The hot topic with Eagles fans is the situation at linebacker. Here are some of the questions being asked the most frequently. Why was Jamar Chaney moved out of the middle? Why is the team relying on Casey Matthews, an unproven rookie? Why wasn't Matthews at least challenged by a veteran and forced to win the job? Haven't we suffered enough? Don't we deserve another Seth Joyner type of impact linebacker?
The first issue to jump into is the Matthews situation. He played just a handful of snaps in the preseason opener. He wasn't really tested. The defense as a whole played well so all was good. In Pittsburgh Matthews struggled early on and the defense had a bad night. Fans and the media joined the two things together and put a lot of blame on Matthews. Suddenly the curiosity about Matthews turned from passive to aggressive.
We don't know anything for a fact so let's call this educated speculation. The Eagles did like Matthews a lot prior to the draft. They brought him to the NovaCare Complex for a pre-draft visit. I listed him to the Eagles in a few mock drafts. I just really got the feeling Matthews was a player that Juan Castillo liked. Sure enough, they drafted Matthews in the fourth round.
I don't think the plan at that moment was to start him. The Eagles were still in the middle of figuring out what they were going to do once the lockout was over. My guess is that the team wanted to re-sign Stewart Bradley to a one-year deal and have him compete with Matthews for the job. You would expect Bradley to win the job, but would leave the door open for Matthews to earn it with a strong showing. If you couldn't re-sign Bradley, go add a mid-level veteran and still have the competition between him and Matthews.
The lockout rolled on and on. Next thing you know it is mid-June. The plans have to change. Time is now a serious factor. In order to have a true competition you need snaps for the young player and the veteran to show what they can do. The problem is that there are no mini-camps or passing camps prior to the team going to Lehigh. Just as bad, the new CBA doesn't let you have two-a-days. You can only practice in pads during the morning. The normal amount of snaps has been cut by maybe as much as 75 percent. That is huge.
The Eagles decide at this point that if Matthews is truly a player they believe in the smart thing to do is put him on the field and give him as many reps as possible. You don't have time to make him earn the job and learn the job. They focused on having him learn the job. If he falls flat on his face, the team can add a veteran late in the preseason or early in the season. The veteran can learn on the fly. Remember that Will Witherspoon was only an Eagle for a few days when he started at middle linebacker. That was also when the team was running a more complex system.
This isn't a case of the Eagles just handing the job to Matthews in some some careless or mindless way. In a normal offseason the team would have loved to challenge him with a veteran. As we all know, there was nothing normal about the 2011 offseason.
Matthews didn't play well in Pittsburgh, but he did show progress from the first quarter to the second. He's going to have a handful of practices between that game and the one against Cleveland. It is very possible that Matthews will build on what he did in the second quarter and come out and play much better this week. That certainly is the goal. You want young players showing progress. Every week they should get a little better.
If Matthews plays much better this week, then I think he is completely safe. If he really struggles, then the Eagles might go find that veteran to throw into the mix. Matthews has to start showing that he's capable of handling the job. One thing to keep in mind is that coaches don't always look for the same thing as fans. Joe Mays was a ton of fun to watch a few years back when he was the third string middle linebacker. He flew all over the place and made a bunch of tackles. Fans loved him. The problem is that he was completely undisciplined and didn't cover his gap. He just ran to the ball. That looked great in the summer against third stringers, but he struggled mightily when he played with the starters in real games. Guessing and playing hard wasn't good enough. Matthews has shown a good head for the game. He's generally in good position. The only major flaw right now is taking on and shedding blocks. That is something that can be worked on.
Last summer Jamar Chaney was the rookie middle linebacker who was focused on learning to shed blocks. He wasn't forced into action and had time to hone his game before getting on the field. Once he did, Chaney played well and gave the Eagles real hope that they had found a good linebacker to build around. Expectations throughout the offseason were built around Chaney as the middle linebacker. The Eagles then drafted a pair of middle linebackers and it became clear they had other plans for Chaney.
The initial thought was that Chaney would move to weak side linebacker. Castillo threw everyone a curveball and put Chaney at strong side linebacker (SAM). The thinking is that he can cover tight ends, a seemingly annual weak spot for the Eagles, and be a good run defender while playing SAM. Castillo said in a recent press conference that SAM is a special position in the new defensive scheme.
Middle linebacker isn't always the key position. Think about the great Tampa defense of the last 15 years. Derrick Brooks was the stud linebacker on the weak side. He played with a lot of guys in the middle: Barrett Ruud, Shelton Quarles, Jamie Duncan, and Hardy Nickerson. The weak side spot is more important in that scheme that the middle linebacker. Castillo sees Chaney as a complete linebacker (can tackle, cover, and blitz). Castillo wants to put him in a position to take advantage of that skill set. Apparently in the new scheme that spot is the SAM position.
I have no problems with moving Chaney at all. I studied tape of him from 2010 and was thoroughly impressed with parts of his game. He's fast, tough, and always around the ball. The one area that seemed to be lacking was his ability to diagnose plays. That is a critical skill in the middle. Outside linebackers can react more. It is easier to see what is happening. That is a good fit for Chaney's skill set. Plus, he played on the outside as a sophomore in college. This isn't something completely foreign to him.
Time will tell if Castillo made the right decisions about moving Chaney outside and putting Matthews in the middle as the starter. I know people want answers right away, but you must give this time to see if it works. Chaney is just in his second season. Matthews is a rookie. Castillo is a rookie defensive coordinator at the NFL level. If the group gets off to a hot start, that doesn't meant the situation is solved. You need to see how teams adjust as they study tape and identify weaknesses. If the group gets off to a bad start, that doesn't mean the moves were wrong. Castillo and his young players will be learning every week.
Back in 1988 Seth Joyner was the strong side linebacker. That was his third year in the NFL. The middle spot was split between veteran Mike Richenbach and rookie Byron Evans. Former Bears star Todd Bell had the other spot. The defensive line was loaded with stars - you know who they are. The secondary was pretty good, although Eric Allen was just a rookie. That defense, full of future Pro Bowl talent, was 14th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed. The coaches were Buddy Ryan, Wade Phillips, and Jeff Fisher. Keep that in mind this year when judging Castillo, Matthews, and the overall defense. Young players and coaches are going to have some bumps in the road.
The best way to sum things up at this point is to say that linebacker is a fluid situation. I think Chaney and Matthews will be starting on opening day. Moise Fokou has quietly been solid this summer and should be the final starter. His job could be taken by Keenan Clayton, another young player who has looked good in the preseason games. I do think there is a good chance the Eagles could add a veteran backup. Rashad Jeanty has disappointed this summer. Injuries have taken his speed. Akeem Jordan hasn't played so well that he absolutely deserves a job. Rookie Brian Rolle has done some good things, but he's more of a role player at this point.
It would be nice to have a bunch of proven veterans out there, but the Eagles have decided to go with young guys. That will lead to some rough days, but if the players develop well could also give the Eagles a good corps of linebackers for years to come. Remember, Seth (8th round), Byron (4th round), and Willie T. (4th round) were all young players once. If the current group could even get into the same area code as those guys in terms of group and individual success, that would make Juan Castillo a very happy man.