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.

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski, from Temple club hockey to NHL goalie for a day against Flyers

Eric Semborski woke up Saturday and drove to work in Voorhees, New Jersey.

It was just an ordinary morning for the 23-year-old, a Temple graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

Little did he know, in a couple of hours his world would turn upside down.

Semborski, who works for Snider Hockey and at Flyers Skate Zone running goalie clinics and roller leagues, hadn’t played competitively since suiting up for the Owls’ club team in the spring of 2015.

That was until Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center, where, someway, somehow he was draped in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and squaring up blazing shots off the sticks of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, just to name a few.

Quite the promotion, huh?

“It’s surreal, really,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

Could anyone?

“I couldn’t imagine the rush,” Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling said.

Incredibly and astonishingly, Semborski turned into an NHL goaltender for a day as Chicago’s second string to Darling, who suffered a 3-1 loss to the Flyers.

How Semborski was found and summoned by the Blackhawks is still somewhat of a mystery, even to the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, native himself. Once Chicago received word that regular starter Corey Crawford had to suddenly undergo an appendectomy at a Philadelphia hospital, the Blackhawks started scrambling for an emergency backup to Darling.

“I was at work, at the rink in Voorhees just coaching,” Semborski said. “My boss called me and I missed it. I walked off the ice and started talking with someone from the Flyers, he started asking me, ‘Where’d you play hockey, what’s your playing history?’” 

Semborski was confounded.

“I didn’t even know what he was getting at,” he said. “I asked, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Chicago needs a goalie.’ I just lost it. He said, ‘Go home, get your stuff and if they’re going to use you, they’ll call you.’ I left right away.

“I was like, OK, this probably isn’t going to happen, there’s no way.”

Ten minutes later …

“I’m in the truck and I got a call from Chicago,” Semborski said.

Who was it?

“I just know his name’s Tony,” Semborski said. “That’s all I know.”

How the heck did the Chicago Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups since 2010, find a regular, hard-working guy living in Manayunk to be their reserve netminder?

“No idea,” Semborski said, still in awe talking after the game outside the locker rooms. “I think it had something to do with me working with Snider Hockey, working at Voorhees. They asked around and people just threw my name out I guess. I really don’t know how it happened. I’ll have to get to the bottom of that and thank some people. I have no idea who gave them my info, but whoever did, thank you, because it was awesome.”

So Semborski hustled from Voorhees to Manayunk, packed up his gear — including his old Temple mask, sporting the words “Philly Proud” and “Temple Tuff” — and quickly made his way to the Wells Fargo Center. He arrived around 12:30 p.m. before puck drop at 1.

“I hit some traffic on 76 (Schuylkill Expressway), of course,” Semborski said. “I got here as fast as I could in my street clothes. No time to put on a tie.”

Once Semborski signed his amateur tryout, it became real. He walked into the visiting locker room and there were the Blackhawks and his NHL jersey, a makeshift uniform with Crawford’s No. 50.

“It was hanging up when I got in there,” he said. “I guess they took Crawford’s and threw a name on it and made it work.”

Prior to hitting the ice for warmups, Semborski got acquainted with his teammates.

“Dream come true,” he said. “That was so cool, just hanging out with those guys. They made me feel welcomed right away, started joking around.

“When I got there, they put my number on the board and said I’m throwing in $200 for the holiday party. That was pretty good. I told them, ‘You better take credit because that’s all I got.’”

What about his big-money contract?

“No, I should be paying them for this,” Semborski said. “That was awesome.

“I signed some stuff when I came in, I don’t know what it was. I’m happy with a hat and the memories.”

Especially taking the net in warmups.

“I was a bit rusty, but no matter how much I play, I’m not going to be ready for them,” he said. “It was fast and I couldn’t even catch my breath because I was trying to take it all in. That was the best 20 minutes of my life out there skating with them.

“You’re playing against the best guys in the world. I knew I wasn’t going to stop most of them. I was lucky if it hit me.”

As for the game, Semborski didn’t play.

“Well you almost saw it,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said, referring to his frustration with a three-goal second period by the Flyers.

“That probably would have been a big mistake,” Semborski said with a laugh.

“That would have been so cool, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The experience was awesome.”

What did Quenneville think?

