Eagles Opposition Report: Bears Defense

Eagles Opposition Report: Bears Defense

Chicago has a reputation
for having one of the better defenses in the NFL, but that's not exactly
the case. In fact, they are pretty ordinary. The Bears are 19th in
points per game, and 25th in yards. They don't do anything particularly
well, and are especially prone to the passing attack, entering Monday
night ranked 28th in the league.

The reason is quite simple: they
are a unit anchored by three aging playmakers who are surrounded by
otherwise pedestrian talent.

RDE Julius Peppers
One of the few
gems from 2010's free agent class, Peppers migrated north from Carolina
last spring and enjoyed a fine first season in his new uniform. His
eight sacks were a little deceptive, as he was still disruptive and
commanded extra attention from time to time. Plus, he forced three
fumbles and intercepted two passes. Even at 31, there aren't many
defensive ends who can wreak havoc in such a variety of manners.

There
are signs he is finally slowing down in his tenth season though.
Peppers has just four sacks so far, and he's created zero turnovers. To
be fair, he was fighting through a sprained MCL at one point, and he's
still on pace to match last year's sack total. He's also a 6-7, 287 lbs.
monster-man, so that should probably be noted as well. But Peppers is
not quite the dominant force he was the previous decade either, and
that's good news for Michael Vick and Jason Peters at least.

MLB Brian Urlacher
The
middle of the field still belongs to Urlacher, who at 33 still has the
range to patrol huge chunks of turf in Lovie Smith's Cover-2 defense.
Last season was his first trip to the Pro Bowl since 2006, and he's
working on what would be his eighth selection in 2011, already racking
up three interceptions on the year. He can blitz too, but hasn't visited
the quarterback yet this season. A genetic freak like Peppers, Urlacher
always was one of the few linebackers in the league who could almost
match athletic ability with Vick, and he can quickly turn a
highlight-reel scramble into a costly mistake.

CB Charles "Peanut" Tillman
One
of the underrated playmakers in all of football, Tillman has been
remarkably consistent throughout his nine-year career. Only twice has he
intercepted fewer than three passes, and he is one of the game's great
strip artists, punching 27 balls free and three or more in five of the
past six seasons. Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant should take note, as
they've each experienced spells of critical ball control issues.

Like
the rest of Chicago's core, Tillman's best days are likely behind him.
He hasn't done a whole lot in 2011 -- zero picks, and two forced
fumbles. And when a cornerback is knocking all those balls loose, that
means wide receivers are making catches. Protect the ball, and you've
beaten Peanut.

And now the rest...

OLB Lance Briggs
Don't
get me wrong, Briggs is a fine player, quite possibly the best 4-3
outside linebacker in the NFL since Derrick Brooks. He's a sound
tackler, fits well in the Bears' system, and constantly wants a new
contract, so we've no doubt all heard of him. He's also yet another
30-year-old -- 31 this Saturday -- and doesn't come up with many
game-changing plays. Briggs has 10.5 sacks and 13 INTs in nine seasons.
A sound veteran player, a perfect fit for their system... and possibly a
tad overrated.

LDE Israel Idonije
Not one to buck the trend,
Idonije is also going on 31, but last season was his first as a
full-time starter. He benefited greatly from the presence of Peppers on
the opposite side, doubling his career sack total with eight. He's
having another decent year at three so far, but the Niegerian-Canadian
won't overwhelm linemen, and isn't anything Todd Herremans shouldn't be
able to handle.

DT Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina
Believe it or
not, there is some youth on this defense, including the two starters
along the interior defensive line. A fourth round pick out of Texas last
year, Melton is in his first season as a starter, and has three sacks
thus far. The 27-year-old Toeaina finally stuck as a starter last year.
The former sixth-round pick by Cincinnati missed the last two games due
to injury, and figures to give the run defense a bit of a boost with his
return.

The rotation also features former Texans first round
pick Amobi Okoye, who remarkably is still only 24 in his fifth NFL
season, and Stephen Paea, this year's second rounder who appeared in two
games so far.

S Chris Conte and Major Wright
Chicago also has
a pair of young safeties. Conte is a rookie free safety out of Cal. The
third round pick has seen increased play time lately, taking over as
starter for the disappointing Brandon Meriweather over the last two
weeks, and recording his first interception last week. Wright was a
third round pick last season, and on the heels of the recent release of
Chris Harris, he's pretty much the man at strong safety.

The
Bears don't ask too much of their safeties in their Cover-2. They are
mostly there to prevent big plays down the field, which is why they can
get away with such inexperienced players. Just don't be surprised to see
a gameplan that attacks them.

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Earlier this week, Doug Pederson admitted cornerback Eric Rowe had some “hiccups” during the spring, and seemed to indicate they stemmed from learning a new defense. 

