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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Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.