All-22: Defensive Failures Against Dallas


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In the days leading up to the Eagles’ rematch with the Cowboys, Billy Davis made it clear that he was expecting to see a different Tony Romo.

On Thanksgiving, the Birds’ defense applied consistent pressure on Romo, and the Cowboys’ quarterback struggled to connect with open receivers when he did have opportunities.

Sunday night was a different story, and Davis ended up being right. Despite a mostly ineffective run game, Romo picked the Eagles apart, completing 22 of 31 passes for 265 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I think the biggest difference in the two games that we had… was the play of Tony Romo and the throws,” Davis said this week. “The throws on Thanksgiving were under-thrown and bad, and we were coming back and making plays. The throws the other night were on the money, and they were right where they needed to be.”

Romo certainly deserves credit for playing well in a big spot. But Dez Bryant scored three touchdowns one-on-one against Bradley Fletcher. Was the Eagles’ game plan sound? Was it just a matter of the more talented unit winning? We explore those issues with the All-22.

WITTEN GETS GOING

Davis was pretty clear with what his priorities were going into the game. He first wanted to stop DeMarco Murray. He next wanted to pay extra attention to Bryant. And thirdly, Davis wanted to make sure Jason Witten didn’t do a lot of damage. The Eagles did pretty well with the first priority, but not so much on the other two.

Here’s the first third down of the game. After the botched opening kickoff, the defense had a chance to hold Dallas to a field goal. The Cowboys faced a 3rd-and-6 from the Philadelphia 14. Davis used double teams on both Bryant and Witten.

The problem? Cary Williams had Terrance Williams one-on-one.

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The cornerback got beaten on the slant for 8 yards, and the Cowboys had a first down.

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On the next drive, another double team on Bryant. This time, Witten got free for a 21-yard gain over the middle.

The Cowboys used a stacked release and a look the Eagles recognized from the first game.

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“The first time we played them, they ran that same route, and the first time when we defended it, I took Witten, and it kind of left [Cole] Beasley free,” explained Nolan Carroll II. “So the second time we did it, we let [Brandon] Boykin take Witten, and then I would take Beasley. And the routes they were running, they were running right into our coverages, so that was helping us.”

Oftentimes in this look, one receiver goes in and one receiver goes out. The defenders decide beforehand who’s taking the in-breaking route and who’s taking the other one.

But the Cowboys switched it up. They had both receivers start vertically, and then both Beasley and Witten broke inside.

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You can see Bryant is being double-teamed at the top of the screen, but Witten gets free for a huge gain.

“We had an in-and-out going, and Beasley, they stacked,” said Davis. “They really did a nice job of attacking the tool we were using. An in-and-out means the first guy in, one guy has, and the first guy out, the other guy has. Well they stacked and they went up field with the stack, which makes it a little cloudy. Then they both broke the leverage and they got us on that one.”

Added Carroll: “We tried to do the same thing again, tried to disguise it and do it, but they were ready for it. They had a route-beater for it. So it kind of got us a couple times. Both of ‘em ran in. That beat our leverage.”

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The reception was part of a 16-play, 88-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard Bryant touchdown. On the drive, Witten converted three third downs. That was enough to convince Davis that he needed to tweak his plan.

“We doubled Dez early a lot in that game and then Witten hurt us,” said Chip Kelly. “And then going to help on Witten, but then they go find Dez. I think it’s because they had weapons outside, inside and then in the running game, it makes it difficult when you go against a good team like that. It’s kind of picking your poison. …You can choose what you want, but it’s still about stopping them and getting them off the field.

“Some of Billy’s decisions, and I agreed with his decisions, were, ‘Now the tight end is killing us, so now we have to help somewhere else.’ But then they come back and they found Dez.”

BRYANT VS. FLETCHER

All three touchdowns to Bryant came on the right side against Fletcher. All three were one-on-ones where he didn’t have safety help.

On the 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the Eagles went to nickel against 11 personnel. And they played Cover 1 Robber. That’s man coverage across the board with a single high safety.

It also includes a low-hole defender, in this case an inside linebacker One of the inside ‘backers is responsible for DeMarco Murray in coverage, and that depends on which way he takes his route. The other is the Robber, in charge of watching the quarterback’s eyes and providing help in the middle of the field.

