We’ve talked about the LBs quite a bit this year, but there are still a lot of questions because we have yet to see the players in action. One of the recent topics for discussion has been about run defense. How well will we play the run?
Let’s go back for a second and re-focus on alignment. No LB will be on the line of scrimmage (LOS). All 3 of them are backed off the ball by several yards. Both OLBs are “inside”. This means they are inside the alignment of the DE to their side.
DE —– DT —- DT —- DE
— OLB — MLB — OLB —
This is an alignment that gets used by all 4-3 defenses from time to time, but it is now our base alignment.
The DEs will fly off the edge and up the field. Their job is to rush the passer. They affect run plays by closing off outside lanes. This funnels run action to the inside. That is where the 2 DTs and 3 LBs have the responsibility for stopping the run.
The DTs are no longer holding up blockers and reading plays. They will also shoot gaps and attack upfield. Their goal is to disrupt the flow of the play, and to get the RB for a loss if possible. This is completely the opposite of what’s been done here from 2008-2010 (2007 is still a question mark).
The LBs will have to deal with OL. There is some kind of myth about LBs and OL. Blockers are going to get to LBs in the 4-3 and 3-4. They are going to get to LBs even with big NTs/DTs in the way. There is no way to keep LBs clean on every play. The difference here is that when you have big DTs or play a 2-gap scheme, you control the interior blockers more often. This cuts down on the number of times that LBs have to deal with blockers. Don’t buy into the myth that there is any way that LBs are always free from blockers.
Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou can both shed blockers. Fokou is good at it. Chaney showed a lot of potential last year. Fokou is a very physical player with strong hands. He can jolt blockers when they come at him. Chaney has long arms and is a powerful guy. I don’t worry about them.
Casey Matthews in the middle is a different story. He got stuck on blocks at Oregon. He doesn’t have long arms. He’s not a super-physical player. Casey will really have to work at this. The good news is that he’s the type of guy who will do just that. Casey isn’t a finesse LB. He will come up and take on blockers. He needs to develop the skill of shedding blocks.
Chaney struggled with shedding blocks when he was at Mississippi State. I had concerns about his draft value because of that. The Eagles saw the same thing, but felt he could be coached up. Sure enough, Chaney looked better at shedding NFL blocks than he did SEC blocks. If Chaney can make that kind of progress, there is no doubt that Casey can get much better himself. He has already bulked up to 245 pounds. He played at 230-235 in college. Casey must learn how to use his hands. Placement is critical. You must strike the blocker in the right spot for maximum impact. Casey is a smart player and is very coachable so I’m hoping he learns this skill quickly.
Let’s go back to the OLBs for a second. The responsibilities for these players have changed in the new scheme. The SAM is no longer required to be a big guy. He doesn’t sit on the LOS and jam the TE as he releases. The SAM now is back off the ball. He must be able to cover the TE, but does so now with speed/quickness rather than size.
We have used the WLB like an extra ILB quite a bit over the years so this isn’t a significant adjustment. Still, the WLB won’t be up on the line or blitzing off the edge nearly as much as he might have in the past. He also won’t be attacking downhill at the snap. The WLB will read the play and then go for the ball, just like the other LBs. Think back to Ernie Sims last year (Don’t panic – this is only a memory!). Sims flew somewhere the moment the ball was snapped. His head would explode, ala Scanners, if he had to actually read a play before moving.
Chaney has the athleticism to cover well. Reuben Frank wrote today that “Chaney is the Eagles’ best coverage linebacker since Carlos Emmons. Not even close.” That sure sounds like a guy you want handling TEs.
Fokou should be able to handle WLB. He is our most physical LB. Fokou is underrated as an athlete. I remember him breaking up a pass 20 yards downfield as a rookie and thinking “wow”. The problem is that we’ve not seen that side of him consistently. Fokou might argue that while playing SAM he was in heavy traffic and didn’t always have a chance to show what he can do. Remember last year when Sean McDermott had Fokou getting some snaps at DE? Moise is a multi-talented player. He’s much more under control now than as a rookie. My big concern is whether he can make enough plays. The WLB can’t just be a tackler. You need FFs, sacks, INTs, etc. Fokou has potential, but we need to see him make plays.
