One of the big differences that new defensive line coach Jim Washburn will bring to the Eagles is a true rotation of his players.
He very much believes in playing a lot of guys and mixing up their snaps. This allows all players to go all out on every snap. They know they'll only be on the field for a few consecutive snaps before sitting for a few on the sideline. No one can use the famous line from Stripes when Bill Murray responded to why he's always last, "I'm pacing myself, sergeant."
I recently re-watched part of the Titans-Eagles game from the 2010 season. I wanted to compare how the Eagles used their linemen with how Washburn used his. The situation couldn't be more night and day. Starters Antonio Dixon and Mike Patterson were on the field for virtually the entire first quarter. By my count, Trevor Laws played one snap in the base defense. He was on the field for a couple of passing situations.
The Titans mixed in the starting and backup tackles with regularity. The Eagles offense was clicking more in the game so the Titans had more chances and that has to be factored in. Still, the Titans backup tackles played at least six snaps as a duo. The Eagles didn't have the services of Brodrick Bunkley due to an elbow injury so that meant the starters were going to be on the field more, but the point is that Laws was barely playing in the base defense.
It wasn't just tackles getting moved in and out. Dave Ball was the starting right defensive end for Tennessee. He played the first three plays and then came out. Trent Cole is our right end. When is the last time he sat out a first quarter play? I don't mean which game, but rather which year. He doesn't come off the field often, especially not early in games when he's fresh. Cole is in for some interesting changes.
Some coaches believe in riding the best players. Gang Green didn't do a whole lot of rotating. Of course, those were special players. You didn't want them coming off the field all that much. The drop-off from Reggie White and Clyde Simmons to a guy like Mike Flores was pretty significant. You can see why Buddy Ryan and Bud Carson had little interest in a rotational system.
Other coaches think rotating players is the only way to go. Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt did that with the Cowboys in the early 1990s and it helped that defense to play at a high level. They didn't have four great players, but were still really tough because they came at you in waves and everyone was fresh. Neither system is right or wrong. You do what fits your personnel the best.
Jim Johnson always talked about developing a good rotation. He would try it for a few weeks, but when push came to shove he'd go back to the starters and get away from rotating his guys. There was a stretch in 2006 when he had a starting defensive line and a backup line. He played them very evenly for about a month. Then it was back to starters, starters and more starters with just occasional backups. He seemed to have a hard time trusting his second line, and that really is a crucial point.
Washburn wants to play eight or nine guys. He trusts his linemen. Washburn wants them to stay fresh all game. The best way to do that is have them play three or four snaps and them come out for three or four snaps. This is also a good way to bring out the best in the backups. The backups know they will play and that helps them to stay focused and motivated.
One of the problems for the defense last year was fourth quarter points. The Lions almost came back and beat us late in the game when they put up 15 points in a hurry. We gave up 14 points to the Niners in the fourth quarter. The Titans demolished us in the fourth quarter, although a lot of that was due to Ellis Hobbs playing on a bad wheel. Dallas and Indy scored late touchdowns to significantly cut into what felt like comfortable leads. Overall, the Eagles gave up 112 points in the fourth quarter. The Eagles only gave up more points in the second quarter. Was the defense getting worn down late in the half and then late in the game? Definite possibility.
The Titans and their rotational system only allowed 79 points in the fourth quarter. To be fair, they didn't have a lot of leads and teams were sometimes working the clock more than trying to score. Still, Tennessee only lost two games by more than 13 points so they were competitive even when they lost. The difference in the Eagles' fourth quarter defense and the Titans' was 33 points, or two per game. Some credit for the stingy fourth quarter defense goes to the fact that linemen were fresh and able to still get to the quarterback. We can't blame our fourth quarter struggles entirely on tired linemen, but that had to be a factor.
I'm very curious to see how our players take to Washburn's system. I think most of the guys will like it, but Cole is going to have a hard time adjusting to coming off the field for 20 snaps a game. That may frustrate him initially, but could help him out in the long run. Cole only had four sacks after the bye week in 2010. He had 3 sacks in the final five games of 2009 after starting with 9.5 in the first 11 weeks. He only had two sacks in the final five games of 2008. Sacks don't tell the whole story, but they do indicate that Cole wears down as the season goes on and that hurts his production and effectiveness.
I think a guy like Darryl Tapp will be ecstatic about the change. Go re-watch a game from 2010 and follow him. Tapp is at left end for a couple of plays. Then he's at right end. He spent a lot of time at defensive tackle in the nickel and dime units. Heck, he also played some linebacker in certain sets. Now Tapp will line up at end and know that he gets to fly off the edge for at least 15 to 20 snaps a game. This doesn't mean he's suddenly going to become a disruptive force. Tapp is more of an effort guy than overly talented player. He can be more effective in a conventional system where he's able to get into a rhythm and know he'll get his share of snaps.
Washburn will occasionally do some creative things with his line. There was a play in the first quarter of the Titans-Eagles game when the starting defensive tackles lined up at end and the starting ends lined up at tackle. Washburn won't get too cute and do that kind of stuff all the time, but he'll try to keep the offensive line somewhat off-balance with creative looks.
Washburn's rotational system could be a perfect fit for the 2011 Eagles. First, it helps quite a bit when you have the lead in the second half and teams have to throw the ball. That lets the linemen attack up the field. If rested, they have an even better shot at hitting and pressuring the passer.
The other thing about Washburn's system is that it needs volume. The Eagles don't lack bodies up front. Andy Reid and Howie Roseman have built a deep defensive line over the last couple of years. Cole is the only top-flight player up front, but there are a lot of guys who should fit in well as part of a platoon system. I think most people would agree that Juqua Parker was on the field too much last year. Now, he'll be better rested. Mike Patterson won't have to worry about playing 40 or more snaps a game. That number will drop to about 30. Ten snaps a game is 160 by the end of the year. That's like losing three or four games worth of playing time ... or gaining that much rest.