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.

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (see full recap).

Westbrook triple-double lifts Thunder over Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.

Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.

It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.

Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson each set a career high with 19 points, and Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers (see full recap).

Pacers beat Grizzlies to snap six-game skid
INDIANAPOLIS -- CJ Miles made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, Paul George had nine points and nine rebounds after remaining with Indiana following the trade deadline, and the Pacers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 102-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Monta Ellis finished with 16 points, Myles Turner scored 12, and Lavoy Allen, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young each added 10 for the Pacers.

The Pacers outscored the Grizzlies 64-42 across the middle two quarters and never relinquished their lead, leading by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Grizzlies finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor (35 for 84).

Troy Daniels had 13 points for Memphis and Marc Gasol scored 12. Indiana outrebounded Memphis 50-39 and scored 29 points off 17 Grizzlies turnovers (see full recap).

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

BOX SCORE

For as much as the Sixers’ bigs are talked about, Richaun Holmes often is left out of the conversation. 

He’s not the centerpiece of the team like Joel Embiid nor was he heavily involved in trade talks like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. He is the backup center who bides his time on the bench and quietly stays ready when he gets the nod.

And on Friday, he was the standout player in the Sixers’ 120-112 win over the Wizards (see Instant Replay)

“He’s been sort of the person that people forget about because of the logjam of five men,” Brett Brown said. “We all sort of think, ‘Well, he should just accept it because he’s behind Joel and Nerlens and Jahlil. Good ol’ Richaun. Go to the D-League and it’s OK.’ And that doesn’t work. He’s a pro, he’s competitive. He’s handled it. He’s really been a wonderful teammate.”

Holmes was bumped up in the rotation following the trade of Noel to the Mavs. He moved into the second-unit role while Okafor started in place of the injured Embiid. 

Holmes recorded his first double-double with 12 points (6 for 9 from the field) and 10 rebounds (three offensive). He also blocked a career-high five shots, tying Embiid for the most by a Sixer this season. The second-year big man put together this impressive performance in 26 minutes off the bench. 

“Just play hard,” Holmes said of his approach. “Just go out there, show what you’ve been working on, play hard every second you’re out there. That’s the motto I’ve got.”

Holmes is averaging 16.1 minutes and has appeared in just 32 of the Sixers’ 57 games. This season he also spent time with the Delaware 87ers of the Development League to get playing time. Holmes embraced an opportunity similar to Friday’s a month ago when he scored 18 points in as many minutes against the Clippers. 

“I try to approach every game this season the same way, whether everybody was playing or people were hurt,” Holmes said. “Prepare like I’m going to play 30 minutes a game. I think having that mindset helped me to stay ready at all times and be aggressive when I had a chance.”

Brown did not rule out the possibility that Holmes could start at some point if he continues this production. The Sixers are limiting Okafor to 20 to 24 minutes per game, according to Brown. That, combined with Embiid’s injury, could lend itself to an increased role for Holmes. 

“I think in that environment, it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for Richaun to get a start from time to time,” Brown said. 

Even if he remains on the second unit, Holmes proved he can provide a spark off the bench. Dario Saric noted how Holmes’ impact on both ends of the floor bolsters the frontcourt in addition to a more offensively-minded Okafor (11 points, two rebounds). 

“I think he played unbelievably good in both ways,” Saric said. “Everybody knows he’s an elite guy finishing around the rim, and he stepped in Nerlens’ place, he replaced him unbelievably good. I hope he will get the same minutes for the next game because we have Jahlil, who is more like a post-up player, who likes more to score from the low-post block, and we for sure need some guy like Richaun who will play in both ways." 

Perhaps the person least surprised by Holmes' game was Holmes himself. It was the result he puts in long hours to produce.

“It’s all about the grind,” he said. “All about keep working, keep trying to move up, keep trying to get better every second and it’ll pay off.”