The Eagles are 30th in the NFL in yards allowed. They are 26th in points allowed. You don’t need to be an expert to figure out those aren’t good numbers.
So what can be done to fix the defense?
Time. There is no substitute for experience. The coaches are trying to learn the players. The players are trying to learn the scheme. And the players are learning to function together within the scheme. I’ve been studying Eagles games for more than a decade. I have to watch defensive plays over and over because I don’t always know what’s going on. The 3-4 feels completely foreign to me and and I’m sure it feels the same way to some of the players.
The players generally know their assignments right now, but there is a drastic difference between knowing what to do and being able to carry out the assignment at full speed in a natural, almost instinctive way. That’s not happening with any consistency. Players are able to play fast when they’re comfortable. They need to react, not think. That just takes time.
I can’t stress enough the importance of defenders playing together in a cohesive way. Good defense is so much more than big hits and guys acting tough. Great defenses play smart. They do a good job with their run fits. Players are in the right gaps. Great defenses cover well as individuals and as a group. They understand how to work together. They communicate, both before and during plays. Mistakes can happen when players don’t know where to be or when they try to do too much and ignore their assignment.
Think about the great Bucs defenses. They were elite with stars like Sapp, Brooks and Lynch in 2002. They were 2nd in the NFL in 2007 with those roles filled by Jovan Haye, Jermaine Phillips and 34-year old Derrick Brooks. The scheme was simple. The key was the execution of the scheme. Monte Kiffin did a phenomenal job of teaching the system to new/young players. They didn’t make mental mistakes. And they flew to the ball and tackled very well. It takes time to get a system in place like that, but the Eagles can certainly do a much better job of the basics than what we’ve seen through 3 games.
While the coaches have been with the Eagles players for a while now, there is still learning going on. The coaches are seeing which players are making assignment errors. They got hints in the preseason, but this is a whole other thing. This is when you really find out about players. The coaches can see which guys are spending extra time working on issues. The coaches are finding out which guys are coachable and which ones aren’t. They’re finding out who wants to be great and who just wants a job.
Time and experience will only cure so many things. Some of the errors come down to guys just being sloppy and not executing well. Mychal Kendricks is too talented to miss as many tackles as he is. I think his biggest problem is playing too fast. He ends up off-balance and reaching or diving for the ball. Kendricks needs to play more under control and keep his feet under him so he’s got a good base and can be in good tackling position. Before you get too worried about him, remember that another Eagles 2nd round pick had tackling issues when he was young…some kid named Brian Dawkins.
The coaches are working with players to fix their issues. Some of the problems will go away this year. Others will take longer. Some will never go away, which may lead the player to go away.
Talent is a huge key. The Eagles don’t have enough. Simple as that. The 3-4 requires impact LBs. Kendricks is the closest thing the Eagles have to an impact LB right now and he’s still working through some basic issues. Barwin or Cole would be fine with an impact OLB across from him. But they aren’t good enough across from each other.
The secondary needs help no matter what scheme you run. We all agree on that.
The one X-factor with this area is seeing how players develop. Fletcher Cox is getting better each week. We expected him to be an impact player in the 4-3. If he can also be an impact player in the 3-4, that takes some pressure off the need for impact LBs.
We’ll see how Kendricks progresses. He could become a significant factor. What is Ced Thornton’s ceiling…okay starter or good player? And so on. As the players show what they can do, the coaches and personnel department will adjust their thinking for how to fix the roster next March.
The coaches will also tweak the scheme to better fit the personnel.
While on that subject, many of you aren’t happy with the defensive staff for how they’re run things so far this year. I’ve said all along that I think they should have gone to the 4-3 Under as the base and just mixed in some 3-4. Instead. Bill Davis and his staff have focused more on the 3-4. I wish I could explain why for sure, but I can only guess.
It could be that the coaches felt the 3-4 was simpler to teach, from a schematic standpoint. It could also be that the coaches wanted to run the 3-4 to see who fit and who didn’t. If you tailor the defense to fit the current personnel, you don’t know who fits from a long term perspective. The coaches want the 3-4 to be the long term defense.
The other possibility is that the coaches saw the players in the OTAs and Training Camp and decided the 3-4 was the way to go.
I’m not a 3-4 guy. Never will be. But that’s what the coaches want. I do think it is important for them to do what they want. When Bill Parcells took over Dallas they had a good 4-3 defense. Parcells kept the scheme and DC Mike Zimmer. They finished #1 in the league in his first year. Parcells was a 3-4 guy, but couldn’t argue with success. The defense struggled in 2004 and Parcells ditched the 4-3 for his beloved 3-4. He just wasn’t going to be comfortable unless he was running his scheme. When Buddy Ryan took over the Eagles they were coming off a season with a Top 10 defense. They had run Marion Campbell’s 3-4. Ryan put in his 4-3 defense immediately. He wasn’t about to run the 3-4 and it didn’t matter how good the unit had been. I totally get both men and why they did what they did.
I know many of you remain frustrated with the way the coaches have used Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. I want both players on the field more myself. That said, we need to be careful not to overrate these guys. I’ve written plenty about Graham and how the PFF stats overrate him. Good player. Not a special player. Curry is a trickier subject since he just played last week. We need to see him in action more. Teams will study what he does. Let’s see how that goes. Remember that Jamar Chaney looked great in his first couple of games.
Curry earned more reps with the way he played vs the Chiefs. It will be interesting to see if they try to mix him in on some run downs or if they try to limit him to being a pass rusher. It is too early to know what will become of Curry. The coaches might leave him at backup DE. They could try him at OLB on a regular basis. They could try and mostly keep him at DT in the Nickel.
I’d love to see the coaches shift Ced Thornton to NT, Cox to LDE and use Curry at RDE in the base. I don’t think that is very likely, but would love to see them try that. You would sacrifice some run defense, but would have 3 athletic players up front.
The defense is a work in progress. Davis and the staff will experiment with both scheme and lineup until they find the combination that works the best. We must remember that the Eagles are only 3 weeks into a new defense. The goal is to build a good defense over time. This situation won’t get solved this season. For now, the focus is on getting the current group to be functional. They made some progress against the Chiefs, but weren’t good enough. They should get better as the players get more comfortable in the scheme, but don’t expect anything special this year.
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Derek Sarley did a good breakdown of the defense for the Daily News (still sounds funny to say that).