"I feel the need...for speed." Most people know this line from Tom Cruise's character in the movie Top Gun. I think Sean McDermott also said it after reviewing tape of the 2009 Eagles defense and their disappointing performance. The Eagles spent the offseason revamping the defense. McDermott wanted an emphasis on speed and coverage ability. GM Howie Roseman and coach Andy Reid made move after move to give McDermott the kind of players he wanted. On Sunday we'll finally get to see the new defense in action.
The Packers are the kind of team that the defense was built to play. Green Bay has an explosive passing attack. Aaron Rodgers has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are outstanding receivers. Tight end Jermichael Finley looks ready to have a breakout season. He is a very athletic pass catcher. The Packers have weapons all over the place.
This is the kind of offense that gave us fits last year. Remember the San Diego game? They spread us out and exposed our linebackers. Dallas was able to do similar things in the final two games of the year. The Giants moved the ball up and down the field in the late season meeting with a big play passing game.
Our coverage ability should be far different this year. Let's start with the middle of the defense. We now have linebackers that can run and cover. They won't be ideal against power running teams, but they should make a big difference in a game like this. Ernie Sims and Akeem Jordan are both athletic enough to be effective against a skilled tight end like Finley. I'm sure we'll mix in safeties as well, but the coaches no longer have to panic if they see a linebacker in single coverage out in space.
The linebackers improved speed will also come into play when they help cover wide receivers on short pass routes. Think back to all the wide receiver screens and other short throws from last year that turned into healthy gains. Those type of pass plays shouldn't be as effective this year. Our linebackers will be able to stay closer to receivers in man coverage or be faster to rally to the ball when sitting back in zone coverage. Either way, we shouldn't have as many opposing skill players running free through the middle of the defense. The Packers starting duo of Jennings and Driver are very good RAC receivers. If we can limit their effectiveness on short throws, that will be a great sign for the rest of the season.
The secondary will also look different this year. Ellis Hobbs had a really good summer and suddenly isn't so scary as the right cornerback. I won't go so far as to say I'm a total believer at this point, but I'm cautiously optimistic. Hobbs played well up at Lehigh and then in the preseason games. The guy we saw in 2009 appears to be a distant memory. Hobbs wasn't awful last season, but he sure didn't play like a starting-caliber cornerback. Hobbs passed every test this summer, but I think most people are going to remain a bit skeptical until we see him against good wide receivers in multiple games. Facing the Packers on Sunday will give Hobbs a chance to show he can be a good starter for us.
Hobbs tackled well in the preseason games. He was very aggressive against screens and short throws. This is another good sign. As I mentioned earlier, too many players ran free last year due to sloppy tackling and poor pursuit on short, simple pass plays. I think Hobbs will do fine against short and intermediate passes.
I do have some concerns about his coverage on downfield throws. Hobbs lacks top flight speed and receivers can get behind him when he's thinking short route and then has to react. Green Bay has a good vertical passing attack and this is a concern. Greg Jennings against Hobbs makes me especially nervous. I'm sure Rodgers will have his receivers trying some double moves on Hobbs. If he bites up, that could mean big play time. The good news is that we have a new free safety who has good coverage skills and can help out on deep passes.
Nate Allen is a rookie, but he's not new to playing free safety. Adjusting to the speed of the pro game and the complexity of NFL passing attacks will be an ongoing challenge, but Allen has shown this summer that he is ready to play. Allen was good in all phases (hitting/tackling, blitzing, and coverage). He made an impressive play on a deep ball against Cincinnati that caused an incompletion. The best thing is that he didn't make the play based on just speed or athletic ability. Allen was in the right position and then took the correct angle to the receiver/ball. That isn't something every rookie does. Some players have natural instincts for a certain position. Allen looks like he was born to play free safety. He's also a bright guy and should be a quick learner. That will be important against a good offense like the Packers.
Sunday will tell us a lot about where Allen is in his development. I imagine he'll be playing back off the ball most of the time. The coaches will preach to him "Keep everything in front of you". The Packers will throw short to try and get him to come up some. Then they'll test him by going deep. Allen can't guess. He has to trust his eyes and play fast.
