Linebacker U for Eagles

Jamar Chaney (left) practices hand technique of eluding blockers in drill with fellow Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews.
Jamar Chaney (left) practices hand technique of eluding blockers in drill with fellow Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 22, 2011

THERE MIGHT be a reason, other than just not being very good, why Eagles linebackers had so much trouble getting off blocks in last Thursday's 24-14 preseason loss at Pittsburgh.

Rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews and strongside starter Jamar Chaney talked yesterday about trying to learn the technique that linebackers coach Mike Caldwell and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo are teaching, which asks the linebacker to face the blocker and use his hands to get free, rather than lowering a shoulder.

The Eagles' inexperienced LB corps, whose senior starting member is 2009 seventh-round draftee Moise Fokou, on the weakside, has been a fan focal point ever since the lockout ended and the Birds did nothing to improve their group, unlike just about every other position.

Castillo offered a spirited defense of his young linebackers when he met with reporters yesterday. Asked if that unit was a little bit behind, Castillo said: "The linebackers will be ready to win the Super Bowl. Remember, it takes 16 weeks, and then [it's] really whoever is playing their best during the playoffs. So when you look at it, there's time to develop. You can say that there's not [because of the lockout], but the key is, who's playing, or fundamentally, who's the best come Week 8, 9, 10, and during that crunch time. And over the years we've been pretty good during that time, and we'll continue to do that. The young kids will get better just because they're working the proper fundamentals."

Those fundamentals include using their hands.

"It has to become muscle memory," Castillo said. "It has to be something that you work, over, and over, and over. What we saw in Casey is that as the game went on and he felt more comfortable, he started doing a better job with that. It was something that continued. We'll work on that every day, over, and over, and over. Then it will become muscle memory, and the linebackers will be one of the best groups in the NFL, fundamentally."

Chaney said trying to adjust to the new technique had a lot to do with the linebackers' problems against the Steelers.

"The way they teach you here to get off blocks, pretty much nobody else really takes on blocks like that," Chaney said. "Most people go in there with their shoulders . . . They teach us to go hands and helmet. You can make more plays that way if you do it the right way. It's a learning experience. By the time the Rams game gets here . . . we'll be ready to go in St. Louis."

Chaney said the idea is to get away from the blocker, not trade blows with him. But if you haven't quite mastered the technique, well, you can look pretty passive and ineffective.

"It'll all come with time and reps. We had a chance to do it in training camp, but we weren't able to go full speed . . . Really, when we got in the preseason games, that was the first time we'd been able to go live," he said.

Matthews agreed. "It's new to everyone here. We're trying to get it down," he said. "It's a work in progress."

Why would this be hard to execute?

"When you're taking on a big lineman with your face and hands, it doesn't give you as much power," Matthews said. He said he sees the advantage, if you can do it - "You can just chop and get off."

Head coach Andy Reid and Castillo said this weekend that Matthews got better as the Steelers game went on, that he was not the focal point of the Eagles' defensive problems, as they fell behind 21-0 by halftime.

"I feel better about it" after watching the film, Matthews said yesterday. "Especially as the game went on, you could see I kind of relaxed."

Overall, Chaney said he felt the 'backers need to look beyond their immediate responsibilities and see the big picture.

"Don't be satisifed with just getting into your gap and doing your job - once you secure your job, go find the ball and make the tackle," he said.

One question fans have had is, why not put Chaney in the middle, where he played effectively toward the end of last season. Castillo's answer yesterday seemed to be that he sees the SAM spot as more crucial in his scheme than the MIKE.

"Jamar is playing a position that's special. That SAM linebacker, I don't know if you noticed that, that's a special position for us. It's almost a hybrid," Castillo said. "He's got to be able to run, but yet, he's got to be able to come in there and take on that 'C' gap . . . He's a pretty good player, playing a position that's very important for us."

Chaney said he understands that, knows he has to be able to cover tight ends and stop the run, given the way new defensive-line coach Jim Washburn's "wide nine" technique pretty much takes the defensive ends out of the inside running game.

"You need somebody that can take on a lineman, that doesn't have a d-lineman in front of him to kind of slow 'em down a little bit," Chaney said.

Castillo was asked about management not addressing linebacking needs after the lockout ended.

"They did address it; they drafted some kids," Castillo said. "It takes time to develop kids. Going back to some of you guys [in the media], I'm sure your first year when you started doing what you're doing now, I'm sure you're a lot better now than you were when you first started. It's a process, and it's our job to develop the kids and make them better. I'm responsible, and I have to do a better job, and they'll continue to get better just because we're doing the right things."


For more Eagles coverage

and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.

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