We just found out today that the Eagles have made some changes at linebacker. Patrick Willis and Brian Urlacher aren't on the way to Philly, so don't get too excited. The coaches decided to stick with the current starters, but to move them around.
One of the key reasons for the move has to be familiarity. Chaney and Fokou played those spots last year. Not everything is the same. Fokou won't be up on the line of scrimmage the way he was last year. The defensive tackles are playing a different style and that means Chaney will have to deal more with blockers than he did last year. Still, the guys know those spots better than the ones they had filled over the first couple of games.
Clearly the linebacker play wasn't what the coaches (or fans) had hoped for. The question was whether to stick with it and hope for progress or to make changes. You have to think the timing of this move is based on the schedule as much as anything. Three of the next four opponents are teams that prefer to run the ball (Giants, Niners, Skins). Only the Bills could be looked at as a passing team. And they have Fred Jackson at running back, the man who currently leads the NFL in rushing.
The Eagles are currently 30th in the NFL in run defense. Some fans are ready to ditch the wide-nine system. Others want big players. Shuffling the linebackers is merely a starting point. People don't want to hear this, but the real key is simple - better execution. The Raiders have arguably the biggest front seven in the NFL. The smallest linebacker is 6-3, 255, basically Jason Babin's size. And bigger than Juqua Parker. The Raiders are 27th in run defense. The two spots ahead of them are occupied by 3-4 teams. Next is the Cleveland Browns, another team with a big front seven. Size and scheme are relevant, but execution is the key. Players must get off blocks. They must be in the right gaps. They must tackle well.
The Eagles played good run defense on Sunday for a large portion of the game. In the second and third quarters Michael Turner struggled to find any running room. Plays were being made by defensive linemen, linebackers, and safeties. That changed in the fourth quarter and the Eagles paid the price. The Eagles still very much believe in the wide-nine system. They still like Chaney, Matthews, and Fokou. So now the players switch spots in the hope that it brings out the best in them and helps the overall run defense. The Eagles can rush the passer. They can cover. Linebacker play is the one area that absolutely must improve.
Chaney's best game in the NFL came against the Giants last December when he had 16 tackles and a forced fumble. He knows the Giant offense. He has played middle linebacker against them. Matthews would have been still adjusting to life in the NFL. Chaney can step right in and pick up where he did last year. He will be better prepared for the Giants than Matthews because of his experience.
Fokou also played well in that December win over the Giants. He had seven tackles, a sack, a tackle-for-loss, and a pass deflection. He's now studied the Giants offense for a few years and should know that group very well. Playing SAM against them should put him in a comfort zone.
Do the moves fit those guys long term? Chaney looked terrific at times in 2010. The biggest area that he struggled with was pass defense. Chaney is fast and athletic. He has good cover skills, but is much better at man coverage than playing the passing lanes in the deep middle. He also struggled at times with reading play-action passes. He's more athletic than instinctive.
One benefit for Chaney's move back to the middle is that he will be able to think less and play more naturally. Chaney played outside for a year in college so being there wasn't completely foreign to him, but the majority of his experience was at middle linebacker. That's the spot where he's most comfortable. That's where he's most confident. He knows what he's seeing on his pre-snap reads. He can run the defense and make adjustments. If Chaney is able to improve his cover skills and handling of play-action passes, he could thrive in the middle. Those aren't givens. Chaney was sloppy in coverage some in the first couple of games. Maybe getting him back to the middle will bring out the best in him.
Fokou just isn't an ideal player for the wide-nine. He is most comfortable playing up on the line and knocking heads from the get-go. Reading plays and flowing to the ball isn't his specialty. Fokou prefers to attack. He wants to make something happen. That eagerness hurt the Eagles on multiple run plays in the first two games. He got out of his gap and that left big running lanes. Flopping him over to the strong side is interesting. It feels like teams have been running to that side more. If so, that's good. Chaney is better with the play coming at him than when he has to chase. It will be interesting to see if he's now the primary guy for covering tight ends. Fokou has the size and ability to be solid in coverage. He's definitely physical enough to battle with tight ends as they try to release.
Matthews now slides to weak side linebacker. In my pre-draft write-ups I noted that he actually might be a better fit on the outside. Matthews was allowed to play in space more in college. He had to adjust to playing in traffic as the Eagles middle linebacker. Now he'll get out of some of the traffic. That should help him.
One of my biggest disappointments with Matthews is that he's not playing with the sense of reckless abandon that he showed in college. He flew to the ball and was a nasty tackler. He got in as many shots as he could. Matthews was an aggressive, physical player. You can see that his head is swimming on some plays in the NFL. Matthews is unsure of what he's seeing and what he needs to do. Moving him outside could make a big difference for him. He'll be thinking less and reacting more. He can see the ball and attack it. Reads are easier for outside linebackers. They can see the ball come at them or go away. In the middle you have to play the whole field.
Moving the players around doesn't guarantee the Eagles of anything. Chaney was the middle linebacker when Adrian Peterson ran wild last December. Chaney was also in the middle for the playoff loss to the Packers, when James Starks looked like a stud. I know it is boring to hear, but the real key is execution. Chaney wasn't playing lights out at SAM. The hope is that moving him back to the middle will bring out the best in him. Chaney is really the key to the linebacker corps. You need one player to build around. Fokou and Matthews aren't the type of players you build around. Chaney showed that kind of potential last year. Was that just a mirage or can he really be that kind of player?
The Eagles know that linebacker is a position that needs help. Expect change there in the offseason. There are no linebackers available right now that would come in here and make a significant difference. Just changing players for the sake of change would be a bad idea. Shuffling the guys is fine. Give them a chance in their new spots to show what they can do.
Don't expect magical changes. Switching spots won't turn anyone into Seth Joyner, William Thomas, or Byron Evans. Focus on improvement. Are the guys playing better? Are they more confident and aggressive? If so, then let's stick with them. If not, make sure that Brian Rolle, Akeem Jordan, and Keenan Clayton keep working hard in practice so that they're ready if called upon. The Eagles must have improved linebacker play if the team is going to have a Super Bowl caliber defense. The linebackers don't have to be good, but they do need to be good enough.