Eagles linebackers find their comfort zone

Brian Rolle performs a drill as (from left) Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews and Akeem Jordan watch.
Brian Rolle performs a drill as (from left) Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews and Akeem Jordan watch. (CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: December 22, 2011

TSA AGENTS.

Wall Street profiteers.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Thus concludes our complete list of groups of people more frequently and universally reviled than the Eagles' linebacking corps.

You know all the story lines by now - they're a bunch of mostly first- and second-year guys, all drafted in the fourth round or later, somehow expected to form a solid, dynamic unit, under a new defensive coordinator, with a truncated offseason, behind a defensive line that has shifted to a "wide-nine" front, new to everyone involved.

Several corners have been turned by this group during the Eagles' 6-8 season, some of them onto dead ends. It has been a long and painful struggle, with every starter and both nickel spots changing between the opener and now. But if you look at the play of the linebackers the last few weeks, you see progress. There still aren't any dominant, Pro Bowl-level playmakers (you tend not to get those in the fourth through seventh rounds, the Daily News has learned), but there are guys who can knock down a third-down pass, sniff out a screen, or stop the run well enough not to give up backbreaking big plays.

"One of the things we've talked about is how young they are," that defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo, said yesterday. "All of those kids can play. They're not kids - they're young men."

Castillo said finding specific packages each is comfortable in, so nobody will be overwhelmed, has been a big growth step.

Castillo said the thinking was, "If we just cut a little bit for each one and we just focus on a certain package . . . they can play fast, and it's all about playing fast . . . What I think it has done is it has allowed these guys to focus on a certain part. And, sure, they need to know the rest of it, but they need to know that Jamar [Chaney] knows he's going to be out there in base, Casey [Matthews] knows he's going to be in on Buffalo nickel, Brian Rolle knows he has to know a little bit of Buffalo, a little bit of base, Akeem [Jordan] knows that [in addition to base] he may be in nickel, he may be in dime . . . it just helps their maturity."

Buffalo nickel, by the way, in addition to being a rare coin, is the defense the Eagles play when they think the other team is going to run on third down.

"It definitely helps," Matthews said yesterday. "It keeps bodies fresh as well. When you're on the sideline, you have to stay into the game because you don't know when your package is going to be called. It's been working."

Matthews began the season as the starting middle linebacker, then spent a disastrous week as the weakside starter. Now, playing in short-yardage and nickel situations, he seems much more effective. Safety Kurt Coleman mentioned that he felt free to go for the ball Sunday against the Jets' Santonio Holmes, forcing a fumble that was run back for a touchdown, because he knew Matthews was in position to make the tackle.

"He knows now that everybody's flying to the ball," Castillo said.

"If you know what the other person is doing beside you, you know what you can and can't do. You know where he is and where he's not going to be, what plays you can make or what plays you can expect him to make," Keenan Clayton said.

"People might say, 'Maybe your linebackers are slow learners, because another team doesn't take players off the field,' but I feel like what he's starting to do is really helping us. You've got guys playing on first and second down, that's all they need to worry about, guys that play on third down, that's all they've got to worry about. Those guys know what to expect.

"At the same time, you still have to study everything in case something happens."

"We know what we're capable of as a defense, it's just a matter of executing," Matthews said, repeating words that have been said by offensive and defensive Eagles, over and over again this season. "There's been times this season when we've lost focus or we've lost sight of that."

All the linebackers range in age from 22 to 25. They hang together off the field, and have supported one another through the season's ups and downs.

"We know what each one's going through," Matthews said. "It's just a great group of guys to be around."

"We could have easily let the media and everybody get us down," Clayton said. "At the beginning of the year, actually throughout the whole year, everything that went wrong was on the 'backers. That made us come together closer, keep each other positive . . . keep working as competitors, to keep people off our backs."

Chaney agreed. "There's no negativity in the linebacking group. We're all down for each other," he said.

Rolle said it's important not only that Castillo has trimmