Walkthrough: Red Zone Blues
y Mike Tanier
How do you fix a broken red zone defense?
The Eagles had the worst red zone defense in the NFL, not just by conventional measures -- 33 touchdowns in 43 attempts -- but according to DVOA as well. The Eagles' poor red zone performance was part of the reason that Sean McDermott was fired, and it is up to former offensive line coach Juan Castillo to fix the problem.
Easier said than done. "Red zone defense" is a very general category, encompassing a lot of elements. Were the Eagles bad at stopping short-yardage runs? Fades to wide receivers? Was it a personnel problem? A scheme problem?
To investigate, I went through the game tape and examined several instances when opponents tore right through the red zone to score touchdowns against the Eagles. I did discover a few schematic mistakes. But the real issue involved personnel: Several Eagles starters just weren't up to the tasks they were assigned. While those problems were evident all over the field, they became critical factors once the ball was inside the 20-yard line.
Drive One: Second Quarter against the Bears, Week 12
Breakdown: The Bears go from first-and-10 on the 20-yard line to a touchdown in four plays during a two-minute drill.
|Figure 1: Earl Bennett's touchdown|
A 30-yard pass to Earl Bennett gives the Bears the ball at the 20-yard line. Bennett gets open against Dimitri Patterson, who is late trying to break up the pass; get used to the name "Dimitri Patterson." Jay Cutler cannot find Devin Hester on a corner route on first down; Trevard Lindley does a fine job in coverage. Lindley then gives Johnny Knox a 10-yard cushion on second down. Knox runs a very shallow slant, Lindley arrives too late to even make a proper tackle, and it's a 14-yard gain. On first-and-goal, Cutler attempts to hit Bennett on a stop route, but Joselio Hanson has tight coverage.
Figure 1 shows Bennett's touchdown on the next play. The Eagles opt for three-deep coverage in the end zone, so Lindley backs off to cover tight end Greg Olsen in the corner, leaving Quintin Mikell to cover Bennett. Cutler starts by looking left, but the coverage there is tight, so he backpedals and fires to Bennett. Bennett started his route by working inside, and Mikell just lost him when the receiver cut to the sideline.
Drive Two: Third Quarter against the Bears, Week 12
Breakdown: The Bears score a nine-yard touchdown after a long catch-and-run by Hester.
The Bears get the ball on the nine-yard line after a Hester's 34-yard catch-and-run. Hester ran a shallow drag, with Ernie Sims picking him up in zone coverage. Sims stays with Hester until Cutler scrambles and breaks containment. Once Sims leaves Hester to chase the quarterback, Cutler tosses the ball to Hester along the right sideline. The race ends with a horse collar tackle by Nate Allen.
The Bears line up in a power-I formation and run a play-action pass on first-and-goal. Olsen runs a simple crossing pattern, left to right. Dimitri Patterson is in zone coverage on the offensive right side, and he gets sucked in by the play-fake, then briefly lost before hustling back to cover Olsen in the back of the end zone. Too late.
Asante Samuel was injured for the Bears game, leaving the Eagles with Patterson, Hanson, and Lindley at cornerback. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the Bears scored 31 points.
Drive Three: Third Quarter versus Texans, Week 13
Breakdown: The Texans go from third-and-3 at the 22-yard line to a touchdown in three plays.
|Figure 2: Casey is wide open|
Figure 2 shows the Eagles blitzing on third-and-3, with both Sims and Mikell crashing from the offensive left. Unfortunately, they don't time the blitz right and are forced to stop at the line of scrimmage and wait for the snap. Tight end James Casey (86) is left uncovered on a crossing route after blocking Trent Cole for a split second. This is a sloppy call and play on third-and-short, and I am not sure where to assign blame.
Arian Foster then gains one yard on a run to the right, with Sims doing a fine job in run defense. On second-and-9 from the 14-yard line, the Texans pass from an I-Formation, and Sims is left isolated in coverage against Foster, a very good backfield receiver. Foster runs an option route in the middle, jabbing left before cutting to his right, and Sims buys the fake. Nate Allen tries to tackle Foster at the two-yard line but is bowled over.
Drive Four: Third Quarter versus Texans, Week 13
Breakdown: The Texans go from first-and-10 on the 30-yard line to a touchdown in five plays.
