One of the big concerns with the Philadelphia Eagles switching to a 3-4 defense is how Trent Cole and Brandon Graham will fair at dropping into coverage as an OLB.
Before going any further, yes, we will acknowledge that the scheme Bill Davis will run will be a hybrid defense that utilizes 3-4 and 4-3 concepts (4-3 under, etc). However, the 3-4 will be their base defense.
The perception about teams that run a 3-4 base defense is that the outside linebackers need to be capable of dropping into pass coverage from time to time. If they don’t, it minimizes the guessing game for the opposing offense.
The funny thing is, star OLBs are usually not known for their pass coverage abilities. They’re known for their pass rush and setting the edge against the run. The rule of thumb is, with the exception of certain star pass rushers, that they should be able to drop into pass coverage around 30% of the time.
Do you feel confident that Cole and Graham can pull that off effectively? (Effectively being the key word there)
No? Me either. I have visions of running backs and tight ends running free with Cole and Graham in pursuit, looking like a robot chasing a cheetah. This is why those two have garnered some speculation that one of them could be traded because they do not fit the role of OLB.
However, fear not my fellow bird fans. I have gathered some statistics that may help you breath at least a little easier…
Using the “every game, every player, every play” defensive snap summary tracked by Pro Football Focus, I looked at what they logged for snap counts where 3-4 OLBs were in pass coverage.
Here’s what I found:
PFF has Anthony Spencer, Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith, Justin Houston and Ahmad Brooks rated as the top five OLBs in 2012. Again, using that 30% rule as a guide, here is the percentage of their snaps they were in pass coverage:
- Spencer – 19.7%
- Matthews – 9%
- Smith – 9%
- Houston 17%
- Brooks 11.2%
All of them were far under 30%. If you were thinking that their counterparts at the other OLB position were doing it, think again. Here is how much the OLB on the opposite side of the above players were in coverage:
- DeMarcus Ware (opposite spencer) - 7.1%
- Erik Walden (opposite Matthews) – 12%
- Smith and Brooks are counterparts
- Tamba Hali (opposite Houston) – 8.6%
Then, I looked at the top three ranked 3-4 defenses in the NFL last season to see how much their OLBs were in coverage and this is what I found…
Pittsburgh’s defense was ranked No. 1 overall (NFL.com ranking). Their starting OLBs were James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley. Respectively, each spent 22.5% an 21% of their snaps in coverage.
They were the only pair of OLBs where each spent that much time in coverage and were the closest to that 30% rule.
On the flip side, the No. 3 overall defense was San Francisco and as noted above, Smith and Brooks only spent 9% and 11.2% (respectively) of their snaps in coverage.
The Houston Texans, who had the No. 7 overall ranked defense, had three OLBs last season who played significant snaps due to injury. Their percentages were as follows: Connor Barwin 8.8%, Brooks Reed 11.5% and Whitney Mercilus 2.6%.
With the success of San Fran and Houston, we can conclude that OLBs do not necessarily need to drop into coverage anywhere near that 30% mark in order for the defense as a whole to be successful.
Next I looked at what Bill Davis did with his OLBs during his last stint as a defensive coordinator in Arizona for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Davis ran the same type of defense there that he is expected to run here.
This is how much his OLBs dropped into coverage…
2009 – Chike Okeafor 17% and Clark Haggans 20.8%
2010 – Clark Haggans 17% and Joey Porter 12.8%
However, both Okeafor and Haggans were already accustomed to dropping back in coverage prior to Davis’ arrival in Arizona. Even still, both were well below that 30% threshold.
Cole and Graham have virtually zero experience in pass coverage. Going from zero to 30% of their snaps in coverage is a tall order, especially in one season. That’s why, based on these numbers, we can rest assured that they will not be in coverage as much as we may have thought.
At most, they’re coverage snaps should to be similar to the number of San Fran’s or Houston’s OLBs. This would be somewhere between eight to 11%, which equates to roughly five to seven snaps per game on average, depending on their snap count.
Although, in reality I would expect their coverage snaps to be somewhere in the five to seven percent range, but probably less. They can’t be exposed in the passing game too often untill they get a better feel of what they’re doing.
This is why the acquisition of Connor Barwin was key. He will most likely be the starter opposite Trent Cole and is the only OLB with experience in coverage. He was ranked by PFF as 17th out of 34 OLBs against the pass in 2012.
If any of the Eagles’ OLBs will be dropping into coverage, it will mostly be him. When the season is over, the coverage snaps by Barwin will probably be somewhere around 10%, followed by Graham with around 5% and Cole around 2-3%.
However, if Barwin gets injured and misses time, either we’ll be seeing the Eagles shift more towards a 4-3, or we’ll be seeing Cole or Graham in coverage more often. If the latter happens, we might need to be a little concerned.
For now, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about Cole or Graham being asked to defend the pass.