Too soon to tell what kind of 'D' Eagles will have, says coordinator
In his first comments in months, Billy Davis says he is still in 'teach-and-learn' mode, and not ready to commit to one system.
IT'S LATE MAY and we're bored and impatient. The Monday night season opener against the Redskins still is 3 1/2 months away, but we want answers. Now.
We want to know who the Eagles' starting quarterback will be.
We want to know when the hotshot first-round offensive tackle will start taking snaps with the first team.
We want to know how much they will run the ball and how much they will pass it.
We want to know what Chip Kelly is putting in those damn smoothies.
We want to know whether Danny Watkins is a dead man walking.
We want to know whether DeSean Jackson will return punts.
We want to know whether Trent Cole and Brandon Graham will be hand-in-the-dirt ends or stand-up linebackers.
And we want to know exactly what kind of defensive scheme the Eagles will run this season.
Yesterday seemed a perfect opportunity to get a definitive answer to that last question. The Eagles, per NFL rules, had to make their assistant coaches available to the media. That included defensive coordinator Billy Davis, who hadn't spoken to reporters since January.
So, Bill. A 3-4? A 3-4 hybrid? What exactly would you call that thing we've been getting a peek at every third OTA?
"Multiple is the best way to describe it," Davis said. "I know you guys are tired of hearing that. You want to hear that it's one or the other.
"But really, what we're doing here is we're taking the wide-nine 4-3 and we're moving in the direction of the 3-4. But where we stop is yet to be determined by the players we have."
The last time the Eagles used a 3-4 alignment as their base defense was 1985. Marion Campbell was the head coach. Davis was a freshman quarterback at the University of Cincinnati. My wife gave birth to our second child.
Davis, now 47, spent his formative years as an NFL assistant working for longtime 3-4 maestros Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers.
He's had two previous stints as a defensive coordinator with the 49ers (2005-06) and Cardinals (2009-10). Ran a 3-4 with the Niners and 3-4 hybrid commonly referred to as the 4-3 "Under" with the Cardinals.
Even before OTAs began, many of the Eagles' offseason moves, including the free-agent signings of defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga and outside linebacker Conner Barwin made it pretty clear the Eagles would be playing some version of a 3-4.
But how much?
Davis said we'll probably have to wait until a couple of weeks into training camp to find out that answer because, well, he doesn't even know yet.
"Everybody out there has a system that has four down [linemen] and three down [linemen]," he said. "They use them at different times. How much we use any of them will be dictated by a) who we're playing and the offense we're trying to stop that week, and, first and foremost, who our guys are and what they do best."
He needs to find out whether Cole, Graham and 2012 second-round pick Vinny Curry can make the transition from 4-3 ends to 3-4 outside linebackers. He said they're getting "better and better at it," but also pointed out they've been frequently lining up with their hand on the ground.
He needs to figure out the best way to use 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox, third-year defensive tackle Cedric Thornton and rookies Bennie Logan, Joe Kruger and David King.
"We're cross-training guys at a lot of positions right now," Davis said. "We're going to maximize the players that we have and what they do best. That's the way I've been trained my whole career. Who do you have? What do they do best? Let them do that the most amount of times. If a guy is great in coverage, you want him covering. If a guy is a great rusher, you want him rushing."
Most of those judgments can't be made until the pads go on in late July and the players start hitting. Hard to make judgments on pass-rushers when they have to peel off as soon as they get close to the quarterback.
"We're in a complete teach-and-learn mode right now," Davis said. "We're running in space in shorts and T-shirts. We get to test them on different movement things and different positions. But until you put pads on and you get real quality work and see how they physically can hold up, you're not sure."
Much has been written and said about whether Cole and Graham will be able to cover well enough to make the switch to outside linebacker.
But look around the league. Most of top 3-4 rush linebackers aren't asked to drop into coverage very often. Last year, the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware played 896 snaps. Dropped into coverage only 64 times, according to Pro Football Focus. That's 7.1 percent of the time.
The Colts' Dwight Freeney dropped into coverage only 25 times in 768 snaps (3.3 percent). The 49ers' Aldon Smith, who had an NFC-high 19 1/2 sacks, dropped into coverage only 111 times in 1,223 snaps (9.1 percent).
In 2010, when Davis was with the Cardinals, linebacker Joey Porter dropped into coverage only 131 times in 1,023 snaps. The year before, Davis' top rush linebacker, Bertrund Berry, was in coverage only 30 times in 567 snaps.
Bottom line: Cole, Graham and Curry don't need to convince Davis they can cover. They need to convince him they can be effective pass-rushers. If they can do that, he'll figure out the best way to use them, whether it's standing up, bending over or in a La-Z-Boy.
Davis' defenses in San Francisco and Arizona weren't very good. But none of those units was exactly stuffed with talent.
None of them finished better than 28th in points allowed or better than 19th in yards allowed or better than 22nd in touchdown passes allowed.
He's taking over an Eagles defense that finished tied for 29th in points allowed last season and gave up a franchise-record 33 touchdown passes.
In not so many words, Davis suggested that the wide-nine had a lot to do with the Eagles' problems on the back end against the pass.
"Anytime you ask the secondary to be primary B- or A-gap run-defenders, you're just asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls," he said. "I hate to talk about last year since I wasn't here. But just all the transition and all the different [mis]communications that happened . . . I don't know how you fight through that and play good, I really don't."
Nate Allen said the other day that Davis' scheme will free up the safeties to "really focus on being pass guys."
Asked about that yesterday, Davis said, "In parts of the scheme, that's true." He said that by "thickening" the front, it will allow the secondary to "play a pass read and then later you're in the run."
Davis said his defensive players have benefited tremendously from going up against Kelly's up-tempo offense in OTAs. Said it's forced them to think quicker on their feet and make quicker decisions.
But what about when they start playing games? What if the up-tempo offense produces too few yards and too many three-and-outs? Won't that wear down Davis' unit?
"It won't be a problem because of the mindset we're going to go in with as a defense," he said. "If it's three-and-out and two-and-out or two-and-in, no matter how it comes, we'll go get our sip of Gatorade and go back out.
"You mentally go into the game knowing that's who you are. That's our identity. It's not only our offensive identity. It's our team identity. That's who we are and that's how we'll handle it. We will not have a problem, no matter what happens."
Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: Rich Hofmann writes about assistant coach Ted Williams and where the Eagles fit into the NFL's tight end revooution.
On Twitter: @Pdomo