Trouble starts when Andre Johnson beats Dimitri Patterson for a 31-yard reception to the Eagles 31-yard line. Patterson lines up 10 yards off Johnson on the next play, a pitch to Derrick Ward. Ward gains 12 yards before Patterson can knock him out of bounds. After Mike Patterson stops Ward for a minimal gain, Foster once again gets open on a short option route, this time eluding Stewart Bradley. Moise Fokou commits a penalty away from the play, so the Texans opt for first-and-goal from the 10-yard line.
Foster runs off right end for seven yards. The linebackers get trapped inside when Foster bounces outside on the run, and Hanson is too easily blocked on the edge by Joel Dreessen. When Foster runs for a touchdown on the next play, Mike Patterson is not on the field. Trevor Laws has replaced him in the middle, and Laws is driven back by a single blocker, allowing a guard to knock Brodrick Bradley out of his gap. Interestingly, the Texans are in a two-tight end, two-back set at the three-yard line, but the Eagles are in their base defense, no extra linemen or linebackers.
Drive Five: First Quarter Against Cowboys, Week 14
Breakdown: The Cowboys go from first-and-10 from the 40-yard line to a touchdown on six plays.
|Figure 3: Witten's one-yard score|
The problems start way back on the Cowboys' 45-yard line. The Eagles stop the Cowboys on third-and-6, but Dimitri Patterson grabs Kevin Ogletree's facemask for a 15-yard penalty. Ogletree isn't the intended receiver, and it is hard to figure out what Patterson is trying to do on the play. Ogletree releases from the line of scrimmage and Patterson gives his facemask a hearty tug, as if that's how his high school coach told him to jam a receiver. Given new life, the Cowboys run a reverse to Miles Austin for 26 yards to the 14-yard line. It is a well-designed play to a great player, so let's give credit to the Cowboys on it instead of blaming the Eagles.
Tashard Choice runs up the middle for nine yards. Antonio Dixon, playing in place of injured Broderick Bunkley, gets blown off the ball by Kyle Kosier, and Nate Allen is dragged four yards on the tackle. Choice converts second-and-1, then runs the ball to the one-yard line on first-and-goal before getting stuffed by Dixon. The Eagles run defense does a solid job in goal-to-go here, forcing the Cowboys to third down.
Figure 3 shows the Cowboys touchdown. Ernie Sims (50) has coverage on Jason Witten (82), who gets open on a flat route. There are three problems here. (1) Sims cannot cover Witten on his best day, though at the goal-line mismatches like that are just going to happen. (2) Sims is aligned inside Witten so Juqua Parker (75) can blitz from the outside. This puts Sims in terrible position. (3) Sims peeks into the backfield when he should keep his eye on the All-Pro tight end he is covering. I do not like this call by McDermott. If he expects Sims to cover Witten, he has to give the linebacker a fighting chance by putting him head-up on the receiver.
Drive Six: Third Quarter against Vikings
Breakdown: The Vikings go from first-and-10 on the 34-yard line to a touchdown in four plays. With Joe Webb at quarterback.
The Vikings reach the red zone on a 16-yard pass to Sidney Rice and a helmet-to-helmet penalty. Rice runs a shallow drag against zone coverage, slipping past linebacker Jamar Chaney. Samuel draws a penalty while tackling Rice, which gives the Vikings the ball on the nine-yard line. Mike Patterson jumps offsides, which moves the ball to the four.
The Vikings try to get cute, with Webb faking a handoff right, then turning and throwing a screen to Percy Harvin in the left flat. Safety Kurt Coleman ranges in from the secondary to trip Harvin for a five-yard loss. On second down, Webb rolls out and has a run-pass option, with the emphasis on "run." Juqua Parker does what he is supposed to do, containing the quarterback on the edge as best he can, but Webb eludes Parker. Fokou is next on the scene, but Fokou is easily juked. For good measure, he crashes into Coleman, knocking the safety out of the play and giving Webb an easy lane to the end zone.
Conclusions: Dimitri Patterson is awful. He hustles, and he is not bad in run support, but the guy was overmatched last year. McDermott spent a lot of energy not just hiding Patterson in red zone coverage, but protecting Lindley when Samuel was hurt while making sure the 5-foot-9 Hanson didn't cover any 6-foot-4 receivers. The Eagles need an upgrade at cornerback, preferably someone with more upside and better health than Ellis Hobbs.
