by Doug Farrar
That "Dream Team" stuff? Yeah, it's out the window in Philly. The Eagles are 1-4 after an offseason in which they put several new cogs in the machine, including cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. It was thought that the addition of those two, put together with elite cornerback Asante Samuel, would make it very dangerous indeed for any quarterback to test the Eagles' defense.
It hasn't exactly turned out that way, and the worst example of the Eagles' pass defense this season may have come in the second half of their 24-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, in which the 49ers came back from a 23-3 deficit in the final 30 minutes of the game. San Francisco running back Frank Gore said after the game that the Eagles "threw in the towel," but I'd argue that by putting a number of players in positions where they're not most comfortable, the Eagles' defensive coaching staff (led by new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo) may want to keep the towel and burn their playbooks.
The Eagles currently rank 20th in pass defense DVOA after finishing 11th in 2010, which was not exactly the plan after the acquisition of all that high-priced talent. They’ve given up 15 plays of 20 yards or more after allowing 54 last season -– not quite a net improvement. There’s talk now about hiring a defensive consultant to help Castillo, though the team has refuted those rumors. I’m not sure how well that would work, but when it comes to Philly’s pass coverage, something clearly has to be done. To me, it starts with the way Castillo and his coaches are setting Asomugha up in the defensive backfield.
San Francisco 49ers 24 at Philadelphia Eagles 23
Sunday, October 2
|Figure 1: Zoned Out|
Two plays against the 49ers game me extreme pause. The first one came with 7:26 left in the third quarter, and it was a 30-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Josh Morgan. On the play, the Eagles are running a zone blitz with a number of strategic issues. First of all, they're playing nickel and the blitz has Asomugha (24) coming from the defensive left side. At the snap, safety Jarrad Page (41) also blitzes, and it's the responsibility of linebacker Brian Rolle (59) to pick up the intermediate zone.
That is obviously the point of a zone blitz —- you're vacating coverage in one area of your defense to bring extra bodies to the front, and you're supposed to make up for it with coverage concepts elsewhere. Problem is, the zone Rolle is capable of covering is quite a few yards under Morgan, and with the left cornerback taken out by the flare route run by tight end Vernon Davis (85), there's a major gap in the coverage that Morgan can exploit.
The really weird part of this play is that you have a cornerback, a safety, and a linebacker in what's basically an overload blitz idea, the 49ers don't commit any extra blockers to this, and none of the Eagles' defenders get home. That's where the play breaks down for them -— of course, the idea is to force Smith away from the longer route by getting in his kitchen and messing with his timing, but that doesn't happen.
Now, the real bizarro play. With 5:38 left in the third quarter, the 49ers roll out with an offset-I and two receivers to the right. Michael Crabtree (15) motions from right to left pre-snap, which causes Page (who is playing right corner pre-motion) to motion to Asomugha (who is playing safety) to switch up coverage. This they do, but the fun isn't over yet.
Crabtree runs a stutter-go down the left sideline, and while Nnamdi's setting up to cover, he's also peeking into the backfield to see if Smith might throw underneath to the fullback. Smith takes advantage of this by executing a great pump-fake, which drags Nnamdi for just a second, and allows Crabtree to blow right by him. Page comes over to help up top (which brings up another point — Smith would have a sure touchdown had he thrown to Vernon Davis up the seam), but it's too late. The throw is perfect, and Crabtree jukes Nnamdi, Page, and linebacker Jamar Chaney (51) to wind up with a gain of 38 yards.
|Figure 2: No Safety for Nnamdi|
It's almost difficult to know where to begin when trying to get forensic on this play, but we'll start with the obvious: Nnamdi Asomugha is the greatest man coverage cornerback of his generation. He spent years in an Oakland system in which he stayed to one side and built a reputation that had quarterbacks throwing anywhere else. He didn't do cross-ups with safeties in Oakland, because the Raiders developed a pretty simple philosophy with their safeties — Michael Huff up top, Tyvon Branch in or near the box. Blitzing would have been a relative oddity for him, but it seems as if the Eagles have decided that Nnamdi is Charles Woodson as the Packers use him, which means that he must be put all over the place as a "joker" or moving chess piece.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup probably watches more Eagles all-22 than anyone who doesn’t work for the team, so I asked him to give me his take on how their pass defense personnel is set up. Greg explained the overall philosophy to me, and gave pause to those who might want to blame this all on Castillo. "They do that specifically against a certain personnel package," he said. "They do that against "22" personnel –- two backs and two tight ends –- because with two backs and two tight ends, normally it’s a closed formation to that side of the field. Normally, there’s not a wide receiver to that side. Normally, if that’s the case, the corner on that side where there’s no receiver essentially becomes a deep safety. That’s so they can have the two safeties become run support players as opposed to the corner. If there’s a receiver in motion, they just switch the corner who’s the deep safety. In that case, if the receiver motioned from Samuel’s side to Asomugha’s, Asomugha would come down and cover, and Samuel would rotate and become the deep safety.
