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.

5 potential candidates for Temple's head coach job

5 potential candidates for Temple's head coach job

The reality is still setting in for Temple fans as Matt Rhule, the beloved leader of the school’s football team who helped bring the program out of the doldrums and give it a sense of legitimacy, is no longer an Owl.

He’s now a Bear. A Baylor Bear, to be exact. 

Rhule on Tuesday morning accepted the head coaching position at Baylor University, a cold reminder in so many ways that college sports is a business (see story).

He reportedly received at seven-year deal after accumulating a 28-23 record in four seasons at the helm of Temple’s program and leading the Owls to this season’s AAC championship, the first conference title for the program since 1967 and just its second ever.

But Temple athletic director Pat Kraft and his administration have no time to let reality sink in. Their reality is that the search for a new coach has already begun.

So that begs this multi-million dollar question: Who are the candidates to take over for Rhule?

Kraft didn’t get into specifics when he met with the media Tuesday at the Liacouras Center, but he did share some of the criteria he’s looking for in a new head coach.

"It has to be a good man," Kraft said Tuesday. "You've got to be able to recruit this area. You've got to be really strong there.

"This is not just and X's and O's job. This is bigger. It's a vocation almost. It's about working with some really, really good young men and continuing to bring in really, really good young men.

"To find someone that dynamic is important. But at the end of the day, we just have to find the right fit for us. I think that comes with the evolution of our program and where we are and where we are on the national stage. That's important to the program. You need someone who's engaged in the community in the Philadelphia market. It's a competitive market."

So with that in mind, who are some candidates who could fit what Kraft is looking for? Let’s take a deeper look.

(Author’s note: I’d like to stress none of the following is sourced information from anyone within or close to the program. The following are people who I believe could be a fit based on what Kraft said on Tuesday.)

Joe Moorhead – Offensive coordinator, Penn State
After the incredible season the Big Ten champ Nittany Lions have put together, Moorhead was going to be a hot name in coaching circles no matter what. And now his popularity gets kicked up to another level with a local opening.

In his only year with the reins of PSU’s offense, Moorhead has masterminded a prolific attack that averages 36.7 points per game (third in the Big Ten, 25th in the nation) and he has worked wonders with sophomore QB Trace McSorely, who averages 258.8 yards per game through the air and has thrown 25 TDs compared to just five interceptions.

Moorhead does have head coaching experience, as he led FCS Fordham’s program from 2012 to 2015 (and beat the Owls in 2013 at the Linc.). After inheriting a 1-10 team, Moorhead compiled a 38-13 record at Fordham and turned the Rams into a FCS playoff regular.

So he has the local ties with PSU and has undoubtedly recruited this area during his time at Fordham and has familiarity with it. And he has a very good reputation.

But he has a really good thing going at Penn State right now. Is it something he wants to leave after just one season? Or can he bide his time in Happy Valley and wait for a Power 5 job to open up?

Al Golden – Tight Ends coach, Detroit Lions
You knew this one was coming, so let’s tackle it now.

Golden, the Owls’ head man from 2006-10 before he left for Miami, checks all the boxes on the list of things Kraft said he wants in a head coach. He obviously knows the area and how recruit it. Rhule is a disciple of Golden, so the transition would be almost seamless.

And Golden deserves another shot to be a head coach at the collegiate level after he walked into a no-win mess at Miami with sanctions the program dealt with from a booster scandal years prior. Golden went 32-25 with the Hurricanes, but that’s not good enough when you’re Miami.

This may not be the time for a return to Temple, however. He was the right coach at the right time in 2006 and was basically a miracle worker with some things he pulled off on North Broad Street during his tenure with the Owls.

But this is a much different job than it was in 2006. It’s in a much better place, thanks in large part to the work Golden started a decade ago. Kraft and his team now have some clout when it comes to finding a new head coach and may want to go with one with a bit more on his résumé.

That’s no disrespect to Golden in any means, but this just doesn’t feel like the right fit right now.

Phil Snow – Defensive Coordinator, Temple (for now)
Rhule and Snow are very close, so the odds of Rhule trying to entice Snow to Baylor are high.

And rightfully so. 

Look at the job Snow has done at Temple, leading a ferocious defense that’s produced stars such as current NFL players Tyler Matakevich and Tavon Young. This season, Snow’s group finished eighth in the nation in scoring defense with just 17.2 points allowed per game. That group was second in the nation with 145.2 yards allowed per game through the air. Only Michigan was better.

Snow has been well traveled throughout his career with stops at Boise State, Cal, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington, Detroit with the NFL’s Lions, Eastern Michigan and now Temple.

Snow is tremendously well-respected by his players and his peers. 