The linebackers didn't show up well in the drives I watched. Sims is a fast, aggressive player, but he is also mistake-prone, and too much was expected of him in coverage. Fokou is a stopgap defender. Chaney appears to have a lot of potential, and he may be the best option for covering backs and tight ends in the red zone. Bradley is a run defender and pass rusher who will get in trouble if asked to cover Arian Foster-types. The Eagles need an upgrade at linebacker, but you can say that every year.
The defensive line played relatively well on these drives, and despite a few problems I mentioned earlier, the run defense and pass rush were not major issues. Opponents are going to score a few rushing touchdowns against any defense. The problem the Eagles had was that teams found it too easy to score passing touchdowns or get the ball down to the three-yard line for the running back.
From a scheme standpoint, I didn't like the blitz that led to the Witten touchdown or the blitz that left Casey open on third-and-3. I also question the use of base defense against the Texans near the goal line. I am not sure if Bill Belichick could have coached the Eagles to be better in the red zone by season's end. At some point, Dimitri has to cover someone, Sims has to come up big, or Fokou has to make a basic play without eliminating a teammate.
The one schematic problem that cropped up several times occurred outside the red zone: Receivers kept getting open on drag routes against zone linebackers for big gains. In fact, an alarming number of red zone collapses began with 25-30 yard plays from around midfield. The Eagles defense ranked 13th in DVOA in the Front Zone, from the opponent's 39 to 21-yard lines, but it may not have been as good late in the year as the numbers suggest. The Eagles defense produced nine sacks and four interceptions in the Front Zone, but most of those big plays came early in the year, some against weaker opponents like the 49ers and Lions. From Week 11 on, the Eagles allowed 8.7 yards per pass in the Front Zone while producing just two sacks and one interception. Early in the season, the Eagles produced enough sacks and turnovers once opponents crossed midfield to keep them out of the red zone. But as the team came to rely more on Patterson and other replacements, the Front Zone defense started cracking, which only made the red zone problem more pronounced.
When I looked at drives from early in the year, I found the same problems I saw above: Ernie Sims loses Jahvid Best in coverage; Hanson has his hands full with Calvin Johnson; Sims cannot cover Vernon Davis; Dimitri cannot cover Ted Ginn or Josh Morgan (who does that leave?); and linebackers lose receivers on drag routes in the Front Zone to start the ball rolling. There were also a few late-and-not-so-close touchdowns in the mix, which skewed the early season data a bit. But the same theme keeps recurring: The Eagles need a better No. 2 cornerback and better coverage linebackers, and they needed a better plan at 40-yard line than putting a rookie in the middle zone and hoping he can run with Sidney Rice.
These are tangible, correctable issues, the kind Castillo can address despite his well-documented lack of experience on defense. If the Eagles get better on defense, they will also improve in the red zone. All they need are a few guys not named "Dimitri."
As it turns out, the Phillies own the rights to the name "Phanatic." Therefore, my upcoming book has been renamed The Philly Fan's Code.
Other than that, nothing has changed. It's still the story of the most remarkable athletes in Philadelphia sports history, as seen from my warped perspective. The folks at Temple University Press are starting the production process, which will take a while as we work on photo rights and things.
More news when it comes!
On Swann and Stallworth
Lynn Swann entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a marked man. A finalist for 13 years (four years longer than his playing career), Swann brought shockingly low career statistical totals with him to Canton -- 336 regular-season receptions, 5,462 yards, and 51 touchdowns. Swann was a controversial choice, and his merits as a Hall of Famer are often debated by stats-and-history minded people like us. The debates sometimes get heated, and they often devolve into something like this: "You are a Philistine who thinks that Super Bowls imbue players with magical powers" versus "You are a stat geek who can never feel the pulsating heart of a champion."
John Stallworth reached the Hall of Fame one year after Swann, with a resume featuring 537 catches, 8,723 yards, and 63 touchdowns. No one questions his induction very much. Swann is the default "bottom rung" Hall of Famer brought out when someone wants to advocate for or against a player like Andre Reed. Stallworth gets to just be another of the 75 or so Steel Curtain Steelers in Canton. (OK, 10 counting Chuck Noll, but you get the idea).
