All-22: Zeroing In On the Eagles’ Defense
Billy Davis pointed out during the summer that part of the reason the Eagles play a two gap 3-4 is because it’s the most effective scheme against a lot of the things Chip Kelly likes to do on offense.
And as we all know, Kelly likes to run the football.
So almost every week, when the coaches are game-planning for their opponents, they emphasize stopping the run. A rare exception was last year’s playoff game against the Saints when Davis decided to guard against the pass. But the Eagles defensive coordinator did not make that same exception for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
“I don’t think he came out with any intention to run the ball to start with,” Davis said. “I was anticipating some running game coming.
“I think a lot of people try to establish the run early. Green Bay has really worked for a balanced attack. A balanced attack means you run a little bit more than they did. But it wasn’t long until you knew right away they were going pass, pass, pass. He was checking into some runs, I think, but I think they were looking at our presentations, so it makes us have to have a little broader plan against them. Again, I could have done better with the plan, too.”
Added Malcolm Jenkins: “Every team we’ve played so far, our game plan has been stop the run. We play a lot of single high, and in man-to-man coverage, we’re gonna press the line of scrimmage and try to disrupt the timing of their offense. And that’s really bode well for us the whole year. It’s been our game plan.”
The Packers passed on their first six plays. Even though they brought three and four wide receivers onto the field, the Eagles stayed in their base defense early.
Here’s the third play from scrimmage. The Eagles stay in base, and Rodgers motions Eddie Lacy out wide. That creates a man-t0-man matchup against Casey Matthews at the bottom of the screen.
This is the defense the Eagles played the majority of the game: Cover 1. It’s man coverage across the board with a single high safety.
“You’ve got to play a lot of man coverage when you’re playing a quarterback of this caliber because he’s going to pick you apart in zone,” said Chip Kelly.
Added Davis: “When you’re not up and on him with those quick throws… he moves down the field with the quick out like the first play of the game, the quick stop with the tight end over. It just picks you apart. So you have to come down and get closer, and those are man [coverages] to get closer, and then you have one‑on‑ones that you have to win.”
Bradley Fletcher ended up getting beaten for a 64-yard bomb on this play, but Rodgers could have exploited any number of different matchups.
Cary Williams is nowhere near rookie Davante Adams on the crossing route. And Lacy runs a wheel route against Matthews down the sideline.
As for Fletcher, he made a couple errors. Number one, he never got his hands on Nelson at the line of scrimmage.
“His press technique, he didn’t get his hands up on that play,” said Davis. “And we talked about that. He should have, yes. We talk about press all the time, but when you go to the corner world — and I understand completely the stress I put on corners when I go single-high press, especially against a guy like that. We moved in and out of that, but one of the things, if you’re talking about a press technique [you look at], ‘Who am I and who is he? And where are we? Where is his split?’ There are a lot of things that factor in. But absolutely, when you can put your hands on him, you want to stop him and restart him. So he could have done better on that play. Later on in the game, he did it a lot better.”
The second issue is Fletcher turned around for the ball early, allowing Nelson to separate.
“I think it has always been the same coaching point: you don’t look back for the ball until you can touch the receiver, knowing that the receiver is always going exactly where the ball is thrown,” Davis explained. “Technically you don’t have to look to see where the ball is thrown; the receiver’s telling you where it’s thrown. If you can’t touch him, you can’t make a play on the ball either. He’ll come back to you if the ball is underthrown.”
The Packers’ game plan was clearly to target Fletcher when the Eagles were in man coverage. By my count, the Eagles went man on 28 of 40 passing plays. On 13 of those, or 46.4 percent of the time, Rodgers went after Fletcher. He completed 7 of 12 attempts for 139 yards against Fletcher, and the Packers also drew one 18-yard pass interference penalty. They averaged 12.1 yards per play when targeting Fletcher in man coverage, and that included three pass plays of 20+ yards.
This isn’t to pile on the cornerback. He plays with great effort and is by all accounts a good teammate and a professional. The problem is that he’s limited, and since Davis decided to go with a single high safety, Fletcher didn’t get a lot of help.
“A series and a half in, when I realized it was going to be all passes, you’ll notice we went to nickel versus their first and second down,” Davis said. “We made all of the adjustments. I should have split the safeties earlier. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done better, but they executed. When we did make some plays — we sack stripped the quarterback, and [the ball] falls to them and they pick it up and run it. It wasn’t going our way that day, but there were things individually technique‑wise we could have done. I could have called a better game and could have had a better plan, but we didn’t. It’s a loss, and we have to move on.”
