When Andy Reid made the surprising decision to appoint longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo as the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coordinator, he entrusted the strength of the team to an inexperienced defensive architect.
After a few rough patches in Castillo's debut season, the Eagles' defense started to find its way under his direction. Thanks to a strong performance over the final month of the season (Philadelphia only allowed 11.5 points per game and held opponents to an average of 265 total yards over the final four games), the Eaglesranked eighth in total defense and tied for first in sacks.
Considering the unrelenting criticism of Castillo's work, those numbers were certainly surprising. But once I took some time to study tape from the end of 2011 and the 2012 preseason, I discovered a vastly improved defensive play-caller utilizing a refined scheme that finally suits the team's personnel.
1. The wide-nine defense produces sacks by the bunches.
Castillo took a lot of heat for Philly's wide-nine front in 2011. Critics pointed to the Eagles' struggles against the run as a major concern. However, the NFL is a passing league and most defensive coaches emphasize the importance of getting hits on the quarterback. Philadelphia was outstanding at generating pressure on the passer, led by a defensive line that accounted for 46 of its 50 sacks. Jason Babin (18) and Trent Cole (11) ranked among the league leaders in sacks, spearheading the Eagles' rush off the edges. As a result, Philly only surrendered 20-plus points in three of its final 10 games, and started to show the dominance that many envisioned prior to the season.
In the screengrab below from the Eagles' Week 16 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia is aligned in a wide-nine front with Cole and Babin lined up on the outside edges of the tight end and offensive tackle:
The defensive ends' wide alignment gives them a better angle at the quarterback, while making it difficult for blockers to get into position to stop them. On that play, Cole employed a speed rush to blow past left tackle Doug Free for a sack.
In the following screengrab from the Week 14 win over the Miami Dolphins, Babin is aligned in a wide-nine position. On this play, Babin utilizes the threat of his speed and quickness to get Miami right tackle Marc Colombo out of position:
With Colombo overreacting to the upfield rush, Babin is able to execute a spin move to the inside to nab another sack:
2. Castillo's decision to incorporate more man coverage plays to the strengths of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
When the Eagles acquired Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie last offseason, most expected the team to feature more press coverage to take advantage of both players' length, athleticism and cover skills. Both are viewed as premier bump-and-run corners in the NFL, and their ability to harass receivers on the edge disrupts the rhythm of the passing game. Last season, Castillo inexplicably played more zone coverage than man-to-man, resulting in disappointing play from his star cornerbacks.
Asomugha, in particular, struggled while playing within a scheme that required him to play away from the line of scrimmage. He is not a natural ball hawk and lacks the polished footwork to shadow receivers while utilizing finesse techniques. Although he tallied three interceptions as a zone-based corner, the return to bump-and-run coverage will allow him to play to his strengths and get back to being a dominant force on the perimeter.
Rodgers-Cromartie will also benefit from the decision to incorporate more man-to-man coverage. He is one of the best athletes in the NFL, and his ability to maintain hip-pocket position on receivers makes it difficult for quarterbacks to find open windows. With a chance to get back to playing sticky man-to-man coverage, Rodgers-Cromartie could re-emerge as the ball-hawking playmaker who amassed 13 interceptions in his first three seasons (as opposed to zero in 2011).
3. Castillo's keen understanding of pass protections will lead to a more diverse blitz package.
Castillo's experience as an offensive line coach has been underappreciated in his new role as a defensive play caller. With 13 years as an NFL O-line coach, he has studied every conceivable pass-protection scheme. That gives him valuable insight when breaking down opponent's tape. Castillo started to craft creative blitzes that resulted in free rushes at the quarterback toward the end of last season. He certainly will have an expansive playbook to exploit protection schemes in 2012.
After the snap, the Eagles execute a complex blitz that features Babin on a looping stunt. The right guard is preoccupied with the whereabouts of Cole and Babin, allowing Casey Matthews to run free through the B-gap for a sack: