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Eagle Eye: Biggest surprises of the season
Under first-year defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro the Eagles have allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season. (AP)
At every practice, whether or not pads are required, Eagles defensive linemen spend at least a portion of the session relentlessly throwing their bodies into a blocking sled.
They do this over and over and over again. Some said they’ve confronted the sled more in one week of Eagles practice than they have in an entire season.
“We hit the sleds every day,” defensive end Fletcher Cox said. “My first year -- last year -- we didn’t hit not one sled.”
The defenseless sled that gets tossed around like a rag doll is the centerpiece of the team’s ongoing shift from a 4-3 defensive scheme to the 3-4 implemented by first-year head coach Chip Kelly.
Most of Kelly’s linemen had never played outside of the 4-3 scheme. Several of them played in last year’s polar opposite scheme. So far, the blueprint is working.
The Eagles, while still iffy in pass rush, are one of the NFL’s most vastly improved defensive teams since suffering a 52-20 route in Week 4 to the Broncos. They’ve allowed more yards than all but one other NFL team in that span, but they’ve allowed 21 or fewer points to their past seven opponents.
The strength of the defense is up front, where the starting line of Cox, Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan has developed faster than anyone could have imagined and laid the foundation for a promising future, if not an enticing December, for the first-place Eagles.
The 25-year-old Thornton is the oldest of the trio. Reserve end Vinny Curry, also 25, leads the team in sacks despite coming off the bench.
The man largely credited for the overnight metamorphosis is defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, whose relationship to Kelly is so tight knit and significant that he doubles as the team’s assistant head coach.
The Brooklyn-born Azzinaro isn’t unlike the city he comes from, a melting pot of personalities that combine into a distinctive charm. At practice, he is loud and demonstrative. On game day, his linemen say he’s practically a monk, a calming presence on the sideline in the midst of heated battle.
“I don’t like [fiery] coaches like that on game day, because it makes you feel like the coach is nervous,” said undrafted rookie Damion Square, another promising reserve lineman who isn’t yet 25. “If I feel like you’re nervous as a coach, that makes me uncertain as a player. If I know you have confidence in me, that makes it easier for me to have confidence in myself.”
But if there’s one constant with Azzinaro, it’s the repetitive nature in which his linemen are drilled and schooled, every day without fail. It’s the backbone to his coaching philosophy.
“I just think it’s simple to hit the guy on front of you,” Azzinaro said. “That’s basically what we teach. If there’s a guy in front of you we’re basically going to try to hit him and then go ahead and try to find the football. It’s certainly not easy, but [the concept] is pretty simple.”
In the morning, Azzinaro’s Pat Riley-esque platinum hair is slicked back and shines under the rising sun. By mid-afternoon, it has unraveled into an Albert Einsteinian shaggy mop.
Although he resembles the weird scientist minus the white lab coat, Azzinaro’s formula is hardly complex. He hammers home his simple philosophies in the most rudimentary way possible: On the blocking sled, one repetition after the next, until technique evolves from theory to habit.
“You hit it every day,” Thornton said. “And when you get into a game, it’s almost like, ‘Wow, did I do that?’ All the guys are seeing it on tape. We all see spurts of it happening.”
Thornton has become the model student of Azzinaro’s teachings. He has raised his profile from situational pass-rushing defensive tackle into full-time starter who has has emerged into one of the NFL’s best run defenders. Thornton has the league’s second-most run stops behind All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cox, last year’s first-round pick, has matured into the team’s most complete lineman. He tormented the Redskins over the weekend in both run defense and the pass rush. The development of Logan, a rookie third-rounder, enabled the team to deal underperforming veteran starter Isaac Sopoaga.
“He's an outstanding coach, a great idea guy for all of our schemes that we're using,” defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. “One of the things, when you try to do schemes, you’ve got to do what the players can take to the field. What the players can take to the field is usually how well they're taught at the position level.
“Our position coaches, and it starts with Jerry at the D‑line, they are drilled and work and rework the techniques every day. That's why that group has progressed, is because of the teaching they're getting.”
The Eagles have exhausted defensive line coaches throughout the years, from Tommy Brasher to Pete Jenkins to Rory Segrest to Jim Washburn and back to Brasher last year after Washburn’s in-season firing.
Given his experience and history with Kelly, it’s safe to say Azzinaro isn’t going anywhere.
Their paths crossed in New England, when Kelly coached at New Hampshire and Azzinaro bounced around from UMass to Boston College to Maine and Syracuse and eventually New Hampshire.
Kelly had already left to become offensive coordinator at Oregon when Azzinaro arrived on New Hampshire’s campus in 2007 to coach defensive linemen. Two years later, when the same job opened at Oregon, Kelly advised the school to hire him.
“First and foremost, he's really, really smart,” Kelly said. “He comes off as a gruff, get-after-you guy, but he's extremely intelligent. He's a great communicator. He can get his message across in terms of how he wants it done.
“He's very detailed in his work, extremely meticulous in how he wants it done. But I think the guys gravitate to him. I was with him at Oregon, and it was really important for me to be with him here just because I think he's a great teacher and great communicator.”
Kelly and Azzinaro are bonded by the philosophy that coaching is best done in an intense, fast-paced environment where the workload is boiled down to the simplest principles and then repeated and re-repeated.
“I only think there’s two speeds of learning,” Azzinaro said, echoing a common Kelly refrain. “There is fast and there’s walk. Where a lot of the learning process gets knotted up is the speed in the middle. So, we’re going to be in the film room where we’re sitting or walking or we’re going to be as fast as we can. Ultimately, you get it.”
So far, Azzinaro’s teachings and persistent sled work have yielded two significant achievements.
First, the incumbent linemen have adapted from a wholesale scheme change that now asks them to be more involved in run defense. The Eagles have allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season, which came in a blowout road win against the Raiders.
Second, they’ve been cross-trained to play several positions on the line. Thornton, Logan and Square each play end and tackle, and Cox and Curry each play left and right end. The versatility allows Davis to be more creative and less predictable in his blitzes and four-man pass rush schemes.
“I don’t think he wastes time with unneeded information,” Sqaure said. “He doesn’t coach us unnecessary things. That’s the thing I love about him. Anything that comes out of Azzinaro’s mouth is much-needed information.”
There’s another purpose Azzinaro serves, one he’s less inclined to discuss. There’s a reason he and Kelly are a natural pairing.
“[He] coaches me a lot,” Kelly said. “I mean, he's a really special guy to be around. I think, again, he's extremely intelligent. He's got a great view and great mindset in terms of how he looks at not only the game but looks at life. We all seek Professor Azzinaro's counsel a lot of times, to be honest with you.”