All-22: How Billy Davis Confused Tom Brady
It was a laughing matter. Literally.
Tim and I explained in last week’s Press Coverage how the Eagles would need to generate a good pass rush and force turnovers against Tom Brady to pull off the unlikely upset over the Patriots. How unlikely? We treated it more as a joke than as something that could actually happen.
But Billy Davis’ unit, after allowing 90 points in the previous two weeks, helped do just that as their four sacks and two interceptions played a pivotal role in Philadelphia’s 35-28 win.
“It’s a tough place to go in,” Davis said. “First of all, I thought the players did a great job. They showed a lot of character, being in the hole we were in the last two weeks and them fighting through it and having that challenge of going in there to beat Brady and Coach [Bill] Belichick in Foxborough is a big deal.
“A big part of it was the three- and four-man rush winning there and the cover guys just holding. We knew we were going to get our share of their passing game. That’s what they do and that’s what their strength is. In the last couple weeks, we were not having much success in that area and the guys stepped up and made a lot of plays.”
Although Brady completed 29 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns, his passer rating was just 71.4. The quarterback connected on only 52 percent of his passes, and he threw two interceptions — including a pick-six — either near or in the end zone.
Prior to Sunday, the Eagles had never intercepted Brady or held him below a passer rating of 90. His completion percentage was also the third-lowest in his career with 40 or more attempts, and he had thrown only four interceptions all season.
“I thought the plan was something that I really felt good about,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “We did a good job of putting our players in the best positions to do what they do best. I think we had really good matchups. I thought Eric Rowe played really well on the outside; [Byron] Maxwell played well. We knew those two were going to have to hold up on the outside; I was going to have to hold up in the slot against [Danny] Amendola, and then you also have to play around with our safeties and give Brady different looks.
“We had to get pressure with three-man rushes, four-man rushes, and we did that. So everybody played their role. This is all we ask you to do, and I think when we keep our players inside of their roles and inside what they do best, we have success.”
Connor Barwin was clearly frustrated last week about how the Eagles gave away their coverages before the snap against the Lions. Because of that, at least in part, Matthew Stafford threw for 337 yards, five touchdown passes and a 137.8 passer rating.
Against Brady, the Eagles knew they couldn’t make the same mistakes if they hoped to even have a chance to win. In addition to simply disguising their calls better by not giving away their responsibilities pre-snap, Davis had his defense mix up their looks even more in New England.
“We did a lot of great bluffing and disguising,” Davis said. “I think the guys executed and really confused Tom with some of the new looks we gave him. And really just showing when they weren’t coming, and coming from off when they were, and mixing it up.”
Perhaps the most success the Eagles had disguising a call came on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Before Brady snapped the ball midway through the third quarter, Philadelphia bluffed a cover-zero blitz, meaning they would leave each defensive back in one-on-one coverage and rush six or seven defenders, depending on whether the running back blocked or ran a route.
However, the Eagles rushed only four players and dropped seven back into coverage as Brady forced the ball into a very tight window. The result? Jenkins’ 99-yard interception returned for a touchdown.
“We have a really heavy tendency to blitz when we’re in the red zone, so a lot of teams have been scheming us up for that,” Jenkins said. “They scored a touchdown earlier in the game on a blitz so we showed the same look here, but then dropped off into coverage.”
However, Jenkins said the play wasn’t made by him, but by Thurmond. The safety has shown his ball-hawking skills throughout the season, but Davis let him fly around in the red zone this time, rather than in a third-and-long situation in open field.
“We’re really allowing Walt to do whatever he wants here,” Jenkins said. “We allow him to have free reign because he has really good instincts and his ability to find his way to the football. This play is why. I got beat inside fast off the ball and he felt that. He took my guy and then when Brady tried to fit the ball in on the goal line, he did a good job of keeping the play alive and he popped up the ball right to me.”
Davis also wanted to take away the middle of the field from Brady, the area the quarterback likes to exploit the most. With the defense’s attention focused there, Maxwell and Rowe had to step up. Scheming against a $63 million cornerback on one side of the field and a rookie on the other side, Brady attacked the obvious choice.
However, despite being targeted 12 times, Rowe allowed just four catches for 42 yards in 61 snaps of pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile, Maxwell was even better. Maxwell allowed just two catches for 18 yards in 62 snaps of pass coverage, and added an interception.
“We told our outside guys, ‘You have to win,’ so we could pay more attention to the inside, because that’s Brady’s bread-and-butter like those option routes and over routes,” Ed Reynolds said. “As long as they win on the outside, we don’t have to worry.”
Immediately after the game, Davis’ excitement about Rowe was visible. While acknowledging his rookie cornerback still had some bad snaps, he referenced a play Rowe made without being asked. It came near the end of the second quarter as the Patriots faced first-and-10 from their 9-yard line.
Rowe, whose teammates say he was very confident because he lined up across from Calvin Johnson the week before, broke up a skinny post off play-action.
“Eric made a great play,” Davis said. “And you know what was neat about that was, he had the formation recognition. He had an idea that play could be coming, and he played it extremely well. It’s fun to see guys grow like that.”
THE PASS RUSH
Less than five minutes into the game in New England, Barwin noticed something on the Patriots offensive line on one play that tipped off which way the center was sliding protection. Barwin declined to disclose what New England’s tell was, but on second-and-4 from the Patriots’ 37-yard line, he audibled when he realized the center was sliding away from his side.
The result? A seven-yard sack to put the Patriots in third-and-11, which they failed to convert.
“I knew the protection and I called Brandon to run a grab for me — that means Brandon needs to grab the guard,” Barwin said. “So he’s giving himself up for me to get the sack, and that’s a really unselfish play by BG.”
