Week 17: Eagles v. Cowboys Post-Game Notes

Well that was….agonizing.  The offense simply didn’t do its job, if it had, the game would have been a blowout.  Not going to dwell too much on it, though.  Only thing really worth investigation is whether Foles had places to throw the ball instead of taking the sacks.

For now, some quick notes:

- One of the biggest issues the past few years has been the lack of impact players on defense.  My perspective is that, in general, you can scheme to score points, but need talent to prevent them.  The Eagles haven’t had that….until now (maybe).  Mychal Kendricks played a great game, and looks to have found some measure of consistency (his biggest issue last year).  Boykin, outside of the really stupid PR penalty, also played a very good game.  The development of those two players is HUGELY important for the future of the team, especially when you consider the very real possibility (hopefully) that the team won’t be picking in the first half of the draft for a while.  Fletcher Cox didn’t make many players, but it looked like he was seeing consistent double-teams.  If that’s true, then he’s doing his job as well.

- Jason Garrett made some very poor strategic decisions, to the Eagles advantage of course.  Punting on 4th and 2 in Eagles territory is just completely indefensible, especially when you consider how good the Eagles’ offense is (despite its performance yesterday).  It’s shocking to me that coaches still do things like that, when so much work has been done to show it’s clearly the wrong move.  According to Expected Points, from AdvancedNFLStats.com, Garret gave away MORE THAN A FULL POINT with that decision.  He also struggled with more than just 4th down calls…

- The Cowboys’ biggest advantage coming into the game was on Special Teams.  Moreover, their return man, Dwayne Harris, was healthy again and among the more dangerous return men in the league.  Yet….he brought just 2 kicks out of the end zone (averaging 32.5 yards on those returns).  Another huge strategic blunder.  It doesn’t matter that the kicks were in the back of the end zone.  As an underdog, you need to (a) up the variance, and (b) leverage your strengths.  They did the complete opposite by not returning every kick.  This isn’t an isolated occurrence either.  Look at this, from Jared Cohen,

Screen Shot 2013-12-30 at 11.17.26 AM

 

You can see Dallas in the upper-left quadrant.  They’re above average in returns, yet attempt them far less than average.  Yes, there is some cross-causation here (it’s possible they’re above average because the only return kicks that don’t go deep into the end zone).  However, remember they were big underdogs here, with a QB that couldn’t push the ball downfield.  Maybe they should have taken a shot at giving Dwayne Harris a few shots against a poor Eagles STs unit?  Yeah…but I’m sure happy they didn’t.

Let’s just hope Jerry Jones isn’t lying when he says he’s keeping Garrett….

- Billy Davis….I’m done.  He’s at the top of the list as far as changes I’d like to see the team make.  The personnel still needs improvement, and blown coverages can’t get blamed on him, but he just doesn’t seem to have any feel for the strategic ebb and flow of the game.  He also seems to be completely ignorant of the risk/reward equation of blitzing in various situations.

The toughest part about judging coaches is that you never know if the players are actually executing what they’re told.  However, allowing the Cowboys, in a vitally important situation, to get Dez Bryant matched up one-on-one with Patrick Chung as a result of a simple, single-man pre-snap motion is absolutely ridiculous.  It shouldn’t happen. It CAN’T happen.

Also, when blitzes aren’t working, the answer is NOT to blitz more!  Here, Davis seemed to have no idea who he was playing against.  Kyle Orton, at this stage of his career especially, is a check-down, quick-read QB.  He’s not great, but if there’s a wide-open receiver, he’s going to complete the pass.  He also can’t push the ball downfield.  So why blitz?  If the QB is routinely taking 3-step drops, it doesn’t matter what blitz you call, there isn’t enough time to for it to get home.  Instead, Davis should have been happy to rush just 4 linemen and drop everyone else into coverage.  Orton’s not mobile, so the LBs are all free to man-up or drop into an underneath zone.

Against a QB with great accuracy (like Drew Brees for example), you can’t do this, because coverage is much more difficult.  Against Kyle Orton, though, the coverage doesn’t have to be perfect, he’s not that good!  He made one legitimately great throw all game (to Terrance Williams).  Other than that, his ball-placement was off, sometimes by a lot.  If that’s the case, the last thing you want to do is make things easy for him by leaving receivers uncovered (a side-effect of blitzing).

Most unfortunately, this isn’t a one-time occurrence; Davis has struggled with this all year.

- One last blitz point….it’s a high-variance strategy!  In other words, it’s something you should generally avoid if you are the favorite.  If you’re the better team, you don’t need the high-reward!  As a result, the payoff isn’t worth the associated risk.  As a significant favorite, it’s the OTHER team that should be forced to make riskier plays.

