How do you defend Calvin Johnson? The short answer is, you can’t. He beats every coverage you throw at him, and everyone’s tried everything. He leads the league in yards and TDs and he missed a game. Calvin Johnson is practically immune to defense. On Sunday the Eagles are going to have to try to stop him. If you’re Billy Davis, what do you do?
The Eagles are going to throw up everything they have in their arsenal to stop Johnson, including a new look they showed against the Cardinals that (rightly) gained some attention: bracket coverage with Connor Barwin at the line of scrimmage with corner help behind him. For the most part, it worked. On eight plays, all of which turned out to be passes, Barwin lined up directly opposite a WR and double teamed him. On two of these plays Barwin went up against Michael Floyd, himself no pushover, the other six were against Larry Fitzgerald. In these eight plays, the Cardinals gained 41 yards, for an average of 5.1 yards per play, which for a defense is excellent. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
In the first instance, Fitzgerald is the only eligible receiver on his side of the hash, the Cardinals are running what amounts to a “Satellite Express” look: put your best receiver on one side of the field, and if they double him throw to the other side. The “Satellite Express” was the no-huddle spread offense that Mississippi Valley State ran in the early 80s with Willie “the Satellite” Totten at QB and Jerry “World” Rice that put up record-shattering numbers. Rice would line up on one side of the field and everyone else would line up on the other, and Totten would throw it to the side with the numbers advantage. Bruce Arians really is the NFL hipster: against a new school spread offense, his team used old school college offense spread concepts that most of you have never heard of. True to form, Carson Palmer immediately goes to the strong side on this play and takes advantage of the holes in the three deep, three under coverage created by sending five pass rushers. And that is why this is only an occasional solution, the defense is telling the offense that they are in zone coverage. And every coverage has its weaknesses. A veteran QB like Palmer or Matthew Stafford will find the holes that are created and exploit them, assuming they can execute. Which is what happens on this play. Barwin has excellent press coverage on Fitzgerald, completely mauling him before handing him off to Bradley Fletcher, but it doesn’t matter. Without a fourth underneath defender, Palmer has found the soft spot inside of Cary Williams and hits Michael Floyd for an 11 yard gain. On this play both tight ends run pass routes and Rashard Mendenhall stays in to block the blitzing Chung, had instead either TE remained blocking and Mendenhall had flared out to Fitzgerald’s side, he would either be wide open or at the very least in open space again DeMeco Ryans. This would happen later.
Next the Cardinals again have a Satellite Express look, but with a very different flavor: Michael Floyd has been replaced by Bobby Massey, a tackle. The Cardinals began this drive on their own 11 yard line had will use this formation for five straight plays against the Eagles, who keep both corners on the field instead of swapping one out for a linebacker or safety. Again the Eagles use a four man front, again they send five pass rushers and again they play zone. Hindsight is 20/20, but with only four “skill players” on the field, the best defense against this look is probably Cover 1, with Williams on the #1 (Rob Housler), Kendricks on the #2 (Jim Dray), Ryans reading the #3 (Mendenhall), Nate Allen dropping deep and Connor Barwin in press/trail technique on Fitzgerald with Fletcher covering deep. Or they could have executed the play that was called, because there is a lot of available real estate in the underneath zone that Barwin vacates by staying with Fitzgerald. With no receiver near the numbers, Williams’ deep third is not in play, so he can not offer any help but that’s not his fault. Play action draws Kendricks, who has curl/flat responsibility under Williams in and Housler’s post route occupies Ryans middle under zone leaving Dray’s crossing route all alone. Because Barwin stays with Fitzgerald, he leaves a 10 x 19 yard area completely undefended and Jim Dray is in it, he gains 17 yards.
The next instance of Barwin vs Fitzgerald, Barwin is in press man and does a good job of it. But the star of this play is Fletcher Cox, shoving Daryn Colledge aside like he’s George Costanza in a fire drill and hurrying Palmer into a poor throw. With better protection, Palmer might have been able to hit Floyd, who was wide open due to Chung nearly tackling Fletcher. Or maybe not, because Fletcher Cox is pretty freaking good.
Next, Barwin is aligned against Floyd. Barwin doesn’t really get a hand on Floyd but does succeed in rerouting him towards the sideline, making him widen his route, then drops off to form a “picket fence” 10 yards downfield (the play was 3rd and 10). Barwin has done enough to disrupt the route so that Floyd can not make the catch on his break. For the first time against this look, the rest of the Eagles defense is in good coverage both in execution and in play call.
Here the Eagles run a standard Cover 2, with Williams taking the left deep half shaded towards Fitzgerald and Barwin underneath pressing. It appears that Fitzgerald is getting tired of being mauled by Barwin, because he pushes wide on his own. Remember how in the first play, how if Mendenhall had run a route to Barwin’s side he’d have plenty of space? That is what happens here. With Barwin focused on Fitzgerald, Mendenhall has plenty of room to catch and run. On Sunday that will be Reggie Bush in open space, and that will be a problem.
Here we see the same pre-snap look by the Cardinals but reversed. Fitzgerald is now on the right and Floyd, on the left, has motioned in from wide, he did the same on the previous play. The Eagles will rush five like in the first two plays, but have adjusted and are now in two deep, four under. It helps that the Cardinals only have three receivers. Which makes this play just sad from the Cardinals perspective. They have seven blockers against five pass rushers and they still give up the sack. The coverage is pretty good, Fitzgerald has gotten past Barwin using a double move, but Fletcher is quickly on him. Ryans and Kendricks take care of Housler and Williams and Allen have Floyd. Palmer has no where to go with the ball and is sacked by Brandon Graham after LT Bradley Sowell leaves him one on one with Rob Dray so that he can double team Cox.
After half a dozen plays, the Cardinals finally make a significant adjustment. By lining up Barwin opposite Fitzgerald, the Eagles are declaring that the quarter to third of the field that Fitzgerald is lined up on will be defended by two players, and the one on the line of scrimmage will do everything he can to maul and redirect the receiver to the outside. So the Cardinals don’t send anyone there. Fitzgerald jukes Barwin then runs a dig route, where he is open if Palmer is looking. The Eagles are again in two deep, four under with five pass rushers, creating open spaces underneath, which Fitzgerald finds. Palmer though instead throws to Housler, who is well defended by Fletcher, the opportunity to get the ball into his best player’s hands with open space is missed.
The 8th and final instance, Barwin will be against Floyd, with Williams giving deep help. He reroutes Floyd, but Palmer doesn’t look his way. Fitzgerald will be wind up being effectively being doubled by Kendricks and Allen, because the Eagles are running three deep, five under and so can overload the three receiver side of the field with the extra defender. But this gives Palmer a clean pocket to throw from, and Fitzgerald gets the first down.
Bracket coverage isn’t a magical solution, if it were Davis would have used it more than eight times. Against the Lions, the openings it presents could be even more problematic than it was against the Cardinals. Carson Palmer was under duress for most of the game behind a terrible line, which certainly helps cover anyone; Matthew Stafford has the lowest sack rate in the league. Palmer gets little receiving help from his running backs when healthy, with Andre Ellington out the Cardinals had no legitimate threat out of the backfield; Lions running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are averaging 7 catches a game for 10.5 yards a catch, very good numbers. And while Palmer was content to throw to the other side of the field from Barwin, that won’t be the case with Stafford, who has no qualms about throwing to Calvin Johnson in double coverage. Facing a better receiver, with a better quarterback behind a better line and with a better supporting cast, what worked against the Cardinals won’t necessarily work against the Lions.
But since Calvin Johnson is immune to defense, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try it. Expect it against Brandon Marshall and Dez Bryant, and it just may work as effectively. Just don’t get your hopes up that the Eagles have found a solution to Calvin Johnson. No one has.