LBs and Run Defense

Posted: August 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | Tags: | 41 Comments »

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

41 Comments on “LBs and Run Defense”

  1. 1 -Triumph- said at 12:44 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    I read the whole thing and didn’t fall asleep even once.

  2. 2 Austinfan said at 12:47 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Some points on run defense:

    1) no LB can shed blocks if a NFL OG gets to him, 320 lbs v 235 or 245 isn’t going to make much difference, this is why Bradley was blocked out of plays so much last year. You need to use your hands, but most importantly, you need to see the play and react quickly, and beat the OL to the play before he can square up on you, if he’s reaching for you, you have the advantage. If Matthews has the instincts as advertised, he’s not going to be engaged in a lot of sumo wrestling contests.

    2) Tennessee had some great run defenses and some mediocre run defenses with Washburn. The worst defenses had big DTs (Starks, R Smith and Haynesworth) and slow LBs. The best defense were 2000 to 2002, with Fisk (6’3 295), Thorton (6’3 290) and Evans (6’2 280), Haynesworth and Tony Brown (6’2 280). So penetration is the key for the DL against the run. Other than Bullock, the Titans didn’t have great LBs, Bishop was the best tackling safety (and he was a shrimp, smaller than Coleman). But if all your LBs are inside the DEs, speed is less important than instincts and sure tackling, which is why they can put Fokou at WLB (he’s not slow, 4.65?), Chaney at SLB is for coverage against TEs, not the run.

  3. 3 Thunderlips said at 12:54 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    “You can’t really get beat deep when you’re at your own 30”

    Tell that to Ellis Hobbs….

    (Fast forward to the 40 second mark)

  4. 4 Tommy Lawlor said at 12:57 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Thunderlips…

    Hobbs was right with him. Kenny cheated and jumped up for the ball. WRs are supposed to remain firmly planted on the ground at all times. Right?

  5. 5 Kevin (RC) said at 12:59 PM on August 10th, 2011:


    Very good read. Makes me realize that we should have kept Chris Gocong. He would have been perfect as the WLB. He could smash LBs all day. He wouldn’t have been needed to cover TEs. He’s quick enough to rush the passer when he blitzes. Is he a play-maker? No, but he would have been a rock on Run D. I think he’s a backup in Cleveland’s 4-3 D.

  6. 6 Sokhar said at 1:07 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Sounds like Jarrett is the ideal style of safety we’d need to run this scheme. If run defense proves to be a problem, you let the corner do their thing with Nate at centerfield for some extra help, and drop Jarrett down into the box. I loved Q and thought he was a really good player for us, but he wasn’t a guy that really dominated at run defense. He was someone that was pretty good at both, and played his ass off to get every opportunity to move up the depth chart.

    I’m still sad to see Q and Akers go, that means the only remaining link on the team (for the players anyway) is J-Jackson, right? And he was just a backup or practice squad guy that year, wasn’t he?

  7. 7 Thunderlips said at 1:31 PM on August 10th, 2011:


    I think J-Jack was on IR for our Superbowl Run

  8. 8 makarov__ said at 1:51 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Great, informative post.

    The big question I have, that I’m not sure anyone can answer, is what does our LB depth look like? On the preliminary chart, Greg Lloyd is there for MLB. Is that realistic when we get to the regular season? Would it make more sense for Chaney to slide over?

    I’m concerned because I haven’t heard anything really good or positive about Lloyd coming out of camp so far.

  9. 9 Dan in Philly said at 1:58 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    I like to think of the defense as setting itself up to play for a win. You envision what all possibly can happen in a football game, and try to make your defense as good as it can be at whatever you think is likely to lead to a win for you.

    To illustrate, consider what Dungy did at Indy. he knew that he had a great offense, and that he would be playing with leads a lot. He designed his defense to pretty much allow short gains but never long ones, and they tried to rush the passer and get INTs. You wouldn’t call any of those Indy defenses great as Dungy’s Tampa ones, but they did match well with the offense. They weren’t great against the run and really didn’t have to be, they just had to play a defense which ran out the clock and didn’t allow quick strikes to let the other team back into a game.

