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.

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”

PFF ranks Eagles' front seven as the second best in NFL

PFF ranks Eagles' front seven as the second best in NFL

At times during the 2016 season, the Eagles' defense looked like the best unit in the league. And at other times … it didn't. 

By the end of the season, the Eagles averaged out to be a middle-of-the-road defense. And the way ProFootballFocus ranked it makes sense.

PFF ranked the Eagles' secondary as the absolute worst in the league, but in it's list of front sevens, released on Tuesday, the Eagles came in at No. 2 behind just Seattle. 

Here's what PFF said about the Eagles' front seven: 

"It was a difficult decision between the Eagles and the Seahawks for the No. 1 spot, as this front-seven propped up a hodge-podge secondary to form one of the league’s most effective defenses for a good portion of the season. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox finished with the third- and fourth-highest pass-rushing productivity marks at their respective positions. Philadelphia’s front-seven also features a budding star in second-year linebacker Jordan Hicks, who led all players at the position with five interceptions."

Graham received the highest grade among the Eagles' front seven with a 93.3, while Connor Barwin received the worst at 42.1. Graham was the only Eagles player to make the PFF All-Pro team this year. To prove that stats don't always tell the full story, Graham finished with a half sack more than Barwin (6 1/2 to 6). 

While the Eagles' cornerback trio of Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll and Jalen Mills ranked 79th, 107th and 120th out of 120, respectively, their players across the front seven were much, much better. 

Hicks was ranked as the seventh-best middle linebacker and Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks were both top-10 outside linebackers in 4-3 defenses. Graham was the top-ranked 4-3 defensive end and Cox was the fifth-best interior lineman.