What Got into the Defensive Line?

What Got into the Defensive Line?

There wasn’t much of substance to take away from Thursday
night’s pitiful loss to the Bengals, besides the fact that the Eagles are an incredibly
undisciplined team. You couldn’t pick a single player out of a lineup and
charge him with the crime of setting off the bomb that leveled the crowd at
Lincoln Financial Field. Andy Reid remains a suspect, but I imagine even he
would have liked to throw his hands up in despair over that effort.

Despite the nature of that loss, there was one positive to
take away from this disaster, that being the play of the defensive line. Two
weeks after firing Jim Washburn, who was apparently insubordinate on top of
coaching in an ineffective unit, the front four suddenly exploded for six
sacks and a pair of forced fumbles of quarterback Andy Dalton.

With the presence of the wide-9 greatly diminished – the
alignment remains in use, but is not nearly as prevalent – suddenly the Eagles’
pass rush looks reenergized. Brandon Graham, the 2010 first-round pick whose
career many fans had left for dead, enjoyed a breakout performance, notching 2.5
sacks and a strip. He split one sack with the 12th overall pick in this year’s
draft, Fletcher Cox, who also got to Dalton once on his own.

Cox had been having a nice rookie season anyway, taking over
as the clubhouse leader with six sacks. On the other hand, Graham’s arrival
could be spectacular news for the defense. He’s now registered 4.0 sacks over
the last three games since replacing the departed Jason Babin – amazing what a
little playing time can do for a guy – giving him 5.5 for the season.

Some of the veterans appear to have been revitalized by the
change as well. One season removed from reaching double digits for the fourth
time in five years, Trent Cole recorded his first full sack since Week 1,
suggesting calls of his demise may have been premature. Even Cullen Jenkins got
in on the act, knocking the ball loose to earn his second sack in two weeks.

To be fair, Cincinnati had surrendered the eighth-most sacks
in the league entering this week, so maybe the numbers are a tad inflated. Of
course, there have been times this season when the Eagles couldn’t so much as pressure
an opposing team’s quarterback regardless of the quality of their offensive
line.

What happened?

The answer is both obvious, and not. It’s easy to chalk it
up entirely to Washburn’s wide-9, but that doesn’t entirely make sense.
Philadelphia led the NFL in sacks with 50 last season, 46 of those coming from
the front four alone, and Tennessee was perennially among the league leaders
during his 12 years there. Detroit is also notorious for its use of the scheme,
and while they aren’t number one or anything, they’ve posted a respectable 30
sacks this season, putting them right in the middle of the pack.

More likely it’s dialing it down that has done the trick for
the Birds. New defensive line coach Tommy Brasher has mixed it up with a
variety of rushes, attacking different gaps and using more stunts, which has
given the defense an element of surprise. We can only intimate that Washburn
had far too much power, which forced defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – and Juan
Castillo before him – to be inflexible with their play calls.

Whatever the reasons, the change has been evident. The Eagles
have racked up eight sacks over the past two games, compared to 20 in the 12
previous. That’s almost unbelievable when you think about it.

There is always the question of sample size, too, as has
been the case with many of the recent developments on the field. Then again, we
already knew a guy like Cole was one of the most talented defensive ends in the
NFL. We knew Jenkins still has some production left in the tank. At this point, it’s
probably even fair to say we knew Cox can play at this level. As for Graham, he
had been having a nice season with the snaps he was given to work with. Perhaps we
are witnessing him turning the corner with the help of some fresh guidance.

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.