Remember the feeling last year when Will Witherspoon played his first game for us? We faced Washington in a Monday Night game. Witherspoon picked off a deflected pass and ran it back for a short touchdown. He later added a sack and forced a fumble in the game. I was ecstatic at the thought of having a playmaker in the middle of the defense. Unfortunately, those were the only plays he made for us during his tenure as an Eagle. That first game turned out to be a mirage. After that game in mid-October, the playmaking ended for Witherspoon and basically all of our linebackers.
The linebacking corps is going to be completely different in 2010. Hopefully that is a good thing, since the play at linebacker was such an issue in 2009. They were OK against the run, but struggled in coverage. The linebackers also failed to make plays with any kind of consistency. In today's NFL playing the run isn't good enough. You need guys that can cover, make plays and create turnovers.
New additions like Ernie Sims, Keenan Clayton and Jamar Chaney bring speed and athletic ability to the mix. Alex Hall, who may play SAM linebacker, brings size and solid athleticism. Returning players Moise Fokou and Stewart Bradley will also help matters. Fokou is entering his second year and should play at a much higher level. Bradley is a gifted player. We just need him to be healthy. His knee looked fine at the mini-camp so that was a great, great sign.
Let's go back to making plays for a minute. The 2009 group posted these numbers:
- 4.5 sacks
- 14 tackles-for-loss
- 3 forced fumbles
- 18 passes defensed
- 4 interceptions
It is hard to quantify those numbers without studying other teams that run a similar defense. Still, you don't need to be an expert to realize that those sack, fumble and interception totals are not where they need to be. Back in 2008, the Eagles linebackers had 27 tackles-for-loss so you can understand that 14 wasn't a good number.
One of the reasons I'm excited about the linebacking unit is that I think this group will make more plays. Sims will give us our fastest, most athletic linebacker in a long time. If not ever. He can really fly. That should help in a few ways. He'll cover more ground in pass coverage. He can run with tight ends and running backs when he's in man coverage. He won't be completely mismatched against some wide receivers. Sims should be a good blitzer with his burst. We haven't featured an outside linebacker that could get to the quarterback regularly in a long time. Sims only has 2.5 sacks in his career, but the Lions generally kept him out in space. They didn't run as much of an attack style of defense as we do.
We don't know how Sims will handle our defense. He'll be asked to do more things than in Detroit. He'll also have more opportunities to make plays, something that aggressive defenders love. I'm interested to see how he adjusts to playing for us. There will now be pressure and expectations placed on him. The Lions just hoped to be competitive. In Philadelphia, we expect results. Sims played in a similar environment at Florida State and thrived. I'm hoping the excitement of playing for a good team will bring out the best in him.
Fokou is a player that I think we're all curious about. He's got his share of doubters, which is understandable. He isn't the big guy that we've normally preferred at SAM linebacker. He had an up and down rookie year. The good news is that most of his mistakes were mental. You can fix those with coaching. You get worried when a player doesn't show the physical ability to handle a job. We didn't see that from Fokou in 2009. Some people will focus on one play where Fokou made a mistake and twist that into a lack of ability, but the coaching staff has studied his game tape thoroughly and believes that he can be a good starter for us. If they had any questions we would have aggressively addressed SAM linebacker in the off-season. That didn't happen.
While he isn't a huge guy, Fokou does have some important physical attributes for the spot. He has long arms. That helps him to get a jam on tight ends as they release off the line of scrimmage on a pass play. Fokou also has a strong punch. That allows him to really jolt tight ends when he does jam them and it helps him to shed blocks. Coach Andy Reid talked about how tough and physical Fokou is in a recent press conference. Linebackers must be physical players. They have to mix it up with blockers at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes those blockers outweigh them by more than 100 pounds. In order for a linebacker to win that battle he must use his hands well and have some real pop when he makes contact with the offensive lineman. Fokou gets a check mark in both areas. He might lack ideal size, but he has a strong upper body and plays bigger than he is.
