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Mychal Kendricks struggled in coverage and tackling in the Eagles' 32-point loss to the Broncos on Sunday. (USA Today Images)
Coming out of training camp, the Eagles had high hopes for Mychal Kendricks, especially after his athleticism and versatility dazzled his new coaches during the preseason.
The second-year inside linebacker, drafted 34th overall in 2012 and a starter since Day 1, better fit the 3-4 scheme, which he played in college, than his fluid outside role last year in the old regime’s 4-3 front.
Chip Kelly talked about the challenge that his defensive staff faced each week in deciding whether to blitz Kendricks or match him in coverage against tight ends, the obstacle being that Kendricks excels at both, making the decision very difficult.
Instead, quarterbacks are dissecting the middle of the Eagles’ defense, which is allowing yards at a historic pace. Kendricks’ overaggressive flights to the ball and breakdowns in fundamentals have exposed him during the team’s three-game losing streak.
Let’s look at three plays against the Broncos that illustrate Kendricks’ struggles, in both coverage and tackling.
In the second quarter, on Denver’s third drive, Kendricks stunts around Fletcher Cox (91) and has Peyton Manning in his crosshairs. Kendricks’ ability to sack quarterbacks went on display in the preseason.
Manning, a virtual statue in the pocket, has an empty backfield, which gives Kendricks a rare opportunity to plant the 12-time Pro Bowl quarterback into the dirt. All Kendricks has to do is make a clean takedown.
But instead of taking aim at Manning’s midsection, Kendricks gets greedy and goes for the sack-strip. He reaches with his left arm to secure Manning’s body as he prepares to lasso his right arm around the quarterback’s right shoulder.
Kendricks later said Manning pulled a “veteran move,” using his left arm as a shield while he escaped the sack. Manning still takes a shot from Cox, but only after the ball is delivered to tailback Ronnie Hillman on the left side. Kendricks can only watch from the ground as he’s been taken out of the play altogether.
Hillman’s catch takes Denver to the Eagles’ 13-yard line. Three plays later, the Broncos score on Knowshon Moreno’s touchdown run.
“We literally linked fingers and he just knocked my hand down,” Kendricks said. “I was trying to go for the ball, trying to wrap around and go for that ball. I should have just put my head across [his body]. You wish you could have those plays back.”
Another play Kendricks would want back came on Denver’s opening drive when he got lost in coverage on tight end Julius Thomas for an all-too-easy 13-yard pickup on 3rd-and-9.
At the snap, Kendricks is lined up across from Thomas, about four yards off scrimmage where he would normally be positioned.
After the snap, Thomas runs a drag route across the middle, but Kendricks dropped too far back and wide, allowing Thomas to get about three yards of separation with his momentum going away from the linebacker.
Things then get really ugly for Kendricks. For some reason, he loses pursuit of Thomas and ends up covering Wes Welker, whose pattern also took him across the middle. Problem is, Welker is already covered by Brandon Boykin with safety Nate Allen giving help. So you have three Eagles on Welker (yellow circle) and nobody on Thomas (yellow arrow).
Thomas has an easy path to the first-down marker and the Broncos go ahead 7-0 five plays later on a Welker touchdown catch.
“I was out of my leverage,” Kendricks said. “The route that they ran, it suited them. I got in that leverage thinking that another play was coming, and they countered what I was thinking.”
Given a chance for atonement against Thomas, Kendricks again allowed the Broncos' tight end to pick up extra yardage. This one happened at the end of the second quarter with Denver facing 1st-and-10 at the Eagles’ 40.
The Eagles play quarters coverage (yellow arrows) to take away Manning’s deep options and generate a decent four-man rush, forcing Manning to unload quickly for Thomas on an outside route. Kendricks is a step behind Thomas and in pursuit (red circle).
At this point, Thomas has created enough separation, but Kendricks’ job is to limit the damage. He needs to wrap up Thomas cleanly or ride him out of bounds around the 35.
The wrong thing to do would be lunging for Thomas’ ankles too early.
Kendricks pays the price for leaving his feet.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Thomas’ momentum took him out of bounds three yards shy of the first-down marker and Denver didn’t score on that possession, but coaches working with Kendricks at practice couldn’t have been pleased with the poor fundamentals.
“Wrapping up and tackling, yeah, and we have talked to Mychal about that,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “And [inside linebackers coach] Rick [Minter] has worked with them on that and that's some of the things … I think Mychal thinks a little bit too much and doesn't let himself go play and just kind of pull the trigger and go.
“But ... obviously everybody is aware of his athletic ability. As he continues to grow and figure out exactly what we are doing scheme-wise and things like that, I think you'll continue to see him get better and better and better, because he does have that athletic ability.”
Kendricks faces another challenge Sunday against Eli Manning and the Giants. Tight end Brandon Myers has the second-most receptions on the Giants, with 16 for 173 yards and one touchdown.
Kendricks said his confidence isn’t waning and that he can still be a playmaker for the defense.
“There’s no question in my mind,” he said. “I know I can and I will.”