Expect TEs and RBs to be a Focal Point of the Eagles offense

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

In case you haven’t noticed, the Eagles have several sizeable holes on the offensive side of the football. The only reliable receiver on the roster to date is Jordan Matthews, while the Eagles’ offensive line faces questions thanks to Jason Peters losing his battle with Father Time and Lane Johnson losing his battle with integrity. In a league predicated on protecting the quarterback and passing the football, that could spell trouble for the Eagles.

But the talent at tight end and running back could mitigate some of these concerns. Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton give the Eagles one of the deepest and most versatile tight end units in the league, and their presence should not only bolster the team’s receiving options but also help ameliorate the offensive line issues. And the oft-overlooked Darren Sproles could become a revelation in this offense, reassuming the Danny Woodhead-type role he practicaly invented in New Orleans.

These players could have helped the team last year, but Chip Kelly’s religious adherence to the 11 personnel — three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back — meant more Miles Austin and Riley Cooper, and less Ertz, Celek, Burton, and Sproles. Of all the frustrating things about Kelly’s tenure (and there were many), his preference for allowing scheme to dictate playing time — instead of talent — was at the top of my list.

I would expect the opposite to occur under Doug Pederson, with tight end and running back being key cogs on this offense, especially in the passing game. Look no further than Pederson’s mentor, Andy Reid, to get an idea of how involved they could become. Dating back to 2000, Andy Reid coached teams have had a running back or tight end rank in the top two on the team in catches every single year (all numbers courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com):

That’s 15 years of heavily involving the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That should be welcomed news for a team that — as Brent laid out earlier — have yet to see a good return on their investment in the wide receiver position.

More Tight Ends Please: 12 and 13 Personnel and the Y-Iso

Both Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich recently praised the tight ends as a strength of the Eagles’ offense, hinting that they will have an expanded role this year. And if Pederson’s time at Kansas City is any indication — where they routinely relied on 12 (two tight end sets) and 13 (three tight ends) personnel groups — he will follow through on that promise.

We saw this on the first drive of the first preseason game, when the Eagles lined up three tight ends in a power run formation deep in the red zone. It was a jarring site to behold after watching three straight years of the Eagles foolishly running exclusively out of the shotgun:

The benefits of using multiple tight ends in the run game are obvious. Tight ends are typically larger, and better blockers than receivers, so it helps create better lanes for a running back to exploit. The extra reinforcements will be especially important during the first 10 weeks of the season when Lane Johnson is suspended.

The extra blockers should also help in the passing game. Last season, the Chiefs had issues all along their offensive line, but especially at the guard position. The Chiefs combated those concerns by keeping in extra blockers to buy Alex Smith more time to attack the defense down field.

Here, the Chiefs line up in 12 personnel, with Kelce and Demetrius Harris as the two tight ends. Kelce gets open and scores an easy 42-yard touchdown, but the play was made possible by Harris and center Mitch Morse double teaming J.J. Watt.

Given Celek’s strength as a blocker, I would expect to see him giving help to Allen Barbre often this season, easing the blow of losing Johnson to suspension. It’s a smart use of the players at your disposal, but was rarely something that Kelly did last season.

Extra tight ends has the secondary benefit of setting up the play-action pass, which is one of the few areas that Sam Bradford performed at an elite level last year. Indeed, if you continue to run the ball down a defense’s throat with the 12 or 13 personnel, they will counter by stacking 8 men in the box to stop the run. That creates easy pickings for the play action pass over the top, something the Chiefs used successfully last season with Travis Kelce:

The Chiefs routinely exploited the matchup problems Kelce’s size, speed and route running ability presented. He was too big for safeties, too fast for opposing linebackers, and that mismatch was especially problematic in the redzone. But it didn’t just occur by happenstance. Pederson/Reid purposefully designed plays to get Kelce in favorable matchups in the end zone.

Watch this play design. The Chiefs are using their 13 personnel, with three tight ends lined up at the top of the screen. Kelce is on the outside and is going to run a post pattern in the end zone. But watch as Harris and James O’Shaughnessy run staggered post and in routes at 5 and 10 yard intervals, respectively. They occupy the middle linebackers and safeties, freeing up Kelce for a one-on-one matchup on the outside.

Zach Ertz presents a similar matchup problem for opposing defenses, and flashed big time talent down the stretch last year catching 30 passes over the final three games of the season. But Kelly rarely designed plays for his best players, including Ertz. Kelly believed that he could scheme players open and expected his quarterback to find the open target, regardless of who it was. I don’t expect that to be a problem this year. Ertz should quickly become Sam Bradford’s favorite red zone target, with Pederson designing plays like the one above to get Ertz in favorable matchups.

Pederson will also look to generate favorable matchups by the location in which tight ends are placed on the field. The Chiefs routinely spread tight ends out wide against cornerbacks, which is like posting up a power forward on a shooting guard. It just isn’t a fair matchup for the defense.

 

The final, and perhaps most significant way we will see the tight ends get more involved is through the “Y-Iso” formation.  The formation consists of trip wide receivers on one side of the formation and a tight end lined up in the Y receiver spot on the other side. Bill Belichick reintroduced this to the league a few years back, unleashing Rob Gronkowski on unsuspecting defensive backs in a hilariously unfair mismatch.The Chiefs — and many other teams in the NFL — followed the Patriots lead and have used the Y-Iso formation to great success.

According to Pro Football Focus, the amount of snaps in the Y-Iso formation has more than doubled since 2011, rising from 1,569 to 3,503 in 2015. The Chiefs and San Diego — were Frank Reich was the offensive coordinator — ranked fourth and fifth in the league in Y-Iso snaps, respectively.

In week 16 last year against the Browns, the Chiefs lined up Kelce in the Y-Iso formation at the bottom of the screen, while three receivers were split out on the opposite side of the field. Kelce is matched up one-on-one with Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, who has safety help over the top. That is, until Jeremy Maclin occupies the safety just long enough to free Kelce for the easy score.

If you watch Maclin closely on this play, I am not entirely sure he is even looking to catch the ball. It looks like he ran his route solely for the purpose of occupying the safety so that Kelce could get free. Regardless, that is just a great play design by the Chiefs, and another example of how Ertz, Celek and Burton could be used this season.

 

The Return of Darren Sproles

I’ve already laid out why I think Mathews could be an effective running back, but even at the tender age of 34, Sproles could finally become the dynamic threat in the passing game we all envisioned when he was acquired from the Saints. Sproles was Danny Woodhead before Danny Woodhead, and that fact was not lost on Frank Reich (who was Woodhead’s offensive coordinator last year in San Diego):

When Sproles was acquired by the Eagles in the 2014 offseason, he was coming off back to back seasons of being targeted over 100 times. During those two years, Sproles caught a combined 161 passes for 1,377 yards, and 14 touchdowns. He was a matchup nightmare and one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets.

But in Sproles’ three seasons with the Eagles, he has caught only 166 passes for 1,379 yards and 3 touchdowns. Kelly often praised Sproles dynamic ability, but failed to consistently use him.

If Frank Reich’s use of Danny Woodhead in San Diego is any indication, I wouldn’t expect that to continue. In 2013 and 2015 (Woodhead missed most of 2014 due to injury), Woodhead combined for 156 catches, 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns in the air. Woodhead was Phillip River’s safety valve and one of his favorite red zone targets. And despite being viewed as only a third down back, Woodhead had 597 offensive snaps last season according to FootballOutsiders.com, which ranked 13th in the league among running backs and was 201 more snaps than Melvin Gordon, who was supposedly the starter.

Comparatively, Sproles had 393 offensive snaps last year under Chip Kelly, which ranked 35th in the league and placed him behind the likes of Theo Riddick and Isaiah Crowell. Even if Sproles isn’t used as often as Woodhead was last year — and indeed, I would be surprised if he was given his age — I expect to see smarter play designs aimed at getting the ball in Sproles hands.

Notice the play design here? It’s the Y-Iso formation we covered earlier. This play isn’t as important so much as what it does for setting up Woodhead to score on the next series, but play along for a minute. Ladarius Green is in the Y-Iso formation with Melvin Gordon lined up in the backfield on the same side of the field.  Green breaks free on a crossing pattern and scoots in for the easy score.

On the very next drive down in the red zone, the Charges call the same Y-Iso formation, this time with Green on the opposite side of the field and with Woodhead in the backfield instead of Gordon. Having just been burned by Green for a touchdown, the Raiders defense doubles Green, leaving Woodhead wide open for an easy score.

This is a great play call from Frank Reich and an example of how an offensive coordinator can set up certain play calls during the course of a game. Reich knew the defense would recognize the formation and stick Green, and used that aggressiveness against them. Sub in Ertz and Sproles for Green and Woodhead — different players, but likely the same results.

The Chargers didn’t just target Woodhead out of the backfield, either. They did a great job moving Woodhead all over the field, splitting him out wide and lining him up in the slot. Against the Dolphins (where Woodhead scored 4 total touchdowns), Woodhead was able to spring free with a nifty out and up route for a score.

Later in the game, the Chargers again dialed up a play designed to spring Woodhead for an easy score. Woodhead is lined up out wide on the lower side of the field, while the Dolphins are in man coverage with a single high safety.  The Chargers break Woodhead open by running a pick play on Woodhead’s man. That’s just easy money.

 

Over the last few years, I have been calling for the Eagles to use Sproles in a similar fashion. He is so difficult to cover in space given his precise route running and overall shiftiness. They rarely took advantage of that the last three seasons, but I expect to see Sproles (and perhaps Smallwood) get an opportunity to shine in the passing game this year.

I came into this season with serious reservations about the Eagles offense and their head coach, Doug Pederson. I still have those reservations, but digging into the film more gives me some hope that the offense will not be a total train wreck.

Both Pederson and Reich have a history of catering their scheme to their personnel, which is a nice contrast from the Chip Kelly experience. Given the Eagles holes at receiver and the potential issues along the offensive line, I expect to see the tight ends and Darren Sproles more heavily involved in the offense. It might not be the most prolific offense in the league, but it should be more effective and efficient than what we saw the last two years.

 

Eagles WRs – Concentration of Draft Resources

There is a potential disaster looming for the Eagles.  I think we can all agree on that, even though many might want to stay in denial for a little while longer.

I’m talking, of course, about the WRs corps.  Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff, Chris Givens, Rueben Randle, Dorial Green-Beckham.  And whoever else you want to throw in there (preseason star Paul Turner, perhaps?)  Of that group, only Matthews has proven himself to be a viable starter.  Beyond that, though, things look bleak.

However, my purpose today isn’t to scout or analyze the players.  Instead, I want to examine how we got here and what it means for the future.  Specifically, the WR corps is so disappointing not because it’s bad (though that certainly sucks), but because of how much the Eagles invested in it.  In the 2013-2015 drafts, the Eagles used a 1st (Agholor), a 2nd (Matthews), and a 3rd (Huff) round pick on wide receivers.  That’s a lot….I think.

It certainly feels like a lot of draft resources devoted to one position, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with that.

But how does the Eagles investment compare to the rest of the league?

I took a look at every player drafted between 2013-2015, and looked to see which teams spent the most resources at which positions.  I used the PFR draft pick value chart to assign discrete values to each pick.  It’s not a perfect method, for reasons I won’t get into, but it as good as any I can think of short of designing my own value system.

In the 2013, 2014, and 2015 drafts, the Eagles spent 1490 “draft points” on WRs.  For comparison, the #1 overall pick is worth 3000 points.  Over that same timeframe, there were 5 teams that actually devoted more draft points to WRs, and how they did it.

1 – Buffalo Bills (2492 2995 draft points)

Sammy Watkins (#4 overall via trade of #9, #19, and #115, 2289 points total), Robert Woods (#41 overall, 490 points), Marquise Goodwin (#78, 200), and Dezmin Lewis (#234, 2).

As you can see, using the #4 pick on Watkins was a huge investment, and counts for more than all of the Eagles picks combined (and then some).  Fortunately for the Bills, Watkins looks like a star.  He has 2000+ yards combined in his first 2 seasons, and registered a 62.5% catch rate last year with 17.5 yards per reception.

2 – Oakland Raiders (1811 draft points)

Similar to Buffalo, Oakland’s investment is comprised mostly (almost entirely) by its use of the #4 overall pick on Amari Cooper.  The team also used a couple of 7th round picks on Brice Butler and Andre Debose (no clue who those guys are).

As with Watkins, though, Oakland seems to have landed a star talent, which is pretty much mandatory for use of a top 5 pick.  In his rookie year, Cooper at 1070 yards on 72 catches and 14.9 yards per reception.  His catch rate was 55%.  Any way you look at it, that’s a very impressive rookie season for a WR.  Anyone who watched him play knows that his ceiling is also much higher than his stat line from last season suggests.

3 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1562 draft points)

Mike Evans (#7 overall, 1500 points), Robert Heron (#185, 17.4 points), and Kenny Bell (#162, 26.6).

Seeing a theme, here?  Tampa’s investment was also a high first round pick, and Mike Evans has been very good (inefficiency is the only knock on him, as he benefitted a lot from high usage and his catch rate over two seasons is just 52.5%).  Still, 2257 yards, 15.9 yards per reception, and 15 touchdowns over his first 2 seasons is impressive.

4 – Los Angeles Rams (1543 draft points)

Tavon Austin (#8 overall, 1400 points), Stedman Bailey (#92, 132), Bud Sasser (#201, 11)

Finally, we get to see what happens when a team misses on a high pick.  The selection of Austin was worth nearly as much as the Eagles total investment, and he’s been a huge disappointment.  He hasn’t gained more than 473 yards receiving in a season (through 3), and his yards per reception is just 9.2.  Stedman Bailey has been similarly ineffective, though he’s received far fewer targets.

