I’d like to approach the video breakdown a little differently this week.

Normally we don’t get a lot of X’s and O’s stuff from Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz, and rarely do we get anything worth talking about at all, but it was a little more loose on Monday and Tuesday. The head ball coach and defensive coordinator answered questions about the defensive backfield – Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox specifically – which provided some quotes that are worth taking a look at.

So instead of just picking a bunch of clips from the all-22 footage to analyze, I want to lay out some of the quotes from Pederson and Schwartz and then sift through the game film to see what we can find.

Why use Avonte Maddox as a safety in dime packages?

PEDERSON: I think any time, he’d been playing — Corey [Graham] had been playing the nickel spot, then he’s moved to safety as a first year player, rookie player. You put a little bit on his plate, but that is what these guys are asked to do. They’re asked to play some multiple spots, especially in the back end. And I thought overall he did some nice things back there. I go back to thinking about Big V when he made his first start a couple of years ago. It was shaky and then the next week he got better, and it just got better as the weeks went on. So that is kind of where Avonte is going to get to. He’ll be better this week, he’ll be better the next week the more reps he gets, better opportunities for him.

SCHWARTZ: We’re comfortable leaving Jalen at corner. When it came time to replace Rodney [McLeod], who will be sorely missed this year. He’ll be back, but we certainly felt his loss. He’s been such an important part of our team. When we replaced him, we compartmentalized it into two positions: one was Corey Graham and the other one was Avonte. Of all the guys on our roster, we thought Avonte had a lot of the same traits that Rodney had. With Avonte playing the nickel position — there’s a lot of carryover between nickel and safety, also. So even though some things are new he’s got excellent quickness and great eyes for the football. He’s got the combination of being able to cover and being able to play the run. All the things we liked about him as nickel, we also like about him as a safety. And I think we’ll see more of him going forward in that role.

Schwartz went on to say that he did not see much difference between McLeod and Maddox in terms of height. He believes both have great range and quickness while believing that Rasul Douglas is “mainly an outside corner” because that “best fits his skill set.”

I think that does make sense, and Schwartz obviously knows a lot more about football than I do, but I’ll disagree slightly because:

  • Avonte Maddox is a 5’9″ corner who showed a lot of toughness at the line of scrimmage on his Pittsburgh tape. He competed for the slot position with Sidney Jones in the preseason.
  • Rasul Douglas is a 6’2″ ball-hawking corner/safety tweener hybrid who comes from an unorthodox nickel base college defense at West Virginia

Therefore – does it make sense to do what they did this past weekend?

Pitt played a more traditional defensive look, a 4-3 cover four system that head coach Pat Narduzzi brought over from Michigan State. Cover four (quarters) is not the most common scheme, and it can be confusing to diagnose at times because it blurs the line between man and zone, but it’s certainly more typical than the 3-3-5 stack WVU plays, which features three down linemen, three linebackers, and a spur or rover safety.

For that reason alone, and for the fact that they played Maddox almost exclusively as a slot corner in Eagles training camp and the preseason, it seems like it just makes more sense for Avonte, a rookie, to stay on the inside, while Douglas, who has a year of NFL experience, could play dime with McLeod on the shelf. Rasul snagged a lot of interceptions in college while playing against pass-heavy Big 12 defenses. Maddox I think was much better in press coverage situations or just playing closer to the line in general.

I really don’t understand why Maddox was playing deep middle safety at times on Sunday when he literally has never played the position before. 

Here’s Corey Graham and Jalen Mills asking Maddox to move further to their side of the field on the play where he wound up with the interception:

Success that time around, but when you watch the film again, you see a lot of pointing and pre-snap stuff going on in the defensive backfield.

This was bread and butter Maddox from college, lined up in the slot and tracking receivers downfield, or holding ground, shedding a block, and making an open field tackle:


Douglas would often line up on the outside in his college system or trend into a deep third position, which looked like this more often than not:

Again, that’s a base nickel defense, a lot of zone coverage and exotic blitz packages to try to limit the likes of pass-heavy Big 12 offenses that featured the likes of Mason Rudolph, Baker Mayfield, and Patrick Mahomes. This was also used by Jeff Casteel during the old Big East days, probably because we couldn’t even recruit four decent defensive linemen in the first place.

Anyway, here’s how that above still frame plays out:

Terrible throw, but you see Rasul has always had good ball-hawking instincts and reads a quarterback well, which just makes it feel to me like he would make a lot of sense as a converted NFL safety, especially if he doesn’t have the speed and quickness of others.

If you want to take it a step further, you could bench Jalen Mills (if you’re not a fan), move Sidney Jones to the outside, have Maddox play the slot, and figure it out from there.

