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Trying To Get A Handle On Defense

Posted Aug 1, 2017

Until the defense is out there and the games count in the standings, Jim Schwartz knows it’s very difficult to know with certainty what to expect from the Eagles on that side of the ball. From now until then, the coaches will look at each day in its entirety, accepting the good things and working on improving the not-so-good ...

Until the defense is out there and the games count in the standings, Jim Schwartz knows it’s very difficult to know with certainty what to expect from the Eagles on that side of the ball. From now until then, the coaches will look at each day in its entirety, accepting the good things and working on improving the not-so-good.

You just never know with a defense. So much of an offseason and a Training Camp period is spent on teaching the fundamentals, rather than just flat-out balling, that the evaluation doesn’t truly, honestly, begin until the preseason games.

And then, it’s just the preseason games.

So what do we think we know about the Eagles' defense at this point, with the preseason opener at Green Bay only days away (the Eagles play at Green Bay on August 10)? If you believe what you see in these Training Camp practices at the NovaCare Complex, the Eagles are going to be disruptive up front with a four-man group, plus super depth, that is going to get after it at the line of scrimmage. They’re going to have ballhawks at linebacker with Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham, and Mychal Kendricks. The safeties, Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod as the starters, should be very, very good.

The cornerbacks? The Eagles’ stance hasn’t changed: It remains a work in progress. There are some good things happening in practice. And there are some rough moments, which is why Patrick Robinson spent time after practice apologizing for “giving up too many big plays” in the last couple of days of camp.

It’s going to take some time. Head coach Doug Pederson, as is his nature, is taking the positive approach. Realistic, yes, and positive.

“I think, right now, they're getting better every day. The competition, you know, we're constantly looking to bring in guys to compete. But I like where we're at right now,” he said. “These guys know, and everybody knows, we have to get better. We have to continue to compete. I thought today was another step in that direction.”

Here is the update: Cornerback is an unsettled position. That was the situation going into Training Camp and that’s where it stands one week later. Second-year man Jalen Mills, playing with confidence, is in line to be one starter. Robinson is taking reps with the first-team defense and hopeful to get into his comfort zone. Rookie Rasul Douglas shows flashes of progress, and he’s gotten his hands on the ball quite a bit in the camp already, but he’s also got a ways to go.

A player to watch is second-year man C.J. Smith, who flies under the radar here. He’s getting second-team reps and he’s holding his own. He has come a long way from last season. Smith knows the defense and he has a lot of confidence after making the practice squad and then the active roster as an undrafted rookie in 2016.

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“It’s a big difference from last year. I’ve been through all of this before so it’s not new to me,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten a lot better with my technique and my confidence. I know I can go out there and play my game. I have to keep showing it every day and earning the coaches’ trust. That’s all I can do. I’m not counting numbers. Just going out there and playing."

For the Eagles to advance with the defense, they’ve got to be great up front. The early impression is that they have the tools to be just that. Tim Jernigan is the perfect addition inside with his relentless nature and off-the-ball quickness. Jernigan is going to open things up for Fletcher Cox and the rest of the line. The Eagles have some depth on the outside with a resurgent Vinny Curry working with Brandon Graham as the starters and Chris Long, Steven Means, and first-round draft pick Derek Barnett all part of the rotation and giving quality repetitions.

But how that all works out and what Schwartz does with the rotation and how much he dials up the blitz comes at a later time. Right now, the Eagles are like every other NFL team – trying to find the best players to make the roster. There is more emphasis on player evaluation than on scheme direction. The Eagles will tweak as they go during the season. Right now, Schwartz and his staff are in teaching mode. The goal in camp is to find the best 53.

So what do we really, truly know about the defense? Not enough. And we won’t until September, at the very least. 

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