole field is the back-shoulder fade.”
Davis’ call springs Allen free. You can see Williams has inside leverage and is taking away the slant.
“We had Nate Allen come off the side on a blitz,” Davis continued. “He jumped. The quarterback made about as perfect a throw as you can make. Cary took away the slant, then he took away the fade, and the back-shoulder fade was the last phase of it. He had the whole field to work with, and they made a good throw and catch to beat the call, and Cary had the whole field, like I said.”
Davis’ throw gets past Allen, and Williams can’t get to the football in time to break it up.
“On that play, I don’t have a coaching point for Cary other than I put you in that position, you did everything I asked of you from inside to deep to the outside fade ball,” Davis said. “You can’t stop everything. Every call I asked him to play up or off, so there’s a leverage of up or back. There’s a leverage of inside or outside. Every time you take outside leverage, you’re vulnerable to inside routes and vice versa.”
THE BOYKIN FACTOR
Davis gets peppered with questions about Brandon Boykin on a weekly basis. It’s clear that the only reason Boykin’s not playing on the outside is because he’s 5-9. Yet he does everything else better than Williams and Fletcher – tackling, making plays on the ball, creating turnovers. Will he give up some plays because of his height? Probably. But the other factors could certainly outweigh the one negative.
As we’ve said in this space all along, it’s not like the Eagles have Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis playing ahead of him. In a perfect world, you have big, fast corners with Boykin’s ball skills. But that’s not reality – especially with this team.
Boykin is playing only 33.4 percent of the defensive snaps, per PFF. He played 51.6 percent last year. Part of the reason for that is the personnel groups opponents are using. The other part of it though is that the Eagles feel like Jenkins can cover slot receivers. When teams go to 11 (one RB, one TE, three WRs) personnel on early downs, the Eagles’ defense will sometimes stay in base.
They’re in man-free coverage here, and Jenkins is lined up opposite slot receiver Austin Pettis. The Rams run a mesh concept, and Pettis runs a drag route across the field.
He leaves Jenkins behind, and the result is a 16-yard completion.
Jenkins has played really well overall, but Sunday was not a good game out of him.
If the Eagles stick with their base on early downs against 11 personnel, don’t be surprised to see teams try to get their slot receivers matched up against Jenkins.
CARROLL REPLACING KENDRICKS?
Much of the discussion regarding Mychal Kendricks’ absence has focused on inside linebackers Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho. But in their sub packages, the Eagles have been playing a lot of dime with Nolan Carroll II.
In Miami, Carroll played a lot of man coverage on the outside, but essentially he is learning a new position right now. And there have been ups and downs.
“Nolan has really grown as a dime linebacker, and that’s really what it is,” said Davis. “You take a corner, and really what we’re doing is making him an inside linebacker in passing situations.”
Here’s an example from the fourth quarter of last week’s game.
Carroll starts the snap threatening the A-Gap, but is going to be asked to retreat as a curl/flat defender in Cover 3.
It’s a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders. Carroll is asked to make up a lot of ground. But Tavon Austin is going to run a crossing route into the area Carroll is vacating.
By the time Carroll gets his head turned around, the ball’s already out, and the Rams have a relatively easy 11-yard completion.
“When you go from outside to inside, your vision is what changes and what you have to key,” explained Davis. “We had some issues in the fourth quarter with some of the underneath pass‑offs of shallows, and it just takes reps in there, and we had different guys break down.”
Through five games, the Eagles rank 16th in Football Outsiders’ rankings – eighth against the run and 21st against the pass.
Davis’ calls generated a lot of free rushers on Sunday. And the pass-rush has been really good the past couple of weeks. The major issues have been in coverage, and in reality, that very well could be a talent issue. Maybe a better cornerback gets his hand on that pass to Britt in the end zone or closes on the back shoulder fade or bats the ball down on the blitz. While players can always improve, it would be silly to suddenly expect Williams, Fletcher or Allen to suddenly start looking like Pro Bowlers
There have been arguments about Austin Davis and Kirk Cousins just playing well against the Eagles. But this team still has Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and others on the schedule. It’s the NFL. Quarterbacks are going to make good throws, and receivers are going to make good catches. The defense still has to do its part.
For now, it sounds like the personnel will stay the same, and the Eagles will hope a few tweaks here and there will resolve the team’s issues.
“You can’t take every position, like for instance, OK, you want me to make a switch, that one on the corner is because a touchdown was given up or two,” Davis said. “What about the loss contain guy? What about the half safety that came out? So that’s kind of from my perspective where we’re looking at it.
“If there was a change to be made, I promise you, we would make it, but it’s got to be for the right reasons. It’s got to be: Are they doing what we’re asking them to do and can they get it done? And right now, the answer is yes to that, and we’ll continue to grow and be the defense that we want to be.”