Eagles Preseason Evaluations: What Is This Defense's Strength?

Eagles Preseason Evaluations: What Is This Defense's Strength?

As the old saying goes, it all starts up front in the game of football, and that certainly rang true for the Eagles’ defense against Carolina this past Thursday. Coming off of what one might go so far as to describe as a humiliating effort versus New England a week earlier, defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ unit took control of the line of scrimmage in their second outing, and by extension, the game.

End result: after surrendering 31 points to the Patriots, they held the Panthers to just 9, all on field goals.

The biggest difference was on the ground. After New England gashed Philly for 248 yards rushing on eight yards per carry – including two carries of 50-plus – the Birds were having none of that this time. Carolina was limited to 74 yards at 3.0 per carry, with a long gain of 17. And that was with Cam Newton under center, a quarterback who can hurt you with his legs as much as or more than he can with his arm.

Newton didn’t beat them that way, either. He was under duress a good portion of the time he dropped back to pass, as were all Panthers signal callers, leading to an erratic 8-for-17 for 112 yards. Cam may have missed on a throw or two, but considering he spent a lot of the night breaking from the pocket and taking hits, it’s hard to fault him.

The Eagles’ success in the trenches is even more impressive considering Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Isaac Sopoaga, and DeMeco Ryans all had quiet games again. It’s not the guys with the name recognition that have stood out in the front seven. It’s kids like Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan, Damion Square, and Clifton Geathers – largely anonymous players that are getting themselves noticed for doing the dirty work.

Don’t let their youth or – in several cases – lesser pedigrees fool you. All five have a chance to make a big impact this season. That’s right, all five. Thornton, Curry, and Logan are locks to make the 53-man roster, and the way Square and Geathers are playing, they should be here at the end of the month, too.

The biggest issue right now is they are all so untested at the NFL level. None of them is older than 25. Geathers is in his third year in the league, which makes him the veteran of the bunch, while Thornton has played the most – precisely 406 snaps, all last season. Logan and Square are rookies. None of Geathers, Thornton, or Square were even drafted when the time came.

They’re getting the job done so far though, and not just against backups. Each of them took reps with the first-team defense, and were instrumental in keeping the Panthers out of the end zone over 60 minutes.

Fletcher Cox is out to a slow start, but he’ll eventually join them as a force at the point of attack, and while Sopoaga is probably adequate at best, he’s a strong leader for the unit. If the Eagles’ unproven linemen continue to develop at a rapid pace, the position could very well become the strength of this defense.

RISING/FALLING

Mychal Kendricks

Quite possibly had the best night of any individual on defense. Did everything well. Was effective blitzing through the A gap. Blew up several runs, earning one tackle for loss. Pressured the quarterback a bunch, flushing him from the pocket once, and landing a (clean) shot on another. Also had a very impressive tackle on Cam Newton all alone in the open field that proved critical in holding Carolina to three points on the series. Good bounce-back effort after a disappointing first week for the second-year linebacker.

Trent Cole

Nice rebound for Trent at outside linebacker. Moved more fluidly in traffic this week. Took better angles to the quarterback, attacking blockers at times. It didn’t result in much more pressure, but at least he was in the play. Appeared to be in surprisingly good position when dropping into coverage, which he did a considerable amount. Was solid against the run, making two tackles. This might work.

Patrick Chung

Starting to see glimpses of the player he was in New England a few years ago. Plays very well in the box. Diagnosed a screen pass, making the tackle for a minimal gain. Shut down a run at the line of scrimmage after Kendricks disrupted the timing in the backfield. Finished with four total tackles, tied for most on the team. Also caused a wide receiver short arm a pass coming over the middle. Still can get lost in traffic because of his aggressiveness, but it didn’t hurt them in this contest.

Vinny Curry

Talked about the defensive line up top, but worth highlighting Curry again here. With his burst and now up to 279 lbs., just seems to be a load for interior linemen to block. Even when he was picked up against Carolina, it was a battle for the guard. Lived in the Panthers’ backfield, shutting down runs and rushing the passer. Finished with two tackles for loss. Outstanding game.

Brandon Hughes

Part of the cornerback tandem that made David Gettis look like a superstar (five receptions for 82 yards). Game notes largely read: “Hughes beat in man coverage.” Did have his man on one deep ball that landed incomplete, but receiver may have had a step. Also was penalized for delay of game when he tried to draw a false start – didn’t agree with the call, but it was unnecessary. I’ve never really seen in Hughes whatever NFL coaching staffs do.

Brandon Graham

They’re not dropping him into coverage very often, which is probably for the best. He’s been very disruptive at the point of attack. Caved the left side of the line with Curry to get in on a tackle for loss. Counted three legit pressures on the quarterback and a tackle for a loss. Official stats only credit Graham for one tackle, but I have him in the play on at least three others. Would have been here last week were it not for a single costly mistake – none of that this time around.

Eddie Whitley

Wasn’t on the field much, only in the fourth quarter, but made his presence felt. Had blanket coverage of a receiver on a deep ball. Came up and made a nice tackle in the running game, navigating through traffic to get to the ball carrier. Had a nice camp, wouldn’t mind see a little more of him.