Fokou has the athletic ability to be solid in coverage. He made one terrific pass break-up this past year. He deflected a pass along the sideline a good 20 yards downfield in one of the late season Dallas games. That play showed me good range and some ball skills. Fokou needs to get better in coverage, but there is something to work with. He covered slot receivers at times in college. Playing out in space isn't completely foreign to him. Chris Gocong had to learn how to play linebacker and how to cover. Fokou knows both things. He's just got to get better at them. He's much more natural as a linebacker. I'm cautiously optimistic about him as a blitzer. Fokou didn't have a ton of sacks at Maryland, but he's athletic enough that I think he can attack off the edge and get to the quarterback a couple of times each year. He got pressure last year when he blitzed. One key thing he must work on his controlling his hands. Quarterbacks are protected and you can't hit them wildly. You must be under control and keep your hands away from the head.
Fokou was a penalty machine last year. That was true on defense and special teams. Those mistakes were mental. He played too aggressively and too out of control at times. Coaching and experience should really help both areas. Fokou will learn what he can get away with and what he can't. He also needs to understand that playing under control is a must. Officials will throw yellow flag after yellow flag on wild guys. Opposing players and coaches will eat you alive with fakes and misdirection plays.
I was very encouraged by what Fokou said in an interview on philadelphiaeagles.com. He's not taking it for granted that he's the starter. He seems focused on the fact that he must prove himself to earn the job. That is what you want to hear from a young guy. Quintin Demps was just the opposite last year. He got very complacent and lost his edge. That cost him his starting spot and hurt us at free safety.
Bradley's return to the middle of the defense is going to be crucial to the success of our defense. He is 6-4 and 255 pounds. He is a tough, physical defender against inside runs. Bradley has the size and strength to shed blocks and tackle the ball-carrier. He's smart. He reads plays well and gets into proper position. That helps him to cover a lot of ground despite the fact he doesn't have great speed. Bradley makes his share of tackles on outside runs. He showed great improvement in coverage during the 2008 season. Early in the year, he looked lost at times. By the playoffs he knew what to do and was much more effective. He became a good three-down middle linebacker, not the most common sight in the NFL.
Bradley has some playmaking potential. He's a good downhill player. He had nine tackles-for-loss back in 2008. We lacked that kind of ability at middle linebacker last year. Bradley has two sacks and two interceptions in his career. I would hope those totals would rise now that he's got a strong feel for the defense and opposing offenses. Bradley only has one season under his belt as the full-time starter, but he's entering his fourth year as an Eagle. He is a very hard worker on the field and in the classroom. I expect him to play at a high level in 2010.
I won't get into the backups too much because we just don't know how much these guys will play in 2010. Akeem Jordan will likely be the top backup at both outside spots. He has shown playmaking potential over the last couple of years. Jordan's main task this spring and summer is playing so well in practice that the coaching staff feels obligated to find some way to use him. I certainly hope he's up to the challenge.
Keenan Clayton is only a rookie, but could earn some playing time. He could be a good fit for some reps in the nickel or dime defensive units. Clayton is real athletic. He's a former safety and is very comfortable in coverage. He also was a big-time playmaker at Oklahoma. In his two seasons at linebacker, Clayton picked off three passes, had six sacks, forced eight fumbles, broke up 14 passes and totaled 15.5 tackles-for-loss. I think you can see that he had a knack for making bad things happen to opposing offenses.
In 2010, we need linebackers to wreak some havoc. That didn't happen last year and it hurt our defense. We need guys to get to the quarterback when they do blitz. Knock the quarterback down every chance you get. We need better coverage and more plays in the passing game. We need linebackers who can attack upfield and make plays in the backfield. We've retooled the linebacker corps in the off-season and I think the new guys have the talent and athleticism to get the job done. Now, it is up to them to make it happen on the field. Plans and projections don't mean squat if the players don't execute.