He had the hair, the name, and the expectations - but Casey Matthews is nothing but an exemplar of the Eagles' horrid linebacking corps.
Welcome back to another edition of "Ask BTB," in which we give our loyal readers the opportunity to ask the front-page writers a nagging question to which we will offer our best response. A reminder at this juncture that there are several ways for you to submit your questions. First, you can send an email directly KDP10For10@gmail.com. This allows you to make you questions as detailed as possible. If you have a quick, short-winded question, feel free to Tweet KD @BloggingTheBoys (in addition to all his fine posts, KD is the voice of our Twitter presence). Make sure you use the hashtag #AskBTB so he'll know to send it down the front-page pipeline. And: remember to include your BTB handle in your correspondence!
Today's answer is of the long-form variety, written in response to a wonderful question by Alan Uy:
"There's no doubt that the this team has improved through both free agency and the draft, but the same can be said for our division rivals. Like most years in the NFC East, the divisional crown is up for grabs and the contest will remain a dog fight til the end.
So given the new additions to this team and our opponents, what game plan would you employ in order to defeat our NFC East foes?"
I'd like to thank Alan for the question, as this is something I can't help but dream about constantly. Don't worry - always good dreams. Because the question is being asked in reference to three separate teams (I assure you, there isn't one strategy that will work against all of them), I will be addressing each team in a separate post.
We'll begin with the Eagles (in my opinion, the most difficult challenge), then move on to the Super Bowl champion Giants, and finish with the always unpredictable Redskins.
After the jump, a look at my strategy for clipping the Eagles' wings...
First of all, let's not start on the Eagles being 8-8 last season, or the Giants being the Super Bowl champions (and thus our real concern). We only had one good shot at the Eagles last season, and it wasn't even close. Sure, Eagles fans like to construct cumulative point spreads by adding in that meaningless game against Stephen McGee, but, honestly, that only makes the Eagles 1-1 against that same Stephen McGee.
Now, let's have a quick refresher. The Cowboys, last season, had a fairly productive offense and a fairly porous defense. In the offseason, the Cowboys addressed defense heavily, but made (relatively) negligible contributions to the offensive side of the ball. We lost to the Eagles 34 - 7. I believe there should be more concern that we scored only 7 points, because our offseason changes should help out with the 34 points we gave up.
The first order of business: scoring more than 7 points against the Eagles.
The linemen in the Wide 9 play spread extremely wide, in the 9-technique (hence the name). The 9-technique designates the area wide of the Tight End, so, even against two TE sets, the defensive ends will split out wide. The defensive tackles can line up in any assortment of 0- to 5-techniques, in an effort to maximize coverage of running lanes. The personnel, however, are almost without exception 1-gap penetrating linemen - not 2-gap 3-4 style linemen who can fill two running lanes. Thus, as illustrated above, there are typically three wide-open running lanes.
Coincidentally, the Wide 9 also employs three linebackers, whose responsibilities are to cover the width of the field on passes, fill the three open running lanes, and recognize screens and tosses before they get outside of the DEs. The scheme requires every one of them to be Sean Lee good, and yet the linebacking corps is arguably the Eagles' weakest defensive group (the safeties are bad, too, but they're only one half of a secondary that contains at least one good corner).
The corners and safeties techniques are interchangeable, as last season saw the Eagles progressing from a zone heavy scheme (which helped Asante Samuel) to a press man scheme (which pleased Nnamdi Asomugha). Samuel has since left Philly, so we can safely assume the Eagles will stay in the press-man scheme. Press-man coverage relies on strong cornerbacks to out-muscle receivers at the line of scrimmage in order to disrupt the timing of the play and give the blitz extra time to reach the quarterback. Behind that press, though, you'll find a pair of inexperienced safeties as the last line of defense.
Against the Eagles Wide 9, I would employ a steady dose of Livings, Vickers, and Murray. With its massive splits, it is vulnerable to the run if the team doesn't have stout linebackers. The Eagles drafted a second-round middle linebacker, but he's a speed backer built for coverage, not a run stuffer. The only recognizable name in that group is Casey Matthews, and he's more infamous than famous (a cautionary tale against drafting players based on their names, rather than their abilities). Look for Vickers to introduce them to the concept of the NFL fullback and Murray to work out against the Eagles' suspect safeties. DeMeco Ryans is someone they added in free agency, but I wonder if he'll have the same adjustment period as all of last year's free agents - it must be difficult learning a defense from an offensive line coach. I wouldn't employ the screen game as much as you might expect, because the wider personnel (their defensive ends) would have a good chance to tip the pass. Also, I don't want to keep Tony in the pocket while the screen develops if the line can't hold up better than it did last year - Tyron Smith, in particular. Middle screens may be an option, but their linebackers are better in coverage. I'd rather run at the linebackers and throw at the safeties. Their press-scheme may become a nightmare for teams who employ under-sized receivers (like, well, the Eagles), but shouldn't worry us nearly as much with both Miles and Dez over 6'2", 210 lbs.
The close of business: holding the Eagles below 34 points.
Remember when I said that the press-man should scare teams with undersized receivers? Here's where we test that. Brandon Carr, Mike Jenkins and Morris Claiborne are all very capable press-man corners. Each of them has the size and speed to effectively neutralize the likes of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles like to spread the field in their implementation of the West Coast offense, which is predicated on using the short to intermediate passing game to set up deep passes and runs.
The Eagles are not a team looking to pound the football - it isn't in their gameplan to line up in the I formation and run the Power O. LeSean McCoy, last season, ran the ball 185 times outside the tackles compared to only 56 attempts between the guards (another 32 came between the guards and tackles). Generally, he's getting the ball out of the shotgun or single back set, and it's typically a misdirection play. If their passing game is ineffective, their running game will lose its strength (which is taking advantage of linebackers on their heels). Also of note, McCoy ran outside of Jason Peters 105 times last season, and Jason Peters is not going to be available this season. The Eagles line is at least as suspect as our own.
Finally, Michael Vick, as we all know, is a running quarterback. DeMarcus Ware managed 4 sacks during the game in question, but the defense as a unit failed to contain Vick. The biggest contribution to this failure was the absence of speed at the inside linebacker position (Sean Lee left injured, but even he could only cover half the field). The Eagles' significant downgrade at left tackle should increase Ware's efficiency (or Spencer's should the team decide to play Ware on Vick's blind side), but I expect the biggest impact from the presence of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter in the middle.
Against the Eagles offense, I would press their receivers all game. I would want to play three safeties (Sensabaugh and Church closer, with Matt Johnson or Brodney Pool deep) and let one of them rove. I want Sean Lee and Bruce Carter taking turns with middle zones and blitzes to maintain coverage on crossing routes and force Vick to roll out of the pocket. Dan Connor should also be effective in certain running situations. Send Ware hard, as well as the same side defensive end, from Vick's left side to force him right. Like Tebow, he has trouble throwing when running right (though Vick having trouble is likely more dangerous then Tebow in any situation). Hopefully, Church will be able to stop him from getting much yardage if he gets outside the pocket to the right. With Jason Peters out, I'm not worried about McCoy having any lanes (is the Eagles' offensive line really better than ours? I don't think so).
What do you think BTB: anything you would do differently?