How opponents attack Eagles' defense

Posted: January 20, 2011

WHOEVER ENDS UP as the Eagles' defensive coordinator will inherit an excellent player (Asante Samuel), a very good player (Trent Cole), and a bunch of guys who either are pretty good, very young, largely inconsistent or some combination of the above. And good luck with that.

This will be his main issue: Does he dare to turn over the defensive personnel again, or were the problems in 2010 more schematic?

Whenever this new person arrives, he will look at the way teams attacked the Eagles. According to statistics compiled by the league, certain things stand out:

1) When teams attempted to run against the Eagles, they chose to run wide to either side.

NFL offenses probe for weaknesses and avoid opposing strengths when they can. The numbers suggest that teams thought the Eagles were better up the middle, at defensive tackle and middle linebacker, than they were outside.

According to the numbers, opposing offenses ran fewer running plays behind their left guard against the Eagles than against any other NFL team - which means that Antonio Dixon, the replacement for Brodrick Bunkley at right defensive tackle, showed enough on film to point offenses strongly in other directions. Teams were almost as reluctant to run behind their left tackles, which adds Cole into the mix - as well as middle linebackers Stewart Bradley and Jamar Chaney.

The result was that teams tried to run wide against the Eagles. They faced more running plays wide to both sides than any team in the NFL. You can pick your rationale - the ability to sucker and/or overpower Cole and/or rookie Brandon Graham, or the desire to get a whack at the Eagles' outside linebackers. Opponents weren't overly successful when they went wide, but that was the preferred plan of attack.

2) Nobody wanted anything to do with Samuel.

In 16 games, opponents threw the ball deep to Samuel's side of the field only 40 times - and, remember, Samuel missed five games; a bunch of those throws came in his absence. Even with that, teams were less successful attacking that spot on the field than against any NFL defense, averaging only 6.1 yards. Teams completed only 25 percent of their deep throws to Samuel's side.

Instead, this is where teams attacked the Eagles with the pass: short to the defense's right side and deep to its right, underneath to running backs and tight ends and whoever and then deep downfield to the side manned by Dimitri Patterson and the fellas. Teams averaged nearly 15 yards going deep that way, more than double what Samuel allowed.

3) Running backs, especially, were big in opposing passing games.

The people at generate defensive rankings that have nothing to do with fantasy stats and everything to do with trying to understand how things really work. Overall, they have come to the conclusion that the Eagles' pass defense did an overall good job against opposing wide receivers, a below-average job against tight ends and a miserable job against running backs. By their calculations, the Eagles were second-worst in the NFL at defending passes thrown to running backs.

Linebackers usually cover running backs. Draw your own conclusions.

4) First down was problematic.

If you compare the 2010 defense under Sean McDermott to the 2008 defense (the last run by the late Jim Johnson) and the 2004 defense (the last great defense under Johnson), one number among many jumps out at you. Teams threw a little bit more against the Eagles on first down in 2010 and they threw a lot more effectively.

In other words, teams took advantage of the Eagles' base defense in the passing game, averaging 7.40 yards when throwing on first down - compared to 5.11 yards in 2008. This is a very big jump.

Base defense. Linebackers. See above.

5) Finally, the red zone.

Normally, people make too much of this stat; it really doesn't correlate to playoff appearances very well. Remember: The Eagles did make the playoffs. But when you allow touchdowns nearly 77 percent of the time when the other team reaches your 20-yard line, you are not just bad, but historically bad - and it is impossible to ignore.

Under Johnson, the Eagles tended to be average to better-than-average as a red-zone defense. If they had been merely average in 2010, the Eagles would have allowed 20.9 points per game instead of 23.6. This isn't nothing.

There are no answers in all of these observations. Even though he hasn't said anything, Andy Reid obviously has decided that there were schematic issues or McDermott would still be in place. The new guy, whoever he is - and it still seems as if secondary coach Dick Jauron is the right play here, if for no other reason than the upcoming labor uncertainty - obviously will have his own spin on things.

But after turning this defense over and turning it over again in the last few years, how much personnel change can they afford to make again? But given that list above, from 1 to 5, how much can they afford to stay the same?

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