Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Defensive Line

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Defensive Line

We pick up our training camp preview on the other side of the ball, where Chip Kelly selected long-time NFL assistant Billy Davis to be the defensive coordinator, and the Eagles are widely expected to transition to a 3-4 defense of sorts. Up first we examine the defensive line, an area of great change with multiple players switching positions or learning new roles, not to mention a couple of new names and faces.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line
Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

What should we expect from Isaac Sopoaga?

Not a whole lot. Sopoaga makes sense for the Eagles, who lacked a true nose tackle, much less anybody who so much as plays nose tackle – something they need with the shift to more three-man fronts. The nine-year veteran comes relatively cheap (three years, $11 million, no guarantee beyond 2013), and the team knows exactly what they are getting with vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble joining Sopoaga on the exodus from San Francisco.

Unfortunately, exactly what they are getting is a two-down run stuffer who isn’t particularly adept at stuffing the run. Sopoaga was only on the field for about a quarter of the defensive snaps with the 49ers last season, and run or pass, he didn’t chart very well according to Pro Football Focus. The site ranked him 82 out of 85 interior linemen in the NFL in 2012.

The problem the Eagles ran into this offseason is nose tackle is not an easy position to fill. There tends to be a premium on huge space eaters that command constant double teams at the point of attack, especially in 3-4 alignments where a dominant force on the nose is arguably the most important piece of the defense. Sopoaga is not that. He’s a stopgap at best. At worst, he’s Antonio Dixon’s backup.

Is Fletcher Cox headed for a breakout year?

The sky seems like it’s the limit for last year’s first-round pick, but whether or not Cox is going to take the proverbial next step is tricky/borderline impossible to predict. What’s considered a breakout? Does it have to be reflected by an increase in numbers? Cox had a very solid rookie season with 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble – that may not seem like a lot, but those aren’t bad totals at all for an interior lineman.

Is the benchmark an invite to the Pro Bowl? From what we’ve seen of Cox, a trip to Honolulu some day may not be a stretch. For right now though, we don’t even know exactly how he’ll be utilized in defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme. If he’s playing end in a traditional 3-4 alignment as anticipated, he’s not necessarily going to post the numbers or earn the national recognition unless he’s an absolutely dominant force. It’s simply not a flashy position.

When teams select a player No. 12 overall though, Pro Bowls are sort of what you start to expect around year two or three. Right now it might be less a matter of if than it is when. Projecting numbers and other accolades isn’t easy, but we’ll all know it when Cox has arrived. The truth is he may not have very far to go to get there.

Will Bennie Logan make an impact in his rookie season?

He could see the field quite a bit, especially given the mess the Eagles have up front, but I’m not entirely sure Logan was an incredibly impactful player per se at the collegiate level. The third-round pick only recorded five sacks and 12 tackles for loss over 27 games his last two seasons at LSU – not exactly lighting the world on fire.

That said, Logan will almost certainly be contributing as a rookie. The main attribute his NFL.com scouting report stresses is that all-important versatility. He could play interior lineman in a 4-3, or end in a 3-4. At 6-2, 309 lbs. Logan seems a little undersized for nose, but it’s not always about how much space a player takes up, either. How much worse can he be than Sopoaga, apparently?

Best guess is we’ll see him line up all over the place with some regularity, and one can only hope perform adequately. Logan will almost certainly have an impact in that sense, but in terms of big plays or on the box score, we may not take much notice.

Is Vinny Curry still in the Eagles’ plans?

You would have to think so. The Eagles used a second-round pick on Curry last April, and then Andy Reid’s staff promptly forgot about him. At first it was to be expected. With two Pro Bowlers at end in Trent Cole and Jason Babin, plus Brandon Graham, Darryl Tapp, and Phillip Hunt all vying for playing time, there was quite literally a ton of competition to climb over. But Babin was released mid-season, Cole endured a sack drought that lasted for months, and the rookie still wasn’t getting many looks. Curry appeared in just six games, and was on the field for 89 snaps total (via PFF).

