Predictions Week: Will Eagles' Defense Be Any Good?

Predictions Week: Will Eagles' Defense Be Any Good?

The majority of the skepticism with the Eagles' offense revolves around Michael Vick staying healthy and becoming a championship-caliber quarterback. Observers generally seem to believe turnovers will regress to the mean, and established stars such as LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson will do their thing, both of which are probably safe bets.

There's not nearly so much faith on the other side of the ball, where defensive coordinator Juan Castillo enters his second season coaching defense in the NFL. The preseason only exacerbated the mistrust. Pittsburgh controlled the pace of the game until they were able to rip off a few big plays, and New England's backups managed to scrape together 14 points against the Birds.

The season hasn't even begun, and already they're questioning how long of a leash Castillo is on, whether or not the wide nine works, if DeMeco Ryans can play, and is the secondary improved. Basically, is this defense going to stop anybody this season?

Castillo's defense has certainly been up and down this summer. Penalties, third downs, and red zone performance have all been suspect at different times, many of which plagued the unit last season. Of course, the yellow flags have led directly to third down conversions, which in turn led to a higher number of red zone trips, so if they can eliminate those mental mistakes, they might be all right.

Then there's this: the stat that really matters. I've maintained all along the defense has earned something of a bum rap around town. Statistically speaking, they weren't that bad last season, finishing 10th in the league in points allowed, eighth in yards. As the link above showed, they were often victimized by the offense's inability to demonstrate any semblance of ball control.

That's not to say the defense was among the best, either. There were huge, gashing run plays and terrible breakdowns in coverage on an almost weekly basis, especially through the first 12 games of the season. Five fourth-quarter leads were blown, a number that's a bit distorted since it doesn't take the situations into account, but is a reality nonetheless.

Still, going back to those turnover numbers, combined with where they finished compared to the rest of the league statistically, there was something for the defense to build on there. Since last season ended, the Eagles have added an influx of talent through the draft, and traded for a Pro-Bowl middle linebacker. They've refined the back seven, and had a full offseason to get this show moving in the right direction.

All set. You can make the case, as I have, they weren't a terrible bunch to begin with. Are Juan Castillo and this defense ready to redeem themselves this season?

Defensive Line
Greatest Strength: Talent and depth
Biggest Question Mark: Whether Mike Patterson will play this season

No ill-will toward the big guy intended, but the fact that whether or not Patterson will wear an Eagles uniform this season is the biggest concern along the defensive line is great news. Sure, the front four are heading into the season down a starter. However, there are an array of talented players ready to step into his spot.

Derek Landri has picked up right where he left off last season, Fletcher Cox looks the part of the 12th overall pick in the draft so far, and after spending most of 2011 on the practice squad, second-year man Cedric Thornton should crack the roster with his strong summer. Antonio Dixon failed to stand out in preseason action, but with Cullen Jenkins back for another season as well, that still gives the line a strong four-man rotation in the middle.

It will be interesting to see if Dixon makes the cut, but with Patterson's situation unresolved (eligible to return between Weeks 6 and 9), he might be safe for now. That's a deep group even without 98, yet an injury would change the complexion in a hurry. Undrafted rookie Frank Trotter is next on the depth chart and a potential practice squad candidate, but undersized at 6-2, 275. Carrying five tackles is not out of the question, we're just not sure Dixon has earned the playing time.

Either way, when you're discussing whether the defense needs a fifth interior lineman or not, it's clear they are a deep there. It's no different at end, where a pair of established Pro Bowlers who combined for 29 sacks a year ago are being pushed by an eager bunch of youngsters.

The talk here isn't about whether to keep five, but can the Eagles keep six defensive ends. Obviously Trent Cole and Jason Babin will anchor the pass rush. Now Philip Hunt has emerged from the CFL throwing a heater of his own, while Brandon Graham also showed he's finally healthy and may be able to play after all. Second rounder Vinny Curry certainly isn't going anywhere, and Darryl Tapp remains reliable. Six is probably too many, so reliable Tapp seems the likely man out.

Seemingly the only question of any consequence for this group is can they lead the charge to surpass last year's total of 50 sacks? Facing this front four is going to be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, which should produce a trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense.