Now that we’ve covered LB roles and how the guys fit them, let’s go back to overall run defense. We are going to be more of a boom or bust group this year than in the past few. The D-linemen will be penetrating. That leads to TFLs. It also leads some running lanes when the guys are blocked and don’t get penetration. Simply put, if the guys up front are winning, we’ll do okay vs the run.
The thinking is a bit like the Jim Johnson philosophy in some ways. You try to stop the run with your front seven. You want penetration to disrupt runs and force the team into passing situations. There is one major difference. JJ often had his LBs up on the line. That meant if someone got through the LOS there was a lot of running room. Our LBs will be back off the ball. If a runner comes free, the LBs will have a chance to get to him.
We’ll mix in 8-man fronts when necessary. I’m sure Juan Castillo will keep his Safeties deep as much as possible, but he won’t let teams just pound us relentlessly. With the cover corners we have in place, we can afford to drop down a Safety into the box. And when teams get in the vicinity of our 30 or 40 yard line we’ll be more aggressive with the Safety since there’s less ground to cover. You can’t really get beat deep when you’re at your own 30.
Will we be vulnerable to the run? We’ll get gashed at times. When you send your DL upfield, there are going to be plays where the offense has the perfect play called and they break a long run. You have to live with those. I know some people will be concerned because we’ve gotten lighter at DT. Don’t be. The rule of thumb in football (and sports in general) is to get guys that do what they do well. If we’re going to have our guys attack off the ball, we need quick DTs that can be disruptive. Cullen Jenkins isn’t nearly as strong as Brodrick Bunkley. Since Cullen will be in the backfield, he doesn’t have to be as strong. He needs to be quick and agile, which he is. Anthony Hargrove is only in the 280 range, but he can be extremely disruptive. As long as we have some bigger guys to mix in for short yardage situations, we’ll be fine. Dixon is 325. Thornton is 310. Patterson, if available, is 315 or so. That’s good enough bulk for short yardage run defense. Tennessee DT Jason Jones was very disruptive last year at 6’5, 280. He’s skinny! He’s also very quick off the ball. Jason is the guy who blew us up at the goal line and may have saved the game for the Titans.
There will be a couple of bad games. Last year Tennessee had 4 games where they allowed 150 or more rushing yards. Our starting defense only had 2 such games. The Titans held 2 opponents to 30 yards or less. Our low total for the year was 61. And remember that we played with double digit leads for more than half the season.
The run defense overall should be pretty good. We need the guys up front to get penetration and make plays. We need the LBs to shed blocks and then get to the ball. They must tackle well. Chaney and Fokou are good tacklers. Matthews was in college. The Safeties must be able to help out when plays break down or we shift to an 8-man front. These are all reasonable expectations based on the personnel we have. We’re not asking guys to do things they can’t.
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Keenan Clayton has been talked about a bit recently. What is going on with him? If we need the SAM to be a good cover guy, why is Clayton still the backup WLB? Clayton’s specialty is coverage after all.
I don’t know the definitive answer to this question. I do have a guess. I think Castillo might see Clayton’s potential and hope that he can develop into a starting LB at some point this year or next. The goal would be to get him, Chaney, and Matthews on the field at once. All 3 guys could cover. You’d be in good shape no matter what the offense tried in terms of motion and matchup manipulation.
In order to get Clayton ready for a starting position, you have to play him at WLB. Chaney seems set at SAM. Matthews is the MLB of the present and future. That leaves WLB open. Fokou has the job now and can secure it into the future with a good season. If he’s not the answer, maybe Clayton is. Work Clayton in there so that he can push Fokou in practice and eventually challenge for the job. Just a guess, but that would be the most logical reason to leave him there.
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You guys asked some good questions in yesterday’s threads. I’ll be answering them tonight in a Q&A post. This is already long enough to put you to sleep twice.