The Steelers blitzed Matthew Stafford just nine times on 49 pass plays in a 37-27 win over the Lions earlier this season. (USA Today Images)
In an ideal world, Billy Davis would rather not blitz.
As coordinator and play-caller of the Eagles’ defense, Davis would prefer the luxury of blitzing for a strategic advantage only, not out of necessity.
Earlier this year, Davis’ world was far from ordinary. For the first four weeks, as he continued to groom his personnel from the 4-3 scheme into his 3-4 hybrid front, Davis leaned heavily on blitzes -- some more exotic than others -- to generate a pass rush against some of the better quarterbacks on the schedule.
Lately, with his defense steadily improving, Davis has scaled back on the heaviest pressures.
He blitzed on 46 percent of Arizona’s pass plays in Sunday’s 24-21 win, according to stats compiled by Pro Football Focus, but rarely attacked with more than five.
In the team’s 24-16 win over the Redskins before the bye, Davis blitzed on just 23 percent of Washington’s pass plays.
The challenge Davis confronts for Sunday’s game against the Lions is whether to attack turnover-prone quarterback Matthew Stafford or drop more to help defend MVP-candidate receiver Calvin Johnson.
“The math alone, when you send more than four, you are weakening your coverage,” Davis said. “Absolutely, yeah, I'd love a three‑man rush to be honest with you, the three‑man rush to get there. That's the perfect world.
“But the four‑man, and that's what a lot of the four down [linemen] teams do, they get the four best rushers and defensive linemen they can get and they only rush four. You would rather not have to add the extra rushers. You would rather add the coverage, plus get your pressure.”
But the choice isn’t that simple.
Although Trent Cole and Brandon Graham each had two sacks apiece in a five-sack effort against Arizona, the Eagles are tied for 21st in sacks.
When they don’t blitz, it’s harder for them to rattle quarterbacks. So far this season, they’ve blitzed on 35 percent of passing plays against them. They blitzed Philip Rivers on 57 percent of his pass plays and twice went over 44 percent against Eli Manning.
On the flip side, the Lions have been blitzed on only 27 percent of their pass plays this season. The damage done by Johnson and versatile running back Reggie Bush in the passing game, and Stafford’s quick trigger, makes opponents less inclined to leave their secondary vulnerable.
“It’s almost sometimes impossible to blitz them,” safety Nate Allen said, “because you’ve got to have coverage.”
Statistics show that Stafford doesn’t handle the blitz nearly as well as some of the NFL’s other top quarterbacks. He’s completing just 52 percent of his passes against extra-man pressure with 10 of his 27 touchdowns and an 80.0 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus.
Six times this season, teams have blitzed Stafford on equal to or fewer than 20 percent of Detroit’s pass plays. The Steelers, whose defense is the model for Davis’ scheme, sent extra men just nine times on 49 pass plays (18 percent) last month in their 37-27 win over the Lions.
If there’s ever a game for Davis to get the most from his four-man rush, this is it.
Guys like Cole, Graham and Vinny Curry need to be disruptive up front.
“That’s where our D-line is gonna be big,” Allen said, “controlling up front and getting pressure. Sometimes, we might not be able to send pressure. It’s going to be big for them to be able to win their battles and get Matthew Stafford unsettled.”