Is Big Al Worth The Risk?

Posted: May 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | Tags: , | 32 Comments »

Albert Haynesworth is going to be cut or traded when the offseason gets underway.  He’s had a miserable 2-year stay in Washington and coach Mike Shanahan doesn’t need another summer of useless drama between the two of them.

I still believe very strongly that Big Al can be a dominant defensive player.  He was outstanding last year against the Bears and showed his talent didn’t go away.  Will the Eagles have any interest in Big Al?  Should they?

Haynesworth failed in D.C. partly due to the Skins and partly due to himself.  Let’s go back to his time with the Titans for a second.  In 2007 and 2008 Big Al became the most dominant defensive player in the NFL.  In ’07 Al had 6 sacks, 8 TFLs, 4 pass deflections, and 32 solo tackles.  In ’08 he had 8.5 sacks, 7 TFLs, 3 FFs, 2 pass deflections, and 41 solo tackles.  Those numbers don’t do him justice.  Al was double and triple teamed.  Offenses had to account for him all game long.  The Titans responded by moving him around.  Sometimes he was the Nose Tackle.  Other times he was the Under Tackle.  He played DE and was able to pressure the QB off the edge.  Big Al was able to help the Titans finish up high in points and yards allowed both seasons.

The Skins lured him to D.C. with the biggest contract for a defensive player in the history of the NFL.  They told him he’d be allowed to attack upfield and do his thing just like he did in Tennessee.  Apparently Defensive Coordinator Greg Blache wasn’t present at that meeting.  Blache had other ideas for how to use Big Al.  He didn’t let Al just fire upfield on a regular basis.  He was more conservative in how he used his DTs and also wasn’t as creative at moving Al around.  Big Al had an okay year, but was definitely a disappointment.

Along came Shanny in the 2010 offseason.  He had the brilliant idea to take a good 4-3 defense and change it to a 3-4, despite not having the proper personnel.  Big Al was projected to be the NT.  Oops.  That didn’t go so well.  Big Al wanted no part of being a 3-4 NT.  That calls for a player to basically occupy blockers so the LBs can go make plays.  Al and Shanny began a personal war that lasted all year long.  Al only played in 8 games and was just a role player.  He still had some great moments (see the CHI game), but the season was largely wasted.

The Skins fault in all of this is going and getting a player who expected to be used in a certain way and then having him do other things.  Like it or not, star players need to be treated in a certain way.  You need to use them so that they can play at their best.  I still think Shanny made one of the worst decisions of the last decade by forcing the 3-4 onto the team.  The Skins have been tough on defense for the last several years.  Why change a good thing?

Big Al is at fault for not handling the situation like a professional.  The Skins pissed him off with the way they used him, but he was still making mega-bucks.  Gripe to the coaches behind closed doors, but don’t go public with every dissenting opinion and never give less than 100% effort.  Al definitely looked like a jackass with the way he acted over the last 2 years.

Normally I would have no interest in a guy like Big Al.  He’s turning 30 this summer.  He’s an inconsistent player.  He can be a headache in the locker room and in general.  But…I’m open to adding Big Al for a couple of reasons.  Jim Washburn, our new DL coach, is the man who got Al to play at such a high level in Tennessee.  Those two got along really well.  Washburn was able to teach and motivate Al.  I have to think that coming to Philly and getting back into the scheme that allowed him to flourish and playing for his old coach would bring out the best in Al.  And you know he’d want to crush the Skins twice a year.

The second factor is that we simply don’t have anyone who is physically dominant up front.  I love Trent Cole to death, but he’s an effort player with some talent and athletic ability.  Trent will never overwhelm the blocker in front of him due to sheer size/strength.  Big Al has that ability.  I don’t think a defense must have that guy, but boy would it be nice.

Think about opposing offenses as they broke the huddle.  They’d have to find Big Al and figure out who was blocking him.  He might be the NT, UT, or LDE.  How’d you like to have him at LDE with Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon on the inside on running downs?  Big Al isn’t just a playmaker.  At his best with the Titans, he made the players around him even better.  I bet Trent Cole would love the chance to play with a guy like Al.

The Eagles didn’t address DT at all in the draft.  This could mean they are comfortable with the 4 guys already in place.  Or it could mean they want to go get a player via free agency or trade.  You know that Washburn has already talked to Andy Reid and Howie Roseman about Al.  The question is whether he gave him a thumbs up or down.