Billy Davis

See all the up arrows? Don’t think I’m being overly-positive. After all, the Eagles did hold Carolina to nine points on 10 possessions. Credit the defensive coordinator for making adjustments and having his guys ready to play. Was a lot more aggressive with blitz calls. Did a good job of mixing up who was rushing and who was dropping without getting overly exotic. Still in a feeling-out process with his personnel, so great job by Billy Davis considering.

MIXED REVIEWS

Cary Williams

Not a horrific debut, but not one that quite backs up all of the talking, either. One thing about both he Williams and Bradley Fletcher is they tackle. Cary led the team with four solos on Thursday. Wouldn’t let the back gain the edge on running plays to his side. Of course, another reason he had all those tackles is Steve Smith was lighting him up on the outside. Smith is one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, and Williams kept everything in front of him, so there’s something to be said for that. But he didn’t exactly bring the fear back, either.

DeMeco Ryans

Hasn’t been actively bad, but not much to speak of in the terms of positives. He’s not been around the ball a whole lot. Has filled the wrong gap a couple of times against the run. Takes on blockers, but hasn’t been especially good at getting off of them. Non-factor when he blitzes, and not special in coverage – neither of which is news exactly, but haven’t changed. Ryans looks like a safe start, and that’s about all. Same as last preseason though, and thought he played fine last year.

Emmanuel Acho

Acho seems like a solid tackler who loves to play downhill. He’s made several big plays around the line of scrimmage in both games. That aggressive style of play also tends to get him into trouble though. Against the Patriots, Acho appeared to be guilty of overpursuing LaGarrette Blount to the boundary on that 51-yard cutback run, one reason why the heavy back had the space to completely change course. Against Carolina, Acho got sucked in on a play-action pass on third down, which his assignment wound up converting. The 22 year old has talent, but still lacks discipline.

Pete Mackanin on Odubel Herrera's slump: 'He needs to battle his way out'

Pete Mackanin on Odubel Herrera's slump: 'He needs to battle his way out'

After an 0-for-5 day at the plate, Odubel Herrera isn't heading to the bench a day later.

He's leading off. 

Pete Mackanin chose to move the slumping centerfielder atop the lineup card for Friday's series opener against the Reds despite Herrera's striking out in all five plate appearances Thursday.

"I think he's a .290-plus hitter as a leadoff man and I'm not going to sit him," Mackanin said pregame. "He needs to battle his way out. You figure you're the leadoff hitter once a game. After that, it's wide open."

While he hasn't batted leadoff this season, Herrera spent the majority of his time in that spot last season. In 76 games there, he batted .285 with a .359 OBP and .417 slugging percentage. 

The leadoff hitter this season has been Cesar Hernandez, who has a day off with a groin pull he's dealt with the last 10 days. Herrera primarily has been the No. 3 hitter this season and his average is down to .226 with 49 strikeouts to just 11 walks. 

Mackanin hopes the leadoff role can help change Herrera's approach at the plate.

"He was drawing a lot of walks at leadoff, so whether he has that mindset or not, I'm not sure," the manager said. "I just want to get him as many at-bats as possible. We need to get him going. We need him and [Maikel] Franco to get going."

May specifically has been tough on Herrera. He has four hits in his last 36 at-bats and has seven strikeouts in his last two games. He has just seven hits in 22 games this month. 

"I think he's at the point where he's grinding and sometimes when you grind, sometimes there's that feeling where you get lost," Mackanin said. "I've been in situations as a hitter where I've gone up to the plate saying, 'I don't care where it is. I'm going up there and just hacking.' Because you start thinking and that's not working.

"And you look for a pitch and then all of a sudden you say I'm going to take a pitch to get a look at and it's strike one. Then he throws you a nasty slider and that's strike two and your plan is out the window. So I've gone up to the plate myself saying, 'I'm just looking down the middle and swinging. I'm not thinking.'"

When asked, Mackanin said the team had not discussed demoting Herrera or Franco to the minors to take pressure off the duo.

While Herrera tries to hit his way back into a groove, Howie Kendrick is in the midst of working his way back to the majors. He was hit by pitch twice in a rehab appearance Thursday but is back in the lineup Friday in left field. 

Mackanin said Kendrick needed four days minimum in his rehab assignment and will therefore play Friday and Saturday before the team sees how he feels.

The manager also said the team would give more playing time to backup catcher Andrew Knapp. He started consecutive games for the first time on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

"I'm going to try and see him as much as possible and keep him as sharp as possible instead of once a week," Mackanin said. "That's tough to hit, once a week. It's tough to hit twice a week if you don't hit back-to-back. There's no ulterior motive."

Report: Brett Brown accuses longtime friend of defrauding him of $750,000

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Report: Brett Brown accuses longtime friend of defrauding him of $750,000

Sixers head coach Brett Brown is in Australia this week, where he has accused longtime friend and former Australian men's national team assistant coach Shane Heal of defrauding him of $750,000, according to the Australian Associated Press.

Brown invested $250,000 into each of three companies for which Heal was the sole director. Brown wasn't given a legal title regarding the companies and didn't know the specifics of how the money would be used.

"I assumed that the money was going to be used for what Shane told me it was going to be used for," Brown said. "Because it was a friend that I had for 25 years."

Heal was charged last year by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission following an investigation relating to alleged misconduct in 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to the AAP.

The sides return to court in Brisbane on July 20.

Heal played in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996-97 and was with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.