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.

NBA Playoffs: Westbrook, Thunder push Warriors to brink of elimination

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NBA Playoffs: Westbrook, Thunder push Warriors to brink of elimination

BOX SCORE

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Suddenly, these Golden State Warriors who have been compared all season to the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s are on the brink of elimination.

Russell Westbrook had 36 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Warriors 118-94 on Tuesday night to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State, which won a league record 73 games in the regular season, lost consecutive games for the first time this season.

The Warriors must win Game 5 on Thursday in Oakland to keep their season alive.

"We all have to bounce back," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "The good news is, we go home. Obviously we play well at home. The idea now is to go home and get one win. Do that, and we put some pressure on them and we'll see what happens."

Klay Thompson led Golden State with 26 points, but two-time league MVP Stephen Curry was limited to 19 points on 6-for-20 shooting. Curry's shooting performance was so uncharacteristic that reporters asked if he was hurt.

"He's not injured," Kerr said. "He's coming back from the knee, but he's not injured. He just had a lousy night. It happens, even to the best players in the world."

The Warriors lost consecutive playoff games by at least 20 points for the first time since Games 2 and 3 of the 1972 Western Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks. Golden State's Draymond Green, who was fined for kicking Steven Adams in the groin in Game 3, finished with six points, 11 rebounds and six turnovers.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City got a boost from an unlikely source. Andre Roberson, a player the Warriors have ignored at times during the series, scored a career-high 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Kevin Durant added 26 points and 11 rebounds and Serge Ibaka added 17 points and seven rebounds.

As for Westbrook, it was his first triple-double of the playoffs after posting 18 in the regular season. It was his fifth career playoff triple-double.

"I play every game like it's my last, regardless of who's in front of me," he said. "That's my job, and my job is to worry about my team, and that's all I do."

The Thunder know they have to close. Nine teams have rallied from 3-1 deficits to win.

"I think we're in a good place, but like I said, this game is over," Westbrook said. "We've got to move on to the next game. Every game is different."

The Thunder led 30-26 at the end of the first quarter, then gained control in the second. In the most unlikely of connections, Adams threw a bullet pass to Roberson near the basket for a dunk that gave the Thunder a 56-43 lead with just over four minutes left in the first half.

Oklahoma City finished with a flurry and led 72-53 at halftime. The Thunder matched the most points they have scored in a first half in franchise playoff history, a mark they set the previous game against the Warriors. It also matched the most points Golden State has allowed in a half this season for the second straight game.

Westbrook had 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the first half, and Durant had 18 points and six boards.

Thompson tried to keep the Warriors in it, scoring 19 points in just over seven minutes to start the third quarter. But the Thunder maintained their composure, led 94-82 at the end of the period and remained in control in the fourth.

"This is a tough situation to be in, but the series isn't over," Curry said.

Quotable
Kerr, on the pressure of trying to win a title after setting the regular-season wins record: "We had a tremendous regular season, our guys competed every single night and did something no one has ever done and they're proud of that. But in the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0. So there's no extra pressure, whether you're talking about defending our title or trying to back up the regular season."

Stat lines
According to Thunder Public Relations, the last team to score 72 or more points in the first half of two straight playoff games was the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers.

Tip-ins
Warriors: Curry went 1 for 7 in the first quarter, and made just 1 of 4 3-point attempts. ... Thompson committed his third foul with 7:55 left in the second quarter, and C Andrew Bogut committed his third about two minutes later. ... Curry made a 3-pointer for his 48th consecutive playoff game, extending his NBA record. ... The Warriors were 12-0 this season the game after a loss.

Thunder: Westbrook had five points, six assists and three rebounds in the first quarter. ... Oklahoma City forced 13 turnovers in the first half. ... The Thunder improved to 19-0 this season when Westbrook gets a triple-double. ... The Thunder outrebounded the Warriors 56-40 and outscored them 31-19 from the free throw line.

NHL Playoffs: Penguins fight off Lightning to force Game 7

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NHL Playoffs: Penguins fight off Lightning to force Game 7

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins made good on Evgeni Malkin's pledge to force Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.

Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist, and Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored Tuesday night in a 5-2 victory that evened the best-of-seven series with the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-3.

Game 7 is Thursday night, with the Penguins hoping to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 and the Lightning looking to advance to the Cup Final for the second straight year.

"I just told them to embrace the moment. It's a great opportunity for us. These are the type of circumstances to where you have an opportunity to write your own story," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

"They had a certain mindset going into this tonight: `We're going to leave it all out there and do everything we can to bring this back to Pittsburgh,'" Sullivan added. "And, certainly that's what they did."

Malkin was the most demonstrative of the players expressing confidence the Penguins could take the series back to Pittsburgh, saying he believed in himself, his teammates and that they could return home for a seventh game "for sure."

Crosby stepped up with his third game-winning goal of the series. The Penguins captain assisted on Kessel's 5-on-3 power-play goal in the opening period and later skated around Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman into the clear before sending a wrist shot between goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's legs for a 3-0 lead in the final minute of the second period.

"We know the circumstances. It makes you go out there with a mindset of playing desperate," Crosby said. "I think we had confidence in the whole group. I think everyone played great.

"Everyone contributed in their own way. In a big game like this you, don't do anything special, just do your job. I think that's gotten us this far."

