As we talk about ways to improve the defense, we have to remember that this was an odd year. The 3-4 system was new to most of these guys. Connor Barwin had played in the 3-4 in Houston. Same for DeMeco Ryans, but remember that was a 1-gap system. Mychal Kendricks played some 3-4 in college. Moving to Bill Davis 2-gap version of the 3-4 was essentially new to the entire front seven.
Playing in the 3-4 is vastly different than the 4-3, especially for the DL. As a rookie, Fletcher Cox was taught to attack gaps. If blockers got to him, his job was to shed the block and get to his gap. There were times when he had to take on double teams, but that kind of thing wasn’t a regular occurrence. Cox finished the year with 5.5 sacks, 5 TFLs and a FF. He made his share of plays. This season Cox had 3 sacks and 1 TFL. Cox didn’t get worse. He had to adjust to a new role.
This very well may have been the first time in his life that Cox was coached to engage blockers and read plays. It takes time to adjust to this style of play, especially as a new guy adjusting to the NFL. As a rookie, Chargers DL Corey Liuget played 3-4 DE for the first time in his career. He had 1 sack and 2 TFLs. In 2012 he had 7 sacks and 6 TFLs. Calais Campbell was a 3-4 DE as a rookie and had no sacks and 2 TFLs. That jumped to 7 sacks and 3 TFLs the next season. Since then, he’s emerged as one of the best 3-4 DEs in the league.
Not all guys develop like this. Some players never pan out in the 3-4. Cox does seem like a player who can fit any system. We watched him make some plays on the run this year where your jaw just hit the floor. Big guys shouldn’t run like that. And he’s not just a finesse player. Cox can take on blockers, hold his ground and disengage. The raw skills are there. You just have to think about what Bill Davis mentioned over and over…technique.
3-4 DEs must use the right technique to do their jobs effectively. They must use their hands correctly. They must move their feet correctly. They must play with the right leverage. They need to do all this in a quick, natural way. They can’t be thinking about technique since they need to be reading the offense to find the football. It takes time to become natural at the 3-04.
Cox had a good year. He didn’t make many plays, but was a good run defender. He pressured the passer. The Eagles official team stats actually had him leading the squad in QB pressures with 21. If Cox can take the next step and become a playmaker next year, it will be like adding an impact player to the defense. I think Fletch can do this. He’s got the size, speed and strength. He just needs to keep working on his technique and getting used to the 3-4.
Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan should also get better, but neither of them has the same ceiling as Cox. Thornton made tremendous progress from 2012 to 2013. He was an outstanding run defender. He does need to improve as a pass rusher, but the primary thing you want from him at LDE is stopping the run. I’m not sure what Logan’s ceiling is. He played better this year than I anticipated. He’s proven he can be an effective starting NT. Can he become a flat out good player?
ESPN has Logan with 7 TFLs this year. They show that as the top spot on the team. Logan had 2. If you check out the Eagles official stats, they are a bit different. While Thornton only had 1 sack, he did show the ability to get in the backfield on run plays.
Vinny Curry is a player I am curious about. He reminds me a bit of Ray McDonald of the Niners. McDonald was a 4-3 DE/DT in college. He came to the NFL and became a 3-4 DE and Nickel DT. It took him a while to find his niche, but he’s now a very important player for SF. Curry is quicker and more explosive than McDonald, but isn’t as heavy or strong. Curry made huge progress this year. I’m really interested to see what he does with a full offseason. I don’t know that Curry would ever start for a 3-4 team, but he could become a critical backup/role player.
I’m less enthusiastic about Damion Square and Clifton Geathers. Square might develop into a good backup DL. He’s got limited potential, but is a try-hard guy that is smart and coachable. Those are key qualities in a backup. Square must get stronger so he can hold the point of attack better on run plays as a NT. I don’t know what to say about Geathers. He flashes good potential at times, but I sure wouldn’t trust him as a starter.
I hope Joe Kruger is able to seriously challenge Geathers for a spot.
Kruger has added around 16 pounds, will get up to 290 in time for OTAs. Could be valuable addition to defensive line.
— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) January 6, 2014
Kruger is a good athlete. He can rush the passer. Him getting up to 290 is a good sign. Kruger was on IR this year so he didn’t get to practice, but he was there for meetings. He’ll know the scheme.
I trust Jerry Azzinaro to work with the young D-linemen and get them where they need to be by next year. That doesn’t mean it will suddenly become a dominant unit, but this is a young talented group that should get better and be the foundation for the defense moving forward.
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Need a laugh?
Another picture of Andy Reid and Joe Banner. pic.twitter.com/DLxd4GsRz5
— Time's Yours (@times_yours) January 8, 2014
The gift that keeps on giving.