It’s impossible to know every assignment on every play unless you’re in the room drawing it up or on the field executing the call. This applies to every facet of the game. We don’t know the audible called at the line and what led to that decision. We can’t know every route adjustment or tag for every scheme from every team. We don’t know how every coverage will unfold, as on many types of coverages, they’re reacting and adjusting on the fly to the route combinations being thrown at them.
Busted coverages make the original play-call even harder to identify. Something on that play went wrong, which only serves to exacerbate the flailing that comes with attempting to decipher the action and communicate it in a manner that won’t get you toasted online. The play didn’t go according to plan and doesn’t fit in a neat little diagram. How could I, the humble analyst, possibly know what went wrong? Lastly, and this is of utmost importance, who the hell do you point the blame at?
Once up a time, I was watching the coaches film of the Philadelphia Eagles Week 4 road game against the
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers. The purpose of the session was to evaluate safety Rodney McLeod. Watching and evaluating free safeties can be a slog. There are whole stretches of games where they line up at deep center and watch the action from afar, not having any impact on the game other than being in a spot soon enough to deter a quarterback from throwing in their direction. Your eyes start to wander, looking for anything to justify the time spend watching 20 reps of half-hearted backpedals. Then, boom, you catch a live one.
Did you see it? Cornerback Rasul Douglas got burned, right? Right? Watch it again. Oh yeah, he didn’t have enough depth. But wait, why were both safeties in the box? Was McLeod supposed to be deep? What about Malcolm Jenkins? That’s definitely cover 3, somebody bit on the underneath action… Yup, watch it again, that’s cover.. wait.. why does Jalen Mills jerk back so quickly? There’s nobody threatening him deep.
That’s when you run through the pre-snap leverage, post-snap action, and all the potential play-calls that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz could have called. Is it a “2 read”? I remember studying that from the Vic Fangio defense in San Francisco. There’s Nick Saban’s “cover 3 rip/liz”, but that’s not it. “Cover 4”? Maybe. “Inverted cover 2”? Feel like we’re getting closer. What about “dropkick” from the Wade Phillips playbook?
Look again at the play in question. If this is in fact “dropkick” concept, a commonly used alert against condensed 12 personnel sets, Mills should recognize the cross and dart to his deep half responsibility. This would put him at the spot when the ball descends into a streaking Keenan Allen’s hands.
I obsessed over this play for hours. I reached out to X & O guys like the infamous betz, consulted my co-host Benjamin Solak, bugged BGN Radio boss man John Barchard, and harassed the fine gentlemen from the Scouting Academy. I found out that Solak had already had a lengthy discussion with new addition to the SBNation family, senior NFL news desk writer Charles McDonald. Ben and Charles concluded it was likely Inverted Cover 2 or Cover 4, betz said it was Cover 4, and I thought it was dropkick. I looked through the Bleeding Green Nation archives and found Brandon Lee Gowton’s thoughts on the matter.
“Douglas, the Eagles’ rookie third-round cornerback, gave up two huge plays Sunday: Tyrell Williams’ 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a 50-yarder to Keenan Allen that set up a fourth-quarter Chargers touchdown… On the 75-yard TD, Williams faked outside into Douglas, then made an inside move to gain separation near midfield and raced under a Rivers play-fake bomb, catching it at the 30 with Douglas 10 yards behind.” – Brandon Lee Gowton
Who was right? That’s when Barchard said screw all this conjecture, let’s go straight to the source. First, he asked Douglas, who many credited with getting burned on the play. He gave a “good teammate” answer, saying if it happened on his side, it’s on him. The ball landed in Allen’s hands on the opposite hash. Was this a hint?
Next my doppelganger Chris Maragos was asked, hoping his recall of the film breakdown would shed light on the play in question. He made it very clear he couldn’t talk about coverages and asked if Barchard was crazy (author’s note: yeah, probably). The next available player to ask was Tre Sullivan. He confirmed that it was, in fact, Cover 4.
Cover 4 is a tough ask for the safeties in that situation. It’s a pattern match coverage and allows for 9 men in the box against the run, which is useful against an offense manufacturing extra gaps from 12 personnel. This means there is extra responsibilities for McLeod and Jenkins against the run. With play-action coming to McLeod’s side, he must act as the “force” defender which makes Jenkins the “cutback”. This causes him to come up hard and abandon his vertical responsibilities, leaving Douglas on an island.
It’s still impossible to know the alerts potentially called before the snap unless we are told by those on the Eagles. In some cases, those alerts will let Douglas know he may not receive deep help. But at least we know the coverage, and that’s going to have to be good enough. Now, for the real reason I came, is this a power-skip before the release point or a hop or neither? Let’s spend conservatively three hours trying to figure it out.