Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Lions with Justin Rogers of MLive.com

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Lions with Justin Rogers of MLive.com

Each week during the 2012 season, we're hitting up some of the most
knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Eagles' opponent that particular Sunday. Today we are pleased to have Justin Rogers, Lions beat reporter for MLive.com, which serves the entire state of Michigan.

Kulp: There probably aren't many prognosticators who picked the Lions to be 1-3 at this point in the season -- and it very easily could have been 0-4 -- but that's where they are after three consecutive losses against San Francisco, Tennessee, and Minnesota. What would you say has been the biggest reason behind their slow start?

Justin Rogers: It's easy to point to special teams as the biggest reason for the Lions' slow start. There have been 10 touchdown returns on kickoffs and punts around the league and Detroit is responsible for four. You eliminate those and the Lions could easily be 3-1 right now. But even if you subtract the special teams blunders from the equation, something hasn't been quite right. To me, the area that is the biggest concern is the slow starts on offense.  Detroit has put together some long drives in the first halves of their four games, but are consistently stalling out before reaching the end zone. The Lions have just one first half touchdown as opposed to nine field goal attempts and four interceptions. They have been trailing at the half of each of those contests.

Clearly Calvin Johnson has become the most dominant wide receiver in the league. He's currently averaging 105 yards per game for the second year in a row, and has hauled in 12 or more touchdown catches three of the past four seasons. Having watched him play on a weekly basis, where would you rank Calvin Johnson among the most dominant players at any position in the NFL?

It's a difficult question to answer, but let's put it this way, teams design entire game plans around stopping Johnson. Look back at the film from any Lions' game this season and you'll see consistent two high safety looks, combined often with man-press coverage and linebacker help underneath.  He never sees fewer than two defenders, and often sees some combination of three, yet he still continues to produce. That is the definition of dominance.  Where he ranks compared to a Patrick Willis, J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers or Arian Foster, it's tough to say, but I'm comfortable saying Johnson is in the top 10.

After throwing 41 touchdowns a season ago, Matthew Stafford has just three so far in 2011 -- none to Calvin Johnson. You wrote last week that defenses have only used man coverage on five of Detroit's 296 snaps, employing a bend-don't-break strategy that forces Stafford to nickel and dime his way down the field. Given the limitations of their running game and other options at receiver, is their offense equipped for those long drives?

It's equipped to do it, and they have done it, but they're not executing the full length of the field. It's not one person's fault. On one drive it will be a missed block, on another a bad throw, another a receiver will put a ball on the ground.  The Lions have plenty of offensive weapons, but they are falling victim to the bend-don't-break style because of mental and physical mistakes.  The one area where the Lions need to be better is running the ball against six-man boxes.  If they can't keep the opposition honest by moving the ball against minimum defenders up front, they'll never be able to play to their strengths in the passing game, particularly looking for Johnson deep after a safety is forced to commit to helping stop the run.

A couple weeks back, your colleague Anwar Richardson noted that the Lions' secondary charted as one of the league's best despite rampant injuries. Following an awful performance against Tennessee in Week 3 (378 yards, two TD over 60 yards), they rebounded the next week at Minnesota (111 yards, zero TD), and Detroit still ranks 10th at 213 YPG. How have they managed, and what is the state of the secondary after their bye?

They've managed, but the stats are deceptive. The return of cornerback Chris Houston has been a big boost.  He's played very well in two games, making several key tackles and breaking up a handful of passes. On the other side, rookie Bill Bentley is being attacked by opposing quarterbacks and he's been inconsistent, particularly locating the football. He drew two pass interference calls over 20 yards in the loss to the Vikings. 

The safeties have been the biggest concern. Veteran Erik Coleman has been decent, but the absence of Louis Delmas has been devastating. He's finally practicing after his knee surgery and could be back this week after missing the first four games, the entire preseason and most of training camp, so it's unknown what kind of shape he'll be in. 

One thing is for certain, even though the group hasn't given up big yardage, opposing quarterbacks have been very efficient. A lot of that is quick, short passes, but it's been effective, so there's no reason to stop.  This group also doesn't have an interception. They're only one of two teams with that distinction.

