Last year the Eagles defense was awful. And awesome. And everything in between. Depending on the game, you saw a group that could look dominant or dormant. Heck, the defense was erratic in games. There was a period in the Falcons game when I wasn't sure Matt Ryan would make it out alive. He did. They won 35-31. Ugh.
What can we expect in 2012?
I know it's hard, but set aside the Juan Castillo jokes for a second. As bad as things were last year the defense still finished 10th in points allowed and 8th in yards allowed. I know that stats can be skewed, but there is some truth in them as well. The defense did have some stretches when it was very good.
The goal this year is for the defense to be less sloppy and more consistent. If Castillo and the players can do those things, this could be a group that finishes in the top five in a lot of categories.
Let's start by talking about Castillo. As outsiders, it is hard to accurately assess the job he did last year. Clearly the players were confused early in the year and that does directly reflect on him. His job is literally to "coordinate the defense". Early on, the defense looked anything but coordinated. Missed assignments were a serious issue.
Castillo is smart enough to be a good defensive coordinator. He showed good progress during the year. I was especially impressed with what he did in the final month. Forget about the specific stats, the defense passed the eye test. They played hard. They were aggressive. Asante Samuel started to be more physical. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie woke up for us. Casey Matthews played his best. Keenan Clayton came alive.
Castillo had finally figured out how to use his players and also how to get everyone on the same page. What made it so encouraging is that this was young players and veterans. This was guys at every level of the defense. It wasn't a case of Castillo getting through to one group. The whole unit started to come together.
The test now is to find out if that was just a hot streak or if that was real change. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Did Castillo really learn some lessons? Is he now ready to lead the defense in a way where he can provide answers when the opposing offense has gained a tactical advantage? The final month of the season provided a sense of hope. The proof will be in the pudding (chocolate, of course) and we get to find out about that starting in September.
There is no question about the talent Castillo has to work with, especially up front. If the Eagles stay healthy, they could have the best defensive line in the NFL. The ends are terrific pass rushers. Rookie Vinny Curry is added to the mix. Brandon Graham is now healthy and in top shape, so he's almost like a new player. Phillip Hunt has bulked up and is ready to fight for playing time. Poor ol' Darryl Tapp is the veteran among the backups and might be the odd man out.
The starting tackles are back. Derek Landri was re-signed, giving the Eagles a proven veteran off the bench. Young guys like Antonio Dixon and rookie Fletcher Cox will push for playing time. Overall, this might be the best group of defensive tackles the Eagles have ever had. That could be especially true if Cox turns out to be an impact rookie.
Linebacker was a weak spot last year. Anyone disagree? Yeah, didn't think so. The addition of DeMeco Ryans in the middle should bring stability to that group. Mychal Kendricks will be the SAM. He has the speed and athleticism to be good as a blitzer or in coverage. He's also tough enough to be a good run defender. The final spot is a battle between Jamar Chaney and Brian Rolle. Chaney does have the talent to be a good NFL linebacker. He just can't make mistakes the way he did last year. Rolle was a pleasant surprise last year, but must play even better this year to keep his job. While Casey Matthews had a disappointing rookie season, he's bulked up and ready to show what he can do this year if someone does get hurt.
I expect much better linebacker play. Ryans is a stud. He also is a leader, something the group lacked last year. Chaney tried, but his play was so uneven that it was hard for him to be a guy the other linebackers would look to. The talent level is certainly better at linebacker than it has been in a while. The 2008 group was good. Before that you might have to go all the way back to 2002 when Shawn Barber, Carlos Emmons, and Levon Kirkland were the starters.
The talent in the secondary hasn't changed much, but the situation sure feels a lot different. The safeties are Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman. Allen isn't coming off an injury. He's ready to go. Coleman isn't a guy with a couple of starts under his belt. He was the starter for 13 games. He led the team in interceptions and was second in tackles. Both Coleman and Allen are ascending players who could have good seasons. There certainly are no guarantees. Each guy has holes in his game. I'm optimistic due to the fact that both guys are healthy, experienced, and have had just a taste of success. Some young defensive backs struggle and lose their confidence. Allen and Coleman have had some struggles, but have rebounded from them. 2012 is a chance for them to show what they can truly do.
I don't expect great safety play. The good news is that the defense is talented enough that it shouldn't be needed. Coleman and Allen need to do their jobs well and make some plays when possible. Depth isn't great, but Jaiquawn Jarrett is hoping to play well enough to steal Coleman's job from him. Tom Nelson, Colt Anderson, and rookie Phillip Thomas are fighting for one or two jobs.
As to the corners, playmaker Asante Samuel is gone. That means fewer interceptions and fewer missed tackles. We'll have to deal with the good and the bad of that move. It was necessary. The goal this year is to play more man coverage and have the corners be more aggressive. That's not Samuel, but it does fit Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha to a tee. Rodgers-Cromartie will take over Samuel's spot. He is one of the key players to the 2012 season. At his best, he can be a Pro Bowl corner. At his worst, watch out. The Eagles think putting him outside will bring out the best in Rodgers-Cromartie. I think so as well. He flashed big time talent last summer, but then lost his confidence during the year as he struggled in the slot. This year he can build up his confidence in the summer and have that carry over to the season.
Asomugha was up and down last year, but could be poised for a huge year. He knows the system. The coaches know him. There is no more adjustment period. The nickel corner spot was an issue last year. Rodgers-Cromartie was ineffective there. Joselio Hanson was pretty good, but had some issues as well. The Eagles invested a pick in Brandon Boykin to help that spot. Boykin played the slot last year at Georgia and has the size/skill set to thrive inside. If he wins the nickel job, the defense could get a nice boost. Hanson's experience is great, but his lack of speed isn't going away. Young players Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes need to make a big jump this year. Marsh is still considered starting material in the future. Hughes is more of a role player, but can be a good one.
If one of the outside linebackers can emerge as a good player...if one of the safeties can have a really good year...if the defensive line plays up to its potential...if Rodgers-Cromartie plays like he did in 2009...this could be a special defense.
The flip side is that some or all of those things might not happen. I still think there is enough raw talent that the group will be in the top 10. Last year Ryans was on a Texans defense that went from bad (30th in yards allowed in 2010) to dominant (2nd in yards allowed in 2011). Now Ryans is part of a group that wants to go from pretty good to special. Ryans is the only real veteran addition. Most of the talent is returning players. That means less learning and more butt-kicking.
A lot will be on Castillo. He now has some experience under his belt. The addition of Todd Bowles as the secondary coach gives him a better group of assistants to work with. The talent on defense is very good. Castillo has a favorable situation. He doesn't need to be Buddy Ryan, Bud Carson, or Jim Johnson for this thing to work. Castillo just needs to be good enough. If he is, this could be one hell of a defense.