For all of the setbacks, Sean McDermott's defense did plenty of good things in 2009. The Eagles ranked third in the league in takeaways and in quarterback sacks. The third-down defense ranked second in the league and the short-yardage effort was excellent, as teams converted just 10 of 20 third-and-1 situations. And then this: The Eagles ranked second in the league with 111 negative plays for a loss of 451 yards.
Good numbers, all of them. But as we saw in the two losses at Dallas, and in various spots throughout the season, the defense was held together by an imaginative, effective scheme and by great effort from a unit that used every bit of its personnel that, in the end, wasn't good enough against a very good Dallas offense playing at home.
So what do you judge the Eagles defense on, most of those 15 games when the Eagles went 11-4 or the two games at Dallas when the problems were evident for all to see?
Coaches are trained to look at the weaknesses, so understand that McDermott is evaluating things more harshly than any one of us. He is looking at his scheme, the personnel, how the defense responded in every situation. At the end of the day -- and they are long ones even in the off-season for NFL coaches -- McDermott will see, well, what will he see? Just how far away is this defense from the very best of the best in the league?
Let's take a look here ...
- The sack numbers were impressive and the range of those involved in sacks -- 16 players had sacks, second-most in the league to the Jets' 17 players -- showed that McDermott's creativity paid off, but the Eagles could really use what every team can use: Another standout pass rusher to team with Pro Bowl end Trent Cole.
The Eagles have a group of good players along the defensive line who work well in a rotation. Juqua Parker set a career high in sacks and has a lot of football in front of him. Victor Abiamiri is a talented young player who just hasn't stayed healthy. Chris Clemons is an enigma -- so good in bursts, but just not enough of them. And Darren Howard put up some numbers, but didn't get very many snaps in the second half of the season.
Tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley played the run well, but didn't do much in the pass-rush game. They were replaced in the nickel, to be fair, so their worth was high against the run. Antonio Dixon is a promising player who looks like he could really help against the run. Trevor Laws took a step back in his second season and needs a big off-season.
The Eagles are always on the lookout for upgrades along the defensive line. The draftniks say this draft is especially loaded along the defensive line, so it makes sense to expect the Eagles to keep their eyes on any and all prospects in the first four rounds. Free agency? We'll see how the landscape looks when the period begins on March 5.
- Getting Stewart Bradley and Omar Gaither back on the field will help the linebacker situation in a large way, but there are many questions here. Is Will Witherspoon the answer at the WILL position? Witherspoon certainly looked worn down in Dallas and will benefit greatly from an off-season in the conditioning program and in McDermott's scheme. What do the Eagles have in mind at SAM? Is second-year man Moise Fokou big enough to play there? He is aggressive and he looks like he has the knack to make plays, but he is only about 225 pounds. If he puts on 15 pounds in the off-season, will he still be as fast and effective?
Where do veterans like Gaither, Chris Gocong and Akeem Jordan fit in? Tracy White is a special teams standout, but he is scheduled to be a free agent and could very well test the waters. Joe Mays became a go-to player on special teams later in the year, so maybe he is ready to step up at middle linebacker as well.
The competition for playing time should be excellent in training camp, and it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility to think the Eagles will invest in a linebacker in free agency or in the draft. They need plays to be made by their 'backers in every phase of the defense. They need to challenge this group and have it become more dominating.
- Free safety is an obvious need and may very well be at the top of the list. Do the Eagles blow up what they know they have -- veteran Sean Jones, who could be headed toward free agency and is really an in-the-box strong safety, anyway; Quintin Demps and Macho Harris -- and march into free agency looking for a veteran to come in and take control of the position? Or do they wait a bit, see how Demps and Harris approach the off-season conditioning program and then use a high draft pick to take one of the plum rookie safeties off the board?
The Eagles lost Brian Dawkins in free agency, a move that, of course, elicited intense reaction from Eagles fans and the media. Fine. He went and then the Eagles had to replace him and, as the thinking in the NFL goes, upgrade the position. They didn't do that, and struggled all year at free safety. The spotty play there affected strong safety Quintin Mikell's play and offenses wasted no time late in the year attacking that position. McDermott could only manipulate the scheme so much to cover up the deficiencies at free safety.
It is going to be extremely interesting to see what happens here. I, for one, am not giving up on Demps or on Harris. Demps has to live at the NovaCare Complex throughout the off-season and truly apply himself to McDermott's defense and learn it inside and out. Same with Harris, who had never played the position before the Eagles moved him there in the post-draft mini-camp.
This is a need, a huge one. The Eagles have to make the right call at free safety, one that could impact the entire defense for 2010.
- How good are the cornerbacks? I think they are pretty darn good. Asante Samuel is taking heat because he didn't play enough physical football and because offenses attacked him on that bubble screen, and he deserves heat for that. But Samuel is one of the game's premier playmakers at the position. The Eagles know that teams are going to run at Samuel and they know that the screen pass is going to come his way, so he either has to step up and play better at the point of attack or he has to, well, I guess he has no choice. Take that bubble screen away. Samuel needs to make plays there.
Sheldon Brown clearly wasn't himself after hurting his hamstring, but he continued to play. I worry when cornerbacks have serious hamstring injuries, to be honest. It is something I keep an eye on. But Brown will prepare well in the off-season and he will be ready to make another Pro Bowl push next year.
Depth at cornerback is, suddenly, a bit of a concern. Joselio Hanson had his struggles after returning from his suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy. Can he get his game back on track? He should have that opportunity.
Ellis Hobbs is unsigned after the year is over, and he would be a nice player to have back for what he does as a cornerback and on special teams. He is expected to make a full recovery.
There are some nice, young prospects here that the Eagles will try to continue to develop. Dimitri Patterson and Geoffrey Pope have a good feel for the scheme and could provide some competition for playing time. Cornerback is said by the draft "experts" to be weak, so the Eagles might be better off working with what they have rather than trying to overturn the position.
So how many players away is the defense from being one of the best of the best again? If they can add a dynamic pass rusher and solve the question mark at free safety, and get Bradley and Gaither healthy and back on the field, this defense will have the kind of depth, speed and play-making ability to allow McDermott to have a whole lot of fun preparing for game days.