    When I think of this team, I think similar to last year we will have a lot of quick strikes and a lot of yards. Time of Possession and total yards will mean less and total possessions and scores will mean more. If I were to design an Eagle D this year I would emphasize turnovers and big plays over everything else. I would allow big runs if it also meant sometimes big stops (and therefore punts). I would be ok with an poor run D against grind it out teams if it meant that my pass D would produce a lot of INTs. I would train my entire DL to go for the strip whenever possible, rather than wrapping up as much. Everytime we get an extra possession, even deep in our own territory, we are a threat to score a TD with the weapons we have.

    It seems to me that the scheme and personnel we have is designed to do that very thing.

  10. 10 Tommy Lawlor said at 2:30 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Dan…

    I wrote my column about us having a defense built to protect leads.

  11. 11 Tommy Lawlor said at 2:33 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ makarov…

    Backup MLB is a question. In reality Chaney is the true backup. We’d then insert either Akeem Jordan or Rashad Jeanty at his spot.

    I think the Eagles will keep their eyes open for a backup MLB. Right now they want to see what Greg Lloyd does. If he looks good on Thursday, maybe he’ll have a shot at making the roster.

    Heck, if Casey has a couple of nightmare games and looks lost, we might go get Kirk Morrison or someone like that to start and then shift Casey to backup.

    Fluid situation. We must see the young guys to have an idea what’s right/wrong and what must be addressed.

  12. 12 Kammich said at 2:51 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Not only does this site have some of the consistently best football writing on the net, but you guys are pretty excellent at pop culture references, too.

    I won’t be able to think of Ernie Sims without thinking of “Scanners” any more. Excellent stuff.

  13. 13 Dan in Philly said at 2:55 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Tommy, stop stealing my ideas before I post them…

  14. 14 Tommy Lawlor said at 3:04 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Dan…

    Apparently Greg Cosell talked about this idea a couple of months back. He’s stealing from both of us…and ahead of time. We’re gonna need a lot of beer to figure out a solution to this.

  15. 15 T_S_O_P said at 3:06 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    If Chaney goes to the middle then surely Clayton then figures regardless of where he’s practicing at presently. Surely?

    Tommy, on Clayton, if it seems odd that he is presently backing up WiLL, isn’t it equally odd that Akeem is at SAM covering TEs? The 2008 version of Jordan was applauded for his physical nature i the run game and as I understand it, that was the best version!

  16. 16 izzylangfan said at 3:08 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    To me the key is going to be how well do the linebackers cover across the middle in the 5 to 15 yard range. Particularly on third down. And can we shut down some TE’s.

    Great article, Tommy. And excellent point about Hobbs not jumping.

  17. 17 Stephen said at 3:27 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    I feel like Hobbs gets a bad wrap cuz of that Tennessee game. I mean he was a nightmare, but he was trying to play hurt and I really can’t get on the players for doing that. They’re supposed to play through injury, its up to the coaches to figure out when they can’t go anymore, and Hobbs clearly shoulda been pulled sooner than he was.

  18. 18 Stephen said at 3:29 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    And Im not trying to say that Hobbs was a good player because he wasn’t, serviceable would probably be a generous way to describe him, but still, I think peoples memories of that game are a little skewed cuz of how much Britt abused him.

  19. 19 Tommy Lawlor said at 3:54 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Stephen…

    Hobbs was better than people remember. He didn’t become a major issue until after he got hurt in the middle of the TEN game.

    He was never a good starter, but was competent when 100%.

  20. 20 Tommy Lawlor said at 3:59 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ TSOP…

    I think the goal with Jordan is to use him on TEs. Back in 2008 Jim Johnson put Jordan into the starting lineup ahead of Omar Gaither. JJ then had Jordan cover TEs a lot and that helped the defense. Jordan did that from WLB. Now he’d do that from SAM.