There has been a lot of talk in Philadelphia about the wide 9 defensive front ever since Jim Washburn brought the look here last season. It's been very successful in terms of rushing the passer, producing 46 sacks from linemen alone in 2011, but often criticized for exposing linebackers, particularly in the running game. How has the wide 9 been received in Detroit?

At first, everyone was excited, because the Lions went from a team with only a handful of sacks to becoming one of the top 10 teams in the league in that department, but the criticisms are similar to those you have mentioned.  The aggressiveness of the ends, combined with the defensive tackles shooting single gaps up the middle, has allowed opposing offensive lines to control the direction of the players, opening significant running lanes. 

Last year the Lions were one of the worst teams in the league against the run, but have done a decent job this year, shutting down Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson. Neither Adrian Peterson or Frank Gore did a tremendous amount of damage, but that had more to do with a limited amount of carries as opposed to limited success.

The Lions are content as long as they don't allow any explosive runs, which they define as more than 20 yards. So far, they've done well in that department, but LeSean McCoy is on a different level and he could have a big day if the Lions' lineman and linebackers aren't sound with their assignments.

Many thanks to Justin Rogers for participating. Follow him on Twitter, and for the latest news on the Lions ahead of Sunday's game, check out MLive.com.

Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

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Union sign prospect Derrick Jones to homegrown contract

Midfielder Derrick Jones has made Union history.

On Wednesday, the club announced Jones, 19, has been signed to the Union first team as a Homegrown Player. Currently playing with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel, Jones is the first Union Academy graduate to make the move from Union Academy to Union first team.

“Derrick’s progression through our system has been quicker than anticipated and it’s evident that he is ready for the next step of his career,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in the team’s official release. “This is a testament to Derrick’s commitment to his trade, and it should be considered a tremendous accomplishment to become the first player to come through our Academy, to Bethlehem Steel, and finally to the first team.”

Jones, who moved to Philadelphia in 2012 from Bantana, Ghana, and worked his way through the Union Academy before joining the Steel in 2016, made his Union debut in a friendly match against Crystal Palace on July 13 at Talen Energy Stadium. 

The 6-foot-3 rangy midfielder, who doesn’t have a set position, showed well playing the entire second half, presenting his on-the-ball poise at the attacking mid position.

“Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system,” Stewart said. “That there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals.”

Jones is the first Union homegrown signing since 2012. Homegrown status means the player avoids being submitted into the MLS SuperDraft. The Union Academy has been around since 2013 and is located at the YSC Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

“I’m delighted that Derrick is our first and that the work of our staff has come to fruition in this way,” Academy director Tommy Wilson said. “This is a proud moment for Derrick and his family. I would like to congratulate them and everyone else who has played a part in his development.”

In final stage of rehab assignment, Aaron Altherr eager to return to Phillies

In final stage of rehab assignment, Aaron Altherr eager to return to Phillies

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The Phillies can be forgiven to some extent for their failure to get consistent production out of their corner outfielders this season. After all, they've been without one of their projected starters since spring training.

The good news is Aaron Altherr is on the verge of returning after missing almost four months with a wrist injury. The 25-year-old reached the final stop of his rehab tour through the Phillies' minor league system Tuesday, going 1 for 3 with a double in a 4-2 victory for the Triple A Ironpigs.

Needless to say, Altherr is feeling better.

"It's going good," Altherr said of his recovery. "It gets a little tight every now and then. Just gotta loosen it up. I'm good to go."

Altherr suffered a torn ligament in his left wrist attempting a diving catch in a Grapefruit League game back in March. The injury was expected to keep the righthander out four-to-six months, possibly even ending his season.

If the current rehab assignment is any indication, it turns out he's about ready to rejoin the Phillies. Through 12 minor league games, which includes stints at Reading, Clearwater and in the Gulf Coast League, Altherr is 13 for 34 (.351) with two doubles, a home run and five RBIs. He's also walked seven times to six strikeouts and stolen two bases. Yet while clearly enjoying himself, he feels as though he's ready to rejoin the big club.

"It's been fun," Altherr said. "Was just down to (Double A) Reading, good crowd there. It's gonna be another good crowd up here (in Lehigh Valley) I'm sure. I always enjoy going to these places and seeing people again, so it's definitely fun.

"Mentally and physically, I think I'm ready to go. My timing is there. I'm just ready to go and get after it and play some games up there."

