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.

NFL Playoff Wrap: Packers, Steelers off to conference title games after dramatic wins

NFL Playoff Wrap: Packers, Steelers off to conference title games after dramatic wins

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This time it was a catch, and another win for the Green Bay Packers.

Call it a "Half Mary" from Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers threw a 36-yard pass to a toe-dragging Jared Cook on the sideline, and Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Packers to the NFC championship game with their eighth straight win while thwarting a huge Dallas rally in a 34-31 victory in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday.

The throw on the run from Rodgers to Cook -- confirmed on review -- wasn't nearly as debatable as Dez Bryant's famous catch that wasn't in the Cowboys' divisional round loss to Green Bay two years ago.

Cook kept both feet inbounds with a knee just above the ground out of bounds.

And it came after the Cowboys tied the game twice in the final 5 minutes behind rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their playoff debut.

It was the third field goal of more than 50 yards in the final 1:38 -- two from Crosby and one from Dallas' Dan Bailey. And Crosby had to make the winner twice after Dallas coach Jason Garrett called timeout before the first attempt.

Rodgers, who sparked last week's wild-card win over the New York Giants with another Hail Mary before halftime, is headed to an MVP showdown with Atlanta's Matt Ryan next Sunday. It will be his third NFC title game -- all on the road.

Green Bay's win was the first by a road team after 12 straight home victories in the playoffs dating to last season.

The Cowboys (13-4) almost became the third team in the Super Bowl era to win in the playoffs after trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter. The first was Dallas in 1972, when "Captain Comeback", Roger Staubach, rallied the Cowboys for a 30-28 win over San Francisco.

Instead, Dallas ended up with its fifth straight loss in the divisional round and a 21-year drought in trips to the NFC championship game.

Prescott got the Dallas rally going with a 40-yard touchdown toss in the first half to Bryant, the first playoff TD for the star receiver.

Then he set the stage for the first tying score on a 6-yarder to Jason Witten, also the first postseason touchdown for the 14th-year tight end.

Rodgers led the Packers to a go-ahead 56-yard field goal from Crosby with a big boost on a pass interference penalty against rookie Anthony Brown that wiped out an interception from Jeff Heath, whose pick earlier in the game helped Dallas rally.

The Cowboys answered with a 52-yarder from Bailey (see full recap).

Steelers hold off Chiefs to set up rematch with Pats in AFC title game
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Who needs to reach the end zone when you have Le'Veon Bell chewing up yards and the clock, and Chris Boswell setting an NFL playoff record with six field goals?

Throw in a stingy Pittsburgh defense for most of Sunday night, and a multitude of mistakes by Kansas City, and the Steelers' 18-16 victory sent them into the AFC championship game.

The Steelers (13-5) needed to hold off a last-ditch threat by the Chiefs (12-5) before advancing to face New England next Sunday night for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won at Pittsburgh 27-16, but Ben Roethlisberger was injured and didn't play.

Spencer Ware's 1-yard touchdown run took Kansas City within 18-16. The Chiefs at first converted the 2-pointer to tie it, but tackle Eric Fisher -- the first overall selection in the 2013 draft -- was penalized for holding. The next try failed.

With 2:43 remaining, Justin Gilbert misplayed the kick return and was tackled at the Pittsburgh 5. Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 7 yards on third down and Pittsburgh then ran out the clock, securing a ninth straight victory for the Steelers. The Chiefs have not won a home playoff game since 1994, losing five in a row.

The scoring started furiously in the opening minutes, then the game became a kicking exhibition by Boswell, who also had six field goals in the regular season against Cincinnati. And Bell put on a virtuoso running performance, patiently finding holes and then exploding through them. He added a team-record 170 yards rushing to the 167 he had in a win over Miami last week.

The Steelers became first team to win a playoff game without a TD since eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis in the 2006 AFC divisional round at Baltimore.

Using a no-huddle attack almost to perfection early on, the Steelers drove deep into Kansas City territory. But they bogged down inside the 5 and Boswell made a 22-yard field goal.

The Chiefs were just as efficient on a six-play march capped by receiver Albert Wilson lining up in the backfield, then slipping uncovered into the end zone for a 5-yard score.

Pittsburgh's answer came on a 52-yard heave to All-Pro Brown, who somehow was covered by linebacker Justin Houston. That led to Boswell's second field goal, a 38-yarder. He added a 36-yarder to cap a 14-play drive on which Pittsburgh again barely huddled.

A clean game up until then turned to, well, turnovers, on successive series. Bud Dupree pounded Alex Smith, whose pass shot high into the air and was caught by linebacker Ryan Shazier.

The Steelers got to the Kansas City 5, where Frank Zombo leaped to deflect Roethlisberger's throw, and All-Pro safety Eric Berry -- burned for 26 yards on the previously play -- picked it off in the end zone.

Boswell's fourth field goal, from 45 yards, made it 12-7 at the half. His 43-yarder, setting the franchise record for a postseason game and tying the league mark of five, came on Pittsburgh's first series of the second half. A 43-yarder midway in the fourth quarter gave Boswell the NFL record.

Kansas City's Cairo Santos got in on the kicking act with a 48-yarder to make it 15-10. At that point, 10 seconds from the end of the third quarter, the Chiefs were outgained 333 yards to 150 (see full recap).

Best of NBA: James Harden's 12th triple-double paces Rockets' rout of Nets

Best of NBA: James Harden's 12th triple-double paces Rockets' rout of Nets

NEW YORK -- James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game (see full recap).

DeRozan leads Raptors past Knicks
TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan had 23 points, Norman Powell added 21 and the Toronto Raptors used a dominant third quarter to beat the New York Knicks 116-101 on Sunday.

DeRozan also had five rebounds and five assists before coming out late in the third quarter.

The Raptors improved to 27-13, taking the lead for good late in the first quarter. They led by 38 points in the third in winning their third straight game overall and fifth in a row against the Knicks.

DeMarre Carroll added 20 points, and Jonas Valanciunas had 12 points and 16 rebounds.

Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 18 points, Justin Holiday had 17, and Derrick Rose added 16. The Knicks are 2-10 in their last 12 to drop to 18-23 (see full recap).

Hawks stay hot by beating Bucks    
ATLANTA -- Kent Bazemore scored 24 points, Mike Dunleavy added 20 and the Atlanta Hawks beat the Milwaukee Bucks 111-98 on Sunday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 33 points and was a tough matchup in the paint for Milwaukee, which dropped 2 1/2 games behind the fourth-place Hawks in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta has won eight of nine. The Bucks have dropped three of five.

Dunleavy, in his second game since arriving in a trade last week with Cleveland, had his first 20-point performance since a first-round playoff game for Chicago on April 30, 2015.

Antetokounmpo has scored at least 30 points in eight games in a breakout season (see full recap)