Davion Taylor did not purposely try to strip the ball from Melvin Gordon on Sunday’s game-turning forced fumble.
The Eagles linebacker was simply executing the technique he had been taught: To be strong with his hands at the point of attack, to fight through contact, and to strike and wrap the Broncos running back.
“It was not intentional, to be honest,” Taylor said after the game. “I was just trying to make sure I stopped him from getting that first down.”
He did more than just stop Gordon on fourth down, of course. Taylor’s left hand poked the ball out, Darius Slay scooped it up, and 83 serpentine yards later, the cornerback scored a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 14-point lead in an eventual 30-13 victory.
But aside from maybe keeping his team’s playoff hopes alive, the most impactful play of Taylor’s brief NFL career showed how he has improved over the last month. When given the opportunity to play instinctively, he has the athletic tools to deliver.
Taylor’s job on that play, though, wasn’t typical for a linebacker. It’s the more fundamental parts of arguably the most difficult job on defense that have presented him problems. But the football neophyte has taken baby steps in those areas, although there have been and will likely continue to be growing pains.
“We ask our linebackers to do a lot in the run and pass game,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said Tuesday. “He’s continuing to get better on certain plays that he hasn’t seen because he hasn’t played a lot of ball.
“Some mistakes he made a couple weeks ago, he’s not making anymore. He’s in the right spot a lot — not a lot more, but there’s certain harder plays and harder things we’ve asked those guys to do, he’s improving in those areas.”
Under other circumstances, Taylor might not play as often. But the Eagles don’t have great depth at linebacker, and they also have begun a transitional phase that has many of their draft picks seeing valuable time.
The Eagles are still trying to win, of course, but Taylor’s draft stock has played a role in their fast tracking the 2020 third-rounder. The 23-year-old’s natural speed has also helped offset some of his mistakes, and allowed for Gannon to add more to his plate as the season has progressed.
“The small sample size of reps that he had gotten as we were rotating a little bit early in the season and just felt from a standpoint of, ‘Hey, let’s get a guy comfortable in one spot and let him just go and play so we can see that improvement,’” Gannon said, “that’s kind of what led to that decision.”
The Eagles knew that Taylor would be a project. He didn’t play in a football game until he was 18 because of his family’s religious beliefs. And after two years of community college, he transferred to Colorado and played with limited responsibilities.
But Taylor ran a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash and the Eagles rolled the dice. He clearly wasn’t ready as a rookie and played only 32 snaps on defense. He ran with the first unit at the start of training camp a year later, but a calf injury sidelined him most of the summer and early this season.
Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton, meanwhile, struggled as the Eagles’ top two inside linebackers. Taylor, once he made a full return, was a regular part of the rotation and by Week 6 he started.
The Buccaneers and then the Raiders the following week took full aim at Taylor. It often wasn’t pretty. But by Week 8, after Gannon promoted T.J. Edwards to No. 1 linebacker and slotted him alongside Taylor — mostly on first and second down — the light bulb started to flicker.
Taylor started processing faster.
“He has a responsibility, alignment, assignment, key technique. So he has a key responsibility,” Gannon said. “But then pre-snap or post-snap, that can change quickly. And the picture changes on him — on all our linebackers — and it can change quickly.
“So before the ball is snapped, he needs to do one thing. But after that ball is snapped, that can change fast.”
NFL offenses are schemed to move linebackers out of position through a variety of functions: motion, misdirection, play-action and route combinations, to name a few. They often trick the eyes, and as the film below demonstrates, Taylor is often late to see a play develop.
Signs of improvement are there, but the road is likely to be bumpy for some time. The Eagles are clearly being patient because of his potential upside, but they also see Taylor correcting mistakes.
“He’ll grow more and more and more each week through the reps that he’s getting,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said Monday. “As long as he’s willing to put in the work and he’s definitely one of those guys that is, another high-character guy that works hard, that loves football, that’s tough, that’s willing to put in the work to get better every single day.”
Here’s a closer look at Taylor’s gradual improvement over the last month:
It takes all 11 players to run defend. On the below goal line play, the Raiders effectively blocked the Eagles on a split inside zone run. But Taylor (No. 52), as the middle linebacker, took the wrong angle and thus himself out of his assigned gap.
Two weeks later against the Chargers, he took a deep drop and quarterback Justin Herbert checked down to his running back. Every defender is going to miss a tackle in space. But Taylor has whiffed on his share this season — eight — and his missed tackle rate (17 percent) is the worst on the Eagles, per Pro Football Focus.
Josh Jacobs’ run into the second level on this carry shouldn’t have come unimpeded. But Taylor bounced left at the handoff and was shouldered out of his gap by the lead blocker.
The Chargers used a lot of eye candy at the snap to dupe the Eagles. Taylor bit on the run-fake and was late to cover the releasing tight end, although his ability to close and limit the damage should be noted, and is often a running theme with the linebacker.
“I’m still honing in on whether my eye discipline is correct,” Taylor said after the Eagles’ loss to the Chargers. “Because sometimes my eyes were in the wrong place and it was a completion for a pass or I was late in coverage.”
His eyes deceived him again on this next play. With Steve, Nelson (No. 3) blitzing from the corner, Taylor’s apparent responsibility was the tight end should he release. But he was lured toward the backfield.
In Denver, the Eagles held the Broncos to a 1 of 5 conversion rate in the red zone. Taylor had as much to do with that success as anyone. On this straight handoff, he diagnosed the run through the “A” gap, and with an assist from the stout Javon Hargrave (No. 97) made the unblocked stop.
The Broncos had a productive rush here. Taylor may have flowed too much to his right and lost leverage, but his ability to stay upright and assist on the tackle offered a glimpse of his strength and balance.
The next play may offer the best example of how Taylor’s speed can make up for assignment errors. He had help as the Lions tight end ran a curl route, but got turned around. Still, he was able to recover and help Edwards (No. 57) on a dump to the running back.
While his performance against the Chargers was uneven, like it was for many of the Eagles’ defenders, Taylor did a have a few highlights. On this pass, his eyes were the key. He covered the short hook, and when he saw Herbert look off, he jumped the check down and made a tackle for loss.
“I think he’s really been in tune with the quarterback’s drops,” Edwards said when asked Wednesday to give one specific example of Taylor’s improved play. “If it’s a deeper drop, he’s going to need to get more depth. If it’s a shorter drop, he’s going to be more set and ready to break.”
And then there was the game-changing — season-changing? — forced fumble on Sunday. There was nothing fancy about the Broncos’ design, but Taylor stacked the tight end’s block and good things happen when you just do your job.
“I feel like every week you can see me improving,” said Taylor, who played through a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s walk-through. “I’m not really false-stepping like I used to. I’m reading plays faster. I’m making sure I’m taking the right angles on tackles. I feel like you can see it on film that I’m improving drastically each week.
“I’m not making the same mistakes over again.”