The NFL, by virtue of relaxed rules, spread formations, and dynamic schemes, has become The Game of Throws through the years, basically eliminating the idea of a “shutdown” cornerback and puffing up the passing statistics of every quarterback. Brett Favre’s 1998 stats – 31 touchdown passes, 23 interceptions, 4,212 yards, and a 63 percent completion rate – look pedestrian by today’s standards (nine quarterbacks threw 30 or more touchdowns in the 2018 season). The game has evolved. It’s pass the football or go home now.
To combat that, a defense has to come each week built to defend the throwing game. And the Eagles, as they’ve prioritized over the years, understand the concept. The front four, addressed heavily in the offseason as the team signed tackle Malik Jackson just prior to the start of free agency, added end Vinny Curry, and re-signed end Brandon Graham along with using a fourth-round draft pick Shareef Miller, know they have to get to the quarterback and bring pressure.
Throughout the defense, the Eagles have worked hard to bring versatile players on board. Their defensive linemen, in many cases, see snaps at tackle and end. Their linebackers learn all three positions. The safeties cross-train at cornerback and the cornerbacks play inside and outside.
“You have to learn to do a lot of things in this defense,” cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc said. “We are going to give multiple looks. You want to change things up and give a quarterback as many different looks as possible, so you have to learn all phases of this defense. If you don’t put time in the playbook, you aren’t going to get it.”
As much as anything at this time of the year, the in-classroom and mastering-the-playbook chores are just as important as having great athletic ability on the field. As the Eagles enter the second week of their Organized Team Activities, the defense looks to work in some key pieces and develop some chemistry. Jackson, for example, is learning the defense from the interior out, and he’s enjoying the challenge.
“It’s everything I thought it would be,” Jackson said last week. “The defense, it’s aggressive and it’s downhill. That’s what I love. I think we’re going to attack you. We’re going to come after you. It all starts up front in this game and we are looking to wreak havoc there. I like what we’re doing. It takes some time to learn everything, but it’s been real smooth. I feel like I’m right where I need to be.”
While the Eagles have a pretty good sense of what they have up front, the linebacker position features players who the coaches haven’t seen in the scheme. Paul Worrilow returns after missing all of 2018 with a knee injury. L.J. Fort was signed in free agency. Zach Brown joined the Eagles following the NFL Draft. Nigel Bradham is back, although sidelined for now as he recovers from an injury sustained in the playoff loss at New Orleans. Kamu Grugier-Hill had his first extended playing time in 2018 and he’s back. So is Nathan Gerry, who made positive strides last season. Jobs are open and the competition is going to be one of the stories of Training Camp.
At cornerback, the Eagles return familiar faces and, again, are going to have good competition in camp. Who starts? Who plays key reserve roles? With Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills not on the field this spring as they rehab from injuries, players like Sidney Jones, LeBlanc, Avonte Maddox, and Rasul Douglas are gaining valuable practice reps. The Eagles return intact at cornerback, thanks to the signing of Darby in free agency, and they feel good about that situation.
Same at safety, where the return of Rodney McLeod from injury and the additions of Andrew Sendejo, Blake Countess, and Godwin Igwebuike provide depth and competition there.
So how is the defense shaping up? It’s far too early to know for sure. Coordinator Jim Schwartz isn’t concerned with establishing any kind of depth chart – he just wants to see the players on the field as much as possible so he learns how they can help the defense. The Eagles, who led the league in rushing defense in 2017 but slipped significantly a season ago, are stout up front. With Jackson, Fletcher Cox, and Tim Jernigan leading the way at tackle, the Eagles have an enviable threesome there.
It’s the passing game that needs be tamped down, though, and the Eagles face the same challenge as does every NFL team. In this pass-happy league, how does a defense stand a chance? The Eagles are figuring that out now. That’s what these spring practices do – set the stage for Training Camp and the formation of the 53-man roster. In this league, defenses are playing against 11 offensive players and a rules scheme that is tilted in favor of scoring points and entertaining the audience. The Eagles have other ideas when their defense is on the field.
“It’s all going to come together for us,” Jackson said. “We have the right players and we have the right scheme. Right now, I’d say it’s hard to get a feel for where we’re at. This is early. We’re just getting to know each other and understand what we can do in this defense. I’m excited, though. I see the possibilities, and this is exactly why I came to Philadelphia. We have a lot to work with. We just have to give it time to have everything work its way into place. That’s going to take some time.”