5 – Chicago Bears (1502 draft points)

Kevin White (#7 overall, 1500 points), and Marquess Wilson (#236, 2).

White was injured prior to his rookie year, and has yet to play a game.


So that’s it.  Those are the 5 teams that spent more on WRs in the draft than the Eagles did from 2013-2015.  Every one of them used a top 10 pick, which makes up the bulk of their investment.  The Eagles, by comparison, took a more balanced approach:

Nelson Agholor (#20 overall, 800 points), Jordan Matthews (#42 overall, 480 points), and Josh Huff (#86 overall, 160 points).

Matthews has been the saving grace of that group, accounting for 68% of the total Approximate Value contributed by the three players (13 out of 19).

Still, he clearly doesn’t have the high-end potential of the top players listed above.  So while there might be 5 teams that invested more, it looks like at least 3 of them are going to walk away with a long-term star at WR, or at least a strong #1.  The Bears can’t be graded.  That leaves the Rams as the only team that invested as much and got less from its investment.

Of course, we haven’t even touched on the second order effects of such an investment.  The opportunity cost of those picks is huge, especially as we look at the other holes on the team.  That’s also where this analysis is weakest.  The top ten picks count for A LOT, but they’re still just one draft selection (though in theory they could be freely traded for more picks).  The Eagles, instead, used 3 separate selections on the WR position.  While that increased the odds of getting at least 1 starter (Matthews), it also meant having fewer resources to devote to the rest of the team (ahem…offensive line…).

Moreover, the Eagles didn’t stop there.  The team made another concentrated investment in the QB position.  The team used two 1st round picks, a 2nd round pick, and a 3rd rounder  to get Wentz (I’m just cancelling the swapped 4th rounders out).  They also used a 4th round pick on Matt Barkley in 2013.  Oh dear, I originally forgot the 2nd round pick used to acquire Sam Bradford. 

So, to make things clearer, over the past 4 drafts, the Eagles have used the following on the QB and WR positions:

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 3.26.19 PM

And they’ve come out with Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews….

That, folks, is how you (potentially) destroy a team for a long time.  It means that if Carson Wentz is anything less than a true star at QB, it’ll be a long time before the team is ready to be a top contender again.

That doesn’t mean all hope is lost.  The defense looks good, and as the Giants showed (twice), even mediocre teams can win a Super Bowl if they get a great string of luck.  However, the days of perennial division titles and conference championships aren’t coming back anytime soon (unless Wentz is great).  Roster management and the draft is just an exercise in asset allocation.  The Eagles were very good at that for a long time, but lost discipline during the Chip Kelly era.  Unfortunately, it’s going to take a while to climb back out of that hole.

Pre-emptive argument note:  I’ve been a strong advocate of “saturation drafting” in the past.  However, I’ve always used that to mean using multiple LATE ROUND picks on the same position, as a way to maximize the odds of getting a rosterable player when your only options are low-probability lottery tickets.  The key to why that strategy is effective is how low the opportunity cost of those picks is.  Hence, applying the same logic to the top of the draft doesn’t work, because the opportunity cost there is huge.

 

 

 

Don’t Forget About Ryan Mathews

Patrick Causey; Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

There is a lot of angst surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles, most of which is justified. Sam Bradford is predictably mediocre. Lane Johnson is facing a 10 game suspension and the 34-year old Jason Peters will likely regress thanks to father time, so the offensive line figures to be a mess. And save for Jordan Matthews, the wide receivers look wholly unreliable.

But those legitimate concerns are starting to distort people’s views of some otherwise talented players on this football team. The perfect example is Ryan Mathews, who was one of the lone bright spots last season for the Eagles offense.

While concerns over Mathews’ injury history are fair, some have taken it a step further, suggesting that the Eagles backfield will be a train wreck and that Mathews should be outright released by the team. But a deeper look at Mathews’ productivity and film suggests that these types of reactions are completely unjustified.

The Numbers

Last year, Mathews totaled 106 carries for 539 yards with six rushing touchdowns, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. While his total numbers were underwhelming, he was an highly effective runner in the limited opportunities that he received. Mathews 5.1 yards per carry ranked second in the NFL among qualifying running backs, according to ESPN.com, behind only Thomas Rawls of the Seattle Seahawks.

FootballOutsiders.com had Mathews rated as a top 10 running back in 2015 by both of its key metrics: DYAR and DVOA. As a refresher (or introduction), DYAR, or defensive adjusted yards above replacement, is a metric which FO defines as providing  “the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage,” whereas DVOA, which stands for defensive adjusted value over average, is defined as the “value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense.”

In other words, DVOA and DYAR attempt to place value on a running back’s play compared to how an average player at that position would perform, and adjusts for the situation and quality of opponent.

As you can see in the below charts, Mathews excelled in both metrics:

DYAR Rankings for 2015

Rank Player Team DYAR
1 Rawls Sea 216
2 Forte Chi 192
3 Williams Pit 184
4 Gurley Stl 170
5 Bell Pit 162
6 Peterson Min 143
7 McCoy Buf 139
8 Johnson Ari 133
9 Mathews Phi 133
10 Bernard Cin 131

DVOA Rankings for 2015

Rank Player Team DVOA
1 Bell Pit 28.1%
2 Rawls Sea 26.4%
3 Mathews Phi 20.4%
4 Johnson Ari 15.7%
5 Langford Chi 12.7%
6 Williams Pit 12.1%
7 Forte Pit 12.0%
8 Bernard Cin 11.8%
9 Gurley Stl 10.0%
10 Forsett Bal 9.1%

Mathews’ ranking on this list probably surprised some of you,  which is a testament to how narratives can distort our view of a player’s value. His DVOA ranking is particularly impressive, with Mathews besting the likes of Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, and Matt Forte, three of the best running backs in the league. While we cannot completely take these rankings at face value —  I don’t think anyone would argue that Mathews is a better running back than Gurley, Forte or Peterson   — these numbers underscore how much we might be overlooking Mathews as a viable option this season.

(Side note: for those wondering, DeMarco Murray ranked 39th out of 44 running backs in DYAR, and ranked 40th out of 44 in DVOA).

The Film

So what makes Mathews so effective? At 6’2, 220 lbs, Mathews is often described as a physically imposing, one cut, downhill runner. And indeed, Mathews doesn’t shy away from contact, as he flashes an aggressive disposition when running the football:

But it would be a mistake to pigeon hole Mathews into the downhill, thumper roll. Mathews also has good burst for a player his size, using his 4.45 40 time to beat defenders to the edge for big plays. Last season, Mathews had 5 runs for 20 yards or more, including a 63 yard touchdown against the NFL’s best defense, the Carolina Panthers.

And while Mathews will never be mistaken for LeSean McCoy, he also flashed the ability to make defenders miss, a skill set that was valuable last year given the offensive line’s incompetence (which might come in handy again this season):

In other words, Mathews possesses a rare combination of size, speed and agility, and has the Pro Bowl credentials to justify being a lead running back on a football team.

