The Eagles defensive line had a bizarre start to the season. Some of the players struggled and others starred. What makes it so confusing is that the guys didn’t do what we expected.
Fletcher Cox is in his second year and arguably the Eagles best defensive player. Expectations are sky high. Last Friday he probably played the worst game of his short NFL career. Granted he only played a handful of snaps, but Cox was not as good as a UDFA like Damion Square who made his NFL debut. Having a quiet game is okay. A bad game for such a good player? That does bug me.
Vinny Curry is a player we still have high hopes for, but he’s playing 20 pounds heavier and in a new scheme so expectations had to be muted because of that. He was terrific on Friday night, making plays in the backfield and hustle plays down the field. Patriots offensive players would tell you #75 is the stud, not #91.
Rookies Damion Square and Bennie Logan played well and drew the praise of the coaching staff. Veteran Isaac Sopoaga was up and down. Cedric Thornton was up and down. Like I said, it was an odd game.
You can never make too much out of the preseason opener. Some veterans sleep-walk through it because they’re pacing themselves. Other veterans go all out and can give you a false positive. Last year Derek Landri was a stud in the preseason and then did very little in the regular season. He was going all out on every play in the summer and not all NFL players do that. When it came time to dial things up in September, he had nowhere to go. To borrow a phrase from Nigel Tufnel, he was already at 11.
We can’t make any conclusions from the opener, but I just re-watched some of the D-line today so let’s take another look at them.
Fletcher Cox was just bad. I don’t know if he was confused or just had an off night, but he only had a play or two where you’d give him a positive grade. Fletch needs to kick butt and take names this year. His job is to be a difference-maker. I hope he’s a man on a mission this week.
Sopoaga wasn’t bad, but he’s got to either eat up blockers or make plays. A powerful 320-pound NT can’t just beat his man 1-on-1 and not affect the play. He had a couple of good moments.
Thornton started slow, but got better. He has good power. Last summer he struggled with double-teams. By the end of the year he could hold his ground. What you worry about with Ced is that he’s a former UDFA who was expected to start this year. Has he stayed focused? He’s not so gifted that he can walk out there and kick butt. He needs to be technically sound and to play focused. I think he’ll be fine.
Why did Damion Square go undrafted? My guess is that he’s a scouts vs coaches guy. The scouts see a guy with poor measurables. He is 6-2, 293. Average to small size for a DT, depending on the system. He isn’t athletic. He doesn’t jump out on tape. The coaches see a player with some football skills. They meet him and find out he’s smart and has a terrific personality. They see a very coachable player. He’ll be in the right spot at the right time. You can trust him.
This is what we saw on tape from Friday. There were at least 2 plays in a 4-man line when he was the last player off the ball. On one, Vinny Curry was a yard upfield as Square was getting started. Still, Square showed up in a good way. He held his ground for the most part. He was able to get off blocks. He was very good on stunts and loops. Square did stand out on tape, but more for results than style.
While I’m encouraged by him, let’s not get too carried away. He’s got physical limitations. If he starts making plays against starting offensive linemen, I’ll fully jump on the bandwagon. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic.
Bennie Logan showed a combination of skill and talent. He used his hands well. He was able to disengage from blockers. Logan showed good strength. He hustled in pursuit. He also showed good short area quickness. He impressed me more tonight as I took another look at the game. He will be a starter, whether at NT or DE. I don’t know that Logan will ever be a playmaker, but he can be a good 3-4 DL that eats up blocks and plays the run well.
Curry is a guy we all saw and were very impressed by. My word of caution with him is that he was at his best playing DT in the Nickel. Curry was good at DE, but didn’t flash nearly as much. He could be a terrific role player this year and could be a starting DE in the future.
The more I watched my favorite gigantic Eagle, Clifton Geathers, the less impressed I was. He could put Square in his back pocket, but Damion outplayed him. Guys that are 6-8, 340 need to jump out when you watch the tape. Be immovable. Or dominate OL when you’re single-blocked. Or eat up blockers. Do something to show that your size is making a difference. Geathers didn’t really do that.
Cox – Sopoaga – Thornton – Geathers – Logan – Curry – Square
Do the Eagles keep 6 or 7 DL? Can Antonio Dixon push for a roster spot? What about Joe Kruger? Who becomes expendable?
Geathers could be the odd man out, but the Eagles love his size and are very fascinated by him.
The players have 2 or 3 more games to show that they belong and what they can do. These final preseason games are critical. The rust is gone. They’ve played in the new system. They’ve now been able to study tape. It is time to put up or shut up for the fringe guys. The guys who did well last week just need to stay focused. Don’t let up.
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Geoff Mosher wrote a good piece on the DL and how the Eagles think it could be the foundation for a good defense. This group is young and has big time potential.
Growing pains aside, Kelly believes his stable of young linemen, several of whom are entering their first or second seasons, will shape the identity of his defense going forward.
“That is one of our strengths on the defensive side of the ball is our defensive line,” he said. “When you throw [Isaac Sopoaga] and [Clifton] Geathers in the mix and Thornton, I think we feel like the D‑line is starting to round into shape as a strength for us over there.”
Kelly’s preference on winning in the trenches with stout, brawny, hard-nosed athletes has been evident since his “big people beat up little people” remark made the rounds in headlines this offseason.
The DL will really thrive if Cox is able to play up to his potential. Every special DL needs that one guy that offenses must either double team or account for. Cox should be that guy for the Eagles.
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Cox conceded Tuesday that he was frustrated. He said that phone conversations he has had with former teammate and mentor Cullen Jenkins, who signed with the New York Giants in the offseason, have helped his state of mind.
“He keeps telling me that I just need to be more patient,” Cox said. “I need to do more read and react rather than trying to get off the ball as fast as I can.”
Cox said that he isn’t just playing two-gap football. There were times against the Patriots when the Eagles had four down linemen and the defensive ends had only one-gap responsibility. But Cox will need to do both if he’s going to play all three downs.
“I know as an offensive coach, I would love to know when that guy’s in the game, it’s two-gap defense; when that guy’s in the game, it’s one-gap defense,” Kelly said. ”They’ve got to be able to play at both.”
Fletch has the size and skills to be a good 3-4 DL. He just needs time and reps to adjust. I’ll give him until the second series on Thursday. That seems reasonable, right?
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I was really impressed. This is not a typical rookie. He is smart. He understands football and where he fits into the big scheme of things. This is definitely the type of player you’d want to coach. I look forward to more interviews with him in the future.