Keys To Eagles Success
By Bret Stuter
October 20, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles inside linebackerDeMeco Ryans
(59) runs with the ball after making a interception against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Pittenger-USA TODAY Sports
KEY ONE: The Eagles two top defenders must earn at least ten sacks apiece. (or combine for more than 22 sacks).
The template for this Eagles defense lies on the other side of the commonwealth, when the Pittsburgh Steelers defense confused, bewildered, and dominated NFL offenses. For all the commentary, the analysis, and the aftermath, the Eagles defense was not good in 2013.
Offenses passed at will in the early part of 2013 on the fledgling 3-4 defense. By the time the players began to feel comfortable in the scheme, they were halfway through the season and fighting to stay out of the NFC East basement. Fortunately, the players did collectively play at a much higher level, and put together a record of seven wins one loss in the second half of the season to move into post-season.
In 2014, the team is not learning WHAT to do, but HOW to do it BETTER. It’s that reason alone which will give the defensive players a distinct advantage this year over last year’s efforts. The other advantage is the fact that the defense now has the ability to mask what it intends to do. How? In the off-season, the Eagles added a great deal of flexibility to their roster. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and outside linebacker Marcus Smith are two such individuals who can flex their responsibility to meet the defensive play called. This gives offenses uncertainty over who is in coverage and who is blitzing. That uncertainly creates confusion and hesitation – which is the ally of a pass rush.
In 2013, Billy Davis was forced to remain in base defenses early simply to ensure his players understood their primary responsibility. In 2014, with few exceptions, that primary responsibility is already second nature. Conner Barwin and Trent Cole, in a below average season, combined for 13 quarterback sacks. Considering the fact that Cole did not register a sack until week nine against the Oakland Raiders, and registered two of his passes defended in the second half of the season, there is reason to believe this is doable.
Barwin earned 11.5 sacks in 2011 for the Houston Texans, which was the last year he played alongside DeMeco Ryans. Cole earned 11.0 sacks in 2011 for the Philadelphia Eagles, the last year he had double digit sacks. With a season that pits the Eagles against the NFC West and the AFC South, the pass rush simply cannot be an afterthought. The maturity of the defensive line, and the increased use of pass rush specialists Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham will ensure that pressure will continue to push quarterbacks thoughout the season.
KEY TWO: The Eagles must maintain a good takeaway number by the end of the 2014 season.
The surprise of 2013 was not really much of a surprise when you take note of the fact that the Eagles made a huge improvement in takeaways from the previous year. The 2012 Philadelphia Eagles lost the ball through turnover 25 times. In 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles obtained possession of the ball through a turnover 10 times. That 35 turnover differential is a key statistic in measuring how the Eagles were able to improve from a 3-13 season to a 10-6 season.
There was no random chance. Some of the first stories coming from the 2013 training camp focused on runners keeping possession of the ball via a yo-yo string attachment to the football. Other stories described how quarterbacks had to pass around human fly swatters to complete passes. Still other stories describe how runners must run through “wickets”, in order to remain low and narrow when hitting the hole. In each training exercise, retaining control of the ball is a goal.
In 2014, the Eagles offense continues to focus on the same drills. On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles sure tackling and improvement in defensive backfield communication allowed the team to improve a paltry 12 takeaways in 2012 to 29 takeaways in 2013. This year, the team will be able to build on 2013. With the influx of new personnel who are flexible and hard hitting, the Eagles should continue to improve this year.
KEY THREE: The Eagles cannot have a season ending injury to a defensive player in 2014.
This is not as obvious as others, but it’s crucial for this defense to have players who start and end the season together. Now, I’m not saying that nobody can miss a game due to injury. Where I draw the line is a player who is on the field on the defensive side of the ball on game one needs to be able to dress for game sixteen.
While the team is certainly improving, and players now have a strong knowledge of this defense, they are still merely a year into the scheme and the coaching staff. Chemistry is still elusive. Should a player injury occur, it will impact the team overall, as the level of trust and dependability will take time to rebalance.
The other factor is simply the fact that the Eagles are still aligning to this defense, and do not have the built in depth of some of the more established defenses in the league. That lack of depth is masked as long as the starters remain healthy and productive. Should the team be forced to start a reserve player due to injury, it could signify a drop in defensive quality as players attempt to compensate. The best way to avoid this issue is simply to try avoiding any prolonged down time to any player.
KEY FOUR: The Eagles linebackers must be the key to this defense.
The reason Chip Kelly was interested in switching from the 4-3 configured defenses to a 3-4 defense was simply the opportunity to load up on linebackers. In Chip’s version of football, linebackers are critical in attacking a line of scrimmage, passers in a pocket, running backs trying to find a seam, pass receivers, and special teams coverage. Going into team practices, the Eagles boast 14 linebackers, while they are expected to trim that number to 8-9 for the season.
Much of the improvements in this 2014 version of the defense will occur at the linebacker level. If the Eagles make the jump to the “next level”, the pass rush must originate from the linebacking group. It’s not beyond hope that both Conner Barwin and Trent Cole can generate significant quarterback pressure.
It’s also from this same group that the improvements to the special team’s coverage units. With the return of John Phillips and the arrival of “Kill,Maim,Destroy” Bryan Braman, the coverage unit is expected to improve considerably. The standouts on special teams, while improving their chances of making the roster, will also be expected to play their position as well.
The 2014 Philadelphia Eagles sit at a cross roads. They have the unique blend of veteran leadership with the athleticism of youth. They have a coach who seems to have figured out the enigma of the NFL, while he himself remains somewhat of an enigma. They have the hopes of a great season, but subdued expectations of pundits and sports experts.
It’s the perfect opportunity to gel, to build upon the success of 2013 and catapult into the thick of the NFL teams in post season discussion. In order to do that, the team must focus on goals that enable them to arrive at the playoffs in good shape to win.
The team is close. The Eagles must simply achieve the keys to succeed.
We’ll know if they in a matter of weeks.