Rookie goaltender Matt Murray returned to the lineup after being replaced as the starter for Game 5 by Marc-Andre Fleury, but his 10th playoff victory did not come without a bit of suspense.

Brian Boyle scored twice in the third period for Tampa Bay, with one of the goals bouncing off Kessel before getting past Murray, who finished with 28 saves. The second score drew the Lightning within one goal with 7:17 remaining.

Instead of flinching, the young goalie who turns 22 on Wednesday retained his composure down the stretch to help the Penguins avoid relinquishing a third-period lead for the second straight game.

"I just think it's part of his DNA. He has a calming influence. He doesn't get rattled if he lets a goal in. He continues to compete," Sullivan said.

"That's usually an attribute that takes years to acquire. And to have it at such a young age is impressive. I think one of his biggest strengths is just his ability to stay in the moment."

Rust's breakaway goal at 17:52 of the third gave Pittsburgh breathing room, and Bonino added an empty-netter to finish it off.

"We had a great chance tonight and just tip-toed around a little bit," Boyle said. "We were tentative and weren't aggressive."

Kessel's goal was his team-leading ninth of the playoffs. Crosby had the primary assist, his first point since delivering game-winners in Games 2 and 3, and Malkin also had an assist to extend his point streak to four games after a slow start in the series.

The Lightning had an apparent goal by Jonathan Drouin waived off a little more than five minutes into the game, when Sullivan successfully challenged that the young Tampa Bay winger was offside on the play before tapping in a rebound off Ondrej Palat's shot that bounced off Murray's pads.

Sullivan announced the decision to go back to Murray following Tuesday's morning skate.

Murray started the first four games of the series. Fleury replaced him during the third period of Game 4, then made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, which Tampa Bay won 4-3 in overtime.

Before Game 5, Fleury had not started a game since March 31, when he suffered a concussion.

Tampa Bay entered the game determined to not come out flat in Game 6 of the conference final for the second straight year.

The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to go up 3-2 in that series, but were badly outplayed at home the next game and had to return to Madison Square Garden to finish the series.

Now, they'll have to win on the road again to make the third Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history.

"I know we can. I've got confidence in this group. We believe we can do that," Tampa Bay's Ryan Callahan said. "We've had success on the road in the playoffs. We've had success in their building already. It's going to be a good one."

Notes
The Penguins were 1 for 3 on the power play and are 4 for 19 in the series. The Lightning were 0 for 1, dropping to 2 for 12. ... Malkin was penalized in the first period for slashing Tampa Bay Bay's Ryan Callahan in what appeared to be retaliation for the Lightning forward whacking him across the wrist with his stick. ... Murray improved to 4-0 following a loss. He's 10-4 overall in the playoffs.

Best of MLB: Jackie Bradley Jr. extends hitting streak to 28 games

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Best of MLB: Jackie Bradley Jr. extends hitting streak to 28 games

BOSTON -- David Price scattered five hits over seven innings and Jackie Bradley Jr. had a pair of hits to extend his streak to 28 games as the Boston Red Sox beat the Colorado Rockies 8-3 on Tuesday night.

David Ortiz had a two-run double and a two-run single, and Dustin Pedroia added three hits to help Boston win its third straight game. Price (7-1) allowed three runs, walking one and striking out six to earn his third consecutive win.

Colorado lost for the fifth time in six games.

Jorge De La Rosa (1-4) made his first start after spending almost a month on the disabled list with a left groin strain. He gave up two runs in the first, two more in the second and left with one out in the fourth with two on and one run already in (see full recap).

Polanco, Pirates crush Diamondbacks
PITTSBURGH -- Gregory Polanco hit a three-run homer and drove in a career-best five runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates rolled by the Arizona Diamondbacks 12-1 on Tuesday night.

Polanco's shot to the concourse in right-center field off Shelby Miller (1-6) in the first inning gave Pittsburgh an early boost. Francisco Liriano (4-3) scattered two hits in 5 2/3 innings and added an RBI single as the Pirates improved to 6-2 during a 10-game homestand.

After a short adjustment period, Polanco has thrived batting third in the lineup, hitting .317 (20 of 63) with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 15 games. The Pirates spread their 17 hits among 11 batters.

Miller's recent recovery from a miserable start with the Diamondbacks took a step backward. Less than a year removed from an All-Star appearance with Atlanta, Miller's ERA ballooned to 7.09 after surrendering six runs in five innings (see full recap).

Strasburg strikes out 11 in Nationals' win
WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg remained unbeaten with an 11-strikeout performance, and the Washington Nationals hit three of their season-high five home runs off struggling Matt Harvey in a 7-4 victory over the New York Mets on Tuesday night.

Strasburg (8-0) gave up two runs and four hits over 6 2/3 innings in defeating Harvey and the Mets for the second time in six days. Strasburg has five games this season with at least 10 strikeouts and 26 over his seven-year career.

Harvey (3-7) stumbled through a third straight ineffective start, allowing five runs and eight hits over five rocky innings. The right-hander has yielded 16 earned runs and 31 hits over his last three outings.

Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon hit successive solo shots to put Washington ahead in the fourth inning, and Daniel Murphy added a two-run drive off his former teammate in the fifth for a 5-1 lead (see full recap).