The Eagles clawed out a victory in a must win game against the Cowboys. One of the talking points of the game was the Dez Bryant touchdown on 4th down and how it reflects upon the larger picture of the job Billy Davis has done this season.
While I am no fan of Davis, he and his staff do have positives. All of the young players on the defense, Cox, Thornton, Logan, Curry, Kendricks, Boykin and Wolff have all improved as the season has progressed, which is an excellent sign for the future and very good reflection of the coaching staff. The one positive constant during Davis’ tenure in Arizona was his defenses were good at getting turnovers, and that has been the case this season. The run defense is strong, and while that matters less than passing, at least they’re strong at something for a change after years of futility.
However there are demerits to be given, and they have been consistent all season long, which is troubling. But first, the play everyone is arguing about, Dez Bryant’s 4th down touchdown.
There are two points of discussion with the play. One, the play call. In the situation the Eagles were facing, 4th and 9 from the Eagles 32 with 3:57 left in the game, up 24-16, there were three potential outcomes:
- The Cowboys gain less than 9 yards. It does not matter if it is a sack or an eight yard gain, the end result is the same. This is the optimal outcome for the Eagles, as it gives them the ball back with an 8 point lead, allowing them some room for error should they turn the ball over or have to punt.
- The Cowboys score on that play. This is still a good outcome, though obviously not optimal. If the Cowboys score on that play, then there are two sub-outcomes:
- They convert the two point conversion to tie the game, then kick off to the Eagles, who have 3:45 to score a game winner, whether it be a FG or TD.
- They fail to convert the two point conversion, then kick the ball off to the Eagles, who have 3:45 to run out the clock and win, from roughly the same field position as a failed 4th down attempt though without the safety net of an 8 point lead.
(Onside kick is also a possibility but the success rate of a non-surprise onside kick is so low that the Eagles were extremely likely to recover the ball in great field position, which is why the Cowboys wisely decided to kick off. Surprise onside kicks have a better but still terrible success rate, and even if the Cowboys had tried a “surprise” onside kick, the kick return team would have been aware of the possibility of an onside kick, rendering that advantage and the surprise moot.)
- The Cowboys gain a first down. This is the worst possible outcome. Gaining a first down allows the Cowboys to eat up the clock while attempting to score a touchdown, potentially sending the game to overtime. The Eagles score so quickly that this effects them less than any other team, but more time is always better.
So knowing this, there were polar opposite play calls for Billy Davis to chose from. On one extreme, dropping seven or eight into coverage. This would almost certainly result in Kyle Orton throwing an accurate pass from a clean pocket, putting the onus on the defenders to react quickly and tackle the receiver before he could gain the first down or better yet break up the pass if possible. This would most likely be a three deep, five under play call, with the underneath defenders setting up a “picket fence” at the first down marker:
On the other extreme, an all out Cover 0 blitz, which would lower the chance of Orton throwing an accurate pass from a clean pocket, hopefully forcing an errant throw that falls incomplete or be sacked; but at the expense of an increased likelihood of the Cowboys scoring. This defensive strategy is not novel, the Packers in 1997 and the Patriots in 2011 intentionally gave up late game TDs to give up the lead in the Super Bowl so that they could have more time when they got the ball back, and the Steelers fell into this situation when Larry Fitzgerald burned them for a TD in 2008.
While the Eagles blitzing was completely ineffective against the Cowboys, either play call would have been fine. One could argue that the Cover 0 blitz was the best call in that situation: it had the better chance of the two optimal outcomes happening and the lesser chance of the worst outcome; and dropping seven or eight defenders had the opposite chances. Personally, I had no problem with that play call and I would have called for the blitz as well. Hindsight being 20/20, even if the Cowboys had converted the two point conversion, the Eagles would have been in position to kick a game winning field goal after Brandon Boykin’s interception.
The problem with that play was not the call, it was the personnel usage, which has one of Billy Davis’ recurring themes: consistently putting his players in position to fail. On the Bryant touchdown, Davis had Boykin rush Orton and Patrick Chung cover a receiver, a misuse of their talents. Making matters worse, the Cowboys, in what would be one hell of a coincidence if they were planning on doing this anyway, motioned Miles Austin to the outside, putting Chung against Bryant. Instead Davis should have had Boykin in coverage and Chung blitzing, and predictably Bryant beat Chung, who can not cover or tackle, by catching the ball two yards shy of the first down marker and then shedding Chung’s tackle. Boykin, not only the Eagles best corner in the slot but considered one of the best in the league in the slot, certainly would have had a better chance against Bryant. Perhaps he would have gotten beat as well, as Bryant is a nightmare matchup for many cornerbacks, but Boykin was more likely to disrupt the pass or make the tackle than Chung was. Davis did not give his team the best chance of that play succeeding.
But that was not the only recurring problem. While Patrick Chung vs a wide receiver is a relatively new error, all season long Davis has put linebackers in the slot and, more recently, in the flat, and had them rush the passer. And all season long they never get there in time to pressure the QB because they have too much ground to cover in too quick a time.
Davis did this early in the season:
In the middle of the season:
And at the end of the season:
Against the Cowboys this was an especially poor coaching job because Dallas kept putting Orton on three step drops, making a long distance pass rush a waste of time because it stands no chance of pressuring the QB. Because of that, I agree with Brent Cohen that dropping defenders into coverage more often would have been the ideal adjustment to make, particularly instead of these plays which effectively make the Eagles defense play with 10. This does not mean no blitzing, and so is not contradictory with agreeing that the Cover 0 blitz was a good play call. Instead, Davis called the same game he called early and the same game he has been calling all season long: transparent coverage and pass rushers lined up a mile away.
The defense plays with roughly the same effectiveness in each half, compare that to, say, this week’s opponents the Saints, who play much better in the second half. The Eagles are 26th in 3rd quarter scoring and T-24th in 4th scoring. These numbers back up the visuals that Davis is not making good enough adjustments, in some aspects he is not making any adjustments. You and I can see it, Sean Payton and Drew Brees can see it.