But there are two criticisms holding him back in the eyes of Eagles fans and the media: his ability to catch the ball and injury history.

Catching Ball

It’s a prerequisite for a running back to be able to catch the football in order to excel in Andy Reid’s (and by extension, Doug Pederson’s), West Coast offense. Jamaal Charles caught 75 passes combined over the 2010-2012 seasons, but in Reid’s first season in Kansas City in 2013, Charles caught 70 passes for 693 years and 7 touchdowns. From 2004-08, Brian Westbrook averaged 71 catches for 638.2 yards and 4.8 touchdowns per season.

Many have suggested that Mathews won’t fit this scheme given his struggles catching the football. Indeed, reading that last sentence likely conjured up memories for you of some horrific drops from Mathews last year:

But the concerns over Mathews ability to catch the football are being overstated. Per Prof-Football-Reference.com, Mathews has caught 166 of 212 passes during his career, which equates to a 78.3% catch rate. That actually bests Jamaal Charles career catch rate of  69.8%, (283/405) and — brace yourself — Brian Westbrook’s catch rate of 73.7% (442/599)

Admittedly, Mathews has been targeted much less frequently (212)  than Westbrook (599) and Charles (405). But 212 targets is a large enough sample size that his production should not be ignored. Mathews was reliable catching the ball out of the backfield last year, suggesting that he could be even more effective in an expanded roll this season.

Injuries

Without question, Mathews injury history is concerning. He has played in only 73 of 96 potential games during his career, and an argument can be made that it will only get worse as Mathews gets older. We already saw Mathews miss nine days of training camp because of an injury he suffered before he even started practicing. How can Mathews be counted upon if he cannot take the field?

Not to downplay those concerns, but there is a silver lining to his injury history. Mathews has only played in 19 of 32 games over the last two seasons, carrying the ball 180 times during that span. Most starting running backs eclipse 180 carries in a single season, so this actually can help Mathews’ longevity in the league since he has less wear and tear than your typical 28-year old running back.

And let’s put his injury history into context. Mathews has averaged 12.16 games per season during his career. Westbrook averaged 13.8 games per season when he was the Eagles primary running back (2004-08). And Charles has a career average of 10.6 games per season over his eight year career.

Again, Mathews’ injury history isn’t ideal. But Westbrook and Charles have proven that you can be an effective running back despite missing a few games per season (ditto Arian Foster during his prime).

I don’t expect Ryan Mathews to contend for a rushing title this year. I don’t expect Mathews to morph into Westbrook or Charles in their primes. But I do think it is reasonable to expect Mathews to have a productive season as the Eagles lead back, even if he misses a few games due to a nagging injury.

 

Evaluating Carson Wentz

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

There was a moment last night where I just stopped and shook my head. It had nothing to do with what was happening on the field, but was instead a reaction to the fact that I was studying film of Carson Wentz in a preseason game against third string competition. But given that this was likely one of the only extended looks we will see from Wentz in the next year (unless this season goes horribly wrong), here I am.

Overall, I thought Wentz’s play was in line with my scouting report that I did pre-draft: some positives, some negatives, and some hope for the future. Let’s break down the big take aways from his Eagles debut.

  1. Wentz looks like he belongs.

Yes, it was only a preseason game. Yes, Wentz was playing against second and third string competition. Yes, “insert any other caveat you want to apply.” But Wentz did not look overwhelmed by the moment or by the increase in speed from the FCS:

There is a laundry list of quarterbacks that look less poised than Wentz but have significantly more experience: Geno Smith, Matt Leinart, Brady Quinn. While that is an admittedly low bar, it is nonetheless encouraging that Wentz looks like he belonged out there.

Two plays immediately come to mind. In the third quarter, the Bucs showed pressure off the edge with a corner blitz. Wentz quickly diagnosed where the pressure was coming from and hit the hot option in stride:

This looks simple, but many quarterbacks struggle with this, especially rookies, who can be overwhelmed by the moment, the added responsibilities, the more complex defenses, and the increased speed of the game. Wentz was not phased in the least.

The other play that exemplified Wentz’s poise came in the third quarter when Wentz was under enormous pressure almost immediately:

It looks like a botched snap count, as at least three lineman were slow to get off their blocks. Special shout-out to rookie offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who must have fallen asleep on this play:

Big V

But, back to Wentz. There are veteran quarterbacks in this league that wouldn’t have handled this immediate pressure as well as Wentz. He wasn’t phased, didn’t get the deer in the headlights look; he kept his cool, used his legs to break containment, kept his eyes down field and delivered a strike for a nice gain.

2. Wentz is incredibly athletic and is especially adept at throwing on the move

When Mike Mayock compared Wentz’s athleticism to Andrew Luck leading up to the draft,  people laughed. But Wentz is proving Mayock right.

Wentz is 6’5, 237 lbs, but moves like a gazelle. He routinely evaded pressure (as the clip above illustrates), minimizing the harm caused by a leaky offensive line.

That video cuts off right before Wentz slid to avoid the hit. According to Les Bowen, Wentz said after the game that was the first time he slid in his life, a welcomed development.

Later in the game, Wentz showed less restraint (while also flashing impressive mobility to beat the blitzer to the edge). The kid simply cannot afford to take these kind of hits on even a semi-regular basis:

Prior to the draft, I noted that Wentz excelled while throwing on the move. This is a unique trait for a young quarterback, as most quarterbacks’ mechanics fall to the wayside, impacting their accuracy. Wentz’s ability to throw on the move was on full display last night:

Wentz is especially impressive when he is stepping up into the pocket. I think part of this is that it forces better mechanics out of Wentz, preventing him from “arming” the ball, a problem I saw a lot in his college tape. Check out this play from his first series of the game, where he delivers an impressive strike to Ertz while stepping up into the pocket

3. Wentz needs to improve his accuracy

It wasn’t all pretty though. Wentz completed only 50% of his passes, thanks in large part to some ill-placed throws.

When Wentz misses,  he often misses high, sailing the ball beyond the reach of his receiver (and, at least to this point, the defenders as well). I counted at least three passes that were not catchable last night:

You can see another example here.

Wentz also needs to improve his precision, as his ball placement was inconsistent at times last night. Here’s one example:

Fourth year wide receiver (#16) T.J. Graham is running a seven-yard curl towards the inside of the field. He has a good 5 yard buffer on his defender, so it should be an easy pitch and catch. But Wentz puts the ball high and to the outside shoulder. Graham arguably could have caught this — and indeed, if it was a first string WR, perhaps it would have been caught (then again, it is the Eagles we are talking about). Wentz could have made Graham’s job considerably easier if he put the ball on his numbers, or at least threw it towards the direction in which Graham was heading– i.e., his inside shoulder.

Cleaning up his mechanics during this redshirt season should help with his repetitive accuracy. But it is something to keep an eye on as we progress through the preseason. You can see a couple more examples here and here.

