There is an old story about Thomas Edison that I've always liked. Someone made mention of the many times he failed when trying to create the light bulb. Edison responded that he hadn't failed. He had found several hundred ways that didn't work. Eventually he would find the way that would work. That somewhat describes what has gone on at linebacker with the Eagles this year.
Juan Castillo has tried just about everything to find out who can do what and which combination works the best. The results have not been pretty for most of the season, but we are starting to see some progress.
The biggest thing I think that Castillo has learned is that there isn't a player so gifted that he needs to stay on the field in every situation. Initially Castillo felt that Jamar Chaney was that kind of a player. He had Chaney playing in base, nickel, dime, and short yardage. Now Chaney is down to base and short yardage. Chaney doesn't lack the ability to play in these different packages. The problem is that Chaney wasn't playing well in any of them. He missed too many tackles and was struggling with some coverage situations. By dialing down his responsibilities Chaney now has a chance to show if he can play better in the base defense. Sunday was Chaney's first time with limited snaps so it is too early to say if that worked.
Chaney remains the starting middle linebacker. He began the year as the SAM linebacker. He was succeeded at SAM by Moise Fokou. That lasted for a while, but then Fokou was replaced by Akeem Jordan. Where have you gone Seth Joyner and Carlos Emmons? Jordan has had a couple of good starts since taking over the job. His best showing of the year came in the win at Miami. Jordan isn't much of a playmaker, but did a solid job against the run. He doesn't appear to be a long term answer, but has solidified the spot for now.
Weakside linebacker has also seen quite a bit of change. Fokou began the year there, but was moved to SAM when Chaney slid inside. Casey Matthews took over at weak side, but that only lasted for a game before Brian Rolle came in and took the job away. Rolle is the one linebacker who has impressed this year. He lacks ideal size, but is tough and plays with a lot of heart.
Rolle is fourth on the team in tackles. He has a sack and four tackles-for-loss. His big highlight of the year came in the Chicago game. Rolle stripped the ball from Matt Forte and then scooped it up and ran for a touchdown. On Sunday Rolle knocked quarterback Matt Moore out of the game when he blitzed and hit Moore in the back. Rolle starts in the base. He plays in some nickel packages, but not all of them. Rolle is a player that Castillo and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell have figured out. They know how to use him. They're getting solid play and production. They've tried to mix Rolle into a variety of looks, but found he's best if not over-worked.
The problem with some young linebackers is that they aren't used to all of the complexities of the pro game. When used a lot, the players are challenged with trying to figure out what they need to do in a variety of situations. That leads to over-thinking things. Players must trust their eyes and instincts. Too much thinking leads to confusion and that kills linebackers. Believe it or not, one step in the wrong direction can lead to failure on a given play. The flip side is that waiting too long can also cause a player to blow his assignment.
Rolle has shown that he can be at least an adequate starter. He's not so good that you guarantee him a job in 2012, but the team doesn't have to look at WLB as a spot that must be addressed. Upgrade if you can, but know that Rolle can get the job done. Plus, he should improve with a full offseason.
Keenan Clayton is an interesting young player. During the lockout I re-watched the Eagles playoff loss to Green Bay and was surprised to see how well Clatyon played in that game. He was just a rookie, but the coaches wanted his athleticism on the field and used him creatively. Seeing that game made me wonder if Clayton could be a player to watch this year. Oops.
Clayton got a little time on defense, but failed to stand out even in a limited role. He was also not doing much on special teams and that led to him being inactive for some games. I think Clayton got the message. Since returning to action he's stood out more in kick coverage. The coaches were impressed by that and have started working him into the defense. Clayton saw his most action on Sunday. He played in the nickel defense and in some short yardage situations. Clayton was only in on a couple of tackles, but he did some good things. He covered very well at times. Clayton has the athleticism to be really good on tight ends. Heck, he's as athletic as some slot receivers. I bet he'd beat Jason Avant in a foot race.
One area where Clayton has struggled is being a physical player. Linebackers can't be just athletes. On Sunday he seemed to embrace the physical side of the game more than I recall in the past. That was encouraging. Clayton has good potential, but must show he can be a functional run defender before ever hoping to get a lot of playing time.
Clayton played a decent amount in the nickel defense. He split reps with Rolle. The other linebacker in the nickel was Matthews. He saw his most playing time in a couple of months. The coaches found out early in the season that Matthews wasn't ready to start. On Sunday they saw good and bad. Matthews struggled against the run. He blitzed well and had his first NFL sack. He showed good potential in coverage. Matthews had a couple of plays he'd like to have back (is stealing lines from Andy Reid a bad thing?), but I watched him closely on a lot of pass plays and he stuck right with the tight end.
I really think having a high quality middle linebacker would make a huge difference to the linebacker corps. The coaches are finding out that the players have some skills and can function pretty well when used a certain way, but there is no lead dog. You can't get by in the NFL when an entire unit is made up of supporting type players.
At least things are headed in the right direction. The defense is now ranked 11th overall in yards allowed. The run defense was once 30th in the league. It is now up to 18th. The linebackers delivered a pair of sacks on Sunday, helping the defense to now rank second in the NFL in that category with 42 overall. The defense still has serious issues, but there is some progress.
I do think it is good that the coaches have moved players around to find a way to use everyone in some way. If you don't have top notch players, get creative and use all of your resources. That builds an esprit de corps and it keeps all the players involved. If done correctly, you can sometimes find a situation where the old line of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is true. Castillo and his defensive coaches haven't invented the light bulb, but they are at least figuring a few things out down the home stretch.
Hopefully next year's will experiment will be seeing how the linebackers play when an impact starter is added to the lineup. Is it too early to dream of Luke Kuechly in midnight green? No. It's never too early.