After starting the season strong, the Philadelphia Eagles defense has suffered letdowns late in back-to-back games.
In Week 5 in Pittsburgh, Juan Castillo's boys took the field with a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and allowed the Steelers to run a six-minute, 33-second, 14-play drive to set up a walk-off game-winning field goal.
In Week 6 against Detroit, they gave up a touchdown and a field goal in the final three minutes and 38 seconds and then another touchdown on their only series in overtime as the Eagles blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead over the Lions. In the final quarter alone in that game, Philly gave up 253 yards and 17 points. They had only surrendered 163 yards and six points prior to that period.
So, what the hell keeps happening to the defense?
All Three Phases Lost Battles on the Final Drive vs. Pittsburgh
The problem against Pittsburgh was that, early in the final series, Ben Roethlisberger had all day to work. They had the Steelers in an early hole with 1st-and-20 after a holding penalty, but there was absolutely no pressure on an eight-yard completion to David Paulsen and very little heat on a 3rd-and-12 conversion to Antonio Brown.
The one time they got good pressure with a four-man rush, the Steelers were ready with Rashard Mendenhall in the right flat, prepared for a dump-off and with several blockers in position. That resulted in a 15-yard gain to move the Steelers into Philly territory.
On the next set of downs, they had a chance to stop Pittsburgh on 3rd-and-4, but rookie Brandon Boykin was tripped up by having Heath Miller run his route into Boykin's path, freeing up Emmanuel Sanders to make the catch. The pass rush did a decent job here, but the coverage couldn't hold.
The icing on the cake came in the third phase of the game, when the Eagles were completely manhandled at the line of scrimmage on an obvious run play, allowing Mendenhall to pick up eight yards and set Shaun Suisham up with a fairly simple field goal to win the game.
Caught Over-Thinking Against Detroit?
What happened against Detroit was surely a lot more frustrating for fans. Nnamdi Asomugha had been covering Calvin Johnson for the majority of the game and had held Megatron to only one reception through three quarters. The Eagles weren't blitzing much but were getting decent pressure, and Asomguha was playing one of his best games in quite a while with lots of safety help because the defense was staying home.
Then they started mixing up the coverages and brought extra defenders on blitzes a little more often.
"I was on him most of the game," Asomugha said, per PhillyMag.com. "I think when we got to the fourth quarter there was a lot more trying to give him a different look, give him something else so that he doesn't get comfortable with one guy."
With hindsight, it's easy to say that they tried to fix something that wasn't broken, but at the time Castillo might have been trying to stay a step ahead of Detroit. Ultimately, the adjustment did not pay off.
"I don't know if we changed what was working, I'll just say that I know we blitzed a lot more toward the end of the game," Asomugha added.
PhillyMag.com's Sheil Kapadia studied the tape and determined that Matthew Stafford was pretty much just as good against four-man rushes as he was against blitzes in the fourth quarter and overtime. That said, there were two back-breaking plays in which Stafford capitalized on unsuccessful blitzes on completions to Johnson, who was not being covered by Asomugha.
On the first play, the Eagles decided to send both linebackers they had on the field on a 2nd-and-10 near midfield. Inexplicably, Domique Rodgers-Cromartie was on Johnson in the slot. Did Castillo not see how poorly DRC performed in slot coverage last season? Johnson had an easy slant ahead of him.
The second 17-yarder set Detroit up for the game-winning field goal in overtime. Same deal, with six coming at Stafford, but Johnson feasted on a one-on-one slot matchup with Rodgers-Cromartie. He overwhelmed DRC on his break on an out-route and made an easy catch for a key first-down pickup.
Again, hindsight is beautiful, but I still don't understand that decision.
But in reality, there was a lot more to it than that. Those two plays only covered 34 of the 270 yards Stafford and the Lions put up in the fourth quarter and overtime. The defense simply looked gassed.
Early in the quarter, against only a four-man rush, Asomugha was beaten by Johnson easily for 37 yards. Later, Nate Allen wasn't quick enough to close on Johnson on an underneath route, and Johnson took advantage with a 20-yard gain to set Detroit up at the 1-yard line.
And later, Tony Scheffler and Nate Burleson burned Brandon Hughes on back-to-back plays, the first fetching 57 yards and the second resulting in six points. In both cases, Stafford had plenty of time to throw.
I don't know if the linebackers were on their heels as a result of plays like those, but the wide-nine also became very susceptible to the run as the game wore on. Look at the hole here for Mikel Leshoure on an eight-yard gain...
And here for Joique Bell on another eight-yard gain...
Two-and-a-half factors here:
1. Philly's defense is undersized as a whole. Detroit's offense is not. Same goes for Pittsburgh's. This problem might go beyond play calls and schemes and coverages and whatnot. It might be that they're simply getting worn down physically by the time they reach the fourth quarter.
2. It doesn't help that the offense isn't sustaining drives late. Or at least they weren't in Week 6. Philly had a one-play drive (Michael Vick interception) and two three-play drives in the fourth quarter Sunday. In the offense's defense, one of those three-play drives resulted in a 70-yard touchdown, but the other was a three-and-out. They also went three-and-out on their only overtime possession. The defense couldn't get a breather.
2.5: Nate Allen left the Detroit game with a hamstring injury, forcing the Eagles to use Colt Anderson heavily late. Anderson was flagged for a pass interference penalty in the end zone that didn't ultimately cost them, but he was a definite downgrade from Allen.
All of this has of course heated up Castillo's proverbial seat. He, Todd Bowles and Jim Washburn have yet to find a way to make this work. They have the talent, but they aren't finishing. They're small and they're tired, but good coaches get past that.