Paul Domowitch: Eagles learn that blitzing not always best approach to pass rush

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott needs blitz results.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott needs blitz results.
Posted: July 28, 2010

BETHLEHEM - Sean McDermott proved last season that he is every bit as aggressive as his late predecessor, Jim Johnson, when it comes to turning up the heat on opposing quarterbacks.

McDermott's defense blitzed 24.8 percent of the time (257 of 1,037 snaps) last year, which was almost 2 percent more than Johnson's unit did the year before (23.1).

The thing is, quantity doesn't always translate to quality. It didn't last year. While McDermott's 2009 defense blitzed more than Johnson's '08 unit, it wasn't nearly as effective at it.

Opposing quarterbacks compiled a 79.7 passer rating and threw 15 touchdown passes against the Eagles when they sent extra rushers last year. The year before, the opponent passer rating on blitzes was just 62.1. And they allowed just 10 TD passes.

Then there was the Eagles' ugly, 34-14 playoff loss to the Cowboys, which had been preceded a week earlier by a 24-0 beating at the hands of the same Cowboys. In those two losses, Tony Romo carved up McDermott's defense. He completed 68.1 percent of his passes, averaged 8.04 yards per attempt and had a 105.6 passer rating.

In both games, but especially the wild-card loss, McDermott went heavy with the blitz, hoping to hurry Romo into mistakes. But the strategy backfired. Romo used bubble screens and other quick throws to the outside to beat it time and time again.

"I still don't understand why they did as much blitzing as they did against Romo," said ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Ron Jaworski. "The next week, Minnesota didn't blitz him at all. They played coverage and held him to something like 5.6 yards per attempt and didn't give up a touchdown pass.

"You've got to win the mind game with Tony. When they started blitzing him, he just threw those bubble screens. It's the greatest play you can run against a blitz. They're coming in and you're throwing it out. There's no decision-making. Sean made a tactical mistake against Romo. Against Romo, you play coverage."

The losses to the Cowboys underscored the importance of being able to get pressure on a quarterback without sending the cavalry. With a schedule that features no less than nine games against passers who heaved at least 26 TD passes last year, their ability to do so will determine the course of this season as much, or more, than Kevin Kolb's performance level.

"They need to line up in a four-man front and be able to get to the passer and be able to mix it up rather than continually overloading blitzes outside and getting burned," said Brian Baldinger, an analyst for NFL Network and a former NFL offensive lineman.

McDermott knows that. So does head coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman. It's why they traded up in the first round of the April draft to get Brandon Graham. It's why two of the Eagles' first three picks in the draft were defensive linemen (Graham and third-rounder Daniel Te'o-Nesheim). It's why they traded for Darryl Tapp and Alex Hall and why they grabbed athletic pass rusher Ricky Sapp in the fifth round of the draft.

The Eagles finished with a respectable 44 sacks last season, but managed just 19 in their final nine games, including two in the wild-card loss to the Cowboys. Interestingly, both of those two playoff sacks of Romo were by players who no longer are with the team - linebacker Chris Gocong (traded to the Browns) and defensive end Chris Clemons (traded to the Seahawks).

While McDermott knows the Eagles have to do a better job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a four-man rush, he said it doesn't mean he's going to hit the brakes with the blitz.

"It's not a change of philosophy pressurewise," he said during his first training-camp chat with the media. "Last year we pressured right around the same [amount] we had done since I've been here.

"I know the importance of getting pressure with just four. We did a good job of that last year. [But] you can always look for more. You guys know, you've been around this organization long enough to know that sometimes in the secondary, you're only as good as your front four, and vice versa. They go hand-in-hand.

"Getting pressure on the quarterback is a must in this league on defense. These quarterbacks are too good to let them sit back there and pat the ball. So we've got to make sure we're working on that."

McDermott is hoping some of his new players, including Graham, Te'o-Nesheim and Sapp, will help improve the front-four pass rush. Graham, like most of the league's other first-round picks, still is unsigned, and it's unclear when he will arrive at Lehigh. But Te'o-Nesheim and Sapp both are here.

"You guys know as well as I do, if you're not here it's hard to improve as a football player," McDermott said. "We're not waiting on anyone. We're moving forward as a defense."

Sapp, a 6-4, 250-pound 'tweener who was used mainly as a hybrid pass rusher at Clemson, started out at strongside linebacker in the spring camps, but lined up at end in yesterday's first training-camp practice.

"He's going to start off on the defensive line and work at the end position, and we're going to keep our options open with what he can do," McDermott said. "When you look at your personnel, it's a Rubik's cube. Coming out of training camp, you want to know what you have and what the abilities and the talent level of your personnel really is and how you can use them to win football games on defense."

If Sapp can prove to McDermott that he can rush the passer at this level, the Eagles' defensive chief will find a place for him.

"I'm looking for the best 11," he said. "I don't care young, old. I want the best 11. If you're here and you perform, you're going to play. Bottom line."

And if you can rush the passer, all the better.

Send e-mail to pdomo@aol.com

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