Birds 'D': To pressure or not to pressure?

The Eagles' Connor Barwin can't make an interception after batting a pass down as he goes for the ball along with Giants Brandon Myers. Barwin and the Eagles defense will go all out to pressure Tampa Bay during their Sunday matchup. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
The Eagles' Connor Barwin can't make an interception after batting a pass down as he goes for the ball along with Giants Brandon Myers. Barwin and the Eagles defense will go all out to pressure Tampa Bay during their Sunday matchup. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 14, 2013

After five weeks of the season, we know how the Eagles defense is viewed from the outside. It gives up a lot of yards (ranked 31st in the league) and a lot of points (ranked 30th in the league) and it is still trying to transition to a whole new scheme with some players who are not perfect fits for a 3-4 alignment and some who are barely good enough to be starting in any scheme.

That's from the outside. What we don't know is how the defense is really viewed from the inside. What does the coaching staff think of the defense and its capabilities?

Some of that will be answered Sunday against the Buccaneers when the Eagles are handed a situation - an opposing rookie quarterback making his second career start - that seems to call for a heavy dose of pressure and blitz packages.

Thus far, the Eagles have not been a blitzing team, and when they have blitzed the tactic hasn't been significantly more successful than just playing straight up. They are 28th in the league in sacks per pass play, and it could be that coordinator Bill Davis doesn't think the risk of detracting from pass coverage and run-stopping ability is worth the limited reward of sending extra men after the quarterback.

Ah, but the lure of going after a rookie quarterback, particularly a lanky 6-foot-7 target like Mike Glennon, who has a great arm but legs that aren't usually able to get him out of trouble. What then?

"You know, here's my opinion. You do what you're good at," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. "If it's pressuring, then you pressure. If it's not pressuring, then you don't pressure. You don't change up every week because of who you're playing. You do what you do and you do what you do good."

At least statistically, that's not a long list for the Eagles. What they have mostly chosen to do is put the outside linebackers near the line of scrimmage, so the quarterback is really looking at a 5-2 formation. Then, depending on the call, the linebackers either drop into coverage, stay put to man the outside lanes, or go after the quarterback. The Eagles don't like to steal from the defensive backfield or bring the safeties too close to the ball, and they don't like to make the inside linebackers do much more than react and mind their two running gaps.

It's not a vanilla defense, but it isn't Caramel Circus Crunch, either. The Eagles hope their formations give the quarterback pause. Beyond that, it has been a low-risk, bend-don't-break philosophy. If you pay attention to the stat geeks who chart this stuff, the Eagles blitz percentage looks higher than it is. That's because the stat geeks can't factor in what was actually called. Many times the outside linebackers rush the quarterback because their assignments remain home to block. That's a reaction, not a blitz.

"Otherwise, you're just covering grass," Barwin said.

Davis and the defense were rewarded with a good day last Sunday against Eli Manning after a disastrous time the week before against Peyton Manning. They still sacked Manning only once (tackle Bennie Logan) and hit him just three times, but they did force him to scurry around and commit three grounding penalties, which are just as good as sacks. The Eagles did what they did against Manning - and what they didn't against the other Manning - with usually a four-man rush. Unless Davis changes directions entirely, that will probably be their plan against the Bucs.

"There's pluses and minuses to pressure, and I think you mix it in," Davis said. "The key is keeping whoever that quarterback is, whether it's Eli Manning or Glennon, you keep them off-balance. So I think it's multiple looks . . . that works as much, if not more, than pressure. Now, do we want to hit him? Absolutely. Love to do that with a four-man rush."

If the Eagles can limit running back Doug Martin, and force Glennon to beat them through the air without detracting from their spotty pass coverage in order to bring pressure, then Davis is right. If not, even a rookie has the capability of having a good day.

"We want to use that inexperience to our advantage," cornerback Cary Williams said. "We want to pressure him and get him under duress as much as possible. We want to disrupt the timing between him and his wide receivers, and when we can do that we can have success against rookie quarterbacks."

It would seem to be a perfect time to call a lot of blitzes, and that's absolutely what Jim Johnson used to do in these situations. But a team that blitzes a lot has to have a very solid defensive secondary to cover its back. The Eagles do not blitz a lot, even when you think they would. That should tell you all you need to know about how the defense, particularly the secondary, is viewed from the inside. About the same as it is from the outside.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports


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