Eagles draft defensive guys who know how to play “off” the ball….


You typically think of trying to recruit defensive guys who are featured making big plays “on” the ball… But just as important is balancing out a guy’s ability to play “off” the ball— in other words, how does a defender react to support a defensive play when the ball is nowhere near his court?

I have it on good word from an associate employee of the Eagles that “off the ball” aptitude is a highly rated stat in a defensive player’s evaluation.

This is particularly relevant to a modern 3-4 defensive scheme as the Eagles are adapting.

But when you get down to the basics, the back end of the Eagles’ 3-4 defense under coach Bill Davis is really just an evolution of The Tampa 2-Coverage trend— which emphasizes the “off-the-ball” coverage skills of defensive backs and linebackers.

Jene Bramel of FootballGuys.com helps me to break this concept down for my own understanding:

“Tampa-2 players don’t have to be All-Pros or future Hall-of-Famers to have big IDP (independent defensive player) upside. Some are league average talents with a specific skill set allowing them great success in their particular scheme – system players if you will.”

In other words— smart defensive players who know how to play “off” the ball.

“Look for edge rushing weak side defensive ends, quick right defensive tackles, weak side linebackers with range and cover skills and corners who have shown a willingness to tackle and have good ball skills. Not every CB or DT or WLB will have elevated IDP (independent defensive player) value, but the opportunity is there for the right talent to take advantage. It’s one of many instances where you can break away from the simple defaults many IDP fantasy owners cling to and greatly benefit.”

The Tampa-2 has become one of the hotter trends in defensive scheming over the past few seasons, rivaled only by the ongoing proliferation of multiple front, hybrid 3-4 schemes. The Tampa-2 isn’t a particularly new idea, however. It’s a variation of a coverage scheme that has been around for decades – Cover-2.

Before we get into specifics, it’s worth a quick look at a few different coverage definitions to underline exactly why the Tampa-2 is different.

Cover-0 – Man coverage without help.
Cover-1 – Man coverage with a free safety playing “centerfield”.
Cover-2 – Zone coverage with both safeties responsible for their deep half of the field. Often referred to as “Two Deep” coverage.
Cover-3 – Zone coverage with both corners and a safety responsible for a deep third of the field. Sometimes referred to as “Three Deep” coverage.
Cover-4 – Zone coverage with both corners and both safeties responsible for one quarter of the field. Usually referred to as “Quarters” coverage.

Though it seems simple , playing Cover-2 is not. The linebackers are usually assigned route responsibilities within their “zone” – i.e. an OLB is responsible for a given WR’s curl route. The corners must be aware of how many receivers are running routes to their side of the zone. While they’ll often pass a deep WR off to the deep coverage, there are situations where a corner remains responsible for the deep sideline.

That’s what I’m talking about— knowing the importance of playing “off” the ball…and being able to execute your defensive assignment within a set of “off the ball” variables…

Where do your “off the ball” skills become most heavily challenged in the “Cover-2”? :

1. Cover-2 teams must have very talented safeties and a solid pass rush. Each safety has to be able to cover an entire half of the field. They need range, closing speed, tackling skill and enough run-pass recognition ability to not get fooled by play-action. It’s extremely difficult for one man to handle the deep middle and the deep sideline. Having an average safety behind a poor pass rush that gives the quarterback time to wait for the deep routes to develop is a recipe for disaster.

2. The Cover-2 can also be beaten by flooding one side of the zone with multiple receivers running routes on multiple levels. Force the safety, corner or outside linebacker to make decisions on which receiver to cover and another route may be left open.

3. Cover-2 teams, by definition, put only seven players in the box and are susceptible to the run. They hope to successfully take away the run without dropping a safety into the box. A team that wants to run Cover-2 because their corners struggle in man coverage but can’t stop the run with their front seven is in major trouble.

3. Cover-2 teams, by definition, can’t blitz a linebacker frequently. The linebackers and corners can take more underneath zone responsibility, but the pressure must come from the front four. As mentioned above, a Cover-2 that can’t generate pressure goes from a bend-but-don’t-break style of play to one that gives up big plays in bunches when the deep routes come open downfield.

Okay, that is technically a 4-3 defense for which Cover-2 is designed, but the off-the-ball techniques are essentially the same for a good 3-4 system, too.

I think Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and DC Bill Davis are actively trying to replicate what Bill Belichick did in his innovation of a 4-3/ 3-4 Cover-2 Hybrid defense when Belichick took over the Patriots.

It makes sense—and it requires smart defensive players with off-the-ball skills— which it appears Kelly has drafted for in 2014.

“The key to the success of Belichick’s style of play is flexibility of personnel. To be able to effectively switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to a dime defense and all points in between requires versatility at nearly every position. Players have to be able to run and cover and hit. Linemen have to be strong enough to hold the point in the 3-4, but get upfield in a 4-3. Defensive backs have to be very good in zone coverage but competent in man coverage when needed. It requires a special skill set, but also an above-average football IQ. Compared to the base Dungy-Kiffin scheme, which likely started with as little as three or four fronts and a couple of zone coverages, Belichick’s hybrid is a maze meant to confuse and confound.” — Jene Bramel

Another important difference in Belichick’s defense is philosophical rather than playbook. Most coordinators identify the weaknesses of an upcoming opponent and gameplan to take advantage. Belichick specifically seeks to take away the strength of an offense, forcing them to operate out of their comfort zone. In a league where you may face a power offense one week and a spread offense the next, the versatility of the multiple front playbook is the only way to pull off such a philosophy.

Multiple fronts and Cover-2 …. you better know how to play off the ball.

Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.