Re-watching the Cowboys game last night, I finally figured something out about McD that, frankly, should have occurred to me months ago. Despite all his training in the Jim Johnson system, and the focus on new blitz packages at the beginning of the year, McD is not a "pressure" coach -- he's actually a "coverages" guy.
This makes perfect sense, when you think about his background. He's a former safety. His Eagles' career includes two years as an assistant defensive backs coach, three years coaching secondary/safeties, one year in charge of the linebackers and then one more year back to the whole secondary.
In watching the coverages the Eagles played against the Cowboys, it certainly looks to me like things are more complex than they used to be. Announcers generally just break things down between "man" and "zone" -- with some discussion of the various alignments in the latter case -- but obviously scheming at the NFL level is more complicated than that. And in the Eagles' case, these days it seems a lot more complicated.
We're trained -- especally as Eagles' fans -- to focus on what's happening at the point of attack. That's where JJ's scheming was always most obvious. But with McDermott, a lot of the action happens in the back. So when the Cowboys complete yet another skinny post where Romo faces no pressure against a four-man rush and the cornerback seems to give an absurdly easy inside release, it looks like bad defense and a passive playcall. But what's maybe not as immediately obvious is that McD had a plan for that route, he was hoping Romo would throw it and -- oops -- number fiftywhatever was two steps slow again in breaking underneath it.
Which brings us to this piece from Domo:
A DEFENSIVE secondary is a lot like a symphony orchestra. If the whole group doesn't play as one, you've got problems. One sour note by the oboe player can turn Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" into Roseanne Barr's national anthem.
On Sunday, Quintin Mikell was the oboe player. The Eagles' strong safety failed to give cornerback Sheldon Brown over-the-top help on a second-quarter pass to Patrick Crayton, enabling the Cowboys wide receiver to make one of the easier touchdown catches of his career and turn a seven-point lead into a 14-point cushion.
"We've got a lot of new guys everywhere," Joselio Hanson, the team's nickel cornerback, said. "The team we had in minicamp [in May] is way different than the team we have now. Linebackers have been hurt. We've been rotating safeties. It's not as easy to be in sync as when you have one nucleus.
"You've got to know what the other guy is thinking, what he's doing. It's harder when you haven't played together very long."
Dawkins' departure has affected Mikell more than anybody else on the Eagles' back line ... But I don't mean to single out Mikell. Everybody in the secondary has been guilty of the same crime at various times this season, particularly Mr. Freelance, Asante Samuel, who was 1-for-3 in the gamble department Sunday. Deflected the first-quarter Tony Romo pass that Hanson intercepted, but also whiffed on Jason Witten's first-quarter touchdown and whiffed again on a second-quarter sideline pass to Miles Austin that allowed Austin to turn what should have been a 15-yard gain into a 40-yard pickup that set up the Cowboys' second touchdown.
A few specific points here:
- On the Mikell play, I watched it a bunch of times last night and he's in an almost impossible position. The Cowboys had trips on that side, and it looks like Mikell's primary responsibility is going to be covering the tight end coming straight off the line. (And if memory serves, that tight end was Jason Witten, so you're not exactly going to ignore him.) When that receivers instead runs a short out into the flat, suddenly Mikell is supposed to race to the sideline and pick up the outside receiver? There's no way. Either he was cheating way too far inside pre-snap or that's just a bad coverage for what the Cowboys ran.
- The key point in Hanson's quote is where he talks about the linebackers. Everyone thinks of the four guys in the back as being responsible for most of the coverage, but last Sunday, a lot more mistakes were made by the linebackers. It's more obvious when a cornerback screws up, but all those completions in the middle of the field were really why the defense couldn't stop anyone.
- I think it's unfair to criticize Asante for that play on Austin. It's true he didn't make the play, but the only reason he didn't is because Romo threw the ball really, really high. That's called being lucky-good, right there. If he'd actually thrown the ball at Austin's chest where he normally would have, Asante picks that off. Just one more bad break that went against us last week.
With all of that said, the big picture point -- that the guys in coverage just look a little lost this year -- is 100 percent true. And I think part of it is that McDermott's been putting in a lot of new things that a rotating cast of injury and suspension fill-ins just really hasn't been able to master.
What does that mean for this Saturday? That maybe we need to be a bit more vanilla back there and mix things up a bit more up front.
For next year, though, with a full summer to work through this stuff and (hopefullly) some continuity in the back seven, we might be seeing a big step forward out of the pass defense.
And hopefully that's the last thing we need to say about "next season" for a few weeks.