With the Eagles first pre-season game on the docket and more than two weeks of practice in the books, the defense is anything but complete and ready to go.
After looking at the offense more in-depth early this week (QB Battle, Deadly tight end-built formation, replacing Maclin), here’s my look at what to consider when it comes to the Philly defense.
2012 Eagles in the New 3-4 Defense
The Eagles played a 4-3 base defense with Wide-9 presence as a pass rushing set in 2012. With Chip Kelly moving into town, however, he kept many of the key holdovers from the 2012 defense but also added ideal scheme fits to his roster, such as Connor Barwin and Isaac Sopoaga as well as rookies across the defensive line.
Thus far, the transition has been smooth for many players. On the inside, second year linebacker Mychal Kendricks has remained aggressive upfield and utilizing the added two “rush linebackers” to free space for him to work inside and out. DeMeco Ryans also has some comfort-ability in the offense after playing at a high level with the Texans early in his career there, and he’s been the versatility, composed leader to Kendricks near-reckless style.
On the defensive line, Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox have seamlessly made the transition to 5-techniques, as both guys looked as though they’d be fits there out of college and may actually be able to have more success in the league in this system. Vinny Curry, however, has struggled with the added weight he needed to put on, and he’s lost some quickness initially and isn’t the same impact rusher as his college days.
Maybe the toughest transition has been for the two pass rushing holdovers now asked to play the 3-4 outside linebacker spots in Brandon Graham and Trent Cole. Graham, who’s getting more work behind Connor Barwin on the strong side, has looked more comfortable in coverage than I expected, but still doesn’t have the ideal feel for his drops, man pickups, and when to transition to the run game. As for Cole, he’s struggled mightily at times to make his drops, consistently allowing for backside drags, flat routes, and screen passes in his zone. Phillip Hunt, playing behind Cole, hasn’t done much better, and this weakside coverage concern may be a major issue on 3rd down for this team, putting more and more pressure on DeMeco Ryans and Brandon Boykin/Bradley Fletcher to pick up the slack.
In the Red Zone: Patrick Chung’s Versatility on Display
Running a 3-4 defense on a consistent basis generally allows for two edge rushers to pinch inside on passing downs while still having 3-4 run stoppers on the inside. While off-tackle runs and lead-blocking blasts up the middle are two ways to run into the 3-4 defense, they can generally be contained throughout the game. That, however, becomes much more difficult in the red zone, when yards are at a premium and openings in the box can lead to touchdowns, while also having the ability to play action or drop passes over or under the aggressive inside linebackers.
Some 3-4 teams may consider going to a 5-2 defensive front, putting their edge rushers even close to the line of scrimmage to disrupt at the line of scrimmage, and then rely on their strong safety to play a 3rd linebacker. The Eagles, however, feel they don’t need to do that, based on their practices in the red zone through training camp.
While the play below is likely their true 3-3-5 nickel package (especially against 3-wide on 1st and 2nd down), it’ll also be their red zone defense a majority of the time. This personnel on it’s face should still be susceptible to physical tight end play and power runs, thanks to having five defensive backs on the field.
However, in practice, they’ve been using their nickel defensive back, Patrick Chung, as a hybrid 3-4 rusher and strong safety. As you’ll see in the play below, the team trusts Chung’s explosiveness and physicality to rush the edge, get the initial pop on the tight end to slow him, and still contain the edge well enough to let the aggressive Mychal Kendricks make plays on the inside. This play, against a formation they’ll likely see in the red zone against the Giants, Cowboys, and other NFC teams, has had ample success in practice so far. It puts a lot of pressure on Patrick Chung to stay in position yet threaten on the edge.
Also in this set, they’ve used both Connor Barwin and Trent Cole on the weakside. Barwin is better in coverage, so using him closer to the goal line likely prevents backside screens and flat-routes, while Cole is more of a true rusher to be used when a true drop back is more likely. Finally, with Chung playing close to the line as a safety, it puts substantial pressure on their free safety (likely Kenny Phillips) to protect the middle of the field, as he’ll be reading the weakside receiver first (both cornerbacks are playing boundary/fade contain) and then check the tight ends release.
(I apologize for the crudity of the drawing. I'm not very good at using Paint to draw plays.)
Defensive Back Carousel and Not Putting Stock into Depth Chart
The quarterback position has certainly been the most talked about on the depth chart. The receiver position has been in turmoil since Jeremy Maclin when down and Riley Cooper made some unsavory statements. But the most difficult position to evaluate has been the defensive backfield, where none of the five primary positions have been spoken for.
Cary Williams came into camp as the team’s best cornerback after his time with the Ravens. After an impressive first week, however, he’s battled injuries and coaches don’t seem as excited to have him as they once were. Fellow free agent Bradley Fletcher has been solid, but he hasn’t solidified the outside receiving job along with Williams as many expected. Brandon Boykin has played fantastic for much of camp (minus day one of the Patriots scrimmage), and he’s now in the discussion for one of the rosters most talented players, regardless of position. All three cornerbacks are likely jostling for the starting jobs.
But after them at cornerback, another log jam occurs. Curtis Marsh has begun to get more and more first team reps, and he’ll be starting in place of Cary Williams in the pre-season games. He’s used his length well throughout camp, but he’s still not efficient in his back pedal and in-breaking route transitions. Brandon Hughes and Trevard Lindley each have had impressive days at times, but neither has seemingly won the coaching staff over, and it’d be a surprise if more than one made the roster. And finally, two rookies in Jordan Poyer and Eddie Whitley have gotten substantial chances to play with the first and second teams, and their versatility (Poyer to play inside cornerback and Whitley on special teams) could be the deciding factor.
As for the safeties, Nate Allen and Patrick Chung are the current “leaders” at the position, but Kenny Phillips has flashed in deep coverage, David Sims had a few nice days against slot receivers/tight ends, Colt Anderson is as consistent as they come but lacks the same hip fluidity as the others, and Kurt Coleman has shown his willingness to be physical but still takes a lot of incorrect read steps. Not to mention the rookie Earl Wolff playing well when given the chance with the first team, and his ability to play both safety spots.
What this all leads to is a very unclear picture of who will not only start for the Eagles in the defensive backfield, but who will make the roster. And my guess is the Eagles don’t know which 10-11 defensive backs will make the roster yet. Just like Chris Polk getting the 1st team carries over Bryce Brown, don’t put too much stock into who’s playing with what team when it comes to the defensive backs. Because it’s the most wide-open position on Chip Kelly’s roster.