The Eagles finished the 2011 season ranked 16th in run defense. That certainly doesn't sound too bad, but then you have to remember that the defense needed to get hot to finish with a ranking that high. For a while, the Eagles were at the bottom of the league in run defense. Simply put, it was a mess.
While the team did show a lot of progress last season, Andy Reid and Juan Castillo weren't satisfied. Getting even better against the run was a focus of the offseason. That led to the trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. He isn't a great athlete that will fly from sideline to sideline making highlight plays. He can sit in the middle of the defense, read plays, shed blocks, and make tackles. Those are basic qualities, but the Eagles didn't have a linebacker consistently do those things last year.
The team also wanted a playmaker at outside linebacker. This led to the drafting of Mychal Kendricks in the second round. He has excellent speed, but isn't just a workout warrior. Kendricks was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. He is a playmaker. He also is a sound run defender. He's exactly what the Eagles needed in an outside linebacker.
I think most people are happy with the changes at linebacker. They know that Ryans has a very strong track record. They saw Kendricks have a terrific showing in the preseason games. There hasn't been a buzz about an Eagles linebacker like this in years and years.
One concern for some has now become the defensive line. Mike Patterson was the best run stuffer last year. Unfortunately he will miss the first six games of the season. He could in fact miss the whole season. The Eagles will examine him after six weeks and see if Patterson is ready for football. He had brain surgery back in January. The doctors had to remove part of his skull to do the procedure. The piece was put back and has almost healed fully, but due to the nature of Patterson's job the doctors are hesitant to clear him for football just yet.
Losing Patterson didn't seem like a huge deal because the Eagles were so deep up front. Then training camp came around and Antonio Dixon failed to impress. He was equally bad in the preseason games and got cut. That left the Eagles without their two biggest defensive tackles and best run stuffers. Is this now a cause for concern?
Dixon had a terrible summer and wasn't effective at stopping the run during preseason games so cutting him isn't a big deal to me. He looked nothing like the player from 2010 who showed so much promise. A week after his cut, Dixon remains unemployed and he's not been getting a lot of work out requests. I can't stress enough how unimpressive he was this summer. Losing Patterson does hurt. Having him on the field for third-and-1 or goal line situations would have been a big help. Patterson can take on double teams and hold his ground. When single-blocked, he could either drive his guy backward or slant (in or out) and get penetration. He was disruptive.
Right now the starting tackles project to be Cullen Jenkins and Derek Landri. The backups are Cedric Thornton and rookie Fletcher Cox. Landri is the only true nose tackle in the group. The heaviest player is Jenkins at about 305 pounds. To some people, this is a major cause for concern.
The Minnesota Vikings led the NFL in run defense in 1994. They allowed opponents to get just 3.1 yards per carry for the season. The great Gang Green defense of 1991 allowed 3.0. The '85 Bears allowed 3.7. That Vikings team played amazing run defense.
What made them special was how small they were. The tackles were Henry Thomas (6-2, 277) and John Randle (6-1, 280). The middle linebacker was Jack Del Rio (former Jags coach) and he was 246 pounds. Neither outside linebacker was more than 230 pounds. This was 1994 and players were a bit smaller, but these guys still had to deal with plenty of blockers that were 300-plus pounds. That Vikings defense was coached by a guy named Tony Dungy. He preached penetration up front and gap discipline behind it. The team was smart and tackled very well.
The Eagles aren't quite that small, but hope to play run defense based on the same premise. The defensive line isn't there to eat up blockers. Instead, their job is to penetrate and be disruptive. Jim Washburn's wide-nine is based on attacking up the field. Some doubters don't think the system can be effective against the run. Washburn had plenty of success with the Titans. Back in 2003 Tennessee was first against the run. The argument against this is that they had Albert Haynesworth, a big defensive tackle. The year before his arrival the Titans were second against the run. The year before that they were fifth. The year before that, third.
Scheme is never as important as personnel and execution. The Eagles have the players to make the wide-nine work. Jenkins is an outstanding athlete. He has the quickness to get into the the backfield. He also has the motor and speed to chase plays from behind. Landri led the team in tackles-for-loss last year. He's coming off a great summer. Landri can explode off the football. He gave the Browns fits a couple of weeks back. Both players are more physical than people understand. Landri is only about 290, but he can take on double teams. He is strong, but more importantly he plays with great leverage. He gets under blockers and is able to hold his ground or even split the double team and blow plays up.
Behind the starters you have Cox and Thornton. Cox has elite potential. He is very quick. He has good natural strength. Cox, like most rookies, must simply learn how to play stronger. This has a lot to do with using proper technique and playing with leverage. Coaches need time to develop those skills. Thornton didn't show good strength last summer. This time around he looked worlds different. He gave blockers fits in training camp and preseason games. Thornton might be under the radar nationally, but I think he will really open some eyes this year.
The ends are also part of the equation. Trent Cole plays the run better than any 4-3 end in the NFL. Jason Babin isn't a good run defender. We'll see if he makes any progress this year. Darryl Tapp, Brandon Graham, and Phillip Hunt have all shown the ability to play the run. Hunt is the smallest, but plays so low that he can get by blockers and make plays in the backfield. He also has a chip on his shoulder and doesn't want to be seen as just a pass rusher so he gives excellent effort on run plays.
Don't overlook the experience factor. The line has a year of playing in Washburn's scheme. They know the techniques and specific responsibilities needed to make the wide-nine an effective front. Washburn mentioned this spring that if you went back and re-watched the games from early last fall you could see tons of mistakes. They aren't obvious to the untrained eye, but there were to Washburn. Now the players know what they're doing and will execute the wide-nine the way Washburn wants.
Obviously linebackers are a big part of run defense. The Eagles improved the personnel. Now the test is for the linebackers to go out and play well as a group. Too often last year the Eagles had three guys running around as individuals. Blown assignments and poor gap integrity were major issues. Putting a veteran like Ryans in the middle should help a great deal. Beside him is Jordan, who has a year in the scheme and some starting experience. The other starter is Kendricks. While he's a rookie, Kendricks is a superb talent and brings athleticism and skills that the linebacker corps lacked in 2011.
There is no question that the Eagles are built to rush the passer. That's what Washburn wants. That's what Castillo wants. That's what Reid wants. I do think the run defense will be better, possibly much better. The line should be improved, not to mention smarter. The linebackers are infinitely more talented. The full offseason has allowed the coaches to really teach the players thoroughly. Mistakes were made and then corrected in the preseason games. This year the defense should be ready to go from the opening kickoff. Some mistakes will be made, but nothing like last year's on-the-job training that resulted in disastrously bad run defense for the first five weeks.
The first test is Sunday at Cleveland. All the talk, analysis, and speculation goes out the window and we finally get to see what the Eagles can do in live games. I'm betting fans will be happy.