4. Wentz made rookie mistakes, which are to be expected

Wentz put up underwhelming numbers last night: 12-24 passing for 89 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. This caused more handwringing than I expected, with some calling his performance “rocky” and others snidely saying he was in “preseason form.”

I try not to fixate on rookies making mistakes in their first year, especially at the quarterback position. The learning curve to the NFL is incredibly steep: systems are more complex, players are moving faster, and the magnifying glass you are placed under can be overwhelming at times.

That is especially true for a player like Wentz, who is making the jump from playing FCS football in North freaking Dakota to playing at the highest level of competition in one of the toughest markets in the world.

So when I saw this terrible decision last night — where Wentz forced a throw to a covered receiver deep in the red zone — I tried to keep things in perspective.

Look, I’m not excusing the throw — it was bad — but remember: Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions to just 26 touchdowns his rookie year. Troy Aikman threw more interceptions than touchdowns in each of his first two seasons. They went on to win a combined five Superbowls during their Hall of Fame careers.

That’s not to suggest Wentz will be nearly as successful as those two (odds are he won’t), but it is to say that we shouldn’t freak out every time the kid throws a pick. If he is still making these mistakes consistently during his second season as a starter, then we should be concerned. Until then, give him time to grow.

 

Bottom line: I was impressed from the rookie quarterback. He made some good plays, flashed his athleticism, and didn’t look overwhelmed by the moment. Despite his mistakes, I think it was a strong debut. Hopefully we can see more of him in the remaining preseason games.

Looking for a Linebacker

TYLER ASTON is a contributor at Eagles Rewind. You can follow him on twitter @Astonia67.

The Eagles are in the market for some young backup linebackers. This makes more sense than brining in an over the hill vet on what is effectively a rebuilding team. Najee Goode will be a free agent next year. Joe Walker looked good in the first preseason game but has far from locked up a long term spot. The team gave Myke Tavarres a ton of signing bonus money and he will almost certainly at least make the practice squad, but plays WILL (same position as Goode) and is making a big jump in competition and transitioning positions. Deonte Skinner may make the team but hasn’t exactly been lighting things up during the preseason. Quinten Gause is probably more of a practice squad guy, and bless his heart but I don’t think Don Cherry is going to make it.

Despite all the handwringing about the state of the position, in looking around the league for this post, the birds are probably middle of the pack in terms of overall linebacker depth. The Eagles are most likely in the market for a SAM or MIKE Linebacker. Let’s take a look at some potential options.

LJ Fort: 6’0, 232lbs, 26 years old, STEELERS

Jordan Zumwalt: 6’4, 235lbs, 24 years old, STEELERS

Tyler Matakevich: 6’1, 235lbs, 23 years old, STEELERS

In my opinion the Steelers have the best overall LB depth in the league right now. One or more of these players will be available. Fort played college ball at Northern Iowa but and played a decent chunk for the Browns back in 2012. Has been bouncing around the league since then trying to find a home. Fort has had a very strong showing in Steelers camp and is turning some heads.

Zumwalt was a guy who flashed every time you watched UCLA in 2013. Every game he had a monster hit or bigtime run stuff that made you sit up and pay attention. Considering that UCLA team also had Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Myles Jack, that is no small feat. The downside is his overall game tape was much more mixed. While he would flash a big play you often wondered about his football IQ. He’s yet to be healthy in the NFL, but has the raw talent. Bit of a project but perhaps a fire and brimstone DC like Schwartz could help him.

Matakevich is the local star. He was the driving force behind Temple’s strong defense last year. Extremely productive college player with high football IQ. He’s a bit small and not terribly athletic which is why he was selected in the seventh round and not where his stat line would have you guess. He’s probably never going to be a starter but for a team like the Eagles having a savvy capable backup MIKE backer to provide insurance for Hicks certainly helps.

Marquis Flowers: 6’3, 250lbs, 24 years old, BENGALS

Flowers started his college career at Arizona as a S. Eventually moved to SAM Linebacker. Came into the league at 6’2 231lbs, but has since grown into that frame. Ran a 4.51 at his pro day. Made the Bengals roster in 2014 and would have last year if not an injury in the final preseason game. The Bengals have a good track record of developing linebacking talent. He seems to have done well this preseason and the Bengals like him, however he just seems to be caught up in a numbers game. Flowers has good size and athleticism to be a modern NFL SAM backer and cover linebackers.

Shaq Petteway: 5’11, 230lbs, 22 years old, CHARGERS

Petteway doesn’t really fit a need for the Eagles, he projects as an undersized WILL in the birds scheme. I bring him up however because the Eagles seemed to like him in the predraft process, and worked him out as a fullback. He stands no chance at making the Chargers roster as a 34 OLB as he’s about 3 inches and 25 pounds from being an undersized pass rusher. Petteway would more be a guy that the birds sign to the practice squad and tinker with at fullback and maybe some defense on the side.

John Timu: 6’0, 245lbs, 23 years old, BEARS

Timu was a two time captain at Washington on units that featured Marcus Peters, Kikaha, Danny Shelton, and Shaq Thompson. Timu started 3 games at the end of last season for the Bears but after heavy investment at the position in the offseason may be on the outside looking in. Timu is the kind of player you look for in a backup MIKE, maybe not the flashiest player but everytime you watch his tape you walk away going “that sumbitch can play football”.

Paul Worrilow: 6’0, 230lbs, 26 years old, FALCONS

Worrilow is the most established player on this list. If the Eagles want a more established player to provide insurance for Hicks, this should be the target not a player in his 30s. He has 230 career tackles, 4 sacks, and 2 INTs. Worrilow was a UDFA from Delaware back in 2013 and because the Falcons were so devoid of talent on defense he became a starter almost immediately and has remained in the lineup. He’s stuffed the stat sheet and has been solid but struggles with missed tackles and basically being the front 7’s best player for 3 years. The Falcons finally invested in the position during the offseason, and seem to be trying to transition him to a backup role this season. Worrilow is basically Atlanta’s LB version of what Nate Allen was to the Eagles, a solid if unspectacular starter but much maligned due to surrounding circumstances. He’s a local guy and could probably use a change of scenery. He’s not going to be cut, but a late conditional and a fringe Eagles roster player could be enough to get Atlanta to part with him.

Jared Norris: 6’1, 240lbs, 23 years old, PANTHERS

Brian Blechen: 6’2, 230lbs, 24 years old, PANTHERS

Jeremy Cash: 6’0, 215lbs, 23 years old, PANTHERS

The Panthers are the one team who could challenge the Steelers for best overall LB depth. Each of these three guys are interesting in their own unique ways. All were team captains, all are high football IQ guys, two were college teammates of Eric Rowe. Norris is the thumper. He’s your classic ILB/MIKE, and was my favorite UDFA at the position this year. Norris should never be a full time starter but has enough of the tools that he should be able to overcome his lack of elite athleticism.

Blechen was on and off the practice squad for Carolina last year, as they were converting him from a jumbo safety to an LB. I noticed Blechen while watching Rowe’s college tape. This S/LB tweener kept flashing. 2 hours later I had built a shrine and sworn my allegiance to him. It was weird. Blechen probably should never play on defense but could become a special teams standout. The Eagles have Maragos at DB, and Braman at DL. The Linebacking room needs a hair on fire special teams standout.

Cash was a college star at Duke. He’s just a weird projection to the NFL. He’s a box safety who didn’t run super fast. 10 years ago he would have been a top 40 pick but he went undrafted. The NFL is starting to find ways to get these types of players on the field in nickel sets, but they simply aren’t as desirable as they once were. Cash could eventually become a starter but if the Eagles brought in Cash they would have to design a role for him, perhaps in the 3-3-5 nickel sets they have been tinkering with during training camp.

Jim Schwartz, A Profile in Aggression, Part II

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Note: This article was broken down into two pieces because all of the gifs made the size too large. This is Part II. You can read Part I here.

The Downside

Of course, ask any Eagles fan over the age of 15 about the wide nine and they will look at you in horror. The 2011-12 defenses, where Jim Washburn forced the wide nine down Juan Castillo’s throat, was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Schwartz is a much better defensive coordinator than Castillo, but that doesn’t mean his scheme is perfect, either.

You might have noticed that I have primarily relied on three defenses in Schwartz’s time as a defensive coordinator: the 2007-08 Titans and the 2014 Bills. That was by design; the rest of his statistics are mediocre, at best.

I compiled data for key defensive statistical categories, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comFootballOutsiders.com and NFL.com.  At his absolute best, Schwartz is a top flight defensive coordinator whose defense gets sacks and creates turnovers in hoards. But in the 14 years as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Schwartz’s defenses have ranked in the top 10 of FootballOutsiders’s DVOA ranking just four times, while they ranked in the bottom third of DVOA ratings six times. During his entire tenure, his defensive units ranked 17th, middle of the pack.

Year Team Def DVOA Rank Pts Rank TkA Rank Yds Rank Int Rank Sack Rank 3rd %
2001 TEN 25 25 25 25 25 Unavail. 9
2002 TEN 18 11 14 10 12 9 14
2003 TEN 11 13 8 12 8 9 1
2004 TEN 24 30 13 27 13 27 7
2005 TEN 30 29 27 19 30 9 8
2006 TEN 20 31 15 32 13 29 20
2007 TEN 1 8 6 5 2 7 24
2008 TEN 5 2 3 7 6 5 6
2009 DET 32 32 24 32 30 29 25
2010 DET 22 19 11 21 19 6 20
2011 DET 9 23 3 23 5 10 3
2012 DET 24 27 27 13 23 20 10
2013 DET 14 15 21 16 17 28 1
2014 BUF 2 4 3 4 6 1 1
Avg 16.9 19.21 14.2 17.57 14.9 14.53 10.64

A couple of caveats worth pointing out. Each of those bottom third defenses came on teams that were rebuilding (the Titans after the 1999 Super Bowl run, and Detroit after it’s 0-16 campaign in 2008). What’s more, Schwartz was not the defensive coordinator in Detroit, even if they did run his defense.

So it’s not entirely fair to blame Schwartz for how bad these units played. Coordinators, especially, are only as good as the talent at their disposal; and if a scheme could completely overcome talent shortfalls, everyone would use it. But we shouldn’t white wash his resume either. Those teams are evidence that we can’t just assume Schwartz will turn the Eagles into a top 10 defense this year. It could just as easily end up worse.

One area of concern that is not reflected in the above numbers, but showed up on the tape, is the run defense. The wide nine was created by Schwartz to help stop the Colts stretch run by forcing everything back to the middle of the defense.

But as  Chris Brown discussed back when the Eagles ran the wide nine, spreading the defensive line to its extremes creates secondary issues: “…this technique (it’s a technique if anything, there is no such thing as the “wide nine defense”), obviously opens up all kinds of issues in the run game: the defensive end aligns so wide the interior offensive linemen can quickly get up to the second level defenders like the linebackers, and the defensive ends are easy marks for traps, draws and counter plays as they sprint upfield.”

Just read this reaction from Mychal Kendricks after Jim Washburn was fired in 2012, ending the wide nine experiment, courtesy from Birds 24/7 :

Mychal Kendricks was asked how the change up front from Jim Washburn’s Wide-9 to Tommy Brasher’s more traditional scheme impacted what he was doing on Sunday.

The rookie linebacker paused a beat, gave a quick laugh, then turned to Jamar Chaney and said, “Should I answer that?”

He already had.”

Here’s an example of what they are talking about. The Buffalo Bills have their defensive ends in the wide nine technique against the Detroit Lions. The Lions, however, come out showing a power run formation with seven players lined up in a blocking stance.

IMG_6007

Because the defensive line is spread out so far, the interior offensive linemen get a clean break to the second level, where they are able to  put a hat on the linebackers and spring running back George Winn for a huge gain.

IMG_6006-2

Here’s a vine of that play

In order for the Eagles run defense to be successful, two things must occur: Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan will need to recognize run plays early so they don’t leave their linebackers in a bind on obvious run downs. Second, it is imperative that the Eagles linebackers are able to shed blocks to make a play in the run game. Kendricks has reportedly added 15 lbs of muscle this off-season for that very reason.

Can The Eagles Personnel Succeed?

We finally made it to the payoff. What type of players have made Schwartz’s defense succeed or fail in the past, and do the Eagles have players to make sure the former occurs? Assuming they can stay healthy at key positions, the answer looks promising.

The one constant connecting Schwartz’s best defenses is a dominant defensive line. Go back to that chart and compare Schwartz’s best defenses to his worst; the clearest indicator of success is their rank in sacks. If his team struggled to sack the quarterback, they likely struggled elsewhere. If sacks were up, everything else likely fell into place.

The 2007 and 2008 Titans teams were led by the Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch and an aging, but still effective, Jevon Kearse. Haynesworth was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL in 2007 and 2008, making the 1st Team All Pro while spearheading the Titans dominant pass rush. Vanden Bosch got 12 sacks in 2007 and was rewarded with a Pro Bowl birth. The 2008 team lacked a single dominant pass rusher, but got 37 sacks from a combination of multiple players up front. 

The 2014 Buffalo Bills provided Schwartz with arguably the most talented defensive line he has had to date: with Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes. Dareus and Williams were first team All-Pros, Williams was named to a Pro Bowl, and Hughes parlayed his 10 sack performance into a $45 million contract extension. 

It’s easy to see the similarities between those dominant units and the Eagles current personnel. Fletcher Cox is every bit as talented as Albert Haynesworth and Marcell Dareus. Haynesworth had 14.5 sacks from 07-08, while Dareus had 10 in Schwartz’s lone season in Buffalo.

