Oh what a transition it has been. Many are still frustrated with the 2013 version of the Philadelphia Eagles defense so far. I can definitely agree with the frustration, but I think it's a different kind of frustration. In order to temper things down a bit, it needs to be realized just what a massive scheme and alignment change this defense is going through. It's one thing that we don't have the ideal personnel to run a 2-gap 3-4, but a major issue is that these players are having to learn a completely new scheme, and most notably new technique.
I am as frustrated as the next guy when it comes to our pass defense. We need to find a way to get more pressure on the QB. It appears we do not have that elite edge rusher, and perhaps we have nothing close to it. Trent is playing well but it looks like his days as a top edge rusher have passed him. To me, provided Foles continues playing the way he is playing, a pass rushing OLB made for the 3-4 is priority #1. It was the reason why I wanted Dion Jordan with that #4 pick last year.
But let's take some time to look at the transition this defense is trying to make, and why, IMO, while the stats may suggest otherwise, this is defense is a lot easier to watch than the Castillo/Washburn defense. Really it comes down to 3 things. Gap discipline, effort, and tackling. Those 3 things we are doing much better this year, than we were last year. Some of that is scheme related, some of it is personnel related.
Let's start with the Castillo scheme based on the Washburn's Wide-9 alignment. I don't think I need to get into an explanation of the Wide 9 alignment, but one of the well known issues is that the wide DL spacing leads to bigger natural gaps which means your LBs and safeties have bigger responsibility in the run game than perhaps a 2-gap scheme. Furthermore, in a one-gap scheme with a wide-9 alignment poor gap discipline and aggressiveness can prove very costly as we will see in the next few shots. As we transition from that defense, to the Billy Davis 3-4, I need to emphasize, "BABY STEPS". First order of business, let's take away those explosive plays in the running game we used to give up regularly with the wide 9. I want to see stuffs and TFLs as much as the next guy, but if we can even get to stopping the run and holding teams to minimal gains, that's a step in the right direction.
People will recognize this as our first defensive play from scrimmage under Castillo in 2011 against the Rams. This ended up being a 52 yard run by Stephen Jackson. You see the DEs lined up in the wide 9. Here with the All-22 look you can see the big natural gaps that are formed, and the alignment of the LBs suggests some gap responsibility.
What happens on this play is the run start out right, and Matthews and Chaney bite hard on the play direction. All the action is to the right and Chaney and Matthews leave a gaping cutback lane which Jackson notices. Poor Moises Fokou has an OL on him and is all by his lonesome. The wide alignment of the LDE leaves a gaping hole for Jackson:
Welcome to the defensive side of the ball Mr. Castillo!
Here's another one. This came against Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks where they had a huge day running the football against our wide 9 alignment. You see the wide 9 on the outside. Chaney is the man in the middle to watch.
Again he'll be over-aggressive to the action on offense and take himself completely out of his gap:
And a matchup I don't think any Eagles fan ever wants to see. Marshawn Lynch vs. Asante Samuel:
One more. Again against the Seahawks. This one ends up as a 40 yard TD run for Lynch. This is the old Wham play that we ran with Mudd and roasted DeMarcus Ware on one wonderful primetime night. Again, notice the wide alignment. The RT is going to leave the LDE unblocked, as the motioning TE will set up the WHAM block. It's a realively easy play against a DE rushing upfield from the wide 9. The problem here is that we have Chaney getting ready to blitz in the A gap and leave a lone corner in the backfield to defend that side of the field. An easy read for Seattle:
Check out the gaping hole that ensues and there is no one defending this gap:
Moving on to better days. Again, I want to stress BABY STEPS. This transition is a HUGE learning process. From a run defense perspective I am not sure there is a bigger transition than from a Wide 9 defensive front alignment to what is now a 2-gap 3-4. Everything those DL learned has to be unlearned.
Every week during Billy Davis' press conference you hear him, like a broken record, saying that the defense is improving and more specifically, these guys are improving on their technique. That's the most important fundamental thing to get this defense on the road for a turnaround. I am sure Billy Davis wants this defense to be good now, as much as anyone else. But he and Chip will not sacrifice their scheme and long-term development for short term gains. Yes, they want Fletcher Cox in the backfield making plays, but they want him to do it based on the proper, sound technique that the rest of the defense is playing...not by freelancing.