"That’s part of the process with all of the teams, they have the local amateur guys or sometimes guys who have played pro before," he said. "But with our cap situation, we needed an amateur, so he fit all the criteria and it was a good opportunity for him. ... It’s kind of a cool experience for the kid."

So Semborski sat on the bench, padded and ready. He smiled and watched, supporting his new team.

He, of course, is a Flyers fan, but …

“Not today,” he said with a smile. “Every other day, yeah, but not today.

“When I first got out there, I was like, ‘Alright, if [the Flyers] score, don’t stand up. Just relax.’”

Semborski admitted to Chicago breaking his heart in 2010 when it beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final.

“That was one of the hardest things I ever watched,” he said. “But today, that’s all forgotten. I’m a ‘Hawks fan today.”

Afterward, Semborski said his phone was flooded with 70-something text messages and 20-plus phone calls.

“I’m going to have to start calling some people,” he said.

His first will probably be to a special loved one.

“It’s my dad’s birthday,” Semborski said. “So, happy birthday, Dad. Best present ever for you.”

Temple, Matt Rhule deliver AAC championship with win over Navy

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USA Today Images

Temple, Matt Rhule deliver AAC championship with win over Navy

BOX SCORE

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The genesis came nearly four years ago when Matt Rhule walked down the cheerleader and band-lined hallway at the Liacouras Center, greeting fans and shaking the hands of those who took the time to come as he made his way to the to the podium for his introductory press conference. In previous days, he was named Temple’s head coach after leaving the previous regime at Temple for a one-year stint on Tom Coughlin’s staff with the New York Giants.
 
When Rhule spoke that cold December day in 2012, he promised he would bring Temple a championship. Any type of championship. Hardware that the long-suffering program, its players, its fans and its alumni could be proud of.
 
Along the way, there were bumps in the road that brought ridicule to that promise.
 
There was the 2-10 season from hell in 2013 that included losses to Idaho and Fordham. There was the 6-6 season of frustration in 2014 when Rhule had to tell his players, notably his heartbroken seniors, that no bowl wanted anything to do with them even though they were eligible to play in one. There was the hoopla of a dream 2015 season that ended with the nightmare of losses to Houston in the conference title game and Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl. And then there was earlier this season when the Owls seemed without a sense of direction after a painful 3-3 start.
 
But through all of the muck and grime, Rhule kept his players believing in his promise.
 
And on Saturday afternoon, nearly four years to the day he made that promise, he and his players delivered, at the Naval Academy, of all places.
 
Phillip Walker, the four-year starter at quarterback who’s been with Rhule the entire way, was stellar with 16 completions for 199 yards and two touchdown passes and Temple’s defense shut down No. 19 Navy’s vaunted rushing attack as the Owls won the American Athletic Conference title game on Saturday with a 34-10 victory at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium (see Instant Replay).
 
The triumph pushed the Owls’ record to 10-3 and marks just the second conference title in Temple football history and first since the Owls brought home a Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 1967.
 
“For me, it means the promise has been fulfilled,” Temple’s victorious head coach said after the game. “[Athletics officials] were sitting there with me there in the locker after we lost to Fordham our first year. And to bring it full circle, so that to me, is almost a relief of a job well done.
 
“But the true thing for me about this is just to have these players to be able to call themselves champions. That’s the way they live their lives. When you win this conference, you’ve done something special. This a fantastic conference with great teams from top to bottom.
 
“For us to say we did it, that’s the accomplishment. … The competitors we have on our team, the men we have on our team – they were ready to take one more step. And that’s what they did. ”
 
It’s fitting that the seniors who’ve been with Rhule the last several years led the Temple charge from the moment the ball was kicked into the windy air on Saturday.
 
Walker took command on the game’s opening drive with five completions, including a huge 4th-and-7 throw to Keith Kirkwood after Kirkwood dropped an easy catch on the previous play. Walker and Kirkwood later admitted the Owls ran the same play again on fourth down. One play later, Jahad Thomas, another senior, scampered into the corner of the end zone from 15 yards out to open the scoring.
 
On the Owls’ next drive, Walker hit Ventell Bryant on an out route for a 22-yard touchdown that made the score 14-0 in favor of Temple.
 
As time wound down in the first, Temple junior safety Sean Chandler made a touchdown-saving tackle on Navy’s Dishan Romine at the Temple 25-yard line after a 34-yard catch. On the next play, Chandler stripped Navy’s Darryl Bonner after a screen pass and the Owls recovered at their own 30.
 
On the ensuing drive, Walker threw a lovely deep ball with perfect touch to a wide-open Kirkwood, who glided into the end zone and put Temple up 21-0 just over a minute into the second quarter.
 
You could have started polishing the trophy then and there because the rout was on.
 
“This means a lot to the program,” Walker, the namesake of numerous Temple quarterback records, including touchdown passes (72), completions (802) and passing yards (10, 272) said of Temple’s win on Saturday afternoon. “I told Coach Rhule before I got here that this was going to happen. That was the process of me just trusting and keep doing what I’ve been doing. I go out there every day and bring my effort and my energy every day. And hopefully everyone else around me will follow.
 
“Going in there every day and playing and competing at a high level, it shows that we had a really good team that was capable of doing a lot of good things.”
 
Thomas and Walker were teammate’s at North Jersey’s Elizabeth High School before coming to Temple four years ago. Their high school careers followed the same story arc of their college careers – misery as freshmen, improved mediocrity as sophomores, falling just short as juniors and championship glory as seniors.
 
“You definitely hit lows coming from an 11-0 season in high school to a program that was known for losing,” Thomas said before he boarded the team bus Saturday evening. “But we know with all the young guys we had coming in that we had an opportunity to be something special as we got older.
 
“So we just worked and worked in the offseason and continued to get better. We continued to buy in to Coach Rhule’s process. And now, as seniors, we won.”
 
Needless to say, Temple’s defense did more than its fair share against a Navy team that entered second in the nation with 342 rushing yards a game and dropped 75 points on SMU last week.
 
Facing that potent Navy attack and the mental roadblock of the 328 yards a similar-style Army team ran for in a season-opening 28-13 defeat at The Linc, Temple stuffed Navy to the tune of 168 yards on the ground.
 
Navy senior quarterback Will Worth, who entered Saturday leading the nation with 25 rushing touchdowns, injured his ankle in the second quarter and did not return. He was replaced by sophomore Zach Abey. But still, quite the impressive showing from Temple’s defense nonetheless. Or a “good ole fashioned butt whipping,” as Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo put it.
 
“We just made it simple. Just don’t overthink it,” Temple senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said of the Owls’ Saturday performance against Navy’s triple option. “It’s football at the end of the day.  Everybody did their job, just like coach was saying.
 
“This is a program that has never won. So to actually see it happen is just unbelievable with how far we’ve come. There’s a lot of people involved in that. Not just us, but the previous years before us. And it’s incredible to see this happen.”
 
While the Owls will soak in the feeling of championship glory Saturday night, they’ll find out their postseason fate on Sunday afternoon when the bowl selections are announced.
 
And that’s where things get interesting.
 
As a conference champion, Temple is eligible for the New Year’s Six at-large bowl bid to the Cotton Bowl. And the Owls should be in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings after stomping the No. 19 team in the country on its home turf.
 
But No. 17 Western Michigan of the MAC completed its season with a spotless 13-0 record after holding on for dear life against Ohio in Friday’s conference title game in Detroit.
 
So now it’s up to the committee to weigh the resumes of 10-3 Temple and 13-0 WMU for that Cotton Bowl berth. And not to get too far ahead, but that berth could well mean a meeting with Penn State if the Nittany Lions don’t represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
 
WMU’s signature wins this year are victories at Northwestern (6-6) and at Illinois (3-9), both of the Big Ten.
 
The Owls’ top wins are at home against then-No. 24 South Florida (10-2) and Saturday’s triumph at No. 19 Navy (9-3). There was also September’s seven-point defeat at No. 7 Penn State mixed in there as well, if you want to discuss strength of schedule.
 
While logic with the records says the odds may not be in the Owls’ favor, Rhule left his message for the committee on Saturday evening.
 
“I think we can say we’re one of the top teams in college football right now based on the way we’ve played,” Rhule said.
 
“I’ll never talk down about another team. And I think any team that goes undefeated, I wish them all the best. But we are the sixth power conference. If you win this league, you should go to a New Year’s Six Bowl. That’s neither here nor there. And when you’ve seen what [AAC] teams have done in New Year’s Six Bowls, you should want to have us there.
 
“Over the last half of the year, I would say we’re as hot as any team in the country. Again, I’m not saying anything negative about anyone else, but we should be playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl."