The first impression of Billy Davis on the Philadelphia Eagles sideline accomplished nothing in the way of silencing critics. On the opening play from scrimmage, New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley took the handoff from Tom Brady and ran straight through a hole smack dab in the middle of the Birds’ defense, racing 62 yards before he was caught from behind.
New England pounded the rock five more times on that opening series, reaching pay dirt without ever putting a ball in the air. It was a demoralizing display to say the least.
The first impression of Davis when he arrived in Philadelphia, upon head coach Chip Kelly appointing the longtime NFL assistant to the post of defensive coordinator back in February, was—in a word—underwhelming. Davis previously held the same position in San Francisco and in Arizona, but both stops were short-lived, which is a euphemism for disastrous.
|Team||Year||Points Allowed (Rank)||Yards Allowed (Rank)|
If first impressions speak volumes, Davis should have invested in ear plugs.
To be fair, the rankings in the table above lack context, as first impressions often do. The Niners were a rebuilding team at the time, while Kurt Warner’s retirement following the '09 season seemed to be the larger problem out in the desert.
There is plenty of present-day context to consider as well. Davis inherits a defense that finished tied for 30th in points allowed in 2012. He is attempting to transition the unit from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4. The coaching staff readily admits they are a work in progress in that aspect. Any reasonable person can see the personnel is incomplete.
Having said that, there’s only so much context fans can be asked to accept until it boils down to excuses.
Ridley’s big gain and the Pats’ subsequent mashing of the ball down the Eagles’ throats set the tone for the entire preseason. Philadelphia’s defense ranked dead last in rushing (163.5 YPG) and yards per carry (5.3). Only Jacksonville yielded more touchdowns on the ground.
Here comes the really staggering number, though. The Eagles were the sole team gashed for three carries over 40 yards this summer—only one other team even surrendered two. Conversely, 22 clubs managed to prevent a similar complete meltdown from occurring at all.
What’s interesting is, if Davis can eliminate those breakdowns from continuing to pop up, the Birds’ run defense might not be so bad. Those three gains of 40-plus also happened to be the lone gains of 20-plus. Well, when you look at it purely in terms of gains of 20-plus, six clubs actually conceded more than that, while an additional five teams were tied with the Eagles at three.
That still puts them in the bottom half of the league in long gains, but it doesn’t sound nearly as extreme when they have company. We can work with this.
Building off that idea, the good news is, all three plays for 40-plus were easily avoidable—in theory anyway. Basically, Davis will have to rely on one or two players doing a better job: the backside linebacker and the deep safety. Let's dissect the two areas on Jordan Todman's 63-yard touchdown run for the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3.
The Backside Linebacker
Here we’re looking at Connor Barwin, the outside linebacker on the backside of the play. The ball-carrier is going to start by running to the left side of the formation, then cut the run into the area Barwin should have been occupying.
It appears Barwin failed to immediately recognize Chad Henne was handing the ball off, as the defender's initial trajectory takes him toward the quarterback. Those false steps by the defender make it impossible to carry out his run assignment, which is to move down the line of scrimmage and clean up the play from the backside.
From the north-south view, we can see, had Barwin recognized what was going on, there's a good chance he would have bottled up the play near the line of scrimmage. Since he's not in the right place, safety Patrick Chung is going to blocked by an offensive lineman, which opens the cutback lane for Todman.
This is likely little more than a mental error by Barwin, who happens to be the best outside linebacker on the roster. It's reasonable to assume his execution will be better the next time around, although there is some legitimate concern that converted defensive ends Trent Cole and Brandon Graham could be prone to similar traps.
The Deep Safety
The mistake may have begun up front, but the fact that this ball gets taken 63 yards to the house isn’t entirely Barwin’s fault. The other culprit here is rookie Earl Wolff, who just happens to be getting his very first rep with the first-team defense.
Wolff is the deep safety, or last line of defense on the play. When everything breaks down in front of him, his one responsibility is to keep a 20-yard gain from becoming an 80-yard touchdown. Here you can see the fifth-round pick is a good 20 yards away right before the back is about to emerge from the pileup—oh, by the way, look at that huge hole forming to the right.
Todman slips out of the backfield, and Wolff is the last man with a chance to stop him. Unfortunately, he takes a horrible angle to the ball, and we're off to the races.
You have to hope it was a case of butterflies for Wolff, but bad angles like these have been an ongoing issue in Philly since Brian Dawkins split down in 2009, regardless of the scheme. The whole reason the kid was in there was because Nate Allen had been making similarly poor attempts at tackling the past couple seasons, including the Ridley run at the top.
Kurt Coleman is one of the few safeties the Eagles have who has demonstrated the ability to consistently come up from his position and land a hit. Unfortunately, as you can see, sometimes, he gets the worst of the collision, which is one reason he’s currently stuck on the bench.
This defense is Bill Davis' baby now, and that includes the safeties. It will be challenging enough to account for their weaknesses in coverage without preparing for the possibility that whoever is back there will also be a liability in the running game.