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Eagles sticking with scheme and embattled cornerbacks

It took the third Dez Bryant touchdown for Bill Davis to spare Bradley Fletcher further abuse and put Cary Williams exclusively on the Cowboys receiver.

Bill Davis (left) with Eagles coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Bill Davis (left) with Eagles coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

It took the third Dez Bryant touchdown for Bill Davis to spare Bradley Fletcher further abuse and put Cary Williams exclusively on the Cowboys receiver.

By that point, the Eagles were down, 35-27, and there was less than 11 minutes left in Sunday's game. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo threw only three more passes the rest of the way and the damage had already been done in an Eagles loss.

Davis said he didn't think of making the move until he felt it was time to make it - after Fletcher was beaten for the last time and his technique wasn't sound. But the Eagles defensive coordinator was asked Tuesday if facing one of the NFL's best receivers warranted a game plan that had Williams shadowing Bryant from the start.

"When you look at the two games we played last year [and the game on Thanksgiving] and you watch Fletch and Cary matched up on Dez," Davis said, "there was no reason to say either one of them would do better or worse than the other because they both had plays against Dez made on them and they have also made plays on him."

But there is also the Eagles' philosophy - headed by coach Chip Kelly - to not make changes for the sake of changing. They have their schemes and starters set on both sides of the ball, and come Aaron Rodgers or Romo, they're sticking to them.

"We've come a long way, it's been a long season, there's been ups and downs," Davis said. "Part of it is hanging together as a team and fighting through slumps. Every player has slumps and runs where they're really playing well. . . . Once you start making those changes, it trickles out there."

The Eagles defense for each game, Davis and Kelly said, is predicated upon the opposing offense. But it's difficult to look at it and not see a scheme that is designed to stop the run first and foremost.

For instance, the Eagles will often stay with their base (run) defense against "11" personnel (three wide receivers). That choice, too, depends upon the opponent, but overall Davis has used nickel and dime packages less this season than last.

Choosing to lean toward stopping running back DeMarco Murray made sense, but with Romo on 10 days rest as opposed to the three he had before the first meeting, the Cowboys were sure to be more effective through the air.

Davis had a similar plan against the Packers last month - a lot of single-man coverages - but singling his cornerbacks up on the outside with only one safety over top had more to do with sending extra pass rushers at Rodgers than emphasizing stopping the run.

In each case, however, Davis relied on his pressing corners to win one-on-one battles with two of the best quarterbacks throwing at them. Rodgers was able to take advantage when Fletcher was matched up against Jordy Nelson. And Romo threw at the cornerback on four of the 11 times he was singled up against Bryant and completed all four passes for 77 yards and three scores.

Davis gave Fletcher and Williams plenty of help. He doubled or had safety help over top on 22 of the 41 pass routes Bryant ran, and the Cowboy was held without a catch in those instances. But Romo often found other receivers where the Eagles went light.

Romo was hot and the Eagles didn't have the talent in the secondary to match. Brandon Boykin and Nolan Carroll have been mentioned as better alternatives, but Davis said they're too important in their current roles - Boykin as the nickel corner, Carroll in the dime - to switch up the lineup.

Davis said he has enough flexibility within the scheme to make adjustments. He designed a game plan to stop the Saints' passing attack in the playoffs last season and mostly had success. But that basically has been the only time the Eagles have gone light against the run to stop the pass.

Doubling Bryant for most of the game might have been more effective: Who would you rather have beat you through the air? Or having Williams shadow the Pro Bowl receiver from the start might have proved more successful because Fletcher has clearly struggled more this season.

Only two other cornerbacks have been targeted as often, but he has allowed the most touchdowns (nine) and the second-most passing yards (908) in the NFL. Fletcher and Williams each saw Bryant 18 times, and while Williams was penalized for illegal contact twice, he didn't allow a completion to the receiver.

In the Eagles' first meeting with Washington, Fletcher was targeted 16 times and surrendered nine catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns. He has had stretches of solid play, but it is likely that the Redskins, with receiver DeSean Jackson facing his former team for the second time, will attack him again in Saturday's game.

Davis said he never considered benching Fletcher against the Cowboys. But he conceded that he thought about it last month at Green Bay and did feel forced to at least take him off Bryant. So although he has supported the cornerback, his actions have suggested that he is teetering.

But the Eagles, in terms of players, are pot committed at this point. They just haven't done enough scheme-wise to cover their losses.