Fletcher Cox got 9.5 sacks last year in a system that was designed to limit his opportunities to make plays. In the rare instances in which Cox was allowed to attack downhill last year, he was practically unguardable:

 

I think Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham should excel too. Logan will benefit from Cox getting routinely double teamed. That, plus the added space he will get from the ends split out wide, should give him ample opportunities to get after the quarterback. I expect a strong season out of Logan this year. This system seems to fit his strengths and will give him more opportunities to accumulate the stats needed to be recognized:

 

I, along with practically everyone else, expect Curry to shine as well. Curry played only 35% of the defensive snaps last year for the Eagles, another (of many) indictments on Billy Davis’ incompetence as a defensive coordinator. But in his limited opportunities, he was extremely productive. According to PFF.com, Curry finished second among 3-4 defensive ends in generating pressure on the quarterback in 2015, behind only JJ Watt. In 2014, Curry finished fifth, and finished second in 2013.

This scheme should accentuate his strengths as a pass rusher, limiting the amount of thinking he needs to do, and unleashing his freakish burst and athleticism on the quarterback.

And I haven’t even touched on Brandon Graham or Connor Barwin, who both figure to be productive in getting after the quarterback. Like the other units, the defensive line lacks depth. But if it’s top starters can produce as expected, this unit should carry the Eagles defense, and could rival the great defensive lines that Schwartz has had in the past.

The secondary also figures to be above average thanks to the presence of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Both Jenkins and McLeod will be given free range to make plays and bat cleanup for any mistakes from our corners. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod have the potential to match, if not exceed, that 2008 Titans safety tandem of Michael Griffin and Chris Hope.

And while I am not enamored with our cornerbacks, I think this scheme should help mitigate their lack of elite talent. Assuming the Eagles can get pressure on the quarterback, the corners will have more freedom to try to make plays.

If I had to identify the one achilles heel for the Eagles defense, it is the linebacking corp. I’d feel much more confident in the unit if Jordan Hicks was guaranteed to be healthy all year. But that seems like a tall order for a player that has missed significant time due to injury in three of his last four seasons. Outside of that, can Kendricks play effectively carrying 15 extra lbs of muscle? And what will Nigel Brandham provide, assuming he isn’t handed out a lengthy suspension by the league after his reported assault on a cabana boy?

In Schwartz’s defense,  the linebackers are the linchpin for the Eagles run defense. Look no further than that 2011 Eagles unit; their top three tacklers at the linebacking position were Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle, and Akeem Jordan according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Kendricks, Hicks and Bradham are certainly more talented than that awful trio, but what happens if Kendricks and Hicks get hurt?

If they can stay heathy and exceed expectations, I would not at all be surprised if this is a top 10 unit. But if Hicks goes down, or Kendricks fails to improve, or if their depth is tested? We could be in for a long season on the defensive side of the ball.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Schwartz: A Profile in Aggression, Part I

 

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3 

When Jeffery Lurie fired Chip Kelly last December, he set about a reclamation project for his franchise. In his own words, he needed to “take his team back.” It turns out, “taking his team back” was an euphemism for trying to replicate the Andy Reid era, inarguably the most successful period in franchise history.

Instead of Reid, Lurie hired Reid’s hand-picked protégé, Doug Pederson, who was also a little known offensive coordinator schooled in the traditions of the Bill Walsh West Coast offense. And instead of the venerable Jim Johnson, Lurie hired Jim Schwartz, who also predicates his defense on pressuring the quarterback with an aggressive 4-3 defense. While Johnson relied on exotic blitz packages, Schwartz eschews the blitz in favor of lining his defensive ends in the wide-nine technique — just outside the tight end — where their speed and athleticism advantages over the offensive tackles can shine.

Reid and Johnson. Pederson and Schwartz. Add in a quarterback drafted #2 overall (McNabb/Wentz) and it’s hard not to get swept up in nostalgia.

And while the Pederson hiring was met with skepticism, the Eagles decision to hire Schwartz was met with near-universal praise. But is the unbridled respect justified?

It was a question I sought to answer after I was less impressed than I anticipated looking over Schwartz’s coaching statistics on Pro-Football-Reference.com. Coupled with the Eagles disastrous experiment with the wide nine under Jim Washburn (who practically coined the wide nine working alongside Schwartz in Tennessee), I had legitimate concerns over whether Schwartz could live up to the hype.

So I decided to profile  Jim Schwartz in this piece; studying his scheme and his results on the field. I also try to figure out why Schwartz has several sizable blemishes on his resume, including his early tenure in Tennessee and his stint as head coach of the Detroit Lions, and whether the Eagles have the right personnel to avoid adding another.

In Schwartz’s Words: “We want to attack”

The most common misconception about Schwartz’s scheme is that it is entirely predicated on the “wide nine.” As Mike Rodak of ESPN.com details, Schwartz takes issue with that characterization: 

“Mostly that’s thrown around by people that couldn’t line it up if they wanted to. That’s no disrespect to those people,” Schwartz said. “I’ll say this, there’s 32 teams in the NFL and all 32 line up in a wide nine. Not all of them are called wide nine teams, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Schwartz instead calls his defense an “attack scheme,” a fittingly simple description given his preference for streamlining information so that his defenders are attacking, not thinking or reacting: “It’s not a read-and-react system. It’s not a lateral, line of scrimmage; we want to attack, we want to knock back, we want to put pressure on the quarterback and we want to create negative plays.”

And that is a key distinction between Schwartz and his predecessor, Billy Davis. Davis ran a 3-4, two gap system that required his defensive lineman to read the play, occupy blockers and allow linebackers to wreak havoc in the backfield. But the defense never seemed to fit the Eagles’ personnel. Indeed, for a team whose biggest strength was the defensive line, it seemed illogical to run a scheme that limited their ability to make plays.

That will no longer be the case under Schwartz. Fletcher Cox and Company will be given less information, less responsibility, and more freedom to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. “There’s going to be a lot of defensive lineman that will be real happy to play in a system like that.” Schwartz once said.

Attacking Through The Wide Nine, Stunts & Blitzes

While Schwartz is right that the wide nine isn’t a defensive scheme (it’s a technique), it would be a mistake to ignore how centrally important the wide nine is to Schwartz’s defense.

In order to understand the wide nine, it’s helpful to understand the basics of gap and technique assignments along the line. As you see below (image courtesy of BleacherReport.com), each offensive lineman is surrounded by gaps: the A gap is on either side of the center, B gap on the outside shoulders of the guards, and C gap on the outside shoulder of the tackles.

Defensive lineman have corresponding techniques, numbered 0 through 9, depending on their position along the offensive line. An even number technique (including zero), means the defensive player is lined up directly over the offensive lineman, an odd number means the defender is on the outside shoulder of the offensive lineman, and an even number with a small i (such as 4i), means the defender is on the inside shoulder of the lineman.