On one of our message boards two weeks ago, I suggested that Stallworth, not Swann, was the Hall of Fame "mistake." To backpedal a little from that, what I should have said was that Swann was a better player than Stallworth at his peak, and that if only one could stay in Canton, I would pick Swann. I don't want to say that either doesn't belong, because we all have a little Hall of Fame in our minds, no two are the same, and arguing about who belongs in mine won't change the membership of yours.
Let's take a few paragraphs to go through the careers of Swann and Stallworth, rebuild our memories of both players a little, and take a sober look at the accomplishments of each.
1974: Swann and Stallworth's rookie season. Stallworth catches 16 passes; Swann catches 11. Swann also returns punts. Frank Lewis leads the Steelers with 30 receptions, and the team wins the Super Bowl on the strength of their defense and 2,417 rushing yards. Both Swann and Stallworth win rings, of course, but this season provides little evidence of "greatness" for either player.
1975: The second Super Bowl season. Swann catches 49 passes and reaches the Pro Bowl. Stallworth catches 20 passes, missing three games with an injury. Swann, of course, catches four passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Stallworth catches two passes for eight yards in that game, though he did score a touchdown against the Raiders in the AFC title game.
1976: Terry Bradshaw misses six games, and the Steelers run more than twice as often as they throw. Swann catches 28 passes to lead the team. Stallworth, hurt for much of the year, catches nine. Leading a good team with 28 receptions wasn't all that unusual back then -- Paul Warfield led the undefeated Dolphins with 29 receptions in 1972, and running back Andy Johnson led the 11-3 Patriots with just 29 catches.
1977: An off year for the Steelers, who go 9-5 and lose in the playoffs. Swann catches 50 passes and makes the Pro Bowl; Stallworth catches 44 passes and does not, though he does score more touchdowns than Swann.
1978: The first 16-game season and the third Steelers Super Bowl season. Swann is a first-team All-Pro with 61 receptions, 880 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Stallworth goes 41-798-9. Swann catches three touchdown passes in the playoffs; Stallworth catches four.
1979: Stallworth's breakout year, with 78 catches for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns. Swann misses three games and catches 41 passes. Both players have big games against the Rams in the Super Bowl, with Swann going 5-79-1 and Stallworth going 3-121-1. Stallworth is a first-team All-Pro.
1980: Stallworth misses almost the entire season and catches just nine passes. Swann leads the Steelers in receptions with 44-710-7, though Jim Smith bests him in yards (by one) and touchdowns (by two).
1981: The Steelers are now a .500 team, and Swann is breaking down, catching 34 passes, fewer than Franco Harris and Bennie Cunningham. Stallworth leads the team with 63-1098-5, but tellingly does not reach the Pro Bowl.
1982: The strike year. Stallworth reaches the Pro Bowl with 27 catches and nine touchdowns. Swann, with 18 catches, is toast.
1983: An injured Stallworth reaches the Pro Bowl with eight catches. Seriously. Pro Football Reference has a big blank in the column where other Pro Bowlers have things like "2nd-Team All NFL, Pro Football Writers Association." We will revisit this. Stallworth did catch a 58-yard touchdown in a playoff loss to the Raiders.
1984: Most of the Steel Curtain guys are gone, but Stallworth has a great year, catching 80 passes from Mark Malone for a 9-7 team and earning a Pro Bowl berth. Stallworth catches two touchdowns in a playoff loss to the Dan Marino Dolphins that has lots of "changing of the guard" implications.
1985: Stallworth catches 75 passes for a fading Steelers team. Louis Lipps bests him in yards and touchdowns.
1986-87: Two fade-out seasons. Stallworth leads the Steelers in receiving in strike-marred 1987, due to an injury to Lipps and the fact that the reeling Steelers are starting to employ receivers with names like Weegie Thompson.
Unpacking the facts: Now that all of that is in front of us, let's revisit the question. Who is better?
It is clear that Swann is better from 1975 through 1978 and that Stallworth is better from 1981 through 1987. Stallworth was better in 1979, Swann in 1980, though injuries affected both seasons. Call them even as rookies.
Neither of these guys is in Canton for their stats. They are in Canton for their contributions to winning teams. And here is where it gets dicey. Neither deserves a lot of credit for 1974. Swann deserves much more of the credit for 1975 and a little more for 1978. Stallworth wins 1979. Swann also wins 1976, 1977, and 1980, the in-between years, and beginning-of-the-end years for the Steel Curtain. Stallworth becomes the Steelers' unquestioned top receiver in 1981, and he gets to reign through strike years and 9-7 seasons with Malone at quarterback.
Stallworth not only ascends after the great Steelers teams fade, but he ascends after the adoption of the 16-game schedule and relaxed passing rules. It's hard to adjust mentally for the difference between a 50-catch season in 1977 and an 80-catch season in 1984. Swann finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards with 789 in 1977. Just four years later, Stallworth finished 10th with 1,098. The comparisons are made harder by the fact that the 1978 season wasn't a clean break. Passing totals (expressed per game) increased gradually from 1978 through about 1984, so every year represented another ladder rung. Swann had his best seasons before anyone even stepped on the ladder. Stallworth's final three seasons occurred at the top of the ladder.
In Swann, then, we have a short-career player who was the No. 1 receiver for the greatest team of his generation. He was a vital part of two Super Bowl teams, a major contributor to a third, and a bit player on the fourth, plus a Pro Bowl-level player during a few playoff seasons between championships. His statistics are severely depressed by the era and the system in which he played.
In Stallworth, we have two players. We have one of the second-tier stars of the greatest team of his generation, albeit one who stepped from the shadows to win that fourth championship. We also have a venerable receiver who compiled a lot of stats in a far more pass-oriented team and league.
Stallworth was a very good player in the early '80s, of course, but his 1983 Pro Bowl berth tells you something about his reputation. By 1983, Stallworth was getting a lot of "last of the great Steelers" ink in the papers and talk from the announcers. People were still getting used to 70-catch, 1,000-yard seasons, so Stallworth's statistics looked amazing. Charlie Joiner reached the Hall of Fame thanks in part to a similar distortion. Both got to retire very high on the all-time receptions list (Joiner is No. 1) because they were successful, durable receivers whose careers straddled the 1978 season just so.
To my taste, too much of Stallworth's value is tied up in those hang-around years. They were very good seasons, but they were Wes Chandler, Roy Green, Stanley Morgan-type seasons, not Hall of Fame resume builders. To search for a parallel, say Deion Branch plays six more years, the NFL expands to 18-games, and Branch has a bunch of 90-100 catch seasons while the Patriots go 10-8 or 9-9. Would you consider him a Hall of Famer? Maybe. Maybe you consider him one now. At any rate, that's about who Stallworth was. Swann was more of a Michael Irvin, though not quite as good.
Those late seasons were beneficial to Stallworth in the long run because they gave him enough statistical padding to take him out of the "bad choice" category when people like us evaluate Hall of Famers 25 years later. Those 1,000-yard seasons keep the wolves at bay, or they send the wolves to Swann, who was the better receiver when it mattered, when the Steelers were doing the things that made everyone legends in the first place.
My problem with Swann and Stallworth is that their Hall of Fame credentials are just too similar to those of Cliff Branch, Drew Pearson, and Harold Carmichael to give them separation for anything other than the Steelers Aura. Branch and Pearson had better seasons (especially in the pass-poor '70s) and their own postseason heroics. Carmichael had a King Kong year in 1973 and several fine post-1978 seasons. In between, he did his best to catch passes from Mike Boryla. Steelers mythology clearly paid off for Swann and Stallworth, which is fine to a point. They were both truly "famous," and the Steelers dominated the 1970s football consciousness in a way a contemporary team like the Patriots cannot, because satellite dishes and the Internet allow us to follow the whole league, not just the successful teams who earn national coverage.
The problem I have with Stallworth as a Hall of Famer is that he benefited from the mythology after the fact. Swann was a special player for a few years in a statistically depressed era for a team that never threw the ball. I can be persuaded that he was better than Branch or Pearson in 1975 or 1977, or that his particular brand of postseason heroics vaults him past them. Stallworth was not in the same league as any of these guys until 1979, but he hung around long enough that former teammates like Joe Greene were getting inducted while he was still catching passes.
