A lot of Eagles fans are ready to send defensive coordinator Juan Castillo packing. Nice guy. Hard worker. But he doesn't seem to be the man who is meant to run the Eagles defense. Remember, he's following in the footsteps of Marion Campbell, Wade Phillips, Jeff Fisher, Bud Carson, and Jim Johnson. That's one hell of a legacy. Buddy Ryan was never technically the defensive coordinator, although he certainly ran the defense.
Andy Reid's decision to hire Castillo came as a shock, to put it mildly. No one knew quite how to react since it was such an unprecedented move. The general reaction was extreme skepticism, with a definite hint of curiosity. Did Reid know something we didn't? Could this really work? Support built up for Castillo during the summer and preseason as his defense played pretty well and looked like a quality unit in the making.
Things got off to a rocky start in the season opener. Steven Jackson ran 47 yards for a touchdown on the Rams first play of the game. He was untouched and had an interstate to run through. Panic set in among the members of Eagles Nation, but the defense got better as the game went along and that ended up being the only touchdown allowed in the game.
The next week the defense had no answer for Tony Gonzalez and the Falcons went five for five in the red zone. Oh boy. That wasn't a good sign. Still, that was Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan at quarterback. And Gonzalez is a Hall of Fame player. The Falcons also have Roddy White, a top five receiver, and Julio Jones, who looks to be a great receiver in the making. Don't forget about Michael Turner. That's an offense with some firepower. Getting burned by them isn't the end of the world.
Then came Sunday. The Giants came to town with Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Ahmad Bradshaw, and some guys. There was no way that group would move the ball and score points, right? Wrong. Victor Cruz had two touchdown catches and both were big plays. Brandon Jacobs did his best Brian Westbrook impression and caught a 40-yard touchdown pass. Bradshaw had the one easy score, an 18-yard screen pass that burned an all out Eagles blitz.
In back to back weeks the Eagles gave up four touchdown passes and had fourth quarter meltdowns. Once is an accident. Twice is a trend, a bad trend. It is one that Castillo had better put a stop to immediately.
All of the goodwill that Castillo built up over the years as an assistant coach and blue collar guy is now gone. As the defensive coordinator he is in a position that is results oriented. This isn't like being the offensive line coach where there are only a couple of numbers and you can twist them. Running the defense is a whole other ball of wax. Castillo can argue that the Eagles are 12th in yards allowed, 7th in third down defense, and 2nd in the league in sacks. Those are good numbers. The world will answer back that the team is 1-2 and coming off a pair of blown fourth quarter leads. The team is 30th in run defense, tied for 24th in points allowed, and is dead last in touchdown passes allowed. Ouch.
It might sound like I'm ready to see Castillo fired, but that's actually not the case. The defense has been disappointing and there is no debating that. At the same time, you have to take the odd circumstances of the 2011 offseason / season into account. There were no mini-camps and passing camps this year. May and June are normally busy months for coaches who prepare their players for training camp and the upcoming season. This year the coaches didn't get to work with players until training camp. Even then, things weren't normal. One of the concessions given to the players in the lockout dispute was a reduction in practices. No more two-a-days. This meant that live hitting would only take place in morning sessions. Also, since players were behind in getting into football shape, head coaches drastically limited the amount of full tackling. Most practices involved hitting, but not taking players to the ground.
Right now there is an epidemic of horrible tackling across the NFL. This is shaping up to be the year of the offense. After three games, 10 teams are averaging 400 or more yards per game on offense. The last time that happened was 1970. The highest total since then was six back in 1989 (thanks to Brian McCarthy of NFL.com for the numbers). Eight quarterbacks have a rating over 100 right now. Cam Newton is doing things that a rookie just doesn't do. There are a handful of quarterbacks on pace to break Dan Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards in a season. This really is a crazy time in the NFL. All of the great offensive numbers don't excuse Castillo and the defense from struggling more than expected. They explain part of the reason for the struggles, but the bottom line is that Castillo must do a better job, and the players as well.
Castillo wanted the opportunity to be the defensive coordinator, but he's also got the responsibility of the position. That means he is fair game to all kinds of criticism. I have no problem with people who are down on Castillo, but I don't think we can accurately judge him right now. I think we need a bigger sample size.
