I've been meaning to write this post for a long time, but am now glad I waited until after the first preseason game against the Bears last week as it gave me a few more plays to illustrate my point.
Before getting to that, let me continue to make a plug for the 2014 edition of the Eagles Almanac that you can pre-order right now here. I was honored to be invited to provide a piece to this years Almanac after reading it the last few years. If you haven't read it before, why not also pick up the 2013 version, as there are some great pieces from Eagles bloggers who made some uncanny predictions about how the 2013 season might unfold.
As an example, Derek Sarley and Sheil Kapadia wrote a great piece about the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense citing many quotes about Billy Davis' philosophy. Here's a few excerpts that are relevant to my post today:
“One of the advantages of the 3-4, when you put four big guys down in a
4-3, the offensive line blocks those four big guys. It’s identified – this is who
those four rushers are. We’re going to handle them,” Davis said.“When you do a 3-4, the fourth rusher could come from either outside guy or either inside guy, which really makes protection things and run-blocking schemes have to change and adapt.”
They go onto breakdown the different roles and respective positions of players in Billy Davis' defense. Most notable to this post today is the 3-technique DE:
Looking inside, we can see the way the under front is designed to take advantage of the weak side of the offense. The 3-technique defensive lineman on the weak side is also a key player in this defense. Assuming the nose tackle occupies the center and the Predator occupies the weak-side tackle, this player should get a one-on-one pass-rushing opportunity against the weak-side guard. Considering the potential he flashed as a rookie, Fletcher Cox would seem like a no-brainer to man this spot.
If we take Davis at his word, however, the Eagles won’t just play “under” fronts all the time. When the Eagles drop Barwin off the line of scrimmage—either in coverage or in a regular-looking “over” front—the left-side defensive end will need to be someone who can provide some pass rush, as well as hold up at the point of attack. Options here would include Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry, but even Fletcher Cox and Trent Cole.
So before we add some pictures to this line of thinking one important point must be made about the explanation above. The 3-4 is different than the 4-3 in a lot of different ways. For the purposes of this post, we'll focus on pass rushing. Since the Eagles have transitioned to a 3-4 defense, the average fan's obsession (including this one) has been about adding a dominant edge pass rusher at OLB. Few believed Trent could make the transition successfully (and even if he could, he's hitting the latter part of his career), Barwin is a very good player but doesn't fit the bill, and Brandon Graham doesn't either. We drafted Marcus Smith II but many seem un-enthused by his pass rushing ability and put him more in the Connor Barwin mold of good edge setter and coverage OLB who will need to develop as a pass rusher.
So my lesson for today, is while we are busy obsessing over edge pass rushers in the 2014 collegiate season, if the Eagles are to improve their pass rush dramatically in 2014, it's going to come from the defensive line. Most notably, the hope is it comes from 3rd year man who has shown the most potential, Fletcher Cox. But as I will show, we have other candidates who can make key contributions who also flashed in preseason game #1 against the Bears.
Back to those pictures. Here is a great illustration of the points Derek Sarley and Sheil Kapadia were trying to make. Here highlighted with the yellow circle is Fletcher Cox lined up in a 3-technique on the Right Guards right outside shoulder on the open side of the field. With Connor Barwin lined up put wide with no tight end help you can see from the positioning on the LOS that Fletcher Cox should be getting a nice one-on-one opportunity against the OG:
And this is exactly what he gets. The NT gets doubled on the left, and the RT picks up Connor Barwin on the right:
Cox uses a nice swim move, and beats the OG and gets a hit on the QBs arm:
Here's another example of the same concept. Cox is the 3-technique with Cole lined up wide on the outside. This gives him another one-on-one pass rush opportunity on the OG:
In this case, the OG gets the better of Cox, which for me, was really the general theme of the 2013 pass rush. As much as I like Cox as an emerging young player, and as much as I appreciated his run defense and his willingness to 2-gap, this is one area where he really needs to emerge in 2014 if we hope to get an improved pass rush in 2014:
Here he is at the 3-technique one more time, but instead this time, he'll attack the RT while Barwin loops inside to attack the OG:
And he flushes Alex Smith out of the pocket:
To expand on the point further, it's not just about playing 3-technique. Billy Davis moved Fletcher Cox around a lot in 2013. One of the benefits of the 3-4 as mentioned above is that you can disguise your pass rush a bit better than a standard 4-3. The offense shouldn't know who is coming at any given time whether the OLB blitzes or drops in coverage. As a result, I think one of the keys of Billy Davis' pass rush philosophy is to find creative ways to give their pass rushers favorable one-on-one match-ups. Like these:
Here's Fletcher Cox in an 8-technique outside of the RT. Notice Barwin is now lined up inside positioned to attack the B-gap. This almost ensures Cox gets a one-on-one matchup against the RT:
Which he does:
And pressures RGIII into throwing off his back foot for the game-clinching interception by Brandon Boykin:
Here he is in a 2-technique directly over the LG. However, with the NT lined up right over the center and Trent Cole rushing wide, Cox gets a one-on-one:
Who he rag dolls:
and pressures Palmer:
Finally, if Fletcher Cox can't get the job done consistently in the pass rush department, he'll have some competition. Here's Brandon Graham as the 3-technique DE in this case. Again, note the alignment, Brandon is going to get a one-on-one matchup against an OG:
He bull-rushes and gets him off balance:
and pressures Alex Smith out of the pocket:
Here's Vinny Curry in a 4-technique but the same principle applies. With Cole wide on the outside shoulder of the LT, Vinny gets a one-on-one pass rushing opp:
and it turns out Cole is dropping in coverage, yet he occupies two blockers:
Curry gets the one-on-one and the subsequent sack:
Billy Davis even used Trent Cole at 2-techique. Note Barwin on the edge occupying the RT:
Trent gets a one-on-one match-up:
And the sack:
Fast forward to preseason game #1 in 2014 and with not much to speak off in the pass rush department from Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, or Marcus Smith, the pressure (albeit from the Bears 2nd string OL) came from the DEs.
Here's Vinny Curry in a 3-technique with Marcus Smith out wide.
Curry gets a one-on-one and a pressure, and draws a holding flag:
Here's Curry again with the 3-technique and Smith off the edge:
Eats up the one-on-one and registers a sack:
Curry again in the 3-technique:
Gets his one-on-one (although this is a designed screen and the OG passes him off):
Curry pressures the QB, and rookie Marcus Smith meanwhile does a great job of recognizing the screen and tipping the ball for a near interception:
This time, it's Brandon Graham lined up over the LT. Marcus Smith lined up on the edge:
Graham gets his one-on-one:
Rushes a throw and gets a QB hit, which ends in a Nate Allen INT:
So in the end, the moral of the story is that while I am sure Billy Davis would love to have a DeMarcus Ware or Clay Matthews in their prime at OLB, he believes there are more ways to provide pressure in a 3-4 defense beyond the edge rushers. And while those guys primary jobs are to get their noses dirty 2-gapping against the run, they will be schemed various favorable pass rushing opportunities that they will need to make the most of. And of course, the end goal is to come full circle where your DEs are dominanting OGs so much on the interior that they demand double teams which open up pass rushing opportunities for your edge rushers.