I've been reflecting on some of the areas where the Eagles needed to improve in the off-season. While the team did almost reach the Super Bowl they were not exactly a juggernaut in the regular season. Now that changes have been made in free agency and the draft, today let's take a look and see just how much the Eagles have improved their pass rush ...
The next area that needed to improve in the off-season was the pass rush. That may sound strange when you consider that the team had 48 sacks last year, a very good total. Only 16.5 of those sacks came from starting defensive linemen. That's my concern. Backup linemen came up with 18 sacks. When teams were put in known passing situations and the Eagles used specialized defenses; they were able to generate good pressure. You certainly want your nickel and dime units to get to the quarterback. The starters need to be able to generate regular pressure. That was inconsistent last year. Sometimes the guys were great, but other times they would disappear.
The Eagles didn't add any players to the mix, but I do expect improvement. Trent Cole is the foundation up front. He gets regular pressure and is a very disruptive player. He needs help. Juqua Parker has his moments, but the key player is third-year end Victor Abiamiri. He needs to win the left defensive end job and show that he can rush the passer. He's got three career sacks if you include the playoffs. Two of them have come from him lining up as a defensive tackle. His only sack from the end spot came against the Ravens last year. That doesn't sound encouraging, but there is hope. Playing left defensive end is tricky. It is a much more physical position than right end. Players have to learn the importance of hands, leverage and proper technique.
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Study some left ends from the past and you see that it can take guys a while to get going. Former Eagle William Fuller, one of my favorite players, had only three sacks after his first couple of years in the league. He racked up 97.5 sacks over the rest of his stellar career. Michael Strahan only had 5.5 sacks after his first couple of seasons. He did OK after that. Aaron Kampman of the Packers is one of the best left ends in the NFL today. He started real slow. Kampman had seven sacks after three years. He's since become one of the best pass rushers in the game. Abiamiri's slow start is nothing new. How he responds is what will really be important. He showed good ability last year, but only in spurts. This season he needs to put it all together and show us that he can be an effective starter.
The other player who I think can have a big impact on the pass rush is defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Down the stretch last season he played at a Pro Bowl level. Bunkley has become a very good run defender. There is one part of his game that needs to get better and that is his pass rushing. He's absolutely got the talent to get to the quarterback. Bunkley had a pair of sacks last year, but that total should be doubled or tripled. He's really shown a great deal of improvement since coming to the NFL. He always had the talent. Bunkley just needed coaching and some experience.
2009 could be the season where he starts to take his game to the next level. Let's again go back in history. Jerome Brown is the most talented defensive tackle the Eagles have had in the last 25 years. After his first couple of years Brown had nine sacks. Keep in mind that he played on a line with Reggie White and Clyde Simmons. Bunkley has five sacks in his two seasons as a starter. That's not a good total, but it shows some potential and offers hope. Bunkley has only played alongside one consistent pass rusher.
I put on an old game to watch Gang Green recently. Brown wasn't in the backfield every snap. He made plays when he got the chance. Sometimes Brown flushed the quarterback to the ends. Sometimes White and Simmons boxed in the passer so Brown could get there and nail him. The unit worked as a group. That is what the current Eagles front needs to do a better job of. Cole needs Abiamiri to play well so that there is a good rush coming off each side. They both need Bunkley to push the middle so that the quarterback is forced to go wide. Bunkley needs the ends to box in the passer so he has a target in front of him.
Abiamiri is 23 years old. Bunkley is 25. Cole is an old man at 26. All three guys are physical specimens. They've each gotten better every season they've been in the league. That is what gives me hope that this group can start to be something special this year. I haven't mentioned Mike Patterson. He certainly is part of the equation. The difference with him is that he has four years of starting under his belt. I think he's a good player, but he is probably about as good as he'll get. We need him to continue to do what he's best at and that is going 100 mph on every snap. He's the relentless worker that allows the other guys to be playmakers. Patterson can get to the quarterback, as proven by his four sacks in 2007.
The fact that the team didn't make any moves with the starting defensive line tells me that they really feel that Abiamiri and Bunkley are guys they see solving that problem from within. There are no guarantees in football, but I think sticking with the current defensive line was the right way to go.