Eagles dial back the blitz

As Romo burned, Washburn fiddled with his wide nine. Above, Trent Cole hits the Cowboys QB high, Jason Babin goes low.
As Romo burned, Washburn fiddled with his wide nine. Above, Trent Cole hits the Cowboys QB high, Jason Babin goes low. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 02, 2011

To blitz or not to blitz - that was often the question when Jim Johnson and Sean McDermott were calling plays for the Eagles defense.

The former defensive coordinators dialed up blitzes with so much frequency that it really was a question of whether they would or wouldn't.

But those aggressive pass-rushing defenses, after 12 seasons of Johnson-McDermott rule, are all but a memory now.

The defense of Juan Castillo rarely blitzes. In their 34-7 drubbing of the Cowboys, for instance, the Eagles blitzed just four times out of 40 pass plays.

Some of that is the scheme, but mostly it's because the first-year coordinator just doesn't have to send extra pass-rushers after quarterbacks. When your defensive line is generating enough pressure, why take one or more of the back seven away from pass coverage?

All 22 of the Eagles' sacks this season - they are fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play - have come from defensive linemen. Jason Babin has nine, Cullen Jenkins five, Trent Cole four, Darryl Tapp two, Trevor Laws one, and Mike Patterson one.

This was by design.

After firing McDermott in January, the first coaching move Andy Reid made was to lure defensive line coach Jim Washburn away from Tennessee. Washburn had said before that if a team has to blitz more than necessary, then its front four isn't doing its job.

A few weeks after Washburn was hired, Castillo was named coordinator. At an introductory news conference in February, it became clear that Castillo would adopt a more conservative approach than his predecessors.

Simplification was the buzz word.

"If you blitz all the time," Washburn said then, "you'll get killed."

And so the Eagles have blitzed dramatically less this season. There aren't official statistics that document when teams blitz, but the website Pro Football Focus logs the number of times defenders pass-rush.

Based on its tally, Eagles linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks have blitzed a total of 78 times this season. The number of times the Eagles actually blitzed is lower, since the figure doesn't take into account multiple pass-rushers beyond the defensive linemen.

Still, the number of individual blitzes projects to only 178 over 16 games. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, McDermott sent one of his back seven after the quarterback on pass plays 497 times. The year before, he blitzed a player 592 times. In 2008, Johnson's last season, he sent an extra pass rusher 490 times.

Castillo would have to recklessly blitz in the final nine games to even come close to those numbers.

For whatever the reason, Reid decided after 12 seasons of blitz-oriented defense that he wanted to go in another direction.

"If you're going to be a coordinator in this league and you are going to use the blitz, then you make sure you use them at opportune times and that you design them so they get home and they make an impact," Reid said Monday.

Castillo's early-season blitzes - the few he has called - have had little impact. In several cases, opposing offenses looked as if they knew the Eagles were coming. Two plays stand out: When the Giants ran a perfectly executed screen pass to Ahmad Bradshaw on which he scored, and when 49ers quarterback Alex Smith picked up a three-man blitz and hit Josh Morgan for a 30-yard catch-and-run touchdown over the middle.

Though blitzes can produce game-changing plays for a defense, they just as easily can present opportunities for offenses. Johnson liked those odds, but he sometimes blitzed out of necessity because he didn't always have several great pass-rushing linemen.

Castillo has three potential Pro Bowlers in Babin, Cole, and Jenkins. Of course, he doesn't have a safety who can blitz the way Brian Dawkins did. But Reid wanted Washburn and his wide-nine scheme up front, and that meant cutting down on the blitzing.

"If you have to blitz, you blitz," Castillo said Sunday after the Cowboys victory. "If you don't have to blitz, you don't blitz. It's not that we don't have blitzes. You can ask some of the guys . . . we had some blitzes prepared that Jim would have liked, but we didn't have to use them."

Honors for McCoy. LeSean McCoy was named NFC offensive player of the week for his 185-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance against Dallas. It was the first time the third-year player received the honor.

There also were kudos for the offensive line. Tackles Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, guards Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins, and center Jason Kelce won the Madden Protectors weekly award for their blocking Sunday night.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com, or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

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