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: Seahawks hurt Tony Romo, pull away from Cowboys

Best of NFL: Seahawks hurt Tony Romo, pull away from Cowboys

SEATTLE -- Three plays were all it took for Dallas to get yet another injury scare surrounding Tony Romo.

The quarterback lasted just 90 seconds into the Cowboys' 27-17 preseason loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night before leaving with what appeared at first to be a potentially significant injury, but ended up being minor.

Romo was tackled from behind by Seattle's Cliff Avril on the third play from scrimmage as Romo scrambled from the pocket.

He immediately grabbed at his back, crumpled on the field while trainers sprinted from the Dallas sideline and images of Romo's injury problems from last year immediately flashed to mind.

Turned out it was all just a scare. Romo walked off the field without assistance, threw passes on the sideline and lobbied for a return to the game. Dallas coach Jason Garrett opted to play it safe and Romo donned a baseball hat as a spectator the rest of the night.

"I was just in shock and had my mind on just, `C'mon, Tony. Get up,'" Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told the team's TV broadcast.

"Said a few prayers right there in the middle on the spot. Really just couldn't imagine getting that hand dealt to us. We're pleased that it's in good shape. We obviously don't need to see what Tony can do out there."

What Romo saw was an impressive initial flash from rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and a solid performance by backup QB Dak Prescott against one of the top defenses in the NFL.

Elliott rushed for 48 yards on seven carries, including a 13-yard run where he knocked Seattle safety Kam Chancellor backward. Prescott was solid playing against most of Seattle's starting defense, finishing 17 of 23 for 116 yards, including a 17-yard TD pass that Jason Witten snatched away from K.J. Wright.

Russell Wilson and Seattle's No. 1 offense played into the second half, scoring on four of its final five possessions including a pair of TD tosses by Wilson (see full recap).

Foster leads Dolphins to win over Falcons
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Running back Arian Foster had a 2-yard touchdown run in the Miami Dolphins' 17-6 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night.

Foster, who joined the Dolphins during the offseason and is coming off an Achilles injury, had his most extensive playing time with his new team in the third preseason game that was played at Orlando's Camping World Stadium.

The four-time Pro Bowl running back played in just one series in the first half, but he made the most of the limited opportunities by sparking the Dolphins to their lone touchdown drive of the half with five carries for 10 yards, capped by his 2-yard scoring run early in the second quarter.

The Dolphins are taking a cautious approach with Foster, who hasn't played a full season since 2012 with Houston. The former Texans star didn't play in the Dolphins' preseason opener and had just two carries for minus-5 yards last week against Dallas.

With Foster expected to challenge second-year running back Jay Ajayi in the Dolphins backfield this season, coach Adam Case came into Thursday night's game wanting a little more to evaluate Foster on.

Foster didn't get a lot more work, but he did enough in the seven touches he received to make the Dolphins' running back competition interesting. Ajayi carried seven times for 11 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards.

Foster had two receptions for 20 yards, which included a 16-yard catch that moved the Dolphins into scoring position at the Falcons 22.

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, coming off an impressive outing against the Cowboys, didn't put his team in many scoring positions, but he did move the ball effectively.

He completed 20 of 29 passes for 155 yards while leading the Dolphins to a score in one of two red zone opportunities (see full recap).

Roy Halladay provides epic quote in tribute to Carlos Ruiz, the 'little engine that could'

Roy Halladay provides epic quote in tribute to Carlos Ruiz, the 'little engine that could'

Roy Halladay and Carlos Ruiz shared a special relationship.

We all know the story.

The two formed an incredible battery combination that produced a perfect game and postseason no-hitter in the same year.

Halladay, a Cy Young winner with plenty of accolades, loved the unassuming Ruiz just as much, if not more, than anyone.

This is case in point: Doc, via CSNPhilly.com's Phillies Insider Jim Salisbury, provided an absolutely epic quote summing up Chooch, who the Phillies traded on Thursday night.

Without further ado ...

Chooch was the little engine that could for a team loaded with big names, but no player was more valuable to the team as a whole than Carlos! He was so humble and grateful, you couldn't help but just want to do anything for him including win! He flawlessly handled one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled and was just as important offensively, as well. It was nothing short of miraculous that he could handle so many different personalities and approaches on a day-to-day basis the way that he did. He was the best catcher I've ever thrown to and, in my opinion, the best catcher in baseball in the years I was with him. It's going to be sad to see him without a Phillies uniform on and not seeing him sitting in his chair in the clubhouse with a smile. And just the way the fans treated Chase last week, Chooch is also deserving of that hero's welcome. They are my two favorite players of all-time as well as favorite teammates. I was fortunate to have both of them in the clubhouse. I want to wish good luck to Carlos. Maybe one day when we're old and gray we can come back to Philly!!

With that, we'll leave you with these awesome moments.

Report: Phillies calling up prospect Jorge Alfaro

Report: Phillies calling up prospect Jorge Alfaro

It appears prized catching prospect Jorge Alfaro is coming to the Phillies.

But not for long.

According to a report late Thursday night by Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan, Alfaro will be promoted from Double A Reading to the Phillies and join the team Friday in New York.

Alfaro, already on the Phillies' 40-man roster, is not expected to stay for long. He gets the call now with the Phillies' trade of Carlos Ruiz on Thursday night and veteran catcher A.J. Ellis, a part of the Ruiz deal, not yet with the team but expecting to join it this weekend against the Mets.

Alfaro is a strong candidate to be a September call-up of the Phillies once Reading is finished with the Eastern League playoffs.

The 23-year-old was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade at last season's non-waiver deadline. With the Fightin Phils this season, Alfaro is hitting .279 with 13 home runs, 61 RBIs and 60 runs scored. He's ranked as baseball's second-best catching prospect by MLB.com Pipeline and is known for his big throwing arm and power potential.