Now the Eagles will utilize more three-man fronts, and as a result Curry looks like one of several front-seven players without a defined role. He was a pass rusher at Marshall, but unlike Cole and Graham, he doesn’t expect to line up at outside linebacker. Curry bulked up in the offseason, up to 279 lbs. during the offseason according to the team web site, which makes him better suited for end. Ends in 3-4 alignments traditionally are not known as much for getting after the QB.

So what’s the story? Is he a fit? We have no way of knowing until the pads go on, but something to keep in mind is general manager Howie Roseman was credited with running the 2012 draft – not Reid – and Roseman had to have a sense that a head coaching change at the end of the season was possible if not probable. And with more and more defenses utilizing the 3-4, scheme versatility should have been part of the approach in the draft. If we can assume two plus two equals four in the Birds’ front office, the Curry selection was only logical if they felt he could make the transition.

(If that last sentence doesn’t bring Death From Above back, I don’t know what will.)

Does Clifton Geathers stand a chance of making the 53-man roster?

It sure sounds like it. Geathers was acquired from the Colts for fullback Stanley Havili in the offseason, which seemed like a bit of a nothing trade at the time. A sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2010, Geathers is already with his sixth organization. He’s hardly played though, seeing fewer than 200 snaps in three NFL seasons.

So why would it be any different for Geathers in Philadelphia? Again, with a massive scheme overhaul, it’s unclear who will or will not be a fit. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton were tackles in a 4-3; now they’re probably ends. Cole, Graham, and Hunt were ends in a 4-3; now they’re linebackers, while somebody like Curry is staying put. It looks a little chaotic to an outsider, which makes it easier for an anonymous player like Geathers to rise to the top.

In fact, Geathers reportedly got to run with the first-team defense during some of the spring practices, which may or may not mean anything if you listen to Chip Kelly. His size – 6-8, 340 lbs. – certainly makes him an intriguing prospect as well even if his resume does not. I’m not sold yet on the 25 year old as a lock to make the squad or anything like that, but the Eagles are going to give him a long look at the very least.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Eagles-Steelers: Roob's 10 observations

Eagles-Steelers: Roob's 10 observations

BOX SCORE

We could probably fill 100 points tonight after this wipeout of the Steelers.

Fifty of them might just be: Wow.

The Eagles on Sunday handed the Steelers' their worst loss in 27 years, walloping everybody's AFC favorite 34-3 and extending their streak to a game and a half without allowing a touchdown (see Instant Replay).

New coach, new quarterback, but you could make an argument the Eagles are the best team in the NFL.

Three games in, the Eagles have won three blowouts. Sunday's was the most impressive.

1. What Carson Wentz is doing simply defies belief. He isn’t playing at an insanely high level for a rookie, he’s playing at an insanely high level for a quarterback. It’s not about him being a rookie anymore. There’s nothing rookie about him. Wentz has managed to put together one of the finest three-game stretches in Eagles history, not just by a rookie but by any quarterback. And this after missing all of training camp and getting promoted to the starting spot exactly one month ago? It’s scary how good this kid is playing. His ability to recognize and diagnose what a defense is doing is off the charts, and he’s so accurate that as soon as he realizes who’s going to be open, the ball is on the way. He can fire it, he can float it, and he can do it all in mistake-free fashion. That’s what’s most impressive about all of this. Zero turnovers playing in his NFL debut, on a Monday night at Soldier Field and against a hot pick to win the AFC.

2. We all knew this defensive line was talented. But this? This group has played out of its mind so far. In all three games the opposing quarterback really had no chance by the second half. They are simply wearing people out, getting stronger and stronger as the game goes on and taking over in the second half. The Eagles still haven’t allowed a second-half touchdown this year. Look at net passing yards against the Eagles this year:

                                 1H                  2H

Browns                    118                  50

Bears                       145                  75

Steelers                   138                  84

They’ve been OK in the first half, but they are just destroying people in the second half. They have yet to allow 100 net passing yards in a second half. And that’s when teams that are trailing by double digits generally pad their passing stats. Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner, and by the second half, the Eagles’ defensive line was just teeing off on him, giving him very little opportunity to get the ball down the field. This has been an astonishing stretch from the entire defense, but the defensive line in particular has been playing at a breathtaking level.

