Matthews may not be answer in the middle

Posted: August 19, 2011

PITTSBURGH - If there was no lockout, Casey Matthews' 21st day of NFL football would have come in May during rookie minicamp and not Thursday night against the Steelers.

While the work stoppage and the cancellation of organized team activities puts Matthews' rough outing against Pittsburgh into proper perspective, it does not excuse the Eagles' decision to start a rookie at middle linebacker.

That choice can be changed, of course, with two preseason games and more than three weeks left until the start of the regular season on Sept. 11. And maybe the Eagles' fallback position was always to see what their fourth-round draft pick can do. And if he struggles, acquire a veteran or simply slide Jamar Chaney over from strong-side.

But why not just start Chaney from the get-go? Or why not keep Stewart Bradley, rather than let him depart for the Cardinals via free agency? Bradley was no Jeremiah Trotter, but he had two seasons of starting in the middle under his belt.

Matthews was not a total disaster in a 24-14 loss to the Steelers. He wasn't even close to being the worst thing for the Eagles. The quarterback would be a good start. And let us pause for another second to point out that hardware isn't awarded in August, and one shaky preseason game does not a career make.

But Matthews did not look nearly ready to be the starting middle linebacker on a team that has made it no secret - especially after a few victory laps with the media - that its free agent spending spree was an "all-in" approach to finally winning a Super Bowl.

The 6-foot-1, 232-pound linebacker was often engulfed by blockers whenever the Steelers ran the ball. Size can be overrated in a game built more on speed. But Matthews is on the slighter side compared to, say, Bradley (6-4, 258), or the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher (6-4, 258).

There are certainly inside linebackers that are more in Matthews' weight class. But many of them work in 3-4 schemes.

The real head-scratcher in the decision to start Matthews is that a rookie defensive coordinator - one that will be under the microscope because of the way he was given the job - would chose a first-timer to man the middle of his defense.

Juan Castillo was a linebacker before coaching, and he loves to jump up and down and smack his linebackers - sometimes even head-butting them - but the oversight in not adding a veteran to a young group is glaring.

Even for a team that has long undervalued the position - and rightly so, considering its scheme and the importance at the edges - the Eagles will need competent linebackers if defensive line coach Jim Washburn's "wide-nines" system is to work.

Washburn lines his defensive ends way outside on the edge of the tackles, so that they can shoot themselves straight at the quarterback. But this scheme leaves the middle of the line susceptible to the run game, and the Steelers churned out 93 first-half yards on the ground against the first-team defense.

On one play, Ben Roethlisbeger either noticed the huge gap in the middle or the Steelers' coaches noticed it, and the quarterback took the snap and rumbled ahead behind his center almost untouched for an eight-yard gain.

To be fair, the Eagles were without their top two run-stuffing defensive tackles. Mike Patterson is still out after suffering a seizure two weeks ago, and Antonio Dixon was recently sidelined by back spasms.

But the Eagles may need to demote Matthews as soon as they get back to NovaCare Complex before it gets too late. Chaney is certainly a viable option. When he filled in for the injured Bradley in three games last season he was more than able, racking up two times more tackles than the regular.

The Eagles could also just wait for cuts and pick up a veteran off the scrap heap. Teams will be unloading salaries, and there will be experienced linebackers on the market. They may be able to trade from one of the areas in which they have depth - cornerback anyone? - and try and get a starting linebacker in return.

Or maybe they just give Matthews more time.

Maybe a rookie coordinator feels an obligation to give a rookie linebacker another chance.


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

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