Rowe says that wasn’t the problem at all.

“It wasn’t the new defense that was giving me whatever hiccups [Pederson] was talking about,” Rowe said on Wednesday as he reported for his second training camp (see Day 3 observations). “It was just, I was having trouble breaking on top of the routes, specifically the curl routes. But fade ball, deep post, digs, I didn’t have any trouble there. It was just curl routes. I just knew I had to work on it after the OTAs.”

Rowe, 23, said the problem was technical; he just needed to get his feet down quicker.

Whatever the problem, whatever the hiccups, it seems as though Rowe’s standing within the organization and on the depth chart isn’t what it once was.

Many thought he would be a starter in 2016, like he was at the end of 2015, but that wasn’t the way things were in the spring. Instead, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks took those positions, and it looks like Nolan Carroll, returning from an injury, and rookie Jalen Mills, who hasn’t yet practiced in pads, are vying for playing time, too.

In back-to-back days earlier this week, Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz failed to mention Rowe’s name while listing players at the cornerback spot. Coincidental omissions or a vocalized unofficial depth chart?

Rowe could possibly go from starter to deep bench player, but that’s not what he’s planning on.

“I know I had a little ups and downs in OTAs, but now the pads are coming on,” Rowe said. “I feel like it’s a fresh start for me and I’m just ready to get out here.”

Pads go on Saturday.

“Right now, I think I still stand in a good position (with the team),” Rowe said. “Football is about the game with pads on. Now we’re really about to see in a couple days when we put the pads on.”

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

He looks like a small back. He's built like a small back. He wants to play like a big back.

Wendell Smallwood, trying to make the Eagles as a reserve tailback, stands 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, but he said he’s got a surprise for defenders that think he’s one of those itty-bitty backs that dances around looking pretty … until they get hit.

“I think that’s what most people expect,” he said. “But when I actually put my head down and fight for those extra yards and get under guys, guys start to say, ‘Hey!’ They start to feel me a little bit.

“So I definitely think that started to show my last year in college, and I started becoming more of an inside zone type of runer instead of an outside runner.”

None of this should be a surprise considering Smallwood’s position coach is Duce Staley, who during his 10-year NFL career was much more interested in running over people than around them.

Smallwood is nowhere near as big as Staley, who played at about 235 to 240. But that’s the kind of back he wants to be.

“It’s definitely important to me and it’s definitely what Duce wants me to do,” Smallwood said. “He wants me to hit the holes and hit ‘em hard and that’s the reason he got me here.

“Duce, he doesn’t like small backs. He doesn’t. I don’t think he believes in those guys. He was a big boy. Running dudes over left and right. That’s what he wants.”

Smallwood played sparingly as a freshman at West Virginia, shared time with Rushel Shell as a sophomore, then took over last year when he led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards and added nine touchdowns, 26 catches and a 6.4 rushing average.

The Eagles plucked him out of Morgantown in the fifth round, and in an uncertain running back picture, he’s got a realistic chance to not just make the team but play a role.

Just don’t expect him to play like a typical guy his size.

“I don’t consider myself a small back anymore,” he said. “People have always said that and I kind of started to agree, but then I looked at some of the guys who are around and I’m not a small back at all.

“I’m not little and the running style I like to do is suited for a big back, and my catching kind of throws people off. I definitely think I’m a mixture of both.”

Smallwood ranked 13th in Division I in rushing yards last year, and his 6.4 average was tied for ninth among backs with at least 200 carries.

He said a lot of defenders expect him to be a finesse back, a guy who likes to juke safeties and linebackers instead of bowling them over.

“Get me going downhill and I’ll get you what I can get you,” he said. “A lot of (defenders) kind of take the easy route and think it’s going to be easy and then the rest of the game they’re going low and trying to take my legs out.”

Look at the Eagles’ running back picture.

The starter is Ryan Mathews, who is talented but injury-prone. The backup right now probably is Kenjon Barner, who has 34 career carries. Then there’s Darren Sproles, whose 3.8 average last year was his lowest since 2009 and second-lowest of his 11-year career.

With a strong camp, there’s no reason Smallwood can’t work himself into that picture.

The last frontier for the Northern Delaware native is blitz pickup. Something he was never asked to do at WVU.

“I don’t think I did basically any in college,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to block at all. I was mainly running routes.

“But as soon as I got here, Duce emphasized, ‘If you want to get on the field, you’re going to block. If you’re not going to block, you’re not going to play.”

Staley’s No. 22 wasn’t available, but Smallwood is happy to wear the jersey number of another one of his favorite backs growing up, Correll Buckhalter’s No. 28, who he seems quite similar to.