To be fair, though, I don’t think many DCs (if any) really conceptualize blitzing or general defensive strategy like this.  That’s not a good excuse for Davis though, it just means the whole profession needs some instruction.

Now some happy thoughts:

- 10 wins, a division title, a home playoff game, the league’s top rated passer, the league’s leading rusher, the most 20+ yard plays in NFL history.  As I said in the pre-game notes, this season has been a resounding success.  We’re playing with house money now.

- The Eagles went 7-1 over the second half of the season.

- Drew Brees is legitimately great, and scares me regardless of where the game is, but getting him out of the dome really is a big deal.

- The Saints are 2-3 in their last 5 games.  It’s been a very difficult stretch (losses have come against Seattle, Carolina, and St. Louis), but still.  This team isn’t quite as good as the Saints you’re used to hearing.  That said, they have a point differential of +110, nearly twice the Eagles’ mark of +60.  (My first reaction to the -2.5 line is that it’s off by a couple of points).

- Despite that, if I told you pre-season that the Eagles were a 50/50 proposition to make it to the divisional round of the playoffs, my guess is you’d have been thrilled and/or called my insane.

- Playoffs!

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11 thoughts on “Week 17: Eagles v. Cowboys Post-Game Notes

  1. Just want to say something about Billy Davis.

    First of all, yes, the Eagles getting “gotcha’d” in that defense on 4th down by Orton was a disaster and they probably shouldn’t have been in it in the first place. Or, as others have pointed out, if you’re going to all-out blitz, use Chung as the blitzer and leave Boykin to cover the slot rather than vice versa (using Boykin as a blitzer doesn’t play to his strengths and it’s happened too many times this year.) Or, the defense should have known to check out of that blitz once it was clear Orton had them sniffed and had found a bad matchup.

    That said, it’s an OTT reaction to call for Davis’s head based on that one call. Davis still deserves a lot of credit for taking a lousy unit and turning them into a decent one while teaching them a brand new scheme along the way. And I don’t just mean he deserves credit for his teaching of his fundamentals but he’s also done well with defensive calls for the greater part of the year and the Eagles have made a lot of blg plays off of blitzes and haven’t actually gotten burned on them that many times.

    In fact, focusing just on this game, I think it’s just plain incorrect to say that Davis’s blitzes weren’t effective in general against the Dallas offense. Actually from what I saw the Eagles defense started do a better job of slowing down the Cowboys when they started blitzing more because it forced Orton to throw a quick hot read in front of the first down marker. The play Barwin made on 4th and 1 was also on a blitz.

    So before we all start calling for Billy Davis’s head, I think we should actually come up with a pattern (or patterns of things) we don’t like about his defensive playcalling, rather than just seizing on one questionable call in particular and extrapolating that moment like it’s been that way all season. Chip Kelly had a boneheaded playcall on 4th and goal… should we want him fired as well?

    • The problem isn’t that ONE call, it’s that he’s repeatedly made the same mistake all season. It’s fair to wonder if any potential replacement would be any better, maybe they wouldn’t, in which case you don’t make the switch.

      However, I just don’t see the logic behind blitzing Orton. I’m not sure I’d point to the Barwin play as a great strategic decision, the pass was there, Barwin just made a phenomenal play to bat it down. Banking on your players to make that play is tough.

      The blitz worked a few times, but you have to weight that against the times it did NOT work, as well as what the likelihood of success was with a different call (for instance if a blitz worked when a base defense would have ALSO worked, than its not a good call). That’s close to impossible to do, because you never know what the other decision would have really resulted in, but its the way you have to think about things.

      I will freely admit, though, that my frustration with Davis might just be a manifestation of my frustration with many DCs in general. He’s the one I’m watching closely though, so he bears the criticism. He does deserve credit for transitioning to a 3-4 much more smoothly than I thought would be the case, no argument there. I just can’t overlook nonsensical calls elsewhere.

      • Again I don’t see it as a “mistake”. If blitzing Orton is working better for you than not blitzing Orton (and from my vantage point that’s how it was playing out) then by all means keep blitzing Orton. The Eagles changed their tactics midway through the game to use more blitzes precisely because their base looks were allowing the Cowboys to move the ball. I just don’t see what you find so nonsensical, other than the one call.

      • I’m also curious after reading your reply whether you think Jim Johnson’s Eagles defenses were also nonsensical in their use of blitzes. I don’t see Davis using blitz packages all that differently than JJ did: use extra rushers to force short throws in front of the marker, emphasize tackling after the catch, use of the illusion of all-out blitzes to confuse protection schemes and disguise coverages, etc.

