Defensive Adjustments: The Limits of Creativity

Three games into the season, we have a pretty good idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the 2013 Eagles.  At least I do; it seems many others are confused.  Let me be clear:  If you are at all concerned/worried/disappointed with the Offense, you’re not watching the same games I am.  As I explained last week, the Eagles, in their last game, gave us a pretty clear example of what the offense’s “scoring floor” is.  I won’t address it any further today, but let’s just say that 16 points is a pretty good “reasonable worst-case scenario”.  Considering the turnovers and the skill of the opposing defense (Chiefs), I’m confident that’s what we saw, or at least close to it.

I’m definitely confused as the usage patterns of the offensive personnel (extremely starter-heavy), but there’s no reason to really question it at this point.  The offense is working very well, it just needs to avoid the unforced turnovers (think Kelce snap).

The defense, however, is another story.  It’s bad, it’s worse than I expected, and there’s no way to couch that statement.  Football Outsiders has the Eagles as the 29th ranked defense after three weeks, above only San Diego, Green Bay, and Washington.  Most worrisome, as you probably know, is the pass defense (also ranked 29th).  The run defense, by comparison, is well within the “mediocre” range we were hoping for (ranked 18th by FO).

So now we know the facts.  The real question is, can the Eagles actually do anything about it at this stage? 

I think they can, though how much it’ll help is up for debate.  I mentioned after the San Diego game that the Eagles were in a true “try anything” situation, meaning that the default assumption on every SD possession had to be a score, and likely a TD.  Therefore, the downside to taking additional risk (by doing things like big-blitzing) was limited.

I probably should have been more careful about the “try anything” description, because it looks like Bill Davis took it too literally.  If you haven’t already seen it, definitely read Derek Sarley’s breakdown from the KC game on Philly.com, found here.  It’s really informative and will help you make sense of the Eagles defensive issues.  I’m going to steal a couple of screenshots from him to illustrate what I’m talking about, namely: the limits of “creativity”.

Look at this picture:

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.46.25 AM

 

Derek has boxed the most important part.  That’s Brandon Graham lined up over the CB.  There are a couple of potential results to this play, and I can’t think of one that I like:

- Graham blitzes.  This one makes little sense to me.  Graham should definitely be used as a pass-rusher, but having him attack from a pre-snap position so far from the QB is outrageous to me.  At that point, you might as well take him off the field, because he’s essentially out of the play already.  He’s simply too far to get to the QB in time (especially against Alex Smith.)

- Graham shows coverage or jams the WR at the line, then drops into a short coverage zone.  Of the three options, this makes the most sense, though that’s not saying much.  It still results in using Graham in coverage, which doesn’t play to his strengths at all. We also have to question how seriously the offense views the “coverage” threat.  Surely no team would actually put a DE on a WR in man-to-man coverage.

- Graham plays the WR man-to-man.  Not much to say here, other than it’d be close to a fireable offense for a DC.

The result of the play, BTW, was #2.  Graham ended up in coverage, picking up the RB on a wheel route.  Notice that the BEST RESULT of this alignment involves Graham trying to run step-for-step down the field with a RB.

All-in-all, I’d say this play qualifies as “creativity for the sake of being creative”.  I’ve racked my brain, and I just can’t think of a really positive aspect to this strategy.  To be fair, it certainly falls under the “try anything” category, so if Bill Davis actually read my breakdown, then I deserve some blame as well.

In a similar vein, Derek notes that, according to PFF, Brandon Boykin rushed the passer on 11 of his 46 snaps.  Think about that for a moment.  11 different times, the Eagles chose to take their best CB out of coverage.  On a team with a decent CB corps, that’s not a big deal, and may be productive since we can assume the offense isn’t expecting it.  However, on a team like the Eagles, whose DBs don’t belong anywhere near the 1st String, that’s a really difficult decision to rationalize.

