I've received quite a few questions in recent weeks about the play of our defensive tackles. Our run defense was inconsistent this year. Our inside pass rush wasn't as good as it needed to be. People think Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson had down years because of this.
Trying to evaluate the defensive tackles is complicated. We do a lot of rotating. We're very situational in the way we use our players. Bunkley and Patterson start and play most of the snaps. They are good run defenders. They do not get as much push as we need on passing plays, but you have to understand what we ask them to do.
The Eagles run a two-gap system with the defensive tackles. This means that the guys come off the snap and engage the blocker across from them. The tackle is supposed to hold his ground and read the gap to either side of the blocker. When he sees the ball go one way or the other he can commit to that gap and pursue. We've only used this system for a few years. Early on in the Jim Johnson/Andy Reid era we were strictly a one-gap team. That allowed the tackles to fire off the ball and get up the field. We also used to play the starters most of the game. We rotated in backups, but never really moved ends inside in the nickel or dime units with any regularity.
If you look at the numbers players used to put up you can see the difference. Darwin Walker had 7.5 sacks in 2002. Backup tackle Sam Rayburn had 6 sacks in 2004. Corey Simon had 9.5 sacks as a rookie. His first ever NFL snap was a sack. Bunkley had one sack all year in 2009. This isn't a question of talent. Bunkley got his share of sacks in college. He compared favorably to Simon, another former Seminole star. The difference in the NFL is how we used the players. Bunkley and Patterson are not getting to line up on third-and-long to chase the quarterback. They only get to rush the passer in the base defense and we ask them to think run first on those plays rather than fly upfield.
Let's talk some more about the two-gap style of play. It can be very good. Remember the 2000 Ravens defense that won the Super Bowl and was so dominant? Tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams played the two-gap technique and dominated the middle. That allowed Ray Lewis to make a ton of tackles and their defense was incredible. Shortly after the 2000 season people figured out that you could throw the ball on the Ravens because they didn't rush the passer or cover receivers as well as they played the run. With as much passing that goes on now in the league, you aren't likely to see any team with two such massive guys inside on a regular basis. The ideal set up now is one good-sized run stuffer and an athletic guy.
Former defensive line coach Pete Jenkins is the man who got us to start playing a lot of two-gap. It started getting mixed in during the 2007 season. We switched to it in 2008 on a full-time basis. While the system does cut back on the pass rush by the tackles, it has helped our run defense. There have been some bad games over the last couple of years, but not on a regular basis. Go back to 2006. We had some major problems with the run defense.
Most of the problems this season weren't related to the play of the defensive tackles. Bunkley and Patterson did a solid job of controlling the middle. They certainly didn't dominate, but did enough for us to handle most offenses. We finished ninth in the league in rushing yards allowed. We were 11th in yards per carry. That's good defense. It was a drop-off from 2008, but better than I think most people realize.
The big problem in 2009 was linebacker play. We had a revolving door at middle linebacker and it hurt all year long. We had six different guys see significant snaps at middle linebacker. That's a nightmare scenario. From 2002 to 2008, we had six players see significant snaps in the middle. Hopefully that tells you the kind of instability Sean McDermott had to deal with.
The poor middle linebacker play made the middle of the defense look terrible. It seemed like the defensive tackles weren't doing their jobs. That really isn't the case. Most of the time Bunkley and Patterson did what was expected. It was then up to the middle linebacker to either make the tackle or get off a block and make the tackle. That didn't happen on a regular basis. Our middle linebackers were getting out of position, making poor reads or missing tackles.
Something else compounded the situation. People started lining up in three-receiver sets and then running on us. We use our nickel defense against that offensive package. Bunkley and Patterson sit and Darren Howard and Victor Abiamiri take over the inside spots. This works well for getting a pass rush, but it leaves us susceptible to run plays. The Niners, Cowboys and Giants all had success running on our nickel defense.
McDermott has to figure out how to handle this scenario for next season. People are going to run it until we can stop it. They won't wait for third-and-long to go to a spread look. They'll do it on first down, with the intent of running against our pass rushers. One thing I would like to see is Trevor Laws getting snaps in the nickel. He's quick enough to be an effective rusher, but has enough bulk to help out against the run. He was inactive a lot this year. We need him to get on the field in 2010 and help out the defense in some way.
One of the other things teams did this year was throw the ball in run situations. They wanted our starting tackles on the field on pass plays. Our guys come off the ball under control and look run first. By that point, more than a second has gone by. Bunkley and Patterson then begin getting after the quarterback. This doesn't result in much interior pressure. Our starters combined for 2.5 sacks this year. I'm fine with us using the two-gap system for the tackles, but we do need the inside guys to get more pressure when teams throw. We can't count on teams waiting for obvious passing situations.
In the last few years, we've gone from using normal backups in the nickel and dime to shifting defensive ends inside. The Giants did this with great success in 2007. That's the first year we really mixed it into our playbook. We did it for all of 2008 and 2009. Howard and Abiamiri do a good job of getting pressure when they are in the game. They combined for 8.5 sacks, most of which came from inside. Jason Babin and Juqua Parker also got snaps at tackle in the nickel/dime sets. Each player had at least one sack rushing inside. Those players are allowed to fire off the ball and attack the quarterback. Abiamiri is strong, despite only being listed as 275 pounds. Howard is very quick off the ball and has a deadly spin move that can leave blockers lunging at air. We got solid pressure up the middle in the nickel/dime sets.
We can get better inside and that should be the goal. We don't necessarily need a new starting defensive tackle. Bunkley and Patterson are good players. If we could somehow land an impact tackle then I would say that's a move to strongly consider. There is only one available in the draft. That is Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska and he'll likely head to the Rams with the first overall pick. What about free agency? The big name this year is Vince Wilfork of the Patriots, but I'm not so sure I'd call him an impact player - at least for us. Wilfork is big and strong and controls the middle of the line, but he's not significantly better than the guys we have. He's good against the run, but only a limited pass rusher. He didn't have any sacks this year. I don't think Wilfork is a player that we will or we should go after.
One player I haven't mentioned yet is backup tackle Antonio Dixon. He could help the situation quite a bit. Dixon is massive and powerful. He was a rookie this year and had to learn how to play at the NFL level. He had one sack and showed the ability to drive blockers backward. Next year, he could develop into a guy that can push the pocket. If so, we need to play him more.
When we play a running team, we're OK. We let the starters play more. When we play a passing team, we use the nickel and dime units more. Balanced offenses give us fits. We don't know whether to go to the nickel and have athletes on the field or stay base and have bigger, stronger guys who can handle the run.
A couple of things can help Bunkley and Patterson in regard to pressuring the passer. Getting a consistent pass rush from the left end spot would force the quarterback to step up in the pocket more often. This year the quarterback had to worry about Trent Cole, but not the other rushers. That needs to change. It would also help if the tackles got more push. You don't always expect big, strong guys to fly upfield and get penetration. You do want them to drive the blockers backward, right toward the quarterback. This forces him to move left or right. Hopefully one of the edge rushers is close enough to hit him or force a quick throw. We can live without more sacks from the starting defensive tackles, but we do need more pressure.
I don't anticipate any major moves with our tackles, but you never know what will happen. Maybe some other team is shopping a player that isn't an ideal fit for them anymore. Remember, we don't need change for the sake of change. If we can upgrade, then go do it. Our starters are pretty good so finding better players on the market isn't likely.