The referees miss a blatant hold on Graham, but the play stood nonetheless.
In addition to Barwin’s pair of sacks, Graham had two of his own. Graham also recorded three quarterback hits, as the Eagles tallied 10 as a team.
“With Brady, when you get to hit him, because a lot of people don’t get to touch him, I think that’s when he starts worrying about the rush,” Graham said. “Now he’s trying to dodge the hits and he’s not really focused down field. I think it takes away from his focus to find his receivers.”
One of those plays where Graham not only hit Brady, but sacked him as well, was in the middle of the third quarter after New England converted a third-and-12. However, after Graham pushed them back seven yards, the Patriots failed to keep the drive alive
Graham beat the left tackle around the edge to sack Brady.
“That’s just a great one-on-one win by BG there,” Beau Allen said. “He does a really good job with his get off and he sells an inside move on the tackle, which gets him to freeze, and then hits him on the outside. And then he did a great job of bending the corner and finishing at the quarterback, which is the hardest part.”
But the Eagle with the most quarterback hits was Fletcher Cox, who recorded four. Although the defensive end didn’t sack Brady, he consistently disrupted the quarterback’s timing and made Brady move around the pocket.
“Vinny [Curry] and Fletch inside – they didn’t get any sacks and that’s why I don’t think that much of sacks and I don’t evaluate on sacks,” Davis said. “Those two guys had more disruption inside and then Connor and BG on the outside got the sacks, but all four of them together are rushing very well. It takes four to rush as one, in order to really get the production they had the other night.
“[Cox] was wining one-on-ones. He really was. Those guards were struggling with him. We move them all around, but we move Fletch around to any matchup that we see fit. Inside on the guards, he was beating them quick. They were one-move wins and he had a big game. So did Vinny. Both those guys were disruptive forces in there, which is why the coverage sacks happened and the interceptions [happened]. The move Cox made on the interception return for touchdown was why the ball was thrown. It was a bad ball that [Brady] threw, but he had to make the quick decision because here comes Fletch.”
One example of Cox’s pressure, although he didn’t get any credit in the box score, was on a tackle Curry made early in the third quarter (which Fran Duffy tweeted a good video of). Cox, plus some good coverage down field, helped forced Brady to scramble, leading Curry to take down the quarterback one yard past the line of scrimmage.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is pass rushing is a group effort,” Allen said. “Like here, one guy gets credit for the tackle, but everyone did a good job of being in their rush lanes. Obviously Fletcher, a great spin move and Mychal [Kendricks] stepped into the throwing lane. Everybody worked together and when you have a tackle like this one, it’s because of the coverage too. Everyone has to be rushing in tandem, or else the quarterback will have an escape lane.”
— Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) December 7, 2015
Allen touched on something Davis mentions from time to time: that the quality of the pass rush and coverage down field are dependent on one another. In the beginning of the first quarter, on third-and-11 from New England’s 30-yard line, it was the front four’s turn to help the back end.
Although the defensive line and defensive backs both helped each other out, the Eagles dropped more guys into coverage against the Patriots, putting pressure on the front to reach Brady even when only three or four defenders rushed most of the time.
Curry and Graham got good pressure in just a three-man rush on this play, forcing Brady to move outside the pocket. The Patriots quarterback then targeted Rowe and threw the ball nearly 70 yards down the left sideline, before falling incomplete.
“The rush is huge, especially when you’re sitting in zone. There are holes all over the place, so we don’t want him to be able to step up into his throws,” Jenkins said. “We’re in a zone to take away those quick throws on that one. We took care of those underneath and intermediate routes.
“We told our corners that we were going to take away the middle lanes to step up in, so if he was going to get out of the pocket, he had to go outside and reset his feet. And that he would probably just heave something up to keep us honest throughout the game, and this is one of those. Eric Rowe did a good job of not relaxing at the top of the route. That’s a long time for him to cover, but he holds up. That’s a good play for us.”
‘HE WAS GASSED’
As well as much of the Eagles defense played in New England, a few defenders — including Kiko Alonso — didn’t have a good game. Alonso allowed nine receptions in 47 snaps of pass coverage for 102 yards and one touchdown. No other Eagle gave up more than four catches, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kelly openly said Alonso played too many snaps this week, which Davis agreed with, as the Eagles are bringing the inside linebacker back from his injury.
“The numbers weren’t quite the way we needed them to be. It showed up very late in the game where he was gassed,” Davis said. “Him and Mychal have to have more of a 50-50 [snap distribution] and we’ll make sure that gets done. I think at the very end there, where Kiko had a couple plays where he fell or he was just exhausted, we should have made a switch there.
“It all falls on me. I can guide it as I go. We have a plan every week when we go in there, but what you don’t know — the curveball and the moving target — is what personnel groupings we’re going to get. Going into [the Patriots] game, without [Rob] Gronk[owski], we didn’t know what they were coming at us with. They had shown so much two tight end personnel sets and then Gronk went out, so what was coming at us, we [didn’t] know.”
One of those plays Alonso fell down on was on fourth-and-12 near midfield with about four minutes left in the game. After Alonso fell, Brady easily connected with James White for the 22-yard gain, keeping New England’s comeback hopes alive.
The reason Alonso played so much is that the Eagles appear to view him as their best inside linebacker in coverage. His versatility also gives them more flexibility when the defense is in sub-packages, like dime or nickel, but his production simply hasn’t been there this season.
“We are happy with Kiko and Mychal,” Davis said. “We have to get some coverage things down technique-wise, but they are good athletes with good football awareness and will play better and better as we go.”