Sean McDermott wants to see what he has to work with, so he is not hesitating to challenge his Eagles defense. He is using Omar Gaither at middle linebacker this week in practice, has split time at free safety with Quintin Demps and Macho Harris and is moving pieces around the chess board with a calculated aggressiveness. It is part of what coaches call "the process," and it requires patience, honesty and confidence.
And it is just beginning.
The defense is a work in progress, with McDermott the architect. McDermott sees a lot of good things with his defense through three preseason games. The run defense has been excellent. The cornerbacks have been terrific in coverage. Takeaways have been prevalent.
And there are positions that are clearly unclear. Middle linebacker and free safety are two spots, and the Eagles are looking for depth to emerge and prove itself at defensive tackle, defensive end and at the linebacker positions.
McDermott wants to challenge everyone, so he is not afraid to use Moises Fokou at middle linebacker one game and then insert Gaither at the position the next day in practice. Demps has made positive strides at free safety, but the Eagles still wanted to see how a rookie *-- *a rookie!! -- would handle the position in a game.
Jason Babin has been good enough in practice after being signed off the streets to earn reps, and significant ones, in the preseason games. McDermott has moved Fokou and Matt Wilhelm to multiple spots at linebacker. There have been times in games when cornerbacks have dropped deep into the secondary as safeties.
Certainly, the time to evaluate McDermott begins on September 13 in Carolina. Until then, and likely every day McDermott is in charge of the defense, he is going to push and push and think outside the box and try to find the best combination to win games one week to the next.
Most pressing on the to-do docket is finding the right solution at middle linebacker, and then parallel to that making it work at free safety. McDermott has the luxury, in the absence of Stewart Bradley, a player with starting experience in Gaither. He isn't as physically dominating as is Bradley's 255 pounds, but the 238ish-pound Gaither knows the game, is excellent in coverage and is a natural leader. At the same time, the Eagles know they need Joe Mays to mature, and through three preseason games they have seen him improve in every phase of his game. They know he needs to continue to work and improve and earn the confidence from his coaches and teammates.
Fokou has been one of summer's pleasant surprises. A seventh-round pick from Maryland, Fokou has been a ball hawk and has picked up the defense well enough to play both the SAM position and the middle. He is in line to make this team and, possibly, make a significant contribution as a rookie.
Wilhelm had a big, big game on Thursday night, a positive development as McDermott considers his group. Big and rangy, Wilhelm really stepped up at a time when he needed it, and now the linebackers are deep and will make for difficult decisions in this week of cuts.
How about the secondary? There are few questions other than free safety. Ellis Hobbs was great against the Jaguars, inspiring some major confidence in the four-deep depth at cornerback. Quintin Mikell is a Pro Bowl-caliber player along with Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown.
Oh, there are moments that McDermott no doubt has circled as lessons to be learned. The red-zone performance against New England, when tight end Chris Baker caught a couple of touchdown passes. Most of the first quarter against Peyton Manning, who led touchdown drives two of the three times he was on the field. One of those touchdowns was a blown coverage, which the Eagles just have not had many of in the last 10 years, when Jim Johnson ran the show. And last week, Jacksonville's lone big play came on a screen pass that went for 40 yards. Then there was the 28-yard catch and run by Mercedes Lewis when the Eagles missed tackles and failed to shut down a play that was there to stop.
Those are the plays that make the preseason so valuable. I guarantee you that McDermott is spending more time working on fixes those leaks than praising a defense that ranks second in the NFL in stopping the run in the preseason (73.7 yards per game) and is being led by tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley.
The process continues for McDermott and for the defense. There are new faces and new challenges and, yeah, the work continues. McDermott is on top of it, rest assured. He'll get it right. He knows it isn't there quite yet, and that is why these two weeks are so valuable. Get it right. Move some of the players around the chess board and be ready to go for Carolina.
That is the plan. That is the blueprint as McDermott's defense continues to develop.