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?
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.
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.
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.
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.