It always bears repeating that Mills is a 7th round corner with high-level competitiveness and good physical tools but does not have elite speed or athleticism. Jones was first round corner talent who dropped only because of his injury. The Eagles were high enough on him to draft him in the second round and allow him to spend his rookie year rehabbing instead of playing.

So if Jones is the future and we are inevitably going to see him starting on the outside, why wait? Why not play him outside opposite Ronald Darby and put Maddox or Mills in the slot instead? It just doesn’t seem like the personnel is being deployed in the best possible way right now.

What happened on the Titans’ game-winning touchdown?

PEDERSON: We were in a zero coverage, we were in a zero blitz, and they were coming in, rightfully so. We come after the quarterback there, hit him, knock it down, whatever, ball’s out, game over. It’s a situation where everybody is one-on-one, and it is just making a play.

SCHWARTZ: That wasn’t a zone. That was an all-out blitz. We were going for the win right there, because if we can get a sack right there, or we can get a completion inbounds, I don’t know if they can get their game-tying field goal off or maybe they get up and try to run a quick fade or something like that. It was one of those situations that we were aggressive. We went for the win, and we sort of paid for it. But that’s a blitz.

That’s man. They brought a guy back behind the ball. Everybody was one-on-one. Avonte got the one, he slipped on the play. Made up some ground, but it was too late after he slipped. They had the advantage and we ended up paying the price for it. There was a tight end and a running back over there and they’re man to man on those guys.

Yep, no coverage issues, just a zero coverage man-to-man look with a failed blitz and a slip. Really unfortunate if you think about it, because it’s not like Maddox was out of position on the play and there wasn’t any confusion in the defensive backfield.

Here’s how the matchups played out:

Nothing crazy here.

They’ve got man coverage throughout, which I numbered in the diagram to show who takes which receiver. Corey Graham and Jordan Hicks blitz off the edge and don’t get to Marcus Mariota, as you can see in the clip below:

The reason it looks funky, and ends with Malcolm Jenkins and Jalen Mills very close to one another, is because one was assigned to the tight end and one the running back, neither of whom actually ran routes. Both stayed in to block, and with Graham and Hicks blitzing the play just turned into a 3v3 on the left side of the field.

Again, no errors there, just a blitz that didn’t reach the quarterback and a slip from Maddox. That’s the risk you run with zero coverage.

On Jalen Mills

Doug’s quote from Monday, Schwartz’s from Tuesday:

PEDERSON: It’s tough. These corners are on islands a lot. I think I look at it from an offensive perspective. When you see a guy that maybe you can attack, you try to attack and that is what offenses are doing right now. And he’s a good player, we have a lot of confidence in him, he has a lot of confidence in himself and a lot of it just comes down to just detail the work and understand the situation. What teams are going to try to do against you, understanding that and trying to use that as a strength. And, he’s going to, he is working through it, he’ll get better and we’ll get better as a team.

SCHWARTZ: I’m firmly behind Jalen Mills as a corner. One of the reasons we had a big parade on broad street was Jalen Mills. And he’s played a lot like a 2-2 corner. We have played a lot like a 2-2 defense, played a lot like a 2-2 team right now. There have been inconsistencies all around, but it’s our job to help him through that. It’s his job to get out of that, and I’m firmly behind Jalen Mills. That guy’s played a lot of good football for us, and he epitomizes a lot of things we’re about defensively: toughness, competitiveness and ability to bounce back. And I’m confident he will.

Like I’ve said before, I don’t feel like Mills is committing mistakes at a level any higher than any of his defensive teammates. I just think his mistakes feel worse because he’s getting beat downfield or committing pass interference calls 15-20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s different from Ronald Darby whiffing on a tackle in the flat and allowing a three yard gain to become a nine yard gain. It’s also different from Sidney Jones holding in the slot just three yards past the line.

Mills’ transgressions just seem amplified because of where they take place on the field. His mistakes are more pronounced and more punishing, if that makes sense, but the honest truth is that everybody had issues on Sunday.

Case in point, on the 51-yard Davis reception, safety help is nowhere to be found in a simple cover three scheme:

Graham plays short, Mills is way off Davis, and Darby isn’t particularly close to anyone on the play, with each guy responsible for their third of the field.

At least I think that’s what the coverage called for here…

But Mills got 99% of the shit on that play, because Graham and Darby aren’t even on screen when the pass is completed. We don’t see this angle until we get the all-22 video on three days after the game.

That’s one of the problems I have with people ripping Mills, not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because the criticism is usually incomplete and does not take into account teammate mistakes and other pieces of context.

We’ll see if they clean it up this weekend.