Jamar Chaney went from rookie role player to starting middle linebacker in the blink of an eye. Stewart Bradley was playing well on Sunday night against the Cowboys when he landed awkwardly on his arm. He suffered a dislocated elbow and Chaney was forced into action. Chaney stepped up to the challenge. He led the team with 7 total tackles and played well.
The first thing that you would say is that he passed the "eyeball test". Chaney never looked lost. He wasn't dazed and confused. I didn't see hesitation in his performance. All we have to do is go back to last year and Joe Mays. He had the chance to step up when Bradley tore his ACL. Mays bordered between bad and awful. It was shocking to see how lost he looked. Mays chased after the ball at full speed, but showed no feel for the game. I heard from someone in the know that Mays drove other players crazy because he couldn't be counted on to play the correct gap.
Chaney, on the other hand, looked comfortable on the field. You saw him getting good depth on his pass drops. He played under control. On his second series you could see him changing a call and adjusting the defense prior to the snap. That wasn't an overwhelmed rookie. That was a middle linebacker running his defense. Subtle moment, but important in understanding where a player is at mentally and confidence-wise.
I certainly thought Chaney showed that he was an NFL player on Sunday night. Dallas has some speedy skill players, but Chaney didn't have any problems with getting to the ball and making tackles. He was stout on inside run plays. He had enough speed to play in space and be effective. His coverage skills do need some work. Chaney has the athletic ability to be a good pass defender, but he's got to develop a better understanding of the pro passing game. Chaney will learn how to read formations and pass routes so that he knows what is likely to happen. On Sunday night he was basically reacting to what happened as it happened. Good pass defense requires knowledge and anticipation. Guys like Seth Joyner and William Thomas weren't gifted cover linebackers as rookies. It took time for them to develop the skills and build the knowledge of how to play the pass.
Chaney has the potential to be a good starting middle linebacker. He was a productive player at Mississippi State. He played WLB as a sophomore and then moved to the middle for his final two seasons. He has okay size. Chaney had a great workout at the Scouting Combine. He was the fastest linebacker, running a 4.54 in the 40. He did well in the other drills/tests. Understand who he faced at Mississippi State. Chaney was playing against guys like Arian Foster, Matt Forte, Dexter McCluster, Knowshon Moreno, and future NFL runner Mark Ingram. That's a pretty talented group. That's life in the SEC (Forte went to Tulane, but MSU played them).
There may be some question about why such a talented, productive player lasted until the 7th round. Chaney had some injury issues that concerned NFL teams. He missed all of the 2008 season with a nasty broken leg and ankle injury. That didn't affect him as a senior in 2009, nor has it been an issue this season. The Eagles really liked him and were shocked he was still on the board. They traded to get an extra pick so they could select him. So far, that decision is looking pretty smart.
How will Chaney do in his first NFL start, a critical game against the Giants? This really is the million-dollar question. I think Chaney will have a solid game. You can bet that Eli Manning will try to burn him in the passing game. The Giants will try to get Chaney on tight end Kevin Boss and exploit that matchup. I could see them running the wheel route to Ahmad Bradshaw and trying to get him the ball downfield to test Chaney in coverage. Chaney is a better athlete than Bradley. If Chaney can diagnose plays quickly and make good reads, he might just be okay. Giving up some catches is acceptable. Just don't give up big plays. Make the Giants play small ball.
A lot of people will talk about Chaney handling the Giants running attack. I'm not overly concerned about that. You don't shut down the Giants with just good middle linebacker play. In the first meeting Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for 39 yards rushing. Bradley had 5 tackles, all solo stops. He was hardly dominant. The defensive line played the run well. The whole linebacker corps played the run well. Defensive backs Quintin Mikell and Dimitri Patterson played the run well. Team effort. That's what shut down the Giants rushing attack. Aside from Bradley, the Eagles have all the same pieces in place.
One benefit of this game is that Chaney is already familiar with the Giants offense. He didn't get on the field in the first meeting (on defense), but he sat in meetings all week before the game preparing for the Giants and he was there on Monday when the team reviewed the game film. Chaney has some idea of what to expect. That makes things a bit easier on him. It also helps that the coaches know the Giants well. The isn't like facing an AFC team that the Eagles haven't seen in four years.
Are there any concerns? Sure. The Giants line does a good job of run blocking. In college, Chaney struggled at times with shedding blocks. The coaches have worked with him this year on using his hands better to fight off blocks and stay clean. It also helps to have Mike Patterson, Antonio Dixon, and Brodrick Bunkley in front of him. Those guys can eat up some blocks and let him flow to the ball. There is also the question of what will happen the first time Chaney goes to tackle Jacobs. You can't really prepare for your first contact with a 265-pound running back. That has to be experienced. Bradley has the size and strength to handle Jacobs. Chaney isn't a monster linebacker so he will be smaller than Jacobs. Chaney has to hit with power, wrap-up, and use leverage. He can still put the big guy down, but it sure won't be easy.
I don't think the Eagles will win or lose based on the play of Chaney. He is a key piece in the game, but the Eagles have some good players around him so there isn't pressure on Chaney to be special. The Eagles can win if he just does his job. I'm betting he's up to the challenge.
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Quick note from the Dallas game. Left tackle Jason Peters was great on the final drive of the game. He played well all night long, but really had some big time blocks as Shady McCoy ran through the Dallas offense and closed out the game. If you go back and re-watch the final drive, just focus on Peters. Andy Reid put a lot of pressure on Peters when he referred to him as the "best left tackle in the league" when the Eagles dealt for him. Peters didn't play anything like that in 2009. He's been outstanding this year since returning from his injury. Peters may not be the best left tackle, but there aren't many he's behind.