Again, “try anything”, so for that I apologize.  Let me update that.  First, I have to note the whole 3-4 defense switch conundrum.  My preseason position was that this season is purely a building block for the future.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter if the Eagles’ defense sucks.  You might as well install the 3-4, see if anyone can play in it, and have a year of experience for the guys who will stick around.  HOWEVER, that position was under the assumption the Nick Foles would be the QB.  By selecting Vick, the coaching staff sent a clear signal that it did, in fact, expect to win this year.  Once that decision’s been made, you simply must do everything you can to win, including holding off on your philosophical preferences in order to play to the team’s strengths.  There can be no half-measures…

So Billy (I can call you that, right?), here’s what you should be doing right now.

1) Get your best players on the field.  That means Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry.  I don’t mean to suggest that these guys are Pro Bowlers or anything, but the fact is they are easily among the top 11 defensive guys on the team.  Against the Chiefs, Curry played just 12 defensive snaps.  Graham played just 17.

To me, that’s unacceptable.  Get them on the field, let them rush the passer, which hopefully till let you back off the blitzes a bit.  God knows the Eagles can use as many guys in coverage as possible.

2) Stop blitzing Brandon Boykin.  This holds for Graham as well, and perhaps for Trent Cole.  Let guys do what they do best.  It’s early, but at the moment Boykin covers better than anyone on the team.  Let him keep doing that.  Let Graham rush the passer from the DE position.  It’s clear, to me at least, that he’s not going to be a long-term 3-4 OLB.  Stop pretending, maximize his value for this year by playing him where he belongs, and say goodbye after the season.

3) Be creative, but keep it within reason.  For example, how about taking that B-Graham alignment from above, and running Earl Wolff or Kurt Coleman out there instead of Graham.  Cary Williams can handle coverage, provided he isn’t asked to press.  Have Wolff jam at the line then cover the flat (which is hurting the Eagles a lot so far).  Scary thought, but maybe try the Wide-9 more often, at least until teams prove they can commit to the run (especially against an unbalanced team like Denver).

4) Stop playing a single-high safety so deep.  This part is starting to annoy me.  Essentially, the Eagles are trying to apply a band-aid to the back of the defense by keeping a S really deep in the middle of the field.  The only problem is that this is a relatively low-risk/low-reward strategy, which is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of what the Eagles should be doing.

The brings me to Blitz Theory.  Unfortunately, I’m at 1200 words and have to go to class, so that’ll have to wait.  Briefly, though, the Eagles, in their current position, are heavily incentivized to make high-risk defensive plays (provided there’s a reasonable expectation of corresponding return).  The team will allow A LOT of points.  The key will be to also create a lot of positive defensive plays.  That means TOs, that means sacks.  With a weak defense, 3rd and 5 isn’t that promising a situation (for the D).  You need 3rd and 10 or longer (and as we’ve seen, even that’s not assured).  If that means selling out a few times and risking a big play, so be it.  The other team is probably going to score anyway.

Have to leave it there, but I promise I have a lot more to add to that thought

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6 thoughts on “Defensive Adjustments: The Limits of Creativity

  1. “HOWEVER, that position was under the assumption the Nick Foles would be the QB. By selecting Vick, the coaching staff sent a clear signal that it did, in fact, expect to win this year. ”

    I think you are putting way more stock into the selecting of Vick. Why not also focus on the heavy use of Trent Cole over Graham? Avant over Johnson? Also Kelly have said he wants to install a mentality about competition. You can argue that Vick shouldnt have been brought back at all, but I think the competition brought out the best in Vick and Foles. After Vick was brought back, Kelly couldnt just give the starting job to Vick after he clearly outperformed Foles in TC and pre season.

    Also regarding defensive scheme. Remember that the 2-gap defense is only a base defense and one we play around 30-40% of the time. The rest of the time we are in nickle looks with our DL 1 gapping.

    • It seems you’re missing his point. The point is – if you’re going to sabotage your defense by forcing square pegs into round holes, and not using your best talent in a way that utilizes their strengths, and instead focus on building for the future by sacrificing the present, there’s no point in worrying about which QB “won” the preseason. You need to have a long-term plan for that position, because it is the most important in the modern NFL.