Linebackers
Greatest Strength: Couldn't be worse
Biggest Question Mark: Ceiling

They couldn't be worse? That's not very nice, but I happen to believe it's a fact. When you consider what the Eagles tried to go into last season with as their linebackers, there is a monumental difference in talent. To kick off 2011, you had fourth-round rookie Casey Matthews starting at middle linebacker, along with Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou (traded to Indianapolis this offseason) on the outside -- both formerly picks from the seventh round. Collectively, the three of them had three years NFL experience.

Light years of difference to '12. Begin with the centerpiece, DeMeco Ryans, who has come under some fire already this preseason. From what I understand, he hasn't been flat out dominant in exhibition games, so we're told there is reason to give pause before proclaiming Ryans the answer in the middle. For the most part, he's looked just fine so far -- short of dominant mind you, but conducting himself well, not making many mistakes. Even if he's not what he was before the Achilles injury, he'll still be a massive upgrade compared to what was previously in place.

The Birds are going with a rookie once again in one of the other spots, but there is no comparison between Mychal Kendricks and Matthews. A second-round pick, Kendricks is an amazing athlete and, though on the short side, a physical specimen. He's been absolutely incredible throughout the preseason, repeatedly demonstrating tremendous instinct, and looking very much like he will be the playmaker this group has been desperately lacking for years.

As we mentioned yesterday, Akeem Jordan takes over for Brian Rolle for now on the weakside. Rolle seems to believe the move isn't permanent, and it may not be. The Eagles have tried Jordan at various linebacker positions through the years, but he he hasn't been able to seize a full-time role. He most recently took over for Fokou last year, playing well enough to start the last seven games. Jordan is a veteran who knows the system, and he's a surer tackler than Rolle, so he could be hard to knock out of the lineup.

From this vantage point, the unit should fare quite a bit better than a year ago, which isn't saying much, but important nonetheless. Just how far these linebackers will take the Eagles remains to be
seen. Kendricks has had a great in the preseason, but how he holds up over 16 games remains to be seen. Ryans should be solid, but up to this point hasn't looked the part of a two-time Pro Bowler, so there could be some truth to the argument he's lost his edge. Jordan is what he is, a two-down stopgap whose chance to develop into a star has come and gone.

Yet again, they couldn't be worse than the previous group. How good they will be exactly, that much is a mystery. However, if Ryans steps up his game just a little bit, and Kendricks isn't deceiving us, this group has an opportunity to become a real strength of this defense.

Cornerbacks
Greatest Strength: Having everybody back in their correct positions
Biggest Question Mark: Will Nnamdi play to his reputation?

We were all fairly devastated when the Eagles flipped Asante Samuel prior to the draft, and all they received in return was a lousy seventh-round pick. It seems the four-time Pro Bowler should've been worth significantly more, and the front office may have even missed the boat on a sweeter deal. That said, it's easy to see why the FO was willing to unload him for next to nothing. With Samuel out of the picture, the defense has switched to press coverage on the outside, putting their corners in much better position to succeed.

Back at his usual spot on the outside, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie seems to have benefitted the most from the departure. Following a season in which he looked absolutely lost at nickel corner, DRC has been praised by several members of the media as having the best training camp of any Eagle, and he made some nice plays along the sidelines in the preseason. After failing to record an INT a year ago, DRC appears poised to take over Samuel's role as the secondary's ball hawk.

Rather than continuing to slam a square peg into a round hole at nickel corner, the changes have also allowed the team to switch back to a more natural fit in the slot. Joselio Hanson has been battling with fourth rounder Brandon Boykin for the job, and if you put your ear to the ground, the drum beat sounds for the rookie to take over sometime this year. Either way, both players are better suited in that position than Rodgers-Cromartie.

That's all well and good, but the Eagles are still paying a lump sum of cash to Nnamdi Asomugha, who was a massive disappointment in his first year in Philly. Part of that was Castillo's insistence on using him in a hybrid role -- again, in part due to Samuel's presence -- which Asomugha had never done before. The coaches will still move him around, allowing impressive second-year corner Curtis Marsh to get some looks on the outside. Asomugha should be better prepared to play in different areas with another year under his belt though.

