Philadelphia Eagles Platoon Defense Better Than Anyone


Oct 12, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles linebacker

Brandon Graham

(55) and defensive end

Vinny Curry

(75) and linebacker

Connor Barwin

(98) celebrate a defensive stand during the first half at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Giants 27-0. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles Platoon Defense Better Than Anyone

The Philadelphia Eagles platoon defense better than anyone. There, I’ve said it.  When Eagles head coach Chip Kelly brought Billy Davis on board to fill the vacant defensive coordinator role, he did not want a yes man, nor did he want a version of himself fresh out of college who had some new innovative ideas that would make a “splash” alongside him in the NFL.  Chip Kelly is an innovator.  He has no time for the kumbaya version of doing something because “that’s the way it’s been done”.  He needs logic, and reason.  Did he want a guy he could strong arm into fading into the shadows so his offense and innovations would be front page each week?

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No, he wanted a wiley veteran who had learned through the school of hard knocks and at the teachings of some of the best defensive minds of the NFL. Chip Kelly reveres NFL history, and he wanted to find someone who could bring that history to a defense.  What he got in Billy Davis is not somebody who can outthink anyone else.  He got a version of Bill Murray from “Groundhog Day”.  If you haven’t seen this one, it’s the story of a man stuck in a time loop who relives groundhog day over and over until he gets it right.  In the process, he becomes almost universally smart by making practically every mistake that a person can make.  After he’s exhausted the possibilities of what not to do, he learns what to do.

Davis is that type of coach.  He’s been in the NFL for a number of years.  Over the course of his career, he’s had the opportunity to learn from what not to do as well as what to do.  That type of experience is invaluable to a new team, as you gain the lessons without going through the pain of failure.

And so, it took a man who has tried to run his roster to please the fans, the writers, and the highly paid players once who can now say no to those fans, writers, and players.  It was a defensive coordinator who realizes that the best team does not necessarily start the eleven highest paid athletes.  It was a man of many years experience who sees value in role players, in platooning players off the bench to thwart the rhythm of the opposing quarterback.   The ultimate goal of any defensive coordinator is to disrupt the offense timing.  To do that, you can stagger your plays.  But… what if you stagger your players?  What if you force an offense to plan not just for your starting eleven, but for the other 15 or so guys on the bench who will come in throughout the game?   And if they do not, you now have a mismatch where the offense expects a player at a certain position, who now is a completely different person who plays the spot differently.

Now you have a true disruption.  Now you have the Philadelphia Eagles defense.

From the first off-season, head coach Chip Kelly knew what he was bringing to the NFL, and realized it’s a copy-cat league.  So before he unveiled his pressure offense, he wanted to have the antidote.    He wanted, and needed, to have a defense that could hang with his offense, keep them humble and innovative.   He needed a defense that could exploit any weakness in his offensive schemations.

And so, he sat down with Billy Davis to concoct such a defense.  It had to be a 3-4.  No other defensive scheme could offer the athletecism at each and every position.   A 3-4 also offered the best personnel to counter what his read option offense would challenge the defense with – wide attacks to central defenses and central attacks to wide defenses.  In the 3-4. linebackers shift to match where the offense places their strengths.  A 3-4 offers players who can dual as special teams players as well, addressing another vital aspect of the game.

Secondly, the defense had to generate fresh arms and legs to keep up the pace of an offense during a prolonged drive.  In the NFL, its less about standing around time of possession and more about burst duration.   The Eagles keep running plays until the defense stops them.  And so, they needed a defense who did not depend upon that “idle time” to refresh, but rolled players through to manage play count for each defender.

To support  this cycle, the defense has to have players who can and do rotate in at all positions, not just the one or two “passing down” specialists.    And so, the meeting of the minds came up with the platoon defense that receives little discussion but has helped the Eagles stay fresh and win games despite being on the field far longer than their offensive opponents.

That platoon system features defensive ends Vinny Curry, Brandon Bair and Taylor Hart,  nose tackle Beau Allen, outside linebackers Brandon Graham, Marcus Smith II and Bryan Braman, inside linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Casey Matthews, cornerbacks Brandon Boykin, Nolan Carroll, and Jaylen Watkins, and safeties Chris Maragos and Earl Wolff.

Some names many not be household names.  Some names are quite familiar to the Eagles fan-base, as they’ve been integral in the success of this team so far.

“What we do as a team and collectively, when you’re honest and explain why it is you want to do what you do, they’re fine. They’re all team players.”

Part timer Vinny Curry is among the NFL leaders in sacks, despite having far fewer opportunities than his counterparts elsewhere.   Along with outside linebacker Brandon Graham, they make their presence felt when they get snaps, crashing down to disrupt blocks, harassing quarterbacks, and changing the tempo of the game with their speed and focus.

Cornerback Brandon Boykin is arguably the best cornerback on the team, but his size and run defense have relegated his role to nickel cornerback for the Eagles where he excels.    While he has yet to pick off a pass in 2014, his six interceptions of 2013 and his game winning interception of Dallas quarterback Kyle Orton sealed the Eagles victory and entrance into the playoffs.

"“I think we have more depth than we had (last season) and more experience and more people that can play versatile roles in the defense. We’re teachers, they’re players,” Davis said. “We have to teach them how to play together and how to fit together, and the better job of teaching we do – and we have an outstanding group of teachers – that’s how you get ahead and become a dominant team defense. It’s not the star players that can win one-on-one, as much as it is 11 guys really playing fast together. And we’re a lot further along this year than we were last year.”"

And so, a defense without stars is what the Eagles have.  The Eagles “Platoon” defensive players routinely to keep players fresh and distrupt the offense’s rhythm.  But can it work in a culture of media hogging divas?  Well, of 409 total tackles, the Platoon accounted for 94 – or a reasonable 23%.  But in sacks, the Platoon accounted for 7 1/2 sacks or nearly 40%.

So what makes this defense “innovative”?  Simple.  The starting defensive line of the Philadelphia Eagles have zero sacks.   Coming off the bench, Curry has four, Bair has one.   Starters generally get the candy.   In other terms, sacks and interceptions, the individualized stats that get tracked so religiously by fantasy football general managers and agents looking to sell the services of their players.  But in Philly, the starters assume the far less glamorous role of tackling, fighting off blocks, and tackling for losses.  The defense features the eleven best athletes for that play for that time of the game.

"“He  (DeMeco Ryans) doesn’t want to come off. But neither does Connor [Barwin], neither does Trent [Cole]. None of them want to come off. But what we do as a team and collectively, when you’re honest and explain why it is you want to do what you do, they’re fine. They’re all team players.” – Billy Davis"

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  • This is NOT to say the bench is where all the action is.   Starters can and do just plenty.  But it’s a new concept to engage nearly the entire 53 man roster in the game plan, and force the other team to consider your entire roster when planning for you.

    If an offensive guard/tackle plan for Cedric Thornton, who is strong as an ox and a stalwart run defender, can they easily switch gears to defend against Vinny Curry, who is lightning fast and great with leverage?  Add to that the expectation that if you are NOT starting, you are contributing on special teams.  Special teams for the Eagles are truly special this year, rated number one in the NFL.  It’s that 60 minute, 46 man active roster, 53 man roster that forces opponents to over-plan, under-plan, and in the process creates the mismatches that Davis and the Eagles defense are looking for.

    Imagine an offensive player”s struggle when facing the Eagles.   Do you game plan for run stopping Cedric Thornton?  Do you plan to pass block against Vinny Curry?  What if they throw a wrench and suddenly Trent Cole is your opposition?   That’s the magic of football at it’s finest.  That’s Billy Davis disruptive defense.

    The platoon scheme in Philadelphia is good, very good.  In fact, it’s so good that a week does not go by without someone asking why Brandon Boykin is not starting.   Want to start a debate?   Ask an Eagles fan if Brandon Graham ought to get more playing time?   Want to learn how deep the Eagles roster is?  Try finding a part time defensive lineman who is in the hunt for sack leader of the NFL as is Vinny Curry.

    That’s our Eagles D.