      I know you think Vick can be elite when he’s 36, but as Brent has shown previously, he’s not elite now, and it’s highly, highly, highly unlikely that he overcomes the issues he currently has (poor pocket presence, inability to anticipate a receiver’s break and throw before they’re open, difficulties with screen type passes, tendency to stare receivers down) and becomes elite. Note that I’m not saying he stinks – he’s an average to slightly above average QB. The problem is that he’s very likely to regress, and highly unlikely to progress, at his age. And with the plan Kelly appears to have for the defense, this team is at least 2 years away from fielding the type of defense that could complement Vick sufficiently to lead to a SB run. More likely, it’s at least 3 years away.

      I’m also not sure where you’re getting that 30-40% number. I know that’s the average for 3-4 teams, but the Eagles don’t appear to be playing that, when you look at snap counts, and then take into account the fact that when Graham is in, he often is playing as a LB, not a down-lineman (like in the photo in this article). Whatever you want to label the scheme, it’s clear that the priority for D is not to put the best players in positions to succeed – it’s (hopefully) seeing if they can improve their weaknesses enough to play the preferred scheme. Other than Barwin, there’s not one player on the D that’s been used properly so far this season. And it shows.

      • My point is, once Vick was brought back and competing, Kelly had to start him once he won the competition or he would have lost the locker room.

        Regarding my numbers? Easy, look at Sopoaga’s snap count numbers and see that he is only playing between 30-40%, the rest of the time we are in nickle.
        Our nickle defense is often:

        Cox-Thornton-Cole
        Barwin-Ryans-Kendricks.

        Sure we can get all fired up about 1 play where the LB actually managed to cover the RB step for step down the field?

        Remember I think Graham is getting overrated by a lot of people because of PFF.

      • Sorry it took me a while to weigh in here, been fairly busy.

        First, regarding the base defense numbers, you have to remember that Logan is rotating in at NT as well. He played 27 snaps against KC. So between Logan and Sopoaga, the Eagles had a NT on the field for 65 snaps out of a total 83 plays.

        Clearly, whether it’s the official “base” defense or not, the Eagles are using a NT most of the time. Considering the relative skill of Sopoaga and Logan, I think its very fair to question that usage.

        I absolutely agree the Graham is overrated by most fans. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong on the field. Its not about ABSOLUTE skill. It’s just a matter of RELATIVE skill. Graham is in the top 11, he belongs on the field more often.

        Curry we just need to see more from. Last game and in the preseason, his play certainly suggested he belonged in the same group.

        The Eagles lack talent on defense, and sitting one or maybe two of your best 11 because your “scheme” calls for it is a self-inflicted wound. Instead, use the “creativity” to get those guys on the field while still holding to your defensive foundation. Maybe try Curry at NT for example?

        I’ll have more on this soon. But that’s the general idea, hopefully with more clarity.

        On Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 4:20 PM, Eagles Rewind

  2. High risk defense is exactly what this team needs. We’re giving up long time consuming td drives like they’re going out of style. If the worst thing is a big play and our offense gets the ball back sooner (as depressing an admission of loss as that is) so be it. As long as the up shot is a few more turnovers or sacks that also get the ball back.

  3. I think when we expect a DC to mix it up in a the first year, we generally think of someone like Poyer or Wolff and think if we’re losing anyway, why not try them out and see what they can do? The question with them is: can they start? But the coaches have like already found the answer, and that answer is somewhere between no and not yet. But Boykin? He’s almost certainly be our slot corner for the next few years. And so we should look at this in the same context, only we know that he will be playing without having to ask what-ifs. Let’s see if he can blitz. Let’s see if he can be part of the misdirection. And when we find out he can’t, Davis will look silly, but we still lost and got some more information out of it.

    Sandbox year. Enjoy the crazy.

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