The question is whether he can play better football, period. One aspect where Asomugha has shown dramatic improvement already is tackling. He was among the league's worst tackling corners in 2011, particularly against the run, but this year he's been active and is hauling ball carriers to the ground.

Unfortunately, we still have yet to see the dominant cover corner we thought the Eagles were getting when he signed as a free agent last summer. If DRC is as good as advertised, opposing quarterbacks may try picking on Asomugha, who is often in excellent position, but hasn't demonstrated great ball skills.

Safeties
Greatest Positive: Continuity, for now
Biggest Question Mark: Quite simply, are they good enough?

Well, are they good enough? Not many folks seem to think so these days. When the Eagles added O.J. Atogwe on the heels of minicamps, many believed the veteran safety could be coming in to compete for a starting job. That wasn't the case.

For now, the Eagles appear comfortable going with Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman, who will be starting their second full season together. The lack of changeover in defensive backfield is certainly a positive, as the two should feel comfortable with each other taking care of their own assignments.

Nate Allen missed the first preseason game, and he's been dealing with nagging injuries all summer long, but he is fully recovered from a torn patellar tendon that slowed him at the beginning of last season. Allen was benched at the start of the campaign, but eventually returned to the lineup and had a decent year. He could be better than ever in 2012, as he's been aggressive in run support, and appears to have regained the athleticism that merited a second-round draft choice in 2010.

When people discuss a potential problem at safety, you get the sense they mostly mean Kurt Coleman. At 5-11, 195, Coleman is not physically imposing, nor does he possess outstanding athleticism. That said, if he can sure up his tackling some, he will be a more than adequate solution for this defense. Coleman knows the system, and he is willing to come up and deliver the big hit, so it's all about being in the correct position and finishing the play. It's hard to envision Coleman becoming a star or anything, but if he simply does his job, that should be enough on this defense.

The big problem here is depth. Jaiquawn Jarrett looked absolutely dreadful subbing in for Allen against Pittsburgh. His out-of-control effort literally made everybody else look worse, and he appeared to be headed for the chopping block at the time. Jarrett's been better working with the reserves since, and unless the front office is going to scrape something off the cut-down garbage heap, JJ has a chance to stick.

But it's a scary situation with Allen being dinged up quite a bit. It seems Atogwe is primarily the backup to Coleman, though that could change if Jarrett struggles in a meaningful game. That said, Jarrett didn't kill them when pressed into action last season -- not that he was very good, either.

All images via US Presswire.

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  -- Dustin Hopkins kicked a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter for his fifth of the game and the Washington Redskins avoid a near-disastrous 0-3 start with a 29-27 win over the penalty- and error-prone New York Giants on Sunday.

Kirk Cousins threw touchdown passes of 44 yards to DeSean Jackson and 55 to Jamison Crowder as the banged-up Redskins (1-2) handed new coach Ben McAdoo his first loss with the Giants (2-1).

Su'a Cravens ended the Giants' final drive with an interception in New York territory. It was Eli Manning's second pick of the quarter, with the other coming in the end zone by Quinton Dunbar after New York got to the Redskins 15 on a big play by Odell Beckham Jr.

This was a wild NFC East matchup that see-sawed the entire second half after Washington rallied from a 21-9 deficit (see full recap).

Prescott, Cowboys rout Bears on SNF
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dak Prescott led scoring drives on all four Dallas possessions in the first half before throwing his first career touchdown pass, and the Cowboys beat the Chicago Bears 31-17 on Sunday night to snap an eight-game home losing streak.

With his second straight win, Prescott doubled the number of victories the Cowboys (2-1) had in 14 games without injured quarterback Tony Romo over three seasons before the rookie fourth-round pick showed up.

Prescott's first TD pass was a 17-yarder to Dez Bryant for a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and he's up to 99 throws without an interception to start his career. Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz has 102, and those are the two highest career-opening totals in NFL history.

Brian Hoyer had trouble moving the Chicago offense early with Jay Cutler sidelined by a sprained right thumb as the Bears fell behind 24-3 at halftime and dropped to 0-3 for the second time in two seasons under coach John Fox (see full recap).