The x-factors in this are money and off-field issues.  I would not give Big Al a big deal.  No way.  I don’t trust him like that.  He needs to show he can get his head back on straight.  Al got in trouble for allegedly punching another driver in some kind of traffic altercation.  He also is in legal trouble for inappropriately touching a waitress.  He’s had plenty of issues in the past.  Al isn’t a guy you will nominate for man of the year anytime soon.

I would be fine with the Eagles going after Big Al, assuming he’s not given a big contract.  What about you guys?  Is he too much of a turd or is Al a risk you’re willing to take?


The Eagles and DT

Posted: March 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | Tags: , , , , | 26 Comments »
DT Antonio Dixon prepares to punish a RB.

DT Antonio Dixon prepares to punish a RB.

New DL coach Jim Washburn is bringing his “Wide Nine” system to Philly.  We’ve talked about what this means to the ends, but the new system will also impact the DTs.  Let’s go for a quick history lesson before we jump into what will happen in 2011.

The first thing to understand as we delve into this is that the Eagles don’t like to discuss things in detail.  Assistant coaches are normally off limits.  Coordinators talk about big things like star players, injuries, and matchups.  You don’t get them to get into the X’s and O’s of the scheme very often.  That means we have some facts to deal with, but also a lot of guess work.

Run defense was never a schematic priority for Jim Johnson.  He wanted his front seven to focus on the run, but he wasn’t going to sell out by loading the box or by getting huge players who specialized in run D.  He wanted smaller, quicker guys who would play the run, but also could get to the QB.

Jim had his DTs attack up the field.  He liked penetration and disruptive play from his guys up front.  In 2001 the defense had 103 TFLs.  Last season we had 63.  The DTs didn’t make substantially more plays in ’01.  They were more disruptive and created opportunities for others on a regular basis.  You knew the DTs would be in the backfield throughout the game.  This worked well from 2000-2004.

2005 was a throwaway season because of all the injuries and oddities.  That season was the Eagles version of Bizarro World.  At the end of the year DL coach Tommy Brasher retired and was replaced by Pete Jenkins.

2006 didn’t see any real schematic changes.  The defense was terrible, though.  They really struggled to stop people, especially on the ground.  The Eagles finished 26th in yards allowed and 24th in yards per attempt.  The defense was 15th overall in points and yards allowed.  There was a 4-game stretch where the team allowed 764 yards on the ground (TEN, IND, CAR, WAS).  That was a real low point.  The team still won the division, but the defense didn’t show up in the playoffs.  The opponents scored 20 and 27 points and combined for 359 rushing yards.

I think the struggles caused JJ to open his mind about adjusting the scheme.  Pete Jenkins specialized in 2-gap defense.  He now incorporated his ideas into JJ’s scheme.  I’m not sure if the change was total in 2007.  Did we mix in 2-gap to test it or go all the way?  I don’t know.  We certainly did make that change by 2008 and the run defense was outstanding.  We were 4th in rushing yards allowed, 2nd in rushing TDs allowed, and 4th in yards per rushing attempt.  Starting DTs Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson did a fantastic job of controlling the middle of the line.

JJ passed away and Pete Jenkins retired prior to 2009.  The DT play was pretty solid vs the run in the next 2 years, but getting pressure up the middle on pass plays was a major problem.  I don’t know if this was due to personnel, scheme, or coaching.  Rory Segrest had replaced Jenkins and just seemed to be in over his head.

After the conclusion of the 2010 season we saw a lot of change.  Sean McDermott was fired.  The assistants were let go.  Jim Washburn was hired to run the DL and bring his scheme to town.  Juan Castillo was given the job as DC.  So here we are.  Now let’s talk about 2011.

Washburn will have the DTs going back to the attacking style we used to use.  It isn’t exactly the same, but the basic principle is…play on the other side of the line of scrimmage (LOS).  You want defenders getting up the field and disrupting the offense with penetration.  I love the fact we’re going back to this style.  I prefer my DL to attack.  My favorite defenses always played a 1-gap style.

I think most people are on board with the change.  The players will certainly love it.  The question is how the current players fit the scheme and whether we have the guys to make it work.

Mike Patterson is the senior member of the DTs.  He was a terrific 1-gap player at USC and early in his NFL career.  He’s gotten bigger in the NFL, partly due to liking food and partly to fit the 2-gap system.  Mike now is about 6’1, 330.  He has good initial quickness.  He has a good motor.  Mike isn’t a playmaker anymore, though.  He doesn’t have the build or athleticism to thrive in an attacking scheme.  He could lose 15-20 pounds and that might change, but you can’t count on it.  The man has taken a pounding as a starting DT for 6 years.  I don’t know that shedding weight will get him back to his college playing style.