As for what he could bring to MLB's 29th-ranked offense, which too often this season has seen little impact from its corner outfielders, Altherr will do what he can to provide a spark for the Phillies.

"I hope so," Altherr said. "I'm not gonna try to do too much though. I'm just gonna go up there and do what I know I can do and hopefully help out the team any way I can."

A ninth-round draft pick in 2009, Altherr got his first serious look with the Phillies last year, batting .241 with 19 extra-base hits and 22 RBIs in 39 games. It wasn't nearly enough to anoint the German-born prospect as part of the franchise's rebuilding effort, but the organization was hoping to use 2016 to evaluate his potential as an everyday player.

"I wouldn't say missed opportunity," Altherr said about the poor timing of his injury. "Things like this happen. I'll get back stronger than ever and show what I can do. It is what it is. I've worked hard every day and tried to get back as fast as I could."

He's right, of course. It's not like all is lost in that sense. Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos and Tyler Goeddel have had their moments, but none has cemented his role moving forward. Outside of likely September call-up Nick Williams posting quality numbers at Triple A, there isn't exactly a long line of players knocking down the door for one of those two spots.

"There's always going to be competition no matter where you are in life, so I definitely don't really think about it too much," Altherr said. "I just have to go out there and control what I can control and play the way I know I can play."

Altherr's opportunity is coming any day now. A 6-foot-5, 215-pound athlete who also happens to be a plus-defender could bring a lot to the mix for the Phillies right now. It may be too late to find out this year if he has a long and bright future with the club, but he could certainly provide some excitement down the stretch.

Jim Schwartz: Eagles' defense 'rather attack than read'

Jim Schwartz: Eagles' defense 'rather attack than read'

For all his talk about schemes and technical minutiae, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s coaching philosophy is pretty simple.

“In a nutshell, we want to allow less points than our offense scores," Schwartz said. "Rankings, stats — the only thing that matters in this league is wins and losses. I’ll take a 42-41 game; I might not sleep well afterwards, but I’ll take it. I’d rather have that than a 7-3 game that you lose.”

That said, Schwartz emphasized his defense’s attack-first mindset after the second day of Eagles training camp at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday (see Day 2 observations).

“We want to be an attack defense,” he said. “We want to put pressure on the quarterback.”

While Schwartz has preferred that style throughout his coaching career, he’s always cognizant of his personnel and what sort of approach best suits them. For the Eagles, he feels that a defense in which the front four is putting pressure on the quarterback and the linebackers and defensive backs are playing aggressively is the perfect system (see story).

“I think [this defense] fits the guys really well here,” Schwartz said. “And I think if you’d ask them, they’d rather attack than read. It puts us in a little better position to rush the passer, it puts us in a little better position to set hard edges. It’s been our philosophy. And I think if you ask offensive coordinators, they’d tell you the same thing — if you can get there with four, you have a big advantage as a defense.”

Schwartz talked extensively about how he’s altered his defense depending on the strengths and weaknesses of his players. Looking at defensive ends in particular, Schwartz explained his ends don’t all line up in an identical “Wide 9” alignment. Rather, he noted that the positioning and technique for the pairings of Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Antwan Odom during his time as defensive coordinator in Tennessee (2001-08) varied considerably from that of Cliff Avril and Ziggy Ansah when he coached Detroit (2009-13), and Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo (2014).

“We try to match the talent that we have to the techniques that we’re asking guys to play,” Schwartz said. “And even here, some of the stuff that Brandon [Graham] is doing is a little different than what Vinny [Curry] is doing.”

As for the Eagles’ biggest offseason decision, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Schwartz is very confident in Cox’s ability to thrive in his defense.

“[Cox] fits our scheme," he said. "I think we have some things for him that should fit him well. He’s a tough matchup; he’s a tough matchup vs. guards, he’s a tough matchup vs. some tackles, and I like some of the stuff that they did with him here last year, moved him around a little bit … it’s our job to create matchups for him.”

Even though Schwartz loves to discuss the details that make his defenses succeed, he understands it’s his job to clearly teach his schemes so that his players are able to react and, of course, attack, instead of thinking excessively on the field.

“We want to put guys in good positions, communicate well, play what fits them, all those things are important to us,” he said. “We’re not trying to set a record for being difficult.”