Ultimately, both were excellent receivers, and Branch, Pearson, and Carmichael (and Mel Gray, Stanley Morgan, Harold Jackson, et. al) are not so overwhelmingly qualified that justice has been miscarried. If anything, Swann has been unfairly maligned, the whipping boy of the Hall in statistical arguments. He is a borderline case. Stallworth is even more borderline. Joiner is in the same category for different reasons. The 1970s were a funky decade for everyone, but especially wide receivers. Hall voters plucked a handful of fairly good selections, missed lots of other qualified candidates, then promptly forgot about the whole era. Swann was as good as their other choices, and better than many of our favorite snubs. And he was probably better than his teammate.
Jerry Richardson: Yawn! Boring! belch.
Peyton Manning: As you know, many labor issues, like the proposed 18-game season, dovetail with issues of player health and well-being. For example ...
Richardson: What's the matter? Does widdle Peyton not like it when big, scary Calvin Pace sacks him? Does Drewsy get a widdle woozy when John Abraham knocks him down? What do you wimps know about player safety?
Manning: With all due respect, sir, do you think you know more about safety based on your two seasons with the Colts 50 years ago?
Richardson: Sure do. Why in my day, we treated concussions with a can of Ballantine and an unfiltered Camel. But just to stay sharp, I hired my own player health consultant, and he's a quarterback just like you. Jake?
Jake Delhomme: Sir! Yes, sir!
Richardson: Jake, tell the boys about my player health agenda.
Delhomme: Yes, sir! The 18-game season is vital to the survival of the game, sir! Players should be thrilled just to have the privilege of participating, sir! Changes to the pension and health care structure are actually harmful to the players, because if they believe they have good health insurance they will take unnecessary risks on the field, sir!
Brees: Jake, we love you, buddy, but you have always had a reputation as a company man.
Richardson: Jake, don't speak to them unless I tell you to. Remember, you are on the Panthers payroll until 2019. Talk about a contract I want to take back ... Anyway, Jake is just the chairman of my committee on player safety. Why don't you boys enjoy a snack while we wait for the others to arrive.
Manning: I think I will. This pastrami looks delicious. I ... ouch! ... Someone just shoved me face first into my pastrami on rye!
Ndamukong Suh: Sorry I am late, Mr. Richardson.
Richardson: I am glad you are here. Mr. Suh is my expert on tackling fundamentals.
Brees: What? Mr. Richardson, while a few of Suh's penalties were bogus last year, the guy is dangerously sloppy in his technique. Furthermore ... Youch! ... My spleen! Someone just speared me with a helmet!
Nick Fairley: That's just my way of shaking hands.
Richardson: And let me introduce former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who will lead this year's rookie symposium on safe tackling.
Manning: That's ridiculous! I don't want to accuse Fairley of being a dirty player, but he has had several on-field lapses of judgment. He is exactly the kind of player the union is trying to protect -- someone who is not only a danger to quarterbacks, but to himself with his tendency to play out-of-control.
Fairley: You talk too much. (Shoves Manning into sandwich.)
Suh: Hey, that's my routine. (Pokes Fairley's eyes.)
Fairley: Oh, a wise guy, huh? (Boxes Suh's ears.)
Delhomme: Knock it off, you two imbeciles. (Strikes both on the head with a hammer.)
Fairley: Why, I oughta ...
Richardson: Ha! You boys kill me! I ... Oh, the tingle in the arm.
Manning: Drew, Mr. Richardson's pacemaker is malfunctioning.
Brees: I am on it. Let me rip his shirt so I can operate. Scalpel!
Delhomme: Does he need a blood transfusion? I will give him all I have. All I need is someone to make me bleed!
Fairley and Suh: On it! (Delhomme speared through the wall.)
Richardson: I ... feel better. What happened?
Manning: It was a cardiac incident, but Drew and I saved you.
Brees: Yes, and I think we all learned an important lesson. The NFL became the greatest sports league in the world because we work in cooperation. Players have always respected the fact that ownership takes a financial risk and has a right to make a profit. And owners respect the fact that players risk their health and need some assurance that they will be taken care of in the future. We've had each other's backs for decades. Although angry "take back" talk has become fashionable in labor negotiations lately, it really has no place in professionally conducted negotiations among members of a very profitable industry. Now what do you say we start over?
Richardson: I ... expect reimbursement ... for that shirt.