The Glass Ceiling

Chip Kelly’s offense and the QB controversy that isn’t a controversy ensures that more than enough people break down the offensive game film. So each week when the coach’s tape comes out on Game Rewind, I first look at the big plays given up by the defense: touchdowns, 20+ yard plays and sometimes 15-19 yard plays as well. And every week it consistently stars the same cast of characters: Cary Williams blowing his zone assignment, Nate Allen biting on play action way too early and Earl Wolff taking bad angles, making delayed reactions and having the change of direction of a turtle. There’s usually too many to go through and I usually just tweet about them anyway. I also look at the good plays, but this week Fran Duffy at the Eagles website looked at all the plays I was going to, on ILB A gap blitzes and disguising them. But with the advantage of seeing the game tape a day early through the team, I’m beaten to the punch. Kudos to him, though “sugar” to describe an A gap blitz isn’t a term I’ve seen anywhere outside of Madden.

Anyways, this week was the best the defense has performed, and the best we can ask it to perform. The usual suspects showed up, but they were continuing their trend over the past three weeks of appearing in the other team’s highlights with reducing frequency. Williams has been more disciplined, and the ripple effect of the safeties not having to try to bail him out as much gives the illusion of them playing better. In the place of the usual suspects on the lowlights reel is a light being shined on the limitations of the linebackers in pass coverage and the coaching staff; and why while the defense is improved, it’s not likely to get much better because we’ve reached the limitations of the roster’s abilites. Five plays stuck out to me.

7:53 in the 1st Quarter


The Cowboys have made a substitution and have an empty backfield with 01 personnel: 4 WRs–Bryant, Beasley, Austin and Williams, and a TE, Witten. The Eagles match this up with…. nickle. 2 LB and 3 CBs is a dubious choice. The Eagles play thee deep and three under.


Ryans, in the middle of the field, drops to a depth of 10 yards beyond the LOS. By then there is no one in front of him to worry about and no one that could be in front of him either. Because of this, Ryans should have continued his backpedal at least another 2 yards. Witten isn’t going to break his route until he’s 12 yards deep at the earliest, because that’s the way routes are run. Receivers either make their breaks by their third step or they make them 12-15 yards down the field.


Had Ryans kept his backpedal at least 12 yards, he could have been “in phase” with Witten when he makes his break at, you guessed, 12 yards. Again, this isn’t hindsight, this is the way things are: everything breaks either in the first 5 yards or at least 12 yards downfield. Then once Witten is past him, Ryans makes a poor decision and turns the other way, and now he’s toast.


Romo finds Witten with ease for a 26 yard gain.

14:51 in the 2nd Quarter


The Cowboys are in 11 personnel, the Eagles are in a 3-3-nickel personnel. No problem with the personnel but… that’s Connor Barwin over Dez Bryant. The Eagles play a lot of zone, but there’s no reason to telegraph it so clearly. The defense gains little with Barwin out there, he’s in position to defend the curl/flat sooner, but at the expense of being exposed in space if Bryant runs inside, who he could jam if better aligned. Barwin is also exposed if the RB Joseph Randle runs straight up the seam, Barwin will get poor leverage on him. Additionally, with only five in the box Randle does not have to stay in to look to block and can run freely.


Despite having leverage, Barwin does a poor job of jamming Bryant, who easily slips into the space of the wide area between the zones of Barwin and Ryans. Barwin just sticks his arm out and doesn’t disrupt or redirect Bryant at all. Meanwhile Romo looks to other side of the field. Not liking what he sees, he immediately finds Bryant in open space. If Barwin, circled in blue, had been aligned as a LB in a real 3-3-nickel and not at CB, he’d be somewhere around the red line and in much better position to defend Bryant and still in position to react to a dump off to the flat along with Williams before Randle can get to the first down marker, and if he had to look to block first he would not be at this point in his route anyway.


Bryant catches the ball, predictably beats Barwin in open space, then gets a block from Randle and is off to the races for a 19 yard gain.

10:08 in the 2nd Quarter

Nothing wrong with this personnel matchup or the playcall so let’s just skip to the action. That means it’s time for a usual suspect to show up.


This is actually pretty good coverage by Cary Williams (and every one else). Just one problem.


He never turns his head around. 25 yard completion.

6:59 in the 2nd Quarter


Another empty backfield, which the Cowboys went to more than a team usually does in a game. We’ll focus on the near side of the field since that’s where the action is. WR Cole Beasley is lined up in the slot with Dez Bryant out wide. Kendricks, in yellow, is giving Beasley too much space, he needs to be another yard or two outside. Now wait, you say, you just said Barwin was too far outside a few plays ago, now Kendricks is too far inside? Yes, unlike the Barwin play there’s no one in the backfield for Kendricks to keep an eye on, he can push over a yard or two and not lose inside leverage. Not aligned on top of him, but on just the other side of the sod marks. And unlike the Barwin play, he’s not lined up on Dez freaking Bryant. And this play isn’t just about Kendricks anyway.


When Beasley runs to the flat and because of the space Kendricks gave him, he’s wide open, meanwhile Earl Wolff, in blue, is slow to react to the throw. In this freeze frame, Romo has just released the ball and Wolff is 10 yards back of Beasley. He should be breaking right now, instead he’s still backpedaling.


Kendricks’ poor angle and loose coverage gives Beasley plenty of room to catch and turn. Wolff still hasn’t made his break, his poor reaction and change of direction has him flattening out an additional five yards to parallel to the LOS and is now 15 yards behind Beasley. He should be closing on him by now, instead he’s given Beasley an additional five yards.


Now Wolff has finally made his break as Beasley clears Kendricks, but he’s seven yards off. Had Wolff been quicker to react, he could be as close as two yards from Beasley, and in position to tackle him before the first down marker. Instead Beasley has room to juke and gain the first down before Wolff makes a shoestring tackle.

11:21 in the 3rd Quarter


12 personnel, Gavin Escobar has motioned to the outside, putting Dez Bryant in the slot. The Eagles do not man match, Cary Williams maintains coverage on the #1 receiver, which was Bryant and is now Escobar, and Trent Cole on the #2, which was Escobar and is now Bryant. Troy Aikman even calls it out:


The Cowboys now know this is zone coverage and because of the personnel match up they also know they have a distinct advantage. What they don’t know is they also have the advantage of our favorite aspect of Eagles defense: confusion and finger pointing.


When Escobar motions, Nate Allen calls an alert, positioning Earl Wolff wider on the near side, outside the faint college hash mark as you can see in the first picture. Wolff is now doubled up on Bryant in man coverage, everyone else is in zone.


With this positioning, if Bryant runs an out route, Wolff is singled on Bryant, knowing he has Williams behind him. If Bryant runs a deep route, Cole brackets him against a quick throw on a go, or against a curl route. If he breaks inside, Wolff and Cole can sandwich their coverage with Cole in trail technique. It’s a bad matchup in personnel, but sound coverage.


Unless Bryant runs a slant, which doesn’t allow anyone to get underneath him.


Which is what he does. You win some, you lose some. Play calling is to a large extent glorified rock, paper, scissors, and on this occasion the Cowboys called paper on a defense full of rocks. Escobar will run a 10 yard comeback and Miles Austin a 15 yard post, which keeps Nate Allen deep. Bryant will run a quick slant and Witten a shallow crossing route. As usual the Eagles run three deep zones with Williams, Allen and Fletcher; Kendricks blitzes the A gap and Ryans the B gap; Cole and Barwin run underneath match zones (which OLB coach Bill McGovern ran as DC at Boston College), staying tight to their man before passing him off to the next zone. Bryant now has leverage against Cole, who is poor in coverage to begin with and is no match for Bryant anyway. In fairness to Cole, only a handful of LBs are. Wolff again has a slow read, sidestepping as Bryant takes off. Perhaps his vision was obscured having lined up directly behind Cole on this play, but it doesn’t appear so.


On the other side, Barwin jams Witten, and does it well, throwing Witten off his timing. Knowing he’s got Bryant and Witten crossing through zones, Romo keeps his eyes in the middle of the field the whole time.


The crossing routes against Barwin and Cole’s match zones create what amounts to a pick on each LB. Cole pulls a Nnamdi and points to Barwin, who immediately changes gears to trail Bryant, but it’s too late. Bryant’s already open by now, and so is Witten, but Romo’s got good protection and is locked on Bryant, having just seen Witten have his route delayed.


Romo’s throw is a little high, causing Bryant to break stride and jump. This gives Barwin just enough time to force him out at the 2 yard line.

There’s no denying that the defense has certainly played better in recent weeks. Each level of the defense has played a little better, adding up to overall improved results. But just “better” isn’t enough. There’s still too many weaknesses on the roster and the coaching staff is not doing a good job of hiding them. When poor players are put in poor positions, they fail. Until the Eagles get better personnel and the coach staff stops putting the players on hand in a position to fail, the past few weeks is the ceiling on this defense, which is below average. That’s just good enough to support a top offense and make a run in the inept NFC East, but no more.


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