    Here’s a great article from 2008 where Paul Domowitch talked about some of the changes JJ made with that unit.

  21. 21 MidniteMud said at 4:01 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Great read Tommy!

    Do you think Matthews will be blitzing like crazy this year. With Chaney covering TEs, Fokou/WLB now not blitzing as much to stay in read/react mode, the great corners we have shutting down the outside, and safeties deep, it seems like they can have Matthews attacking downhill behind a more disruptive D-line quite a bit. I know he is a good and instictive cover LB, but he might be our headhunter this year. It would keep him from thinking too much in coverage, and just allow him to attack instead of think. He still is a rookie at the end of the day.

  22. 22 Trevor Turner said at 4:08 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Tommy:

    It just seems like incredible wishful thinking to assume that three young guys, all picked on the last day of the draft, and all still pretty much unknowns as full-time starters would be able to learn a completely new scheme and become a strong unit.

    To me, if this unit winds up being serviceable, I’ll be very happy. But considering that this team is going for a ring this year, why would you risk having a bad run defense by rolling the dice at the LB spot?

    On paper, this unit of LBs appears to be among the very worst in the NFL.

    I’ve just never understood Andy Reid’s total neglect of his LBs. In 11 seasons of franchise stability and success, we’ve had tons of talent come through Philadelphia, but other than Jeremiah Trotter, just about every LB we’ve ever started has sucked. I mean, failed Eagles LBs could be a sporcle quiz at this point.

  23. 23 Max said at 4:09 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @Austinfan – do you live in Austin by any chance?

  24. 24 Tommy Lawlor said at 4:14 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ MidniteMud…

    Matthews is a good blitzer. Expect him to blitz on a regular basis, but he’ll spend most of his time on pass plays in coverage. Casey is very smart and instinctive. Won’t surprise me at all for him to have 2 or 3 INTs this year.

  25. 25 Tommy Lawlor said at 4:25 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Trevor Turner …

    LB won’t be a strength. We’re loaded on the DL and at CB.

    S and LB are the weak spots. Point is that we’ve got enough at those spots to do what we require.

    Chaney could turn out to be a flat out good LB. Don’t overlook that. He was impressive last year.

    Fokou needs to show he can be a solid starter. He was solid at SAM last year, but will adjust to a new spot.

    Matthews is mystery. I’m optimistic, but that’s a mixture of tape study, research, and hope. He could turn out to be a complete bust.

    As for rating our LBs as a unit…you can only compare them vs other 4-3 teams. I wouldn’t put us behind the Giants. I’m not sure the Rams are any better right now. The Titans are somewhat of a mystery.

    Teams like the Bears, Vikings, and Panthers are clearly better. No real comparison. We won’t get to that level until we establish one impact LB. We hope that is Chaney, but he’s unproven at this point.

    One thing to remember about Chaney…he was a late round pick, but that wasn’t due to talent. There was an injury concern that pushed him out of the 3rd or 4th round. He was a very good college player and then had a terrific Combine. A clean medical report would have maybe gotten him picked in the Top 100.

  26. 26 Jeppe said at 5:14 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Given the fact that our LBs are more important to our D than in the past, do you think we will use a higher pick on a LB in the draft?? I really want us to try and get a playmaker here… Zack Brown, UNC or Trawis Lewis, OSU seems like early perfect fits for our WILL spot!!!

  27. 27 Tommy Lawlor said at 5:19 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    I do think we could go for a LB early next year. I’ll mention LB / draft in an upcoming post.

  28. 28 iskar36 said at 5:37 PM on August 10th, 2011:


    My problem with our LB core is not that I don’t think Fokou, Matthews, and Chaney can not play well, it is more the lack of competition they faced in getting their starting roles, particularly with Matthews.

    Chaney is the guy I am least worried about. He did play well last year and rightfully was in the discussion about starting for this year once the season ended. That being said, even though he played well, we are not talking about a full season of playing well, we are only talking about a few games. In addition, he was playing MLB, not OLB, so there are still some significant questions about him.