Quintin Mikell won't be holding Allen's hand. Mikell tried to do that too much last year with Macho Harris and it hurt Mikell's level of play. Mikell will go out there and just do his job against Green Bay. He'll coach Allen up on the sidelines and offer whatever advice he can, but Allen has to sink or swim on his own. He and Mikell have played together since right after the draft. That's hardly the same thing as having a season together, but it has given them a chance to get used to each other and develop some chemistry.
We need Mikell to play well. He will have to come up quickly in run support when the Packers try to establish Ryan Grant and the ground attack. Mikell also will help out on Finley. While our linebackers are improved, Finley is one of those tight ends that you need to cover with a lot of different looks and players. You don't want him and Rodgers getting comfortable with any look we're giving them.
Now that we've talked about the back seven and the improved coverage ability let's turn to the front four and rushing the passer. You can't play good defense without getting to the quarterback. If we're going to slow down the Packers offense, it will start with the guys up front.
Trent Cole is over at right end and ready to go. For the first time since 2006 he'll have a gifted pass rusher playing across from him. Rookie Brandon Graham will start at left end. He wasn't given the starting job. His potential got him picked early. His performance got him into the starting lineup. Graham played well in the OTAs, at Lehigh, and then in the preseason games. Next test, regular season games.
It is tough to get a read on Graham and how well he'll do. Rookie pass rushers don't normally post a lot of sacks. Honestly, I'll settle for 5 or 6 sacks if he can hit the quarterback consistently. We need offenses to fear both of our defensive ends. In recent years teams had to focus on stopping Cole. They didn't fear Juqua Parker, Victor Abiamiri, or Darren Howard (as an end). Graham changes all of that. All 32 teams scouted him heavily and know how talented he is. Green Bay will study his preseason tape and see what he can do. The Packers aren't going to build their gameplan around a rookie pass rusher, but they'll keep an eye on him.
McDermott will probably start by letting Cole and Graham get after the quarterback without blitzing. We can see how effective that is and adjust accordingly. If Cole and Graham are bringing regular heat on Rodgers, then the back seven can focus on coverage. If we're getting blocked, then McDermott has to get creative. Rodgers is too good of a quarterback to let him get comfortable in the pocket. The Eagles goal is to be able to get regular pressure this year with the line so that we can have as many players in coverage as possible. All teams want that, but the Eagles did something about it by acquiring Graham, Darryl Tapp, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, and Antwan Barnes.
What about pressure up the middle? Another mystery. We still have Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson as the starting defensive tackles. They aren't good pass rushers. The question is whether they can offer more push up the middle this year. Bunkley has the ability to push the pocket. He needs to be more consistent. Patterson was good early in his career, but has bulked up and is now better at eating up blockers than getting penetration. The thing to watch for isn't sacks by Bunkley and Patterson. If they can just drive the blockers backward that will be a huge help to Cole and Graham.
We do have some hope when we go to our nickel and dime units. Trevor Laws had a good summer and will get time. The other spot is more uncertain. We might end up with Graham sliding inside. He did this at times up at Lehigh and was deadly in drills. Tapp, Parker, and Te'o-Nesheim all saw snaps at tackle in the nickel unit. I bet McDermott will mix and match players until he finds a combination that works well. The Packers don't have a great interior set of pass blockers. We should be able to get some pressure up the middle.
McDermott didn't just want our defense to be faster for improved coverage. He also wanted to have more success when we blitzed. McDermott learned under Jim Johnson so he appreciates the value of blitzing. The key is to have players that are fast enough to get to the quarterback, either for a sack or to affect the pass. Last year guys in the back seven only totaled six sacks. Yikes. That isn't good enough for a team that likes to blitz as much as we do. Sims, Allen, Jordan, and Stewart Bradley should easily combine to match that total this year. I'll be disappointed if we don't have at least 10 sacks from the back seven.
Sean McDermott wanted more speed and athletic ability. He got it. Now it is time to see what his defense does. These are his guys and this is his scheme. With all the new faces it is fair to expect some bumps in the road. Remember that Green Bay is the first test, not the final one. It will be a good indicator of where we are and what's working well right now. With all the added speed and playmaking ability, I do think it is fair to expect pretty good results.
That said, you don't really shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. We need to keep them under control and give the team a chance to win. Seeing new guys like Allen, Sims, and Graham make a play or two would probably be okay as well. There's nothing better than finding out right away that the key offseason additions were good moves. Mr. Rodgers, meet Mr. Graham. Ah, football is back. Doesn't it feel good to have the regular season finally here?