3. There was no announcement in the press box about Ryan Mathews, but we’re assuming his sore ankle, originally injured on opening day, was bothering him. Mathews had minus-five yards on two early carries, then didn’t play the rest of the game. In his place, we saw a real emergence from the Eagles’ two young backs. Rookie Wendell Smallwood ran 17 times for 79 yards and Kenjon Barner was 8 for 42, both career highs. Mathews has looked sluggish running the ball all year, and Darren Sproles – as electrifying as he is in all other facets of the game – really isn’t a runner anymore. Smallwood and Barner both hit the hole decisively and have wheels once they get into open space. Sunday, they combined for 25 carries for 121 yards. Very promising start for both backs.

4. One thing the Eagles did throughout this game was tackle exceptionally well, something that’s been a problem around here for a while. The Steelers, unable to run the ball, and with Roethlisberger under tremendous pressure, tried snap after snap to get the short passing game going, trying to get 1-on-1 matchups and then break tackles for big gains. But time after time, the Eagles swarmed the receiver as soon as he caught the ball, quickly limiting the damage. Fourteen of Roethlisberger’s 24 completions went for six yards or less, and this is a quarterback who is as good as anybody getting the ball down the field.

5. Malcolm Jenkins in particular was exceptional Sunday, both in coverage, stopping the run and tackling in the open field. Jenkins has been playing at such a high level since he got here in 2014 it’s easy to take him for granted. But he’s playing as well right now as any safety we’ve seen here. This is Brian Dawkins-level stuff right now.

6. A few words about Brandon Graham. This guy was so vilified early in his career for not being Earl Thomas, and all he’s done for seven years is work hard in practice, play as hard as he can on gameday, and hope to finally get an opportunity to show that he can play. Graham hasn’t been bad. He had 23½ sacks coming into this year, including 12 the last two years. But he’s been playing his best football ever this year, not just pressuring the quarterback, getting sacks and being around the ball — he’s got a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to go with three sacks this year — but also playing very stout against the run. Graham has played under three head coaches and five defensive coordinators, and he’s finally in a scheme that really suits his strengths. Graham has perservered, he’s overcome a lot, and you might notice nobody ever talks about Earl Thomas around here anymore.

7. As impressive as the offense and defense have been, Doug Pederson has been just dazzling so far. His ability to call a game, to keep defenses off-balance, to establish the pass early and then start pounding the run … all of this is remarkable for a first-time head coach who’s never called plays before. Pederson has guided this team masterfully through a difficult few months, with the starting quarterback disappearing and then getting traded, two players in legal trouble, another player likely to get suspended and several players protesting during the national anthem. And here they are 3-0. Pederson has been astounding.

8. And how about the Eagles’ rush defense. The Steelers managed just 29 yards on 10 carries, and that includes a seven-yard Roethlisberger scramble. Their backs had just 22 yards. Nobody’s been able to run on the Eagles yet, and that makes this defense even scarier.

9. Seeing Cody Parkey miss two field goals for the Browns in their overtime loss to the Dolphins Sunday, including a 31-yarder as time ran out in the fourth quarter, and seeing Caleb Sturgis continue to boot all his attempts through the uprights is a good reminder of how a difficult roster decision has really paid dividends for the Eagles. Maybe it didn’t seem like a tough decision, since Sturgis outplayed Parkey throughout the preseason, but getting rid of a Pro Bowl kicker, who two years ago broke the NFL rookie scoring record, can’t be easy. Sturgis has been solid, making both his field goal attempts Sunday and seven of eight so far this year.

10. A couple quick stats to put this all in perspective:

• The last time the Steelers lost a game by 31 or more points, their quarterback was Bubby Brister. It was 1989 and a 41-10 loss to Boomer Esiason and the Bengals at Riverfront Stadium.

•  Wentz’s 102 pass attempts are the most in NFL history by any quarterback in his first three games. Dak Prescott is at 75 going into the Cowboys’ game Sunday night.

•  Wentz is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 or more passes with no interceptions in each of his first three games. Only three others had done it twice.