    Fokou also didn’t play poorly last season, but unlike Chaney, he was certainly not someone you got excited about. He might be the guy that has had the most competition for his starting spot, but I’m not sure Clayton is ready to take on the starting job and Jordan already lost that competition to Fokou last year.

    Finally, Matthews was flat out handed the MLB job. I understand that Castillo likes him and honestly, he could end up being a great player, but we are not talking about a guy who was a flat out stud in college. As you said yourself Tommy, he did have physical limitations in college. Again, maybe with NFL coaching and the right scheme, he does great, but at the very least, shouldn’t he have to earn the starting role somehow? Even if it came from a mid-level “serviceable starter” type veteran, I would have felt much better knowing that Casey Matthews beat out someone for the job. Right now, not only did he get handed the job, but the closest he was to competing with anyone for it was a guy who may or may not even make the team.

    I just felt that even if our starters end up not changing, had we brought in at least on guy to compete in the middle, not only would it have brought out some competition (which brings out the best in players), but it would have also meant that the depth would have improved.

  29. 29 Netherman said at 5:46 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Castillo would do a lot to assuage my concern over Matthews if his number 1 response to all things Matthews was not “bloodlines”…instincts seems like a legit reason to back him. That said excited tomorrow to finally see them in action. As always, best eagles site on the internetz.

  30. 30 Tommy Lawlor said at 5:57 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ iskar…

    In a normal year the Eagles would have had competition for Matthews. I think the Eagles hoped Bradley would come back for a short deal. They looked around and didn’t really like the options. They will bring in a MLB if he struggles in the next 2 games.

    Jeanty was supposed to be competition at SAM, but hasn’t been great. That led to the signing of Jordan.

    Clayton is competition at WLB. No word from the coaches on how he’s done.

  31. 31 Sjampen said at 6:48 PM on August 10th, 2011:


    Great read yet again. What can you say about the coverage scheme? Are we gonna go more zone now, or what? Seems a shame with Nnamdi, DRC & Asante to zone cover, but then again. Nnamdi can do it all, Asante owned Peyton in a zone scheme in New England and DRC has the quickness.

    I would love a post about coverage scheme. Are we going cover/Tampa 2 or going man with the CBs and Chaney, Matthews

  32. 32 Thunderlips said at 6:50 PM on August 10th, 2011:


  33. 33 Kevin (RC) said at 6:51 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Eagles sign Giants WR Steve Smith to a one-year contract. He will start the season on PUP.

  34. 34 Thunderlips said at 6:51 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Wow! A total F-U move to the Giants. Makes me a little more worried about Maclin though. I’m really starting to dread hearing about his problem.

  35. 35 DB said at 6:53 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    RE: Steve Smith

    Are we gonna be playing offense with two footballs?

  36. 36 White Bill Cosby said at 6:56 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Not ashamed to admit, I just did a DX style crotch chop in the direction of New York.

  37. 37 iskar36 said at 7:22 PM on August 10th, 2011:


    I can’t imagine this signing has anything to do with Maclin. While It’s annoying that we don’t know what is going on with him, I feel that they wouldn’t have signed a guy who will start the season on PUP if the concern was replacing Maclin.

  38. 38 Obed said at 7:37 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    Is Steve Smith capable on STs? I think Cooper’s job is the one in jeopardy, not Maclin’s.

  39. 39 Tommy Lawlor said at 7:50 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    I just put up a quick post on the Smith signing.

  40. 40 Tommy Lawlor said at 7:52 PM on August 10th, 2011:

    @ Sjampen…

    I think we could play a lot of 2-man.

    That is when the CBs play man on the WRs outside and the Safeties play Cover 2. It really limits big plays since you have 2 guys staying deep.

    We won’t be running a typical zone defense with Asante, DRC, and Nnamdi out on the field. That would be overkill.

  41. 41 tryecrot said at 7:25 AM on August 27th, 2011:

    Yes there should realize the opportunity to RSS commentary, quite simply, CMS is another on the blog.