It is a week-to-week proposition, but by now we have an understanding of the Eagles' defense. We'll know a lot more in the weeks to come, of course, but now we have a better sense of what the Eagles need to be a better defense as a whole. There are plenty of good parts in place, and the numbers clearly state that the Eagles have been pretty good on defense in four of their five games. To take the next step forward, weaknesses must be improved, and that is where the understanding part comes in.
Third downs are hurting the defense in a big way. The short- and intermediate-passing game has given the defense troubles. Points per game is generally good -- other than the Saints game -- and the run defense has played well, although it gave up too much yardage on Sunday against the Raiders. We'll know more about the run defense with Washington, New York and Dallas next in line.
Covering backs and tight ends has been the issue. Look at the games. Against Carolina, running backs DeAngelo Williams (4 catches, 42 yards) and James Stewart (2-32) did some damage. Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 9 passes to his backs and established Jeremy Shockey early with 4 receptions and 49 yards.
Kansas City threw only 19 passes and completed 15 and did almost nothing to threaten the defense, but tight end Sean Ryan caught 4 of those, and tight end Brad Cottam caught one, and running back Jamaal Charles caught 3 passes for 34 yards. Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. grabbed 9 of quarterback Josh Johnson's passes for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns. Of Johnson's 26 completions, 14 went to backs and tight ends.
In Oakland, the instructions for quarterback Ja'Marcus Russell were clear: Don't make mistakes. He made a couple as Asante Samuel and Quintin Mikell registered interceptions, but Russell still completed 17 of 28 passes. Tight end Zach Miller caught 6 for 139 yards, including the ridiculous 86-yard catch and run for a touchdown. Another tight end, Tony Stewart, caught 2 passes. Backs Gary Russell (5-55, Justin Fargas (1-11) and Michael Bush (1-2) combined for 7 more catches.
There is a trend, clearly. Teams have the option of going down the field against either Samuel (4 interceptions) or Sheldon Brown (3 interceptions) or look to the middle of the field and the short flanks and they are clearly having more success softening up the Eagles defense with the shorter passing game.
So ... even before Omar Gaither suffered a foot injury -- more on that later -- the Eagles were giving up too much to the tight ends and the backs. And we've talked about this many times before, tight ends are having their way with this defense. It was a story last year, too, until the Eagles did whatever they did -- make an adjustment, or simply play better football as a group -- and tight ends were shut down. In the first six games of 2008, tight ends caught 39 passes for 503 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the final 10 games of the regular season, tight ends caught 317 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The defense needs a similar improvement now. Maybe having Will Witherspoon here will make that kind of difference. I am of the belief that the Witherspoon acquisition is a great one. He isn't a Pro Bowl middle linebacker, because those kinds of players aren't available at the trade deadline. I think Witherspoon is a good football player, an excellent cover linebacker, a leader and a steady, durable smart addition.
And I think that for this defense to get better and to be the kind of group that can play well in this crucial stretch of NFC East games, Witherspoon is going to have to be on the field and is going to have to make plays.
How is that going to happen? It requires a group effort. Witherspoon, as I see it, is the team's middle linebacker. I'm not sure about it, of course, and the Eagles have to see Witherspoon come in and do it, but the best-case scenario is that Witherspoon is on the field for every snap. He isn't going to rotate in like Gaither. Jeremiah Trotter's role is to be defined as the Eagles continue to find the right fit for him -- could he be a short-yardage and goal-line package linebacker only? -- as the Eagles try different combinations among their three 'backers.
For Witherspoon to stand out -- in this defense, the middle linebacker has a chance to excel, given the philosophy in the defense of funneling plays inside to the MIKE linebacker -- the defensive line has to be stout in the run game. Tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson are playing well, and Antonio Dixon is using his strength to gain some reps. Trevor Laws needs to push to earn more playing time.
The ends have to be good against the run, too, and they have been so far this year. The biggest tests for the running game are coming, so stay tuned.
It is in the passing game, ideally, where Witherspoon helps the most .The Raiders clearly targeted Trotter every time he was on the field on Sunday. They came out in a base look -- two wide receivers, a tight end and two backs -- and then made Trotter run in coverage. Most of the few plays Oakland's offense made came when the Raiders went after the linebackers in the passing game.
Witherspoon, potentially, makes the Eagles linebackers better in coverage. And he happens to be very fine on run downs, too. He is only 239 pounds and that is a worry on the surface. The Eagles are convinced, though, and Witherspoon's history says so, that he is going to be plenty big and strong and physical enough to play tough against the run. The tackles are key, though. Boy, are they key.
Gaither's injury hasn't yet been clarified, but when Andy Reid says on a Monday that a player won't play the following Monday, you know there is a concern. Gaither visits a foot specialist in a day to determine the extent of his injury. Sounds like he is going to be gone a while.
What the Eagles did on Tuesday was acquire a full-time middle linebacker who also plays in the nickel. He is a three-down linebacker. Witherspoon has a lot to learn very quickly, and the coaching staff has to learn about him in a hurry. The Eagles gave up a lot to get Witherspoon -- a promising young receiver in Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round draft pick in 2010 -- and they clearly think he will help them now and in the future. This is not a rent-a-player-move. Should Witherspoon play as he has played in his time with Carolina and St. Louis, the Eagles will have acquired a player who can make a difference in this defense.
To get better as a defense, you must identify weaknesses and turn those holes into strengths. It will take a team effort -- coaches and players -- but the Eagles stepped out and brought in somebody to help right now. We will know very quickly if this defense can peak when needed most.