Added Jenkins: “I think with a quarterback like this guy, you’ve gotta do a good job of just sitting back and helping your corners a little more, playing a little more split safety. But they do have Eddie Lacy who can run the ball downhill if you do split your safeties. So it’s pick your poison. It’s just one of those things where Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback, and regardless of what you put yourself in, he’s gonna find holes, he’s gonna make plays. But the game plan for us as players, it is what it is. We don’t control it. We just go out and try to execute, and we’ve gotta do a better job of that.”
The other issue for the Eagles was the pass-rush. But again, it comes down to the same theme. Because the Eagles were determined to stop the run, they didn’t always have their best pass-rushers in the game.
On this 2nd-and-7 play in the first quarter, they line up Beau Allen at nose tackle and Brandon Bair at defensive end against 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs). Allen and Bair are rotational two-gap players who specialize in stopping the run.
One thing about the Eagles defensive line is that the players serve specific roles. Allen and Bair are primarily run defenders. Vinny Curry is a pass-rush specialist. But in this game, against the most dangerous passing attack in the league, Curry played just 32.4 percent of the snaps, below his season average.
Take a look at how this specific play unfolds. Rodgers has all day.
“On the first- and second-down plays, I sent them from a 3‑4 base, and that is not a pass‑rush alignment,” Davis explained. “You want to be in wide threes or a shaded nose. So when we start from our three techniques or our two‑gap techniques, the pass rushers are not going to be there as quick. You combine that with the ball coming out quick. Now on the deeper drops, some of those were play action and seven‑man protections or six‑man protections where they had the guys in and they were throwing the digs and sucking up the underneath coverage. So there are a lot of elements that weren’t perfect, and a guy like Aaron Rodgers makes you be perfect as many times as you can. If you’re not, he’s going to find it. That’s what the great ones do.”
Davis was honest in explaining how he wishes he had taken a different approach.
But one thing that’s been a constant since he took over has been effort. The Eagles’ defense is far from perfect, but the group has delivered outstanding effort on a weekly basis. That’s why Davis was disappointed when he watched the film of Lacy’s 32-yard catch and run.
“There were some plays – and we had the good, bad and ugly – we had one play that really stood out, and it wasn’t us,” he said.
“The Lacy touchdown was probably our worst defensive play of the season. That’s where we hit the frustration mode. We hit the, ‘Oh this isn’t going well’ mode. And we talked a lot about it [Tuesday]. It was one of the themes, and what we’ve got to do to move forward is not have those plays, no matter what happens. To credit, after that play, there was a whole bunch of everybody flying to the ball, but that was a pressure point. We talked about it, addressed it, and this group is a great group of guys. But that’s not us, and that won’t be who we are.”
Here’s what the play looked like on tape.
Nate Allen blows a tackle, and Vinny Curry tries to strip the ball. Cary Williams doesn’t appear overly interested in taking Lacy on inside the 5, and Jenkins gets there late. It looked like Nolan Carroll was responsible for Lacy initially, but he at least hustled downfield.
“When you turn on the tape, there’s guys all over the field that you can point out, me included, that when you’re talking about the standard [to which] we play and what we have put on film the entire year, whether it be good or bad, effort was one thing that never was questioned,” Jenkins said. “So for that play, I was a little disappointed.
“Nobody quit on the game or nobody’s will was broken, but I think regardless of the frustration, we’ve still gotta give that 100 percent, regardless of what the situation is. We’re gonna hang our hat on our effort to the ball and our speed to the ball, and that can’t waver.”
Added Carroll: “It was just more about effort. For us, at that point in time, it was more just frustration that set in on our part. Just looking at the film, we just didn’t look like us. Guys weren’t running to the ball to get him down. That was probably the highlight play that signified the type of night that we had. Beat down at the time, we kind of let that get to us, which we normally don’t ever do as a defense. We fight to the end. And it’s kind of hard to look at that play in particular because we know that’s not who we are.”
To be clear, the way Rodgers was playing, the Eagles had very little chance of stopping the Packers’ offense. And lucky for them, they won’t have to face Green Bay again until a possible playoff matchup.
But the game plan put way too much of an emphasis on the run, and if a big part of coaching is knowing your personnel, putting Fletcher on Nelson that often is pretty much asking for trouble. You can play man coverage, but you have to give the corners more safety help.
Overall, the Eagles are still eighth in defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. The unit as a whole has outperformed the individual talent on the roster. But going down the stretch, even though the competition won’t be as fierce, the defense can’t afford to have more days like it had on Sunday.