Gaps and Techs

Traditionally, a 4-3 defensive end lines up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle in the 6-tech, and is responsible for attacking the C gap. But in Schwartz’s scheme, the defensive ends line up on the outside shoulder of the tight end, in the wide nine, attacking the D gap.

Here is a still shot of the wide nine in action, from Schwartz’s time in Buffalo. Notice how defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams are flanking the offensive tackles by a considerable margin:

IMG_5984

Lining defensive ends in the wide nine theoretically makes it easier to get to the quarterback; it gives them more space within which to operate, more time to build up speed, and forces the larger — and slower —  offensive lineman to cover more distance. This, in turn, reduces the need for Schwartz to dial up blitzes (which he rarely does), and gives his defense a decided numerical advantage when defending the pass– leaving 7 defenders against, at most, 5 pass catchers.

Here is the wide nine in action. Watch how much trouble Sebastian Vollmer (who is 6’8, 320 lbs and ran a 5.13 40) has keeping up with Mario Williams (who is one of the largest defensive ends in football, but is still smaller (6’6, 300 lbs) and faster (4.73 40) than Vollmer):

Getting Williams in space, and forcing Vollmer to move laterally, is an inherent mismatch that Williams capitalizes on with ease. This athletic mismatch is the key principle upon which the wide nine was built.

But the wide nine isn’t just about turning the corner on tackles. Beat a tackle consistently enough to the outside and they will start to overcompensate to regain outside leverage. That creates fertile ground for the end to attack inside, getting a cleaner, shorter path to the quarterback:

The wide nine also creates favorable matchups for defensive tackles. Albert Haynesworth (8.5)Marcell Dareus (10), Ndamukong Suh (10), and Kyle Williams (10.5) had career high sack totals in Schwartz’s defense thanks in large part to getting one-on-one matchups and more space within which to operate. (Hello, Fletcher Cox):

 

But, again, while the wide nine is a big part of Schwartz’s defense, it is not the only component. Another way that Schwartz tries to generate pressure without blitzing is through a stunt: a move which requires one defensive lineman to set a pick so that another defensive lineman has a free lane to the quarterback. It is simple, yet sometimes devastating, because offensive lineman fail to recognize the stunt in time to coordinate switching off the pick.

Here is a diagram of the stunt that the Bills ran against the Jets back in 2014. Kyle Williams attacks the outside, setting a pick for Jerry Hughes to cut behind and fill the open lane.

FullSizeRender-4

Here it is in live action:

The Jets blocked this play perfectly initially: Bilal Powell (#29) cuts across Michael Vick’s face to block Hughes, and gets help from the left guard, Oday Aboushi, who does a good job passing off Williams to left tackle, D’Brickashaw Ferguson. The only problem? Ferguson completely botches the handoff, giving Williams an easy sack.

Same play, different result. Marcel Dareus attacks the B gap, setting a pick for Hughes to come back around unblocked into the A gap and sack Alex Smith.

Expect to see stunts called at least 2-3 times a game. Schwartz will call variations of the stunts, either with two lineman setting the pick to spring one blitzer, or having the four defensive lineman running stunts on the same play.

While Schwartz would prefer not to blitz, he still does so, and is often very effective at it. In Buffalo, Schwartz sent an extra man on only 20.9 percent of downsaccording to Pro Football Focus, which was the 4th lowest rate in the league. But the Bills pressured the quarterback 36.6% of the time when a blitz was dialed up, which was the eight best mark in the NFL.

Bottom line: Schwartz’s scheme is centered on getting sacks without blitzing. In his 14 year career as a head coach or defensive coordinator, his defense has ranked in the top 10 in sacks eight times. Needless to say, I think his scheme is accomplishing that goal.

Turnovers and Third Down Percentage

But Schwartz’s scheme isn’t just about attacking the quarterback. As he told Dave Spadaro of PhiladelphiaEagles.comSchwartz is also concerned with creating turnovers and having good third down percentages: “We’re going to attack. We’re going to get after the quarterback. We’ve been good in getting sacks and creating turnovers, good on third downs. You know, I’m really not a stat guy, I don’t care how many yards we give up…”

When Schwartz is able to generate pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz, everything else falls into place. That is especially true for his secondary, which benefits from having extra defenders in space. Again, if four defenders are rushing, that leaves seven in pass coverage. Since an offense is already without six players (quarterback and five lineman), that means — in the best case scenario — the pass catchers are out numbered 7-5.

Because of this advantage, Schwartz primarily dials up press man coverage. His cornerbacks have more freedom to take risks and jump routes because they know they have safety help over the top. That combination of pressure on the quarterback and more defenders in pass coverage inevitably leads to more opportunities for turnovers.  Schwartz’s last three years as a defensive coordinator — 2007-08 in Tennessee, and 2014 in Buffalo — underscore this point. That 2007 Titans team ranked 7th in sacks, and 2nd in interceptions, thanks to seven players with at least two interceptions on the season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. The 2008 team ranked 5th in sacks, and had three Pro Bowlers in the secondary: safeties Michael Griffin (7 ints) and Chris Hope (4 ints), and cornerback Cortland Finnegan (5 ints). While the 2014 Bills had the most sacks in the league and sixth most interceptions thanks to nine different players with at least one interception

The 2008 Titans was the one year I could find where Schwartz’s secondary was loaded with playmakers. Despite lacking elite talent in other years, his teams ranked, on average, in the top 14 in the league in take-aways during his career. That is an encouraging sign for the Eagles given their lack of top quality corners at their disposal.

Schwartz’s scheme also creates good opportunities to get off the field after 3rd down. Simply stated, more sacks means longer distances to cover on third down, which means a lower probability of converting on third down.

Pat Kirwin of NFL.com recently conducted a study of the conversion percentage league wide for certain down and distances. Here is what he found:

Down/Distance Success Pct.
2nd and 1-5 yards 56%
2nd and 6-9 27%
2nd and 10+ 17%
3rd and 1 67%
3rd and 2 52%
3rd and 3 49%
3rd and 4 47%
3rd and 5 42%
3rd and 6 41%
3rd and 7 37%
3rd and 8 32%
3rd and 9 32%
3rd and 10+ 20%

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the longer the distance, the lower the probability of getting a first down. So while you have a coin-flips chance (52%) of converting a 3rd and 2, your odds plummet to 20% for 3rd and 10+.

Intuitively, you would think that the high sack totals would lead to a better third down conversion rate. That’s exactly the case with Schwartz’s defense. In the 14 years as head coach or defensive coordinator, Schwartz’s units have averaged in the top 10 on third down percentages, according to Prof-Football-Reference.com. And according to FootballOutsiders.com, his 2014 Buffalo unit ranked 7th in the league on drives ending in 3-and-outs (24.4%), while his 2007 defense ranked 2nd in such category (27.5% of drives ending in a 3-and-out).

Sacks. Take-aways. Getting stops on third downs. Those are the three areas that Schwartz prioritizes on defense. Expect to those priorities translate on the field this fall.

You can continue reading Part II here.