A couple of things to focus on as I post a bunch of images. The technique of the 3 down lineman is crucial to the success of this defense, especially in defending the run. The general idea in most cases is that each DL is responsible for 2 gaps. They engage the blocker, hold the POA and flow to the ball carrier attacking the gap as the back approaches it. However, it should be noted we aren't exclusively playing 2-gap defense. We are playing some 1-gap, and there are times when 2 DL are playing 2-gap and one is playing 1-gap. That's a job for another post, perhaps by my more knowledgeable blog partner. Finally, the other thing you will notice is that the 2-gap 3-4 is designed to keep the LBs clean so they can flow to the ball and make plays. In each of the shots above, you will see the LBs are all locked up very early on. IN the following shots you will see guys like Ryans and Kendricks freed up, making plays on the ball.
Here is a standard, 2-gap 3-4 alignment. The yellow arrows show the gap responsiblities of the 3 down lineman:
As the play unfolds, you see each DL engaging with the OL. You'll see that Ryans has a body on him at the second level, but Mychal Kendricks is clean. You'll also see NAte Allen coming up and filling the gap in the cutback lane. Trent Cole has outside contain and is doing a good job setting the edge to prevent Martin from getting outside:
And here's Kendricks filling his gap and getting a clean hit on Martin for a smaller gain:
Here's another example.
DL engages their blockers, Ryans has the A gap, Kendricks has the B gap. Both are clean, but Kendricks is going to have the RT in his lap in a few seconds:
Ryans remains clean as Logan takes on the double team up the middle:
Ryans gets a nice clean hit in the hole:
A few more nice examples before moving on. This is an outside run play which will highlight strong gap discipline, good hustle, and some physicality on the outside.
Action left, and there is a nice gap up the middle through the A gap, but you can see Demeco is clean and he has it covered. Kendricks is already working to the outside:
As the play stretches out, you see a nice example of Kendricks and Cole on the same page sticking to their assignments and technique. Kendricks is filling the seam on the inside of the LT, and Cole is on the outside shoulder of the LT.
But Cole gets to the ball carrier but can't bring him down. But Kendricks continues pursuit and Cary Williams is up on run defense.
Another one from the Giants game that looks like trouble early on. Cole is going to attack the B gap off the snap. However, Demeco is going to fill the vacated C gap:
A hole begins to form for Jacobs:
But Ryans and Kendrick do a job filling the hole. The other interesting thing is with Cole one-gapping on the play, Barwin is engaged with the TE and is two-gapping protecting contain on the outside, but also helping to contain the C gap if Ryans doesn't get there:
Ryans gets there, but can't get Jacobs down. Barwin attacks to the outside and makes the play for a loss:
All good examples of the defense playing together and exhibiting good gap discipline. We are also seeing more plays from the LBs based almost purely on scheme changes.
Just to complete things. This is what happens, when you don't remain disciplined to your assignment.
Kendricks and Cox are both going to attack the A gap:
As a result a huge lane emerges for one of Martin's only big runs of the day. To add a bit of irony to this post, Trent Cole is in the Wide 9 alignment on this one, which doesn't help causes:
Final point. Chip Kelly has made a big deal about Cedric Thorton being his best DL. Cox has made some nice plays as has Vinny Curry. Why does Ced stand out? Because as I said in the very beginning, Kelly and Davis want to see their guys make plays WITHIN THE SCHEME AND WITH PROPER TECHNIQUE. Check out these two plays by Thornton.
Here's Thornton fully engaged shading on the outside shoulder.
But as he sees the play develop, he tosses the blocker aside and attacks the ball carrier:
and makes the tackle:
One more. Thornton is at LDE over the top of the RT. He has B and C gap responsibility:
Engages the blocker looking in at the B gap:
Disengages and makes the play in the C gap:
So as the players continue to gain experience in the scheme, and as Billy Davis says, continues to get more comfortable with their techniques I think more plays will come. We are already beginning to see that with Fletcher Cox who was a bit behind the learning curve from Thorton early on.
But at the very least, as bad as the defense has been, I don't think Billy Davis is just practicing his coachspeak, he means what he says and you can see it.
This is what a defense in transition looks like my friends!