Zone Read: Eagles-Cowboys, the Day After
Billy Davis usually sets up shop at the exact same spot in the middle of the Eagles locker room after home games.
He always speaks in the same calm, measured tone. You can never tell by his face whether his defense just played well or played poorly, whether the Eagles won or lost.
Players seem to appreciate that about him. And so does Chip Kelly. Davis believes in the process, and having coached in the NFL for more than 20 years, he’s been on the wrong side of plenty of bad losses, contests where the game plan left room for second-guessing and where the coaches didn’t put the players in positions to succeed.
Sunday’s 38-27 loss to the Cowboys was one of those games.
On Thanksgiving Day, the Eagles pressured Tony Romo constantly and disrupted the Cowboys’ passing game, limiting the effectiveness of pass-catchers like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. In that game, Davis left Bradley Fletcher on an island at times against Bryant, and Fletcher came through.
So on Sunday night, he went with a similar game plan. But this time, the results were disastrous. Bryant unloaded on the Eagles’ defense with a six-catch, 114-yard performance. He scored three touchdowns – all in one-on-one matchups against Fletcher.
“It was single high, so no, he didn’t have help on the two long balls in the corner, no,” Davis said.
Why not provide more safety help over the top?
“I was in it [double teams] more than I was out of it,” Davis continued. “But when I came out of it, Dez got the ball. And that’s a credit to Tony. We disguised it. We showed it a bunch of different ways to give double coverage to Dez, and when we didn’t, he hit us and made us pay.”
For fans in attendance or those watching on TV, there had to be a sense of deja vu. Against the Packers earlier this season, Fletcher was left to fend for himself against Jordy Nelson and got lit up. He can hold his own against certain receivers, but against some of the more talented ones in the game, Fletcher is overmatched.
The Cowboys know the Eagles like to play single high safety and stop the run, so they came into this game with a plan to target Bryant often against Fletcher.
“When you play the style of defense that they play, obviously they make it hard for you to run the football,” Garrett said. “They got a lot of guys down there and they isolate those receivers outside, so one of the things that we knew we had to do coming into this ballgame was to win outside. And no better player than Dez Bryant to do that.”
Everything the Eagles do starts with the run game. On offense, they need LeSean McCoy to get going to have success throwing the ball. On defense, in a pass-happy league, their focus almost every week is first on stopping the run.
Against the Cowboys, they failed to adjust until very late. In the first quarter, Romo motioned Bryant out wide, saw a one-on-one against Fletcher and knew exactly where he was going with the football. The result was a 4-yard touchdown.
In the second quarter, the Cowboys faced a 2nd-and-11. Once again, single coverage – Fletcher on Bryant. This time, a 26-yard TD down the sideline.
And the most inexplicable one: In the fourth quarter, with the Eagles down four and the Cowboys facing a 3rd-and-7 (an obvious passing situation), Fletcher got singled up one more time. This one resulted in a 25-yard touchdown.
“They went up vertically on him, and a great receiver and a great quarterback went up and made plays tonight on him,” Davis said. “And Thanksgiving Day, Fletch was making those plays. Is he getting better? Yeah. I think we all are as we go forward. But did we have a good day tonight? No, we didn’t.”
The Cowboys went to the matchup over and over again. The Eagles doubled plenty, but too often left Fletcher to fend for himself. And when they did, Romo sniffed it out and attacked.
“We didn’t need it last time, and that wasn’t the game plan coming in,” said Malcolm Jenkins about the lack of safety help. “Our corners are big and physical and really have done a pretty decent job – not only the last game, but in previous years against Dez. But today he just won those matchups and they did a good job of getting the ball out to him. And he made some really tough catches high and away from the defender. So he won. We’ve played our opponents one-on-one all year. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we don’t.”
Added Fletcher: “I just didn’t make the plays I needed to make. It’s something that I have to live with. I just have to get back to work and get better. That’s all I can do.”
The secondary problems are a talent issue more than anything. But coaches are measured by how they deploy their personnel. And on Sunday night, Davis put Fletcher in a spot where the disastrous results were predictable.
Late in the game, he put Cary Williams on the left side against Bryant. To be fair, Williams had plenty of issues as well. But Davis was asked why he didn’t make the switch sooner.
“In the first matchup, and I’ve watched it close all along, we’ve matched up well on Dez with both those guys,” Davis said. “Cary and Fletch have done well. And tonight, Dez got the better of [Fletch], but over the three games that we’ve played so far since I’ve been here, now the fourth, it wasn’t a problem. So going in, I really didn’t think I had to.”
Fletcher has been targeted often all season long. He’s broken up his share of passes, but has also given up plenty of big plays. Expecting him to somehow improve significantly and turn into Richard Sherman is unfair.
In the biggest game of the season, the Eagles got outplayed in all three phases. There was the special teams miscue to start off and the various mistakes on offense. But the decisions on defense are ones that this coaches may be kicking themselves over quite a bit in what could be a long and bitter offseason.
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