All-22: Defensive Decisions Burn Eagles
The way Billy Davis tells it, the Eagles fully understood going into last week’s game that the Bradley Fletcher–DeSean Jackson matchup was one that favored the opponent.
“The whole game plan was either to pressure and have the post-safety stay over the top of DeSean, unless somebody else was in a more stressful situation, or split the safeties and double,” Davis said. “So we moved in and out of that the whole game.”
Chip Kelly and company were adamant in the offseason that Jackson didn’t affect how defenses played the Eagles. But apparently, as an opponent, he was someone they felt they had to focus on with their game plan.
The speedy receiver got loose for four catches for 126 yards. He had two grabs of 50+ yards and also drew a pass interference penalty that set up a Washington touchdown.
Fletcher had been left on an island against the Packers earlier this season, and Jordy Nelson went off on him. In Week 15 against the Cowboys, it was the same story; only the name changed. It was Dez Bryant this time.
Yet in an absolute must-win spot, there it was again: Fletcher on an island against an opponent he couldn’t handle. It wasn’t every play, but it happened enough to where the mismatch was glaring. It got to the point where Davis finally made a switch, pulling Fletcher for Nolan Carroll II in the fourth quarter.
Too little, too late.
In the first quarter, Washington faced 2nd-and-9 from its own 21. The Eagles were in Cover 1 – man coverage across the board with a single high safety. You can see Fletcher singled up with Jackson at the top of the screen.
Davis decided to bring pressure. Both Mychal Kendricks and Casey Matthews blitzed. Nate Allen was in charge of the RB, who stayed in to block.
The other key matchup here was Connor Barwin against Washington TE Niles Paul.
Paul runs an over route downfield. That draws Jenkins’ attention, and Washington is able to manufacture a one-on-one matchup with Jackson.
“I was covering Niles Paul on the first one,” Barwin said. “[Shoot], he was open too. So Robert [Griffin III] could have thrown it to him. I mean I was on him, but if he would have thrown a dime like he threw to DeSean, I’m not gonna make that play.”
Jenkins could have cheated to Jackson’s side, but Barwin speaks the truth here. Had Jenkins leaned the other way, Griffin likely would have had a big play downfield to Paul.
“As a safety, we probably lean to that matchup more than we would a corner on the receiver,” Jenkins explained. “And they took advantage of those shots down the field. We can’t double-team somebody every time. And they just took advantage of the opportunities that they had.”
You can see Jackson has to slow down for the ball, but he does a good job tracking it. Had it been thrown out in front, this might have been a touchdown.
Once the play turned into a foot-race, it was over. But in the offseason, Kelly talked about the importance of receivers winning within the first 5 yards. That’s not always a strength of Jackson’s, especially against big, physical corners who play with sound technique.
But against Fletcher, he doesn’t have an issue. The cornerback doesn’t get a hand on him.
“On the one that he got vertical on, we also had an outside backer who was on a receiver into the boundary,” said Davis. “They had a nice scheme, so they pulled the post-safety, and Fletch lost it at the line of scrimmage. Really that’s where he has had the most struggles the last couple weeks was at the line, and he lost the battle at the line, and then they had a good throw and catch outside. The post-safety couldn’t help because we had an outside backer that was in more stress.”
Washington got into the end zone with a 28-yard run on the very next play.
Even before the season started, the Eagles gave hints that Brandon Boykin might be on the field less in 2014. With Jenkins in the mix, they felt like they could stay in base more and have Jenkins cover slot receivers. That would also put them in less of a bind against the run.
We’ve seen examples of this throughout the season, and really it speaks to the overall defensive philosophy. On most weeks, the Eagles are concerned with stopping the run first. We even saw it earlier this season against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Offensively, Kelly and his staff believe everything starts with the run. And that mindset transfers over to the defense too. They feel like if they can’t stop the run, they can’t be successful.
And many times this season, that philosophy has burned them.
In the third quarter, Washington came out in 11 personnel – one RB, one TE and three wide receivers. The one tight end, Paul, is a pass-catcher. It’s 2nd-and-14, yet Boykin remains on the sideline, and the Eagles stay in base.
“I think sometimes when you’re looking at those situations, it’s because people in 11 personnel are running the ball. So that’s the game that goes on within the game,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Just because 11’s on the field doesn’t mean that it’s automatically throw. You would think that, but that’s not always the case, just like some teams will put 12 on the field, but then throw the ball with 12 on the field just because they’re trying to get matchups. So it’s a thing that goes back and forth from that standpoint.”
The Eagles match Jenkins up on Paul and Barwin on Santana Moss.
“I guess they feel like it’s better for stopping the run,” Boykin said. “Like when they put nickel out there, they’ll try to run the ball, and it wouldn’t be a good matchup maybe with me and a tight end going at it. There’s some truth to that, but at the same time, me being myself, I know I can tackle. I know I can get a guy on the ground if somebody’s gonna throw the ball. I know I’ll be out there and I know I’ll be able to cover. I control what I control. Whenever I’m on the field, I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to do.”
We asked our friend Coach Flinn about the coverage here. He called it Cover 3 Bronco – man coverage to the bottom of the screen with Fletcher and Jenkins and Cover 3 (zone) to the top of the screen.
This time, Fletcher plays off and it turns into a foot race. No jam at the line of scrimmage, and he’s toast once again.
Washington runs four verticals, meaning the free safety, Nate Allen, has no shot to get to the outside to help.
“One of the deep balls, we had Connor Barwin matched up against a receiver,” said Jenkins. “So as a safety, you’re probably gonna lean more towards that matchup than a cornerback on a receiver. And then the same thing, really on both of them, you had Connor Barwin in coverage on skill positions. So we had to lean on that matchup a little bit more. And they took advantage of that and took those shots down the field.”
Even on the play where Allen picked Griffin off, Fletcher was one-on-one vs. Jackson.
This time, Allen leaned that way, but Griffin was pressured and made a terrible throw that hung in the air. With a better throw, this could have been another big completion downfield.
On the season, the Eagles have allowed 66 pass plays of 20+ yards, tops in the NFL. It’s been an issue the coaching staff has discussed all year, but there have been no solutions.
“We looked at it all year, and schematically, I’m telling you,” Davis said. “Are we splitting the safeties? Who am I giving help to? Who’s having those issues? Is it schematic? Is it calls? Is it timing of calls? Is it technique at the line? Is it technique deep? Is it underneath coverage? Is it the supporting the deep coverage? There are so many things we’re looking at, and we’re racking our brains and trying to figure it out and solve the problem and we have been all year. It’s kind of like the turnovers on the other side. You put all your focus on it and you’re trying to fix it. We’ve got to find ways to fix it, and we will. We will.”
Of course, it was never solved this season. A defense that had been performing well turned in clunkers down the stretch and has played its worst football of the year when the games matter the most.
Football Outsiders has the Eagles’ defense rank 10th overall in DVOA, which reminds us that there were some good stretches earlier in the year. And as we’ve discussed before, talent – especially in the secondary – is an issue.
But given what we’ve seen the past two weeks, it’s tough to argue that this coaching staff put its players in the best possible positions to succeed in losses to Dallas and Washington that cost the Eagles a potential playoff spot.