      • Unfortunately, can’t comment too much on Jim Johnson. I simply didn’t watch the games as closely back then. Possible I would have had similar issues. However, personnel is much different as well. I’m not against ALL blitzing, just saying the use of it should vary more than it seems to in real life. It should be a tool, not a defensive philosophy. Note that having better personnel shifts both sides of the risk/reward tradeoff favorably. That might have played into JJ getting more leeway.

    • If it’s the philosophy you object to, that’s not Davis’s decision. Davis was brought in by Kelly to run an attacking-style 3-4 defense. What we’ve seen so far is very much in keeping with the defenses his Oregon teams had: bend-but-don’t-break and force turnovers.

  2. I’m not sure how you identify blitzing as a high variable decision if its in a string of other playcalls. I get that there is an increased chance of sack and an increased chance of big play, but the ratios seem to matter quite a bit (as do the play-call progression). Contrast with a Prevent D in which each independent playcall seems low variance, but the possession overall seems high variance (other team could gain chunk yards underneath or make a mistake) Also, if we often blitz, and its a significant aspect of our defensive identity, is the independent decision to choose a blitz play at any given time high variance, or could it just be a calculated risk that is taken so we don’t have to take other, higher variance calls later on.

    • Good points, probably requires a more in depth treatment than here in the comments. In general, you have to constantly reevaluate the decision according to both team’s relative strength and where the game stands. I’m troubled by saying “we’re a blitzing defense”, but you’re right that I should have view it as a base level of blitzing, based on general philosophy, against which each decision should be judged (rather than looking at each in a vacuum).

      Not sure if that would change my overall takeaway, but I’ll think it over and reconsider.

  3. I learn a lot from your column and appreciate your insight. Your Garrett criticisms are illuminating, and it makes one happy to have him return. I also loved your before-the-season prediction of wins. It seemed wildly rosy and optimistic, which is how I always view the Eagles anyway. It was great to see your logical numbers behind the good feelings, and the fact that you were right has meant thrills for the entire Delaware Valley.

    I’m going to side with commenters who defend Billy Davis, however. Our best pass rusher, Trent Cole, had to go against their best pass protector. It meant we didn’t get a lot of pressure. Our defense is still lacking talent and needs to rely on surprise and deception to slow offenses down. We HAVE to blitz at times to hide our relative lack of talent. Playing with house money on the season? How about on the defense specifically? We’re spoiled by the fact that the offense’s improvement has included NFL records and league leading performances. The D was so horrible last year. Starting when Chip was hired, all the way until the start of the game, we all would have signed on for 22 PA in week 17 against the Cowboys. Remember your own analysis, we needed average to slightly below average play from our defense to win. The blitzing helps to avoid terrible defense.

    My last thought is that we seem to be lacking team speed – as it manifests itself on turf. Just as the Saints are great in the dome, I feel like it hasn’t been examined whether artificial turf is a disadvantage for the Eagles D. Giants, Vikings and Cowboys – these teams moved the ball well on turf against the Birds. I think Seattle’s home field advantage is over-hyped, but I sure would like them to lose so we can avoid them at home. Whoa, whoa, whoa, I told you I get over-optimistic…

  4. I disagree with your CBA of this team’s expected utility for blitzing (in general, not in the Chung v. Dez decision). Whenever you have a top five offense with an average defense (#17 I believe), blitzing has a number of static and dynamic benefits. First, a turnover is regarded as a premium because it has a higher chance in resulting in points. Building such a lead helps the defense by enabling them to turn the opposition into a one-dimensional unit. This helps the defense avoid biting on play actions and otherwise being in a better position to call the right type of coverage for passing downs. The cost of a blitz failing is also smaller. If the failed blitz results in a large gain or a TD, this team is engineered to score quickly and put pressure on the other offense to reciprocate. Combining the above principles, this team is built to have an attacking defense. We want the ball in our offense’s hands as much as possible. If a blitz gets a turnover, fantastic. We can build a lead. If not, we have the firepower to negate the failed attempt.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that Davis screwed up big time by not calling a timeout when Dez went in motion and lined up over Chung. EVERYONE KNEW that Dez was putting up six the second the ball was snapped. That aside, the general consensus at the beginning of the season was that if we can get our defense into the middle of the pack, we have had a successful year. We are right in the middle on ppg, which includes the fiasco in Denver and Minnesota. Past performances against the Lions, Cardinals and Bears make me feel comfortable enough with Davis for this playoff run. Most importantly, happy new years everyone!

    • P.s. when I read this article I immediately went to BGN to witness the Lord of the Flies reenactment. It did not disappoint… hahaha. That place gets a bit extreme at times. I thought this was a thought provoking piece, even if it was a bit off the mark. I’d be interested in your reaction Brent to my blitzing perception.

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