It’s not fair to compare Smallwood to Staley, Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook or any other former Eagles back until the pads go on and we see what he’s really made of.

But Smallwood said he’s thrilled Staley is his coach and said there’s nobody he’d rather be playing for.

“I think he’s a great fit for me as a coach,” Smallwood said. “I need a kind of guy who drives me, tough guy, who’s not going to let up, who’s going to keep his foot on my back. I definitely need that kind of coaching.

“Just being around him growing up and seeing what he did when he was here and how he runs and him being one of my favorite backs, I was kind of star-struck to be around him, and now he’s my coach. It’s definitely a great situation for me.”

Patience being tested after Phillies' embarrassing 10-run loss to Marlins

Patience being tested after Phillies' embarrassing 10-run loss to Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Wednesday was a miserable day for the Phillies, but there was one winner among the group.

Bench coach Larry Bowa was ejected from the game in the fourth inning, sparing him from having to watch a full dose of the carnage that befell the team in an embarrassing 11-1 loss to the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Manager Pete Mackanin wasn’t as fortunate as Bowa. He had to stick around for all nine innings as Zach Eflin struggled through a poor start and the weak-hitting Phillies came within an out of being shut out for the second straight game.

“He was mad at the umpire,” Mackanin said of Bowa. “He couldn't control himself. He had to let it out.

“In this game, when you win, you get giddy. When you lose, you want to hang yourself. You have to stay even keeled. You have to stay consistent. At least I have to. I have to try to stay consistent emotionally. 

“I used to be more emotional when I was younger. Over time, I just learned that it doesn't do you any good. My fate is left in the hands of the players.”

The players have not performed all that well since coming back from the All-Star break. Wednesday’s loss dropped the club to 4-9 since the break, dropping it to 11 games under .500. The Phils are averaging just 2.6 runs per game over that span and the pitching has been spotty. The baserunning, particularly by Cesar Hernandez, has been poor, as well.

“This game is all about consistency,” Mackanin said. “Repeating your delivery. Showing plate discipline. Not getting yourself out. Making the plays. Doing the little things on a consistent basis. Over the course of 162 games, the teams that do these things the best are the best teams.”

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Phillies to 2-4 on the first two legs of this 10-game trip. But all is not lost. The Phils play the Braves in Atlanta the next four days. The Braves have the worst record in the majors.

“We're going to Atlanta,” said Mackanin, not realizing he was about to damn his club with faint praise. “I think we have a good chance to compete against Atlanta to end the month on a positive note.”

The Phils came up short offensively and on the mound Wednesday. Actually, they had 10 hits, but only one was for extra bases, and they left 10 men on base while getting just one hit in eight chances with a runner in scoring position. (The Phils were 2 for 21 in those situations in the series.) Marlins lefty Adam Conley pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings and pitched out of bases-loaded trouble twice.

Eflin was hit hard early. The Marlins scored three runs in the first inning, two on a scorching two-run homer to left by Giancarlo Stanton. The bruising line drive left Stanton’s bat at 112 mph.

In all, Eflin was tagged for nine hits, including the homer and a pair of triples, and seven runs in five innings. Mackanin said Eflin “was not the same guy” that pitched a three-hit shutout in his previous start at Pittsburgh.

“I didn't like the mix of pitches he used,” Mackanin said. “We were hoping he'd use his curveball a little bit more. I thought he made some good pitches that the umpire missed. But that wasn't the reason. He just wasn't the same guy. We stranded 10 runners — had some chances to get something going but couldn't capitalize.”

Eflin was grazed on his pitching hand by a pitch during batting practice Tuesday, but said that did not affect him at all.

“I was just up with everything,” he said. “I wasn't executing. That's what it came down to. I was leaving all my pitches up in the zone and didn't give my team the best chance to win the ballgame. I didn't do my job. I've got to work on being consistent and staying down in the zone.”

Eflin is just 22. He had a 1.80 ERA in four previous starts in the month of July. He will be right back out there when his turn in the rotation comes up again next week.

But Mackanin seems to be losing patience with others. He laughed when a reporter asked him if it was time for a lineup shakeup.

“What do you think?” Mackanin said with some exasperation. “We've faced some tough pitching lately. It's an up-and-down season. That's the type of team we have. We don't have consistency in the lineup. Let's put it that way. That doesn't bode that well.”

Riding out a rebuild means Mackanin doesn’t have a whole lot of options at his disposal. He probably will have a new face to put in the lineup Thursday night in Atlanta, though. It appears as if Peter Bourjos will go on the disabled list and Aaron Altherr will be activated (see story). Altherr was projected to start in the outfield until blowing out his wrist in spring training. He is healthy now (see story). Maybe he can bring a spark to a lineup that has been mostly lifeless since the All-Star break.