The Eagles concentrated on improving the defense this offseason.
The draft brought in Casey Matthews, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Curtis Marsh. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie came in the Kevin Kolb trade. Free agency netted all kinds of players. Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins were added up front. Nnamdi Asomugha was added to the secondary. Guys like Derek Landri, Anthony Hargrove and Jarrad Page were added to improve the overall depth of the defense and to promote competition. We even went to the CFL for help and got Phillip Hunt, a potential pass rushing specialist.
Andy Reid replaced Sean McDermott with Juan Castillo as the defensive coordinator. Jim Washburn was hired to run the defensive line and to bring his wide-nine system. As David Bowie once sang, "Ch-ch-ch-changes."
So far the new pieces are looking good. Juan Castillo is an excellent practice coach. He runs around at full speed and gets on his players. He's pumping them up when they do something good and correcting them when they make mistakes. Castillo considers himself a teacher. This is the only situation where the teacher is louder and crazier than the students. Castillo's energy and enthusiasm is infectious. The players are feeding off him and playing at a high level. The defense looks night and day better than last year. Defensive end Darryl Tapp recently said the defense sometimes "had our minds tangle up our legs" last season. That sure isn't the case this summer. Guys are flying around the field and playing at full speed. Mistakes are happening, but there isn't the same amount of hesitation from last year.
The big test for Castillo is how he'll do in a game. His first chance to show what he can do comes Thursday night against the Ravens. The preseason will be a time of learning for Castillo. He's never called an NFL game before. He's got four weeks to figure things out before we're into the regular season. At that point, we start grading him much stricter.
All of the new Eagles players are impressive so far. Asomugha looks every bit like the shutdown corner we expected to see. Rodgers-Cromartie has been even better than expected. He looks great in practice. He's fast and agile. He covers receivers like a blanket. He's not facing DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but he's been lights out so far. Babin has had a good camp. He's regularly been getting into the backfield. He's quick, fast and aggressive. He can be too aggressive at times. Babin ran into Mike Vick the other day and drew the ire of Andy Reid. Hitting the quarterback in practice is a major no-no.
Jenkins has been very impressive as an inside rusher. That was an area sorely lacking in the last few years. He's been quick off the ball and gotten the best of everyone who's tried to block him. Hargrove and Landri are both high-energy guys that have had some good moments. Neither is playing as well as Jenkins, but they've been a handful for the offensive line on a regular basis. Eagles blockers aren't used to practicing against a bunch of light, quick defensive tackles that can fire off the ball. This is a new experience for many of the offensive linemen.
Linebacker is the one area where the Eagles didn't make major changes. They moved two incumbent starters to new spots and added a rookie to the middle. The lack of major additions has more than a few people concerned. That's fair, but the Eagles can make a strong case that they had the right approach to fixing the defense. The key here is remembering who we are and what we do.
Let's take a look back to last year. The Eagles were horrific in red zone defense. The pass defense was inconsistent. We gave up way too many touchdown passes (not all in the red zone). We also had major issues when playing with the lead.
|HOLDING ON IN 2010|
|At Detroit, 28-17||Eagles 35, Lions 32|
|At San Fran., 21-10||Eagles 27, 49ers 24|
|At Tenn., 19-10||Titans 37, Eagles 19|
|Vs. Indy., 26-17||Eagles 26, Colts 24|
|At Wash., 35-0||Eagles 59, Redskins 28|
|Vs. NYG, 16-3||Eagles 27, Giants 17|
|Vs. Houston, 20-10||Eagles 34, Texans 24|
|At Dallas, 30-20||Eagles 30, Cowboys 27|
You don't expect to shut everyone down when you've got a lead, but we had issues in that area for most of the year. The only game where we really got up on someone and never let them get going was against the Jaguars. Their receivers weren't much of a challenge and our defensive line outplayed their offensive line. We got lucky that last year's offense was so dynamic that the blown leads only cost us one game. You can't count on that happening again.
When you've got a lead, you must be able to cover on the back end and rush the passer up front. The 2011 Eagles are built to play with the lead. It was imperative to improve the pass rush. Babin and Jenkins do that. We're better off the edge and up the middle. Washburn's system should help all our defensive linemen with getting to the quarterback. Plus, he'll rotate the players and keep them fresh. Trent Cole will not play more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps this year.
The Eagles now have the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. Throw in Joselio Hanson and that's the best quartet. The Eagles remain high on some young players beyond that group. This team went from needing cornerback help to being incredibly deep. Hakeem Nicks will not be running free through the Eagles secondary this year.
So what about safety and linebacker? The Eagles defense is built to rush the passer and cover on the edges. The team spent a lot of money in these areas. That didn't allow them to load up with pricey veterans in other areas. The Eagles would love to have Patrick Willis and Ed Reed sitting in the middle of the defense, but that's not reality. You can't have stars everywhere.
The Eagles concentrated on getting young players that could cover, run, hit and tackle. They drafted Matthews and Jarrett as potential starters. Matthews is the starting MIKE linebacker. Jarrett is a backup, but has been playing well as of late and could still win a starting role before the season gets here. He's in a battle with second-year safety Kurt Coleman.
If the line can get regular pressure and the corners can play lockdown man coverage, that makes life much, much simpler for the linebackers and safeties. They can sit back, keep things in front of them and then go attack the ball. This is a way to eliminate big plays. This is the way to play defense with a lead.
The Lions got big chunks of yardage in their comeback. Their final score was a 19-yard touchdown pass. You can't give up plays like that. Make the opponent play small ball and eat up the clock. Do I even need to cover the Titans disaster? Sure a lot of that had to do with an ailing Ellis Hobbs staying on the field too long, but the other 10 guys on defense weren't exactly dominant. The 'Skins got some big pass plays in their attempted comeback.
It wasn't one player, one position, or just one part of the defense that was at fault. Right cornerback was the big hole, but the whole unit needed help. Howie Roseman and Andy Reid did a terrific job of coming up with a plan and then getting players that address the problems of the 2010 defense.
We have yet to see the new group in a game situation, but I feel very confident that we're going to like what we see. The group is faster and more talented. Castillo has them playing full speed instead of thinking as much. There will be some bumps in the road, but I really like the changes and how the new pieces are fitting in. I can't wait for the first time that Jenkins and Babin get to the quarterback at the same time. Or the first time that Asomugha picks off a pass because Cole hit the quarterback's arm as he released the ball.
There is reason to be excited about the Eagles defense once again.
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