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Fletcher tried to press Bryant at the line of scrimmage, but he lost in a couple different ways. He failed to jam Bryant, and then he turned around way too early, making it easier for the receiver to separate.

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The result was a 26-yard touchdown.

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“I’ll give Romo credit,” Davis said. “When [Bryant] was doubled and we had the two on him, he went to his other receivers. When we had the help or the pressure somewhere else, he went out to Dez.”

The third touchdown is the one that really leaves Davis open to second-guessing. Fletcher had already been burned by two TDs one-on-one against Bryant. The Cowboys had a 3rd-and-7, an obvious passing situation. Yet Davis went with Cover 1 once again, putting Fletcher on an island with Nate Allen as the single high safety.

Part of the problem Sunday night was the Eagles couldn’t generate much pressure on Romo. So here, instead of a Robber, Davis sent a fifth rusher at Romo. That didn’t get home, and Fletcher gave up a third score to Bryant.

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“On almost half the snaps I had doubles on 88, doubles on Dez,” Davis said. “And early on you saw Witten getting the balls. In calling the game, you’re constantly moving between five-man pressure or six‑man pressure or doubling on a receiver. You can’t do it all on the same call, so you have to choose where you’re giving help: whether it’s help to the rush and the pressure on the quarterback, or whether it’s help on doubling a receiver or bracketing a receiver.”

Could Allen have gotten there in time on this play?

“No, because he was looked off,” Davis said. “Again, that’s what good quarterbacks do: he saw the single, he saw the pressure, he looked away, and then he threw the vertical.”

Added Kelly: “I didn’t think — when you look at the coach’s tape, he was getting over there, but it was a perfectly thrown ball pinned on the sideline, and he was right in the middle of the field when the ball was snapped. Pretty good timing throw by Tony in that situation.”

TALENT VS. COACHING

Davis certainly left himself open to questioning with the faith he put in Fletcher against Bryant. Midway through the fourth quarter, he had Williams and Fletcher switch sides to get Williams on Bryant. The truth is, Williams did not play a good game either and likely wouldn’t have had much more success.

We’ve been on board here all season with giving Boykin a shot on the outside, but against a big, physical receiver like Bryant, that wasn’t going to happen. And Carroll has been practicing mostly inside at the dime spot.

So Davis opted to stick with his guy.

“Once you start making those changes, it trickles out there,” he said. “If he was completely busting coverages, getting beat and getting turned around [it might be different], but that wasn’t the case. There were some damn good throws being made on him and yeah, there were three of them. That’s a lot, and that’s why I made the switch to match up the others. At the end of the game, I switched [the sides] and put Cary over and matched him up. But I didn’t take [Fletcher] out of the game. We’ve come a long way, it’s been a long season, there’s been ups and downs. Part of it is hanging together as a team and fighting through slumps.”

That’s Davis’ way of saying: I don’t have many other options at this point.

The same discussion surfaced after the loss to the Packers. While Davis certainly has left himself open to second-guessing at times, the bottom line is that when you’re going into games with Fletcher, Williams and Allen as three of the four starters in the secondary, you’re going to struggle against good passing attacks.

Here’s one last play to look at. The Eagles are in two-man. That’s man coverage across the board with two high safeties. Bryant is to the top of the screen against Williams, and there is safety help. It’s essentially a double team.

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Fletcher Cox sacks Romo, and because it was third down, it looked like the Cowboys would be forced to punt.

But Williams was called for a penalty, giving Dallas a first down, and the Cowboys would get into the end zone two plays later.

The Eagles’ defense has overachieved this season – eighth overall in DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Try to find a member on that side of the ball who has underachieved, and you’ll come up empty. Cox and Mychal Kendricks have taken the leap. Connor Barwin is playing the best football of his career. Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton show up every week and perform. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry have found defined roles. And you can go on down the list.

Fletcher, Williams and Allen are not under-performing. Their warts just get exposed against top-level competition.

Davis and the Eagles will try to hold Washington and the Giants in check the final two weeks. If they’re lucky, they’ll get some help and potentially sneak into the playoffs.

But either way, to continue improving on that side of the ball in Year 3, the secondary will need some new bodies in the offseason.