But would the 60-year-old Snow want to be a head coach at this point? It’s a question to ponder. And imagine what he could do with the type of talent pool Baylor and Rhule will be able to recruit from.

Ed Foley – Tight Ends coach, Temple
Speaking of tremendously well-respected, Foley has been at Temple for nine years now and has served on the staffs of Golden, Steve Addazio and Rhule. He’ll get his chance to run the show for at least a game, as he’ll be the Owls’ interim head coach for the Military Bowl against Wake Forest on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Foley is as good of a guy as you’ll find in the college ranks. Anyone will tell you that.

But Foley’s only experience as a head coach at the college level came from 2004-05 at Fordham. When Foley came to Temple in 2008, it marked his first experience as a college coach at the FBS level.

Foley has seen it all while at Temple and has even spent time as the Owls’ recruiting coordinator, which will certainly stick out to Kraft when going through his list of candidates.

But this doesn’t feel like a fit for the long term. A more experienced head coach seems like more of a fit right now. But if the players rally around Foley, who knows? Anything is possible.

Charlie Strong – Former head coach, Texas
Now this is a mighty interesting possibility.

Strong was recently canned at Texas after going 16-21 in three seasons. Before that, he did a great job at Louisville, where he went 37-15 in four seasons.

He has a heck of résumé with coaching stops at Ole Miss, Notre Dame, South Carolina and numerous years at Florida before he went to Louisville.

He’s a man of values and can be demanding of his players. That’s just his style.

Strong may not be familiar with this area, but he’s dealt with all the muck that comes with coaching Texas, so the competitive Philadelphia market wouldn’t be anything new to him. And when it comes to recruiting, his name carries weight. He’s had to fight for some big-time recruits in the hotbed of Texas, so he would do just fine here.

And to think the former Texas coach going to Temple would be a step back is inaccurate. This is not the Temple of old. There is legitimacy here now and Strong would add a whole new dimension of legitimacy to the program.

The question is whether Strong would want to come to North Broad Street. He got a massive buyout (reportedly around $11 million), so he may not want to coach again right away. But if he does, he’ll have offers from other schools, which means the Owls will have to pay up for his services. But the investment could be worth it.

Doug Pederson indicates Lane Johnson will start at RT when he returns

Doug Pederson indicates Lane Johnson will start at RT when he returns

Talk about too, little too late.
 
Lane Johnson is due back in two weeks, and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson on Wednesday for the first time seemed to indicate that he’s leaning toward getting Johnson back at right tackle as soon as he returns.
 
Johnson, the Eagles’ best offensive lineman the first month of the season, was suspended by the NFL for 10 games for a second positive test for a banned substance. By the time his appeal was heard and rejected, it was after the Eagles’ loss to the Lions.
 
Johnson hasn’t played since.

The Eagles face the Redskins at the Linc and Ravens in Baltimore the next two Sundays. Johnson is eligible to return to the NovaCare Complex the day after the Ravens' game, which would be Monday, Dec. 19.
 
The Eagles then face the Giants three days later on a Thursday night at the Linc and finish the season on Jan. 1 at home against the Cowboys in a game that will likely have no meaning for either team.
 
Previously, when asked about Johnson, Pederson was non-commital about playing him. But on Wednesday, he seemed to indicate he would move him back to right tackle for the Giants' game.
 
“Listen, he was a big part of our success early in the season,” Pederson said. “So I wouldn’t hesitate to put him back out there.”
 
The Eagles, 5-7 after a 3-0 start, are on the brink of playoff elimination and could well be eliminated by the time Johnson returns.
 
Rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai started the first six games after Johnson’s suspension before getting hurt. Left guard Allen Barbre started the last two, with Stefen Wisniewski moving into left guard.
 
Even though Pederson indicated Johnson would return to right tackle as soon as he gets back, he did qualify the statement.
 
“He comes back on a short week, too, against the Giants, in a couple weeks,” he said. “Got to see where Big V is at coming off an injury and see where that’s at. 
 
“We’re beginning the conversations right now. When he does return, we’ll have to see. We still have some games. Have to get through these two games.”         
 
Johnson, the fourth pick in the 2013 draft, started 44 of a possible 48 games his first three seasons, missing only four in 2014 during his first NFL suspension.
 
After the Lions game, he said he hoped the Eagles had meaningful games remaining when he got back.
 
The Eagles are 3-1 this year with Johnson and 2-6 without him. In his four NFL seasons, the Eagles are 27-22 when he plays.
 
“Stay in shape and hopefully the team is good enough to stay in playoff contention,” he said in the visiting locker room at Ford Field back on Oct. 9. 
 
“Come back and I’ll be fresh and we can make a run for it. That’s the best-case scenario. We’ll see what happens.”