Vikings stop Newton, snap Panthers' home win streak
CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- The Minnesota Vikings keep finding ways to overcome injuries --and keep finding ways to win football games.

Sam Bradford threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a score and the Vikings snapped the Carolina Panthers' 14-game home winning streak 22-10 on Sunday.

The Vikings put the clamps on Cam Newton, intercepting the league's reigning MVP three times and getting eight sacks, one of those resulting in a safety by Danielle Hunter. The eight sacks were the second-most ever against Newton.

"We have a great team -- the best team I have been a part of," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who had three sacks. "We come from every area on the field and we get sacks."

Said Newton: "They were dictating to us after they got the momentum."

The Vikings improved 3-0 despite losing running back Adrian Peterson and offensive tackle Matt Kalil to injuries last week. They lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the preseason (see full recap).

Bills bounce back with win over Cardinals
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.  -- LeSean McCoy scored twice and safety Aaron Williams returned a botched field-goal snap 53 yards for a touchdown in leading the Buffalo Bills to a 33-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also scored on a 20-yard run at a time the Rex Ryan-coached Bills spent the past week taking the brunt of criticism after opening the season 0-2.

The win also came on the heels of Ryan firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replacing him with running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

McCoy scored on 24- and 5-yard runs, and finished with 110 yards rushing after combining for just 117 in his first two games. Taylor had 76 yards rushing, including a 49-yarder, the longest by a quarterback in team history (see full recap).

Visit TicketIQ to discover the lowest prices on Eagles tickets anywhere, zone-level ticket data and seat views from fans just like you!”

Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

On his way to the locker room following his team's stunning 34-3 victory over the Steelers, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson reacted, well, like you probably did.

Pederson had to be surprised by what had just transpired. After all, this wasn't the Browns or the Bears. This was the Steelers, who entered the game with the second-best odds behind New England, per Bovada, of winning the Super Bowl (the Patriots were first). 

And the Eagles didn't just beat them. They clobbered them.

But minutes later, when Pederson met the media for his postgame press conference, he tried his best to act like it was no big thing.

“I told the team way back in OTAs that it just takes a little bit of belief," Pederson said. "Belief in themselves. Trust the process. Believe in the coaches and the coaches believe in one another. That’s what they did tonight. 

"Am I surprised? A little. But at the same time, I know that locker room, I know those guys and I know what they are building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves that they are coming together as a football team.”

Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Doug. It's OK to be surprised. Scratch that. Make that stunned. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But now? Forget that. 

At least for the next two weeks. The Eagles are on their bye week and don't play again until Oct. 9 at Detroit. 

“It is still a young season, only three games. This was a good benchmark," Pederson said. "That’s a good football team, the Steelers are a great football team. They are going to be there at the end, they always are. Coach (Mike) Tomlin always has those guys ready to play. 

"But for our guys, it is just a little glimpse of that belief that I have been saying since the spring and summer. If they just do their jobs, I just feel that good things can happen. We just protect each other in that dressing room in there and keep coming to work everyday.”

Pederson is the only head coach in team history to win each of his first three games. It's only the ninth time the Eagles have started 3-0.

And of course, a big reason they've done so is their prodigy quarterback Carson Wentz, who became only the second rookie in team history to record a 300-yard passing game (Nick Foles is the other).

More impressively, Wentz now has attempted 102 straight passes without an interception, the longest streak ever begin an NFL career (per ESPN). Dallas'  Dak Prescott is at 99 after the Cowboys beat up the Bears.

But don't ask Pederson to admit he's amazed by Wentz or the fact he had the presence of mind to make plays like the riveting 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles (much more on that here).

“You know, you just put on his college film. Just watch him," Pederson said. "We exhausted his college tape and those were the plays that he made at North Dakota State. That play tonight was just a tremendous play by both he and Darren Sproles. Those are the types of things that we know he can do. He just keeps gaining confidence every single week.”

As does the defense, which kept one of the league's most potent offenses out of the end zone

"They just weren’t going to be denied," Pederson said. "They just weren’t going to bow their necks. They weren’t going to let them in the endzone. It just came down to our will versus theirs and I was just so happy with the way the guys played. Just a great team effort.”