In a normal season I think it would be tough to evaluate a coach after three games. This year, I think that's even harder. Coaches need time with their players. The coaches must install the system and also coach the individuals. They have to make schematic and lineup adjustments after each game. Then you ask the question if the problems are getting fixed. Red zone defense was the issue against Atlanta. Big plays were the problem against the Giants. If the Eagles improve in these areas against the Niners, that's a sign of progress. San Francisco doesn't have a good offense and that has to be factored in. The following week the Eagles go to Buffalo to face one of the hottest offenses in the league. That will be an interesting challenge.
After five games we'll have a better feel for Castillo and the defense. The Eagles will have faced good and bad offenses. They'll have played young and veteran quarterbacks. They'll have faced a variety of schemes and skill players. Just as important, Castillo's lineup changes will have had a chance to prove whether they are effective or not. Maybe Brian Rolle thrives as the WIL linebacker. Maybe Jamar Chaney settles into his old spot as the middle linebacker and plays lights out. Maybe Nate Allen's knee holds up well and he bring stability to the safety position. If these changes work, the defense will look much differently. If they don't, then we'll know that Castillo is in over his head or the Eagles have some serious personnel issues. Or a mixture of both.
Some people have asked me to compare Sean McDermott and Castillo. It is very hard to compare them because of the circumstances. McDermott was replacing a legend and struggled with that. He changed the way he acted once becoming the defensive coordinator and that strained some of his relationships with various people. Andy Reid's comments after McDermott's firing didn't cover him being a bad coach so much as someone who was in a tough position. Castillo had no such shadow directly over him. He's able to just be himself and not have to worry about having a certain image.
A few people have pointed out that some of the problems with the defense are the same ones from last year. There is some truth in that comment. Look behind it for a minute. McDermott was in his second year of running the defense. He had full offseasons. He had less talent, but more stability with the lineup. You still saw blown assignments and missed coverages. Castillo is having these problems three games into a season with minimal preparation time. That is a huge difference. One of the problems with McDermott was communication between him and the players. Guys were confused on a regular basis over the two years that McDermott ran the defense. The problem didn't get fixed. We don't yet know if Castillo will fix the problem. That's why we need more time to see what he's able to do.
Castillo wanted to run a simple system that would allow the players to think less and react quicker. Right now that isn't happening on a consistent enough basis. The lineup changes will offer a clue as to whether the issue was Castillo's coaching or the young players just having a hard time of adjusting to the new scheme and/or the NFL in general. It is easy to want to blame Castillo because of his own lack of expertise in defensive matters, but look at the standings. Bill Belichick runs the worst defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed. Dom Capers is just a couple of spots higher than him. Both Belichick and Gregg Williams have defenses that give up among the most points in the NFL. Those guys are all gurus with Super Bowl rings to back up their credentials. Castillo's defense is out-performing them.
I'm not saying Castillo belongs in the same breath with those guys, but the point is that he's also not the incompetent boob that some people make him out to be. Watch the big plays and touchdowns that the Eagles have allowed. You see two plays where the Eagles were out-schemed. The screen pass touchdown late in the Giants game came against an all out blitz. The Giants like to use screens in that situation. Castillo should have anticipated that. There was a draw play earlier in the game that burned the nickel defense for 37 yards. The linebackers looked surprised. They should have been thinking screen/draw based on what the Giants showed the previous week.
Other times we see players blowing assignments and/or missing tackles. Castillo is responsible since he runs the defense, but you have to focus on player errors in those cases. If the problems continue throughout the season then Castillo becomes more responsible. After all, his specialty is supposed to be coaching fundamentals. If his players struggle in those areas, that is a serious concern.
The real question that matters to us is whether Castillo is the right man to run the 2011 Eagles defense. At this point, I don't think we know the answer to that. We'll have a much better idea in a couple of weeks. If Castillo's players really like playing for the guy, they better start showing that by making some plays. No one questions Castillo's work ethic or desire, but results are all that matter and right now the results aren't good enough. That needs to change in a hurry.