• The Eagles are the 23rd team in NFL history to open a season with three straight wins by 15 or more points. Of the first 22, 18 went to the playoffs.

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Instant Replay: Eagles 34, Steelers 3

Instant Replay: Eagles 34, Steelers 3

BOX SCORE

It was just the Browns and the Bears, right? The Eagles hadn’t beaten anybody yet, right? We don’t know what this team is yet, right?
 
That all changed Sunday.
 
Big time.
 
Led by rookie phenom Carson Wentz and an absolutely stifling defense, the Eagles took down a Super Bowl contender at the Linc, demolishing the cross-state Steelers, 34-3.
 
With the win, the Eagles are 3-0. And thanks to the Giants’ loss, they’re all alone in first place in the NFC East.
 
After taking a 10-point lead into halftime, the Eagles absolutely poured it on in the second half.
 
They scored early in the third quarter on a special play from Wentz to Darren Sproles. Wentz avoided pressure, stepped up and hit Sproles in stride. The veteran running back did the rest, going 73 yards for a touchdown to put the Eagles up 20-3. They added a couple more scores after that.
 
As impressive as the Eagles’ offense was, the defense might have been more impressive.
 
The Eagles’ defense held a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the NFL’s leading rusher after two weeks and the NFL’s best receiver to three points.
 
Sunday was the worst loss the Steelers suffered since Sept. 17, 1989, when they lost to the Bengals, 41-10.
 
Turning point
The Steelers got off to a hot start, but Markus Wheaton dropped a touchdown pass and then the ensuing field goal was blocked. On the next drive, the Eagles put up the first points of the game. That was a huge swing and the Eagles never looked back.
 
Key stat
Wentz has now thrown 102 passes without an interception to start his career.
 
The Eagles’ defense, which had allowed 17 points coming in, gave up just three to the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. In total, the Eagles have given up just 27 points through three games. That’s the fewest points they’ve given up through three games since 1992.
 
First half
The Eagles had an impressive first half, taking a 13-3 lead into the locker room after two quarters.
 
The Steelers actually got the ball first and put together an impressive drive. Ben Roethlisberger hit Wheaton in the back of the end zone for what should have been a touchdown, but Wheaton dropped it. So the Steelers settled for a 36-yard field goal attempt, but it was blocked by Bennie Logan.
 
The Eagles responded with a field goal drive that went 63 yards on seven plays. The Eagles have now scored on their first drive in each of the first three games of the season. On those first-possession drives, Wentz has completed 16 of 19 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown.
 
A Wentz to Jordan Matthews touchdown early in the second quarter put the Eagles up 10-0. That touchdown capped an 82-yard drive.
 
The teams traded field goals later in the second quarter to keep the Eagles up 10.
 
Offensive stud
Wentz takes the honor yet again. The rookie has been unreal. On Sunday, he completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 125.9. He became the third rookie in Eagles history to throw for 300-plus yards with two touchdowns in a game.

Sproles also had a huge day in the passing game. The Sproles' touchdown was the 16th 73-yard-plus passing touchdown in Eagles history and was the longest for an Eagles running back since Herschel Walker's 93-yarder in 1994.

Offensive dud
Ryan Mathews never really got it going Sunday. He has been dealing with an ankle injury, which might have limited him. He finished with minus-five yards on two carries that came in the first quarter.  
 
Defensive stud
We’ll give this to the whole unit. Just an all-around incredible performance.
 
Defensive dud
Rookie Jalen Mills got beat a couple times and had a defensive pass interference called against him. Overall, not a terrible day, it’s just that there wasn’t much to pick on with the Eagles’ defense.
 
Injuries
The Eagles entered Sunday’s game without Zach Ertz (ribs), Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) and Isaac Seumalo (pec). Pederson said he expects all three back after the bye week.
 
Up next
The Eagles have an early Week 4 bye so they’ll have an extra week to prepare for the Detroit Lions. Players will be at the NovaCare Complex on Monday, then go their separate ways. The Eagles will play again on Oct. 9 at 1 p.m. in Detroit, as they try to keep their perfect record intact.

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