I have been an Eagles fan now for more than 20 years. In that time I saw Buddy Ryan attack quarterbacks out of the 46 Defense with relentless, aggressive blitzes. I saw Jim Johnson come to town with his fire-zone scheme as Andy Reid originally referred to it. Most of us just called it zone blitzing.
Not as much blitzing went on during Ray Rhodes' tenure as coach. He and defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas were a bit more conservative. That isn't to say they didn't have some great moments. There was a game against Green Bay back in 1997 when Rhodes and Thomas were super-aggressive against Brett Favre. That was the first time I ever saw a team put all 11 defenders within a couple of yards of the ball. There was no deep safety. Favre was only sacked once (thanks Willie T.), but he was only 19-of-41 passing. He was picked off once and the Packers failed to score a touchdown. The Eagles won 10-9. The following week against Dallas is the first time I remember seeing an Eagle cornerback being a disruptive pass rusher. Bobby Taylor had two sacks. One of them caused a fumble that was run back for a touchdown (thanks again Willie T.). I won't mention the outcome of the game, other than to say - botched hold.
In the last 20 years we have seen the Eagles do just about anything and everything you can with blitzing. Ryan wasn't all that creative. He just believed in volume. He was going to send more guys than you could block. I remember watching the Eagles take on the Rams in the 2001 season opener when Johnson sent both Taylor and Troy Vincent as blitzers on the same play. Blitzing both corners at once was something I'd never seen. Sean McDermott had some good twists. I remember the 2009 opener when Trent Cole shifted to an inside linebacker spot and then rushed up the middle. That resulted in a sack and helped push Jake Delhomme over the edge.
Blitzing feels like it is part of the DNA of an Eagles defense. Will this change with Juan Castillo running the defense in 2011 and into the future?
I do think we'll blitz less than we did under McDermott. He really got aggressive with the blitz packages. We did a lot of stuff in the past two years, but the problem was that the execution didn't match the quality of the ideas. Think of it as McDermott trying to teach graduate courses to sophomores. The difference is that our guys weren't dumb. They just didn't have the cohesion to consistently carry out the schemes. I remember Bud Carson calling a blitz against Pittsburgh in 1994. It was a well-designed blitz and Otis Smith should have blown up the play, but it took him forever to get upfield. Heck, he might still be on his way to hit Neil O'Donnell. Carson was furious after the game at how slow Smith was.
Blitzing today is more complicated than ever. Back in 1994, the blitzer just needed the right timing. Offenses now are so good at throwing the ball quickly that you must blitz well and also cover behind it. That requires all 11 defenders to do their job well. If we run a zone blitz where a defensive lineman drops back, that lineman has to be in the right area to negate the slant or some other short pass. If not, we're basically playing 10 on 11 and that gives the offense a real advantage.
If you simply blitz a linebacker or defensive back and then play man coverage behind it, you need defenders to rally to the ball quickly and tackle well if the quarterback is able to complete the pass. The coverage and tackling last year by the back seven was sloppy. There were times when the guys looked very good. There were other times when players ran free and gashed us for big plays and touchdowns. You can't have that. There must be good cohesion and execution to make the blitz work.
Castillo has said that he wants to simplify the defense so that players think less and play faster. That does likely mean a drop in blitzing, but it sure doesn't mean blitzing will go away entirely. Castillo spent a ton of time with Jim Johnson discussing how to blitz and how to block against the blitz. Castillo soaked up a lot of what Johnson said. Castillo had to have been strongly influenced by that. I can't imagine he'll turn his back on those lengthy conversations. Even in a simplified scheme, there is room for blitzing.
Castillo saw first-hand in the loss to the Vikings just how effective a simple blitz can be. Minnesota sent cornerback Antoine Winfield after Michael Vick play after play after play. Winfield had eight solo tackles, a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. Winfield recovered the fumble and ran it back for a touchdown, a play that had a huge impact in the game and on the Eagles season.
A good measuring stick for blitzing and the new defense might be the Titans of the last few years. The foundation of the new scheme will be defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide nine technique that he's bringing over from Tennessee. The Titans blitzed some in 2010, but not nearly as much as the Eagles. Washburn likes to focus on his defensive linemen as the pass rushers.
One other key consideration is that Castillo has been away from defense for a long time. What we see in 2011 isn't necessarily what we'll get down the road. Castillo might find that he wants to blitz more. He might find he wants to do more zone blitzing. We don't know what the future holds for Castillo and the defense.
I know some fans are worried that the blitzing will go away. I feel pretty confident that Castillo will keep us on the attack as much as needed. If the line is getting pressure, that's great. If not, open up Johnson's playbook and turn the back seven loose.