"This is something they’ve been doing for years, even back to Jim Johnson, when they play 22 personnel. That’s the advantage you get with game film, where you can run plays over and over, You might look at that and think, 'Wow – that’s a whole new thing!' but it’s just something they do that’s totally personnel-based."
It seemed to me that the Eagles were letting offense dictate their coverage by motion to an uncomfortable degree, but that’s the overall concept. And I'll say it again -— the Eagles were lucky Smith didn't throw to Davis in the seam, because he already had Page beat before Smith threw the ball to Crabtree, and that would have been a sure score.
To me, this is a case of the coaching staff trying to superimpose ideas about scheme onto personnel that really isn't built for it. Castillo is asking his stationary players to be motion-versatile, his style-point players to be scheme-transcendent, and his star players to act like his rotational guys. In other words, the Eagles bought a bunch of expensive furniture in the offseason, and they have handed over the interior design to Wal-Mart. You may also note that I haven't mentioned Rodgers-Cromartie, who wasn't much of a factor at all against the 49ers; he’ll get a name check versus the Bills.
Philadelphia Eagles 24 at Buffalo Bills 31
Sunday, October 9
|Figure 3: Sliding to the Bunch|
The change in strategy against the Bills was very interesting. The first time I saw Asomugha line up in anything but press coverage on the defensive right side came with 1:41 in the first quarter, when he moves inside to cover Buffalo’s motion to bunch in the right slot, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is playing off wide. On that play, Ruvell Martin runs a quick seam route that Rodgers-Cromartie almost jumps for a pick, while Asomugha takes Brad Smith (16) outside. Perhaps more importantly, the Eagles have their players set up in a way that doesn’t completely upset the applecart when a receiver goes in motion. When Smith moves right-to-left, cornerback Joselio Hanson (21) alerts the coverage call to Asomugha, who backs off from tight slot coverage to off-man and lines DRC up to take the seam.
The Eagles played a lot of nickel and dime defenses against the Bills, which should not be a surprise -– Chan Gailey loves to stretch a defense with multi-receiver sets, and he’ll dictate personnel that way. In 2010, the Bills ranked second in the NFL in percentage of three (or more) wide receiver (71 percent) and four (or more) wide receiver (25 percent) formations, and so far they’re playing to those tendencies in 2011 as well. It was a better example for the Eagles of how to best use their coverage personnel in ways that matched their skill sets, but another vulnerability showed up later.
As the Bills game rolled on, the Eagles continued to use Asomugha in press man to the right for the most part, and Samuel in off coverage to the other side. Adding in a nickel corner on many plays, and a dime DB in some, the Eagles set themselves up for screens from Ryan Fitzpatrick to his backs, and little jab routes to his slot receivers. These were especially problematic because the Bills blocked those plays so well downfield – its yet another example of how the Bills are playing so well as a team, and why they’ll certainly get more film views from me.
"Well, they definitely played dime, and again, that’s a function of personnel, and the way they want to use their people," Greg said about the change in concept. "But you made an interesting point -- against the Bills, Asomugha played more press man ... because we’ve been charting it -– in any week since Week 1. I’ll be interested to see if they keep doing that. And by the way, even when he’s played press man, he’s had some issues. I think he’s one of those guys where that’s what he does best, and you’ve got to let him do it. And he clearly played more of this this last week against Buffalo than he had in the previous three weeks."
I asked Greg if he thinks the Eagles are generally using Asomugha to his (and their) best advantage. "This is not a knock on [the coaching staff]; it’s just my opinion of what Asomugha is," Greg said. "I don’t think he’s a great slot player. I don’t think he’s a great change-of-direction athlete. I don’t think he’s a short-area burst athlete. I don’t think he’s a physical player. I think he’s a press-man corner who has a great feel for using the sideline. He’s very balletic in his movements as a press man corner. He’s very fluid and smooth, which is very different from being a great change-of-direction athlete.
"I don’t think he fits inside, but he’s being used that way –- obviously, the Eagles believe he can play there. That would just be a difference in evaluation between myself, watching him on film, and what the Eagles obviously believe. Time will tell, but I don’t believe he’s a slot player."
I would extrapolate that to include the deep safety position, essentially lined up at slot points but 10-15 yards back.
Getting back to the big picture, it’s clear that the Eagles’ defense is currently based on an uncomfortable shotgun wedding between scheme and personnel. It will be interesting to see how Castillo and whoever else is on the defensive staff adjusts to that through the season, but right now, "disaster" is not too strong a word to use.