Brodrick Bunkley is next up.  Bunk is a tough player to assess.  He was a train wreck back in ’06 when he held out in the summer and reported fat and out of shape.  That year was a waste.  Bunk then played well in 2007 and ’08.  He didn’t make a ton of plays, but was outstanding as a run defender.  He was solid in 2009.  This past year he wasn’t playing to his old level and then hurt his elbow.  That cost him his starting job.  Bunk never complained, so I do give him credit for that.  He accepted his demotion and played okay after coming back.  Bunk is very powerful, but remains a pretty good athlete.  I think he’s got the size and skill set to fit the new system.  I know some people are down on him, but I’m not ready to give up on Bunk.  He played very well in JJ’s final 2 years.  He had a good DC and DL coach.  Bunk’s play declined with lesser guys coaching him and running the defense.  I don’t think you can ignore that fact.

Antonio Dixon is the man who replaced Bunk in the starting lineup.  Dixon is the biggest DT at 6-3, 322.  He’s not a massive NT type with no movement skills.  Dixon has a quick burst off the ball.  He hustles in pursuit of plays.  He is very powerful and tough to block one-on-one.  He made his share of plays, with 2 sacks and 4 TFLs.  Dixon is a guy that I’m sure Washburn is very intrigued by.  Antonio is just scratching the surface of how good he can be.

Finally we have Trevor Laws.  He looked like a major bust at the end of the 2009 season.  He had 17 solo tackles in 2 years.  He had no sacks.  He was awful as a run defender.  Double teams drove him 5 or more yards off the ball.  The Eagles hired Barry Rubin to be the new strength coach last offseason and that move had a huge impact on Trevor.  He changed his body.  He bulked up to the 295-300 pound range.  While he got bigger and stronger, he was still able to retain his quickness and agility.  Laws responded by playing very well in 2010.  He had 4 sacks, 13 solo tackles, 4 pass deflections, and even picked off a pass.  He was a disruptive force in the Nickel/Dime units.  Laws even became a functional run defender.  Trevor has the quickness and athleticism to be a good fit in the new scheme.  I think he could even vie for a starting spot.

Now let’s talk about the new scheme.  Washburn will have a standard 4-3 DT alignment where one DT lines up in the 3-technique (outside eye of the G) and the other DT lines up between the C and other G.  The 3-technique is considered the Under Tackle (UT) and the other guy is the Nose Tackle (NT).

The UT is supposed to be more of a pass rusher/disruptive type.  The NT is nothing like his counterpart in the 3-4.  The NT is also supposed to get upfield.  He lines up between the G and C and will often draw his share of double teams.  There are a couple of different ways the NT can handle this.  Smaller guys can stay low and try to get under the blockers.  Bigger guys can use their size/power to fight through the blocks.  Either way, the goal is the same…get into the backfield.

I am talking about the base defense in regard to the UT and NT and alignment/assignments.  There are times when the line will be in an under or over shift and the players will line up in different spots.  There are times when the DEs will move in tight.  A lot of times that will be for stunts.  Washburn wants his guys to attack, but does get creative with them so it’s not just a matter of going straight up the field on every snap.

Washburn used a variety of DTs in his time at Tennessee.  Let’s focus on the last 5 years for now.

Starters:
2010 – Tony Brown , Jason Jones
2009 – Tony Brown , Jovan Haye
2008 – Tony Brown , Albert Haynesworth
2007 – Tony Brown , Albert Haynesworth
2006 – Robaire Smith , Albert Haynesworth

Brown – 6-1, 295 … signed as FA after being cut by a couple of teams
Haye – 6-2, 277 ….. signed as FA after starting in Tampa
Smith – 6-4, 315 …. 6th round pick
Jones – 6-5, 275 …. 2nd round pick
Haynesworth – 6-5, 330 … Top 20 pick

Couple of key backups:

Kevin Vickerson – 6-4, 295
Randy Starks – 6-3, 312

Draft picks in the last 5 years:

2010 … David Howard – 7th round – Brown – 6-3, 304
2009 … Sen’Derrick Marks – 2nd round – Auburn – 6-2, 294
2008 … Jason Jones – 2nd round – EMU – 6-5, 275
2007 … Antonio Johnson – 5th round – Miss State – 6-3, 310
2006 … Jesse Mahelona – 5th round – Tennessee – 6-0, 311

I think you can see that Washburn was open to using a variety of players.  He did have 4 guys 6-4 or above.  We haven’t had a DT that tall as part of the regular rotation in a while.  I hope we change.  Big/tall framed DTs make it tougher for the QB to throw over them.  It is funny that the guy with the most starts for the Titans in the last 5 years is Brown, the smallest DT they’ve had in a long time.  That shows you the system is more about players than just body types.

Heading into 2011 I think Washburn will have a pretty open competition for the starting roles.  I think Patt and Bunk would get the first look based on their experience.  It wouldn’t shock me if Laws and Dixon outplayed them and ended up as the starters.  I think all 4 guys have the potential to start in the system.

I do wonder about Mike Patterson’s future.  He doesn’t appear to be an ideal fit.  You never know what Washburn thinks.  He might have wanted a player with Patt’s size/skill set in Tennessee and it just never worked out.  I doubt that, but you never know.  I think Mike could be trade bait.  There were several teams inquiring about him last offseason.  The Eagles didn’t shop Mike.  Teams called the Eagles.  He was an attractive target because he’s a good player, but also is signed to a good deal.  The Eagles didn’t want to deal him so they didn’t get into any kind of negotiations.  Patt wouldn’t draw a huge bounty.  You’d be looking at a 3rd or 4th round pick.  If the Eagles are interested in using a high pick on a DT, then dealing Mike makes some sense.

I don’t see DT as a position of need so much as one of uncertainty.  It actually could turn out to be a position of strength if Washburn is able to “coach up” the talent we already have in place.  We all know the Eagles draft for the future so they absolutely could go for a DT early, but Laws and Dixon are young guys with bright futures.  At the very least, I want to add one DT in the draft.  Jeff Owens is rehabbing a tough injury and isn’t a great fit for the new system.

There is no right or wrong is discussing the DT situation since it is so much of a mystery to us.  How will the current players take to the new system?  Which players will click with Washburn?  Which players will elevate their game based on contract issues?  I can’t stress enough the importance of fit, as well as buying into a new system.  Back in 1995 we had a pair of good starting WRs in Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams.  They were used to a downfield passing attack.  In comes young Jon Gruden with his WCO and short routes.  That went together like brownies and tartar sauce.  Barnett and Williams were out the door in 1996.  Irving Fryar stepped in as a free agent and put up Pro Bowl numbers.

I don’t think any DT will have such a sense of entitlement that he resists the changes.  If anything, I think the guys will covet the presence of a good positional coach and a chance to attack up the field.  I could see Bunk, Trevor, or Dixon thriving in the new system.  Patt?  He’s a steady Eddie type that will do his best no matter what, but just isn’t going to be a difference maker.

I will talk about some DT targets in the draft in a future post.  My thoughts change as I watch more and more tape.  I’ve got a couple of small school guys left to check out before I write anything.


Big Red Talks About the Eagles Defense

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments »

PE.com has a 3-part video series between Dave Spadaro and Andy Reid.  I encourage you to watch it, if you haven’t already.  A lot of the discussion is simple, obvious stuff (coaches rarely open up), but Dave did get some good nuggets from Andy. The most helpful info involved our “new” defense.

Andy reiterated that the defense will be the same basic ideas that have been here during his tenure. One thing I don’t think enough people appreciate is that things changed over the years, under both JJ and Sean McDermott. You take a basic approach and tweak it based on new personnel, changes in rules, or schematic shifts in the game. Think about some examples:

* Do you think JJ’s playbook had a section for a FS like Brian Dawkins prior to his hiring by the Eagles? Jim saw Dawk’s potential and figured out a variety of ways to use him.
* Remember 2006? JJ decided to mix things up and use Dawk like a LB in the Nickel/Dime looks. That lasted half the year (or less).
* We played our DTs in a 1-gap style for most of JJ’s tenure. He switched after the arrival of DL coach Pete Jenkins.
* We used to have pass rushing DTs. The arrival of Darren Howard led us to start mixing in DEs on the inside. Eventually both DTs on passing downs became DEs.
* With Carlos Emmons at SAM we used him to shut down TEs. Other years JJ mixed up his coverages. In 2008 he used the WLB and SS to split the job.
* With Bobby Taylor, Troy Vincent, and Al Harris we played a ton of physical, press coverage. That changed as the rules changed in 2004 and as our personnel changed.

So what will happen in 2011? We’re going back to the 1-gap, attacking scheme we used to run, with some adjustments. The front is referred to as the “Wide Nine” because the DEs will line up out wide (the nine technique). Quick aside, let’s talk about alignment/terminology.

0 technique – NT in the 3-4
1 technique – NT in the 4-3, shaded to the outside of the C
3 technique – DT in the 4-3, lines up on the outside eye of the G (position that Warren Sapp made famous)
5 technique – DE in the 3-4, lines up on the outside eye of the T

4-3 DEs line up in a variety of places. In Jim Washburn’s scheme the DEs are out wide, outside of the TE even. This is the 9 technique. Keep in mind that this is a base look. There are times when the DEs move around. Washburn will use under fronts where the line slides away from the TE. This has a DE line up right over the OT. Sometimes the DE will line up over the OT to help set up a stunt. The DE goes inside and the DT loops around him.

Our DTs will basically line up in the same place as last year (and the past), but they will fire off the ball and attack. As Reid said in the interview, the goal is for the DL to play on the other side of the LOS.

LB play is going to change. Everyone sick of hearing about “downhill LBs” can rejoice. We now will have guys doing more read and react. Some people will be put off by that phrase since it sounds passive. Don’t be. Previously our LBs attacked up the field. Think of all the times we saw a guy attacking a FB on run plays. The LBs will now read the play at the snap. They have a second or so to diagnose and find the ball, then go get it.

Jamar Chaney should thrive in this system. He runs very well and has good instincts. Stewart Bradley runs well for a big MLB. He should be okay. The key for him will be finding the ball without taking false steps and getting out of position. Moise Fokou is a guy I’ll need to watch tape on. He can run, but tends to be more of a bull in a china shop. Can he sit back, read the play, and then go to the ball? That’s different than being up on the line and making contact right at the snap.

Reid didn’t go into the secondary. I think we’ll be looking at a mixture of zone and man based on how our personnel shakes out and who we’re playing that day.

Juan Castillo mentioned the Bears defense a few times after getting the DC job. Some people take that as him wanting the Tampa 2. That’s not what I took from him. He was focusing on effort and how hard they play. I’ve gotten into football discussions with friends and I always tell people that the most fascinating thing for me in terms of defense is how hard the Bears play. This defense has played with max effort for 5 plus years. How do you do that? At some point players tend to tune out a coach.

The man getting the credit now is Rod Marinelli, but Lovie Smith had the Bears playing this way when Rod was going 0-16 up in Detroit. Lovie isn’t a rah-rah guy. He’s a quiet, professional leader. Yet, he somehow gets his guys to play harder on defense than any other team in the league. Some of you may think all of this is hyperbole, but I’ve always felt there is a noticeable difference in the energy the Bears bring to the field. I was happy to hear Castillo talk about the Bears because that means I’m not the only one who notices it.

Effort, attitude, and hustle are great, but you must have talent. The Bears have signature players like Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, and Brian Urlacher. The Eagles have some good pieces in place, but there are some holes to fill. I promise you the Eagles will add a CB, either in FA or the draft. Beyond that, I guarantee nothing. We have to see who is available and how the whole CBA mess works out.

Back to Castillo for a minute. He spent a lot of time discussing blitzes with JJ over the years. I think Juan will keep the blitz very much a part of our scheme. His time running the OL should have made it clear to him how disruptive and effective the blitz can be when done right. Juan still probably still has nightmares about Antoine Winfield. I know Michael Vick and I do.

Castillo and Washburn are working on the playbook as we speak. They are combining their ideas with JJ’s basics, maybe even a thing or two from Sean. The one section where they better get completely rid of McDermott’s ideas is the Red Zone. We were awful there in 2010. Way too passive. Washburn and the Titans were very good in the Red Zone last year so hopefully some of his ideas will help us. There’s only one way to go…up. I mean, how much more awful could our Red Zone defense be? The answer is none…none more awful (right Nigel?).

I’m actually excited to see how the defense looks. We were all shocked to find out Juan Castillo got the DC job. Now that the shock of that has subsided I’m starting to like some of his ideas. We still don’t know if he can run a defense, but I do like what I’m hearing. And I’m thrilled with Washburn coaching the D-line and bringing his ideas over from Tennessee. The whole 2-gap DT thing just wasn’t my cup of tea. I want my linemen firing off the ball and being disruptive.

As I said, I like what I’m hearing. The real proof will be in the pudding, though. We’ve got to see how all of this works in games and through the course of a season. All Juan has to do is live up to the level set forth by Marion Campbell, Buddy Ryan, Wade Phillips, Jeff Fisher, Bud Carson, and Jim Johnson. What could go wrong?