Philadelphia Eagles: New Approach, Same Results on Defense
After the arrival of former Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly this off-season, it’s easy to get lost in the lustre of the Philadelphia Eagles’ potential on offense for the upcoming season. However, the Eagles’ offense wasn’t really the issue last year. At least, the offensive personnel and philosophy wasn’t the issue.
Michael Vick’s struggles were apparent for all to see and they were the kind of issues that Kelly is unlikely to coach out of him. Vick struggled with pocket presence, pre-snap reads and reading coverages, his physical tools were still on show and they should remain with him entering next season.
Along with Vick’s failures, the Eagles also had revolving doors at many of their positions on offense with as much as 10 original starters missing on the field at one point of the season. Only left guard Evan Mathis was truly healthy all season long.
Kelly has the talent to work with on offense in Philadelphia, something he obviously believes when you look at his approach during this off-season. Outside of drafting Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz and Matt Barkley, after adding James Casey and Arrelious Benn in free agency, the Eagles’ off-season work was exclusively focused on the defensive side of the ball. Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkings were released, Dominique Rodgers Cromartie and Mike Patterson led the class of departing free agents. Todd Bowels was replaced by Billy Davis, who watched over the arrivals of Isaac Sopoaga, Clifton Geathers, Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher, Patrick Chung, Kenny Philips, Cary Williams, Jason Phillips(free agent class), Emmanuel Acho(trade), Bennie Logan, David King, Joe Kruger, Jordan Poyer and Earl Wolff(rookies).
Davis was brought in to run a defense that will run a variety of different formations and take advantage of the skill-sets of the individuals on the roster. That defense should primarily use a 3-4 front however, which is the polar opposite of the 4-3 front that Andy Reid employed. In spite of that, talented carryovers such as Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry, Trent Cole, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Graham could all flourish in the new defense. DeMeco Ryans failed to transition from a 4-3 middle linebacker role to a 3-4 inside linebacker role with the Houston Texans previously, but different concepts could accommodate him.
In today’s league, it doesn’t really matter what formation you run or what play-designs you create so long as you can defend the pass. It’s a passing league that puts a premium on pass-rushers and players who can cover in space, be they defensive backs or linebackers. The Eagles have a plethora of pass-rushers on their roster. Brandon Graham, Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and Fletcher Cox in particular stand out, while Mychal Kendricks, Casey Matthews and Jamar Chaney can all contribute as coverage linebackers.
Where the Eagles appear set to stumble once again is in their secondary.
Chip Kelly’s offense is expected to be very fast and efficient. If his plan works to perfection, the opposing teams will be playing catchup on a weekly basis. Teams don’t catch up by running the ball, they catch up by dropping back as often as is required. For that reason, it makes sense that the Eagles would have invested in pass-rushers and their secondary this off-season, something that they did indeed do.
However, it wasn’t so much the direction the Eagles took but the guides they choose to take them in that direction. Conner Barwin’s skill-set as a pass-rusher will essentially be made redundant by Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, while the defensive backs who have been brought in arrive with more question marks than answers.
Bradley Fletcher, a cornerback formerly of the St. Louis Rams, appears to be the Eagles’ most astute addition this off-season. Fletcher was a third round pick of the Rams in 2009. He played sparingly as a rookie before becoming a full-time starter in 2010. He showed some promise, but was still developing at the time. In his third season, he tore his ACL after just four games. The arrival of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins following that season meant that Fletcher’s time was coming to an end with the Rams. However, in his final season he played relatively well in a limited role as the team’s third cornerback.
Even though he was the third cornerback, he wasn’t the nickel as Cortland Finnegan moved inside when the Rams lined up with those formations. Fletcher is slated to start for the Eagles on the outside, unless Brandon Boykin or Curtis Marsh can beat him out in training camp or the preseason.
Along with Fletcher, the Eagles also landed Cary Williams as one of the top cornerbacks on this year’s free agent market. Williams played over 1,400 snaps for the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens last year. However, he was also often targeted 135 times in 19 starts, giving up 87 receptions and an 89 quarterback rating. The better passing teams aren’t scared to pick on Williams, as the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys combined to throw at him at least nine times each in seven games.
Neither Williams or Fletcher could be considered number one cornerbacks, while the combination of the two doesn’t make up for the lack of one superstar either. Both are best suited to being third choice bit-part contributors or low-end second choice starters.
As bad as Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were for the Eagles last year, they weren’t as problematic as the safety positions were for Reid’s last stand. There was next to no communication on the field at times and the lack of range for Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen/Colt Anderson/David Simms handicapped the whole defense.
Coleman isn’t expected to be a starter entering this season, while Allen is buried down the depth chart after being benched last season for Anderson. Kelly’s regime brought in Kenny Philips and Patrick Chung to help fix the problem on the back-end of the defense. Philips and Chung both have many problems.
Neither is best suited to play free safety, although Philips is versatile enough to be moved around the field. Both have durability question-marks, Philips’ so great that he has only started 16 full regular season games once in his five year-career. While Philips is a very talented player who would dramatically upgrade the secondary if healthy, Chung isn’t necessarily better than the pieces that were already on the roster for the Eagles.
The New England Patriots’ fatal flaw in recent years has been their secondary. Chung was a big part of that up until he was benched last year. Even though he was a former second round pick on a team with massive needs at his position, Chung only started 30 games in four years for the Patriots and he didn’t look good in those starts either. The soon to be 26-year-old lacks range and doesn’t have the coverage ability to play man-coverage. He is physically gifted, but those gifts don’t translate into production on the field.
For many teams, Chung would at most be a special teams player. If he is for the Eagles, then they are going to have major problems in their secondary. If he isn’t and he starts, they still could have those same problems.
So even though Chip Kelly has rebuilt his defense with less-celebrated players than Andy Reid did back in 2010, the result could easily be very similar. Kelly was able to essentially ignore his defense at the college level, whether that works on the professional level is yet to be determined.
Chances are, it won’t.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf