Didinger: Eagles need to help Matthews succeed

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Didinger: Eagles need to help Matthews succeed
August 21, 2011, 10:55 pm
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Amid his meandering stream of consciousness, Fox analyst Terry Bradshaw did make at least one salient point during Thursdays Eagles-Steelers preseason game. No, it wasnt when he questioned whether Hawaii was part of the United States. (Only since 1959, big guy.)

Bradshaw noted the Eagles were having trouble containing the Steelers ground game and it was because the Steelers were exploiting the gaps in the Eagles Wide Nine defensive alignment. The Pittsburgh linemen were getting clean shots at the Eagles linebackers and middle linebacker Casey Matthews in particular.

On one play, center Maurkice Pouncey snapped the ball and ran right through Matthews, dropping him on the seat of his pants. On another, guard Tony Hills drove the rookie out of the play and almost off the TV screen.

Bradshaw reflected on his days with the Steelers when they won four Super Bowls with an undersized middle linebacker named Jack Lambert. He was listed at 220 pounds, but he was closer to 210. He was rawhide tough and nasty as they come, but he still needed to play in a very specific type of defense to be effective.

Pittsburghs defensive coordinator, a crafty old fox named Bud Carson, came up with a beauty. It was called the Stunt 4-3 and put tackle Mean Joe Greene at a 45-degree angle to the center. Fats Holmes, the other tackle, lined up on the centers opposite shoulder. Basically, they put the poor guy in a 600-pound vice.

At the snap, Greene would cave in the center and either Holmes or defensive end Dwight White would loop stunt in coach-speak behind him. The guards were never sure which lineman would be coming through which gap so they were left flat-footed, looking this way and that.

Carsons scheme kept the center and guards occupied so they could not get across the line to hit Lambert. As a result, he was free to do what he did best, that is, use his speed and aggressiveness to fly to the football. The Steelers used that defense to limit Minnesota to 17 rushing yards (on 21 attempts) in Super Bowl IX.

So when Bradshaw saw the Steelers rolling up the Eagles undersized rookie linebacker on Thursday, he said they might want to re-think their defensive scheme. He said if the Eagles intend to go with Matthews in the middle, they need to protect him, something along the lines of what Carson did for Lambert.

Of course, the Steelers had the advantage of having a great front four and Lambert was a special player in his own right. No one is suggesting the Eagles have anything on the line that is even close to Joe Greene and no one is comparing Matthews to a young Lambert, but Bradshaws fundamental point is a good one.

If the role of the coach is to put players in a position to succeed and Andy Reid repeats that mantra weekly the Eagles staff has to take a long, hard look at what it is doing and ask if it is the right way to go.

If they really want to play Matthews in the middle and Reid is sticking with that plan at least through Thursdays preseason game against Cleveland they cant leave him on an island behind the Wide Nine. He is too exposed and too easy a target for a team that wants to run the ball.

If the Eagles would play a more traditional 4-3 with the four linemen in the normal gaps, they could take on the blockers and allow Matthews to play to his strength which is flowing to the ball. He cant do that if he has a 330-pound blocker in his grill. Limit the traffic around him and he might have a chance. That is how Miami got away with having 5-10 Zach Thomas at middle linebacker for years.

One of the things Matthews showed at training camp was keen football instinct, which is not surprising given the fact his grandfather, father and uncle all played in the NFL and brother Clay plays in Green Bay. In practice, he always seemed to take a perfect angle in pursuit. He could see a play develop and get to the ball carrier without a wasted step.

It is something that cant be coached, a player either has it or he doesnt, and thats what excited the Eagles about Matthews and convinced them he could be their starting middle linebacker. But no one was really hitting Matthews in practice and the speed of the game wasnt for real. In Pittsburgh, when the tempo picked up, he was in over his head.

Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo explained it as a process. He is teaching his guys to take on blockers with their hands rather than their shoulders. It is a different technique, Castillo said, and the players are still getting the hang of it. Matthews agreed. You dont have as much power in your hands, he said.

Castillo believes this all will work out, but after what we saw in Pittsburgh, it is hard to be convinced. If the 6-1, 230-pound Matthews is left alone in the path of 18-wheelers like Pouncey and Hills, he is going to be flattened regardless of what technique he uses.

It will help when the Eagles get their full compliment of defensive tackles back on the field. Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon will offer Matthews more protection than the tackles have so far. But if the Eagles were planning to adopt this defensive scheme, why they didnt try harder to keep Stewart Bradley who played the middle at 255 pounds and was better equipped to take on the big boys? It makes you wonder.

Matthews took a lot of criticism after Thursdays loss. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him replaced. It wasnt really fair that he was singled out because no one on defense played well. For those who question whether the kid can play in the NFL, relax. He has ability and a world of desire, but he has been thrown into a very tough spot.

As a rookie fourth-round pick, with no spring camps and no OTAs, Matthews has been given the responsibility of playing middle linebacker and calling defensive signals for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Instead of putting him in a position to succeed, the Eagles coaches seem to have done just the opposite.

Thats their fault, not his.

E-mail Ray Didinger at viewfromthehall@comcast.net

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