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The diehards still grumbling over New England’s game-opening march downfield last Friday won’t want to hear this, but this is true about the Eagles’ defensive line: Minus a few veterans, it’s young, versatile and promising.
It’s a group the front office and coaching staff expects, sometime in the near future, to be the foundation of a championship-caliber defense.
“It’s nice to see when you have young guys like that coming up,” Kelly said. “The game is won up front on the offensive and defensive lines, and I think we have some young defensive linemen that we’re excited about seeing how they grow up.”
If the wide open running lanes and inability to bring down ball carriers stood out most from the defense in Friday’s unfulfilling preseason opener, the disruption from some second- and third-string linemen came a close second.
Second-year lineman Vinny Curry took up temporary residence in New England’s backfield. Rookie tackles Bennie Logan and Damion Square collapsed the pocket more than a few times, and from various positions. There are no doubts that last year’s first-round pick, Fletcher Cox, will build on a productive rookie year.
Throughout camp, the 6-foot-8 Clifton Geathers has flashed potential at any -- and every -- position they’ve asked him to play. And hopes remain high for third-year pro Cedric Thornton to successfully transition from interior pass rusher to a run-stopping end, even after Thornton was staring skyward on the game’s first play, having been pancaked by Pro Bowl tackle Logan Mankins on Stevan Ridley’s 62-yard run.
Growing pains aside, Kelly believes his stable of young linemen, several of whom are entering their first or second seasons, will shape the identity of his defense going forward.
“That is one of our strengths on the defensive side of the ball is our defensive line,” he said. “When you throw [Isaac Sopoaga] and [Clifton] Geathers in the mix and Thornton, I think we feel like the D‑line is starting to round into shape as a strength for us over there.”
Kelly’s preference on winning in the trenches with stout, brawny, hard-nosed athletes has been evident since his “big people beat up little people” remark made the rounds in headlines this offseason.
It’s noteworthy that Kelly singled out three players from Friday night’s opener, all of whom were both linemen and rookies. Two came from the defense, in Logan and Square.
“It’s got to be the strongest group on your team,” said Square, who went undrafted despite his efforts on a defense that helped Alabama win BCS titles in each of the past two seasons. “When your back is up against the wall, the D-line’s gotta to be the one to put the fire out. That’s what we used to say at ‘Bama. You gotta go put the fire out when the fire happens, no matter when the fire happens.”
Square, a 6-foot-2, 293-pound prospect who has played all three line positions, said the seeds of a punishing front line are being sowed in camp, with each young lineman trying to one-up the other.
“As a D-line, that’s the mentality you have to have,” he added. “We try to keep that mentality in our room with guys like Vinny Curry, Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan. We try to compete against each other out there to try to go out there and be the best D-linemen on the field.”
Square is the surprise of the group. If the preseason ended today, he’d not only make the roster but also help compose a six-man rotation up front that shares reps somewhat evenly among the starters and backups.
Curry’s camp seems more on par with his potential. The Eagles drafted him with their second of two second-round picks last year based on the former Marshall star’s track record of making disruptive plays.
Of course, the Eagles then stunted his developmental year by sitting him until Week 10 as the turmoil-plagued coaching staff force-fed ineffective pass rushers (Jason Babin, namely) onto the field.
Curry, who bulked up 15 pounds this offseason to have a body more suitable for a three-man line, remains a moving part in coordinator Billy Davis’ defense. He tinkers from one- to two-gap formations, but his penchant for getting into the backfield from wherever he’s lined up went on display against the Patriots.
Logan, who mainly runs with the reserves at nose guard and defensive end, could end up outperforming Thornton and Curry to start opposite Cox. Of those three, the former LSU standout has the most experience in an a hybrid defense because his college employed a similarly diverse look with multiple fronts.
At LSU, the 6-foot-2, 309-pound Logan wore the famed No. 18 -- the jersey given to the Tiger who most displays selflessness. It’s no surprise, then, that two of his front seven teammates -- Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery -- were drafted ahead of him and had gaudier numbers, but the Eagles believed Logan’s talents were overlooked. They had a higher grade on him than 67th overall, where they grabbed him in the third round.
New England’s interior offensive line struggled to hold blocks on Logan, who made four tackles and registered a half-sack.
“It’s football. You hit the man in front of you, you dominate the man in front of you,” Logan said. “That’s my main thing. Every time I go out to play, even at practice, I get mad when a guy gets the best of me or I feel like I got blocked on a play. “
So the attitude I take at practice is the same way I approach a game, so when it comes to a game time it’s more easier to dominate or defeat the man in front of you, because you work so hard in practice to get off blocks.”
Curry and Logan will likely see action against Carolina’s first-team offense Thursday night in the second preseason game as the battle continues to see who starts opposite Cox and alongside nose tackle Sopoaga.
Davis said his young linemen’s “mature demeanor” against the Patriots impressed him, although he noted that one game doesn’t make for an honest evaluation.
“I was very impressed with how they responded to the challenge of a solid offensive line and offensive scheme,” he said. “The young guys played as well as anybody. Those young defensive linemen, as far as playing the techniques we were asking them to play, they were very consistent in what we were asking them to do.”
Davis, who broke into NFL coaching in the 90s on Bill Cowher’s staff in Pittsburgh, has shown old Steelers footage to get his linemen to understand that championship defenses are built in the trenches, and everyone else -- the inside linebackers and defensive backs -- reap from the success of the front line.
“You want it to be. You want build that up front,” said Square, who shared in that experience a ’Bama. “If you’re strong on the back end, and not good up front, it’s not a symbol of a great defense. Any great defense I played on was strong up front.”