When you see the Eagles defense for the first time in training camp, you are going to notice two very important things: One, you will see a group that is fast and that plays with great desire and; two, you will need a roster to keep track of who is who on the field. Coordinator Sean McDermott is putting his squad together piece by moving piece, and the freshness of the players on that side of the ball is simply undeniable.
With an emphasis on defense in the off-season -- not sure if it is fair to say that, but the Eagles *did *add a few key players prior to the draft (Marlin Jackson, Darryl Tapp, Ernie Sims) and then used nine of their 13 draft picks on defensive players -- the new-look Eagles really do have a new look on defense. How extensive that new look is going to be remains to be seen, because McDermott has a lot to sift through before he finds the right combinations to use.
"I love the players that we have here," said McDermott. "It's a different feel out there."
Sure is. Last year's defense suffered so many punches to the solar plexus and yet the Eagles kept scratching and clawing and the team won 11 games in the regular season and then those two games in Dallas left such a sour taste in everyone's mouth. From the moment Jim Johnson passed away, the defense was bound to be different. McDermott ran the summer camps and just as he started to settle in with his guys, middle linebacker Stewart Bradley tore up his knee and the Eagles never, ever replaced him.
There is no sense re-hashing last season. You know what happened. What matters now is that Bradley is back on the field and that he looks great, that the Eagles have all of this young blood and so much team speed and that McDermott has a lot of players and a lot of talent with which to work. Every day, the lineup is subject to change. McDermott wants to take a look at everyone.
It's impossible to say a whole lot about the defense at this point. McDermott and his coaches are teaching the very basic principles of the base scheme. Most of the practice for the defense is working on technique drills and then stressing the checks and reads and what-to-do's of the defense. McDermott is lining up Macho Harris as the starting free safety now, but that could change between now and June. Who knows? How are the linebackers going to look when September arrives? Who is the starting cornerback opposite Asante Samuel? What kind of impact will all of these new defensive ends have up front?
Moving pieces. Young talent. McDermott's extremely creative mind has to be working overdrive right now. The possibilities are clearly exciting, but so much work has to be done before he can go deep into his playbook and fiddle around with the scheme. McDermott was asked on Saturday about the idea of playing a 3-4 defense, even a little bit, and he skirted the issue. What would he say? At this point, McDermott's focus is to get the installation part of the defense ingrained in the heads of the new players. Developing alternate concepts is something that will happen way, way down the line.
For now, the defense is a work in progress. It is wonderful seeing Bradley on the field. He appears to be moving fluidly and confidently on his knee. Samuel has had a great camp, full of energy and aggressiveness as he attacks the football. There is, very clearly, a lot of speed here.
But since there is no tackling, what can we really see from the defense? We see energy and enthusiasm as a great deal of teaching. We see a second-year player like Moise Fokou taking the lead at the SAM linebacker spot. We see Sims flying all over the field, with Akeem Jordan challenging at the WILL spot. We see a more mature and confident Harris at safety.
Most of all, we see promise. But it is so early and there is so much work ahead and not even McDermott knows who is going to line up at some of the positions of question. It's fun and it's new and it's a great, great challenge for McDermott and his staff to put all the pieces together.
"There are a lot of new guys, but they're learning really fast and the only way to get this defense down is to go out and do it," said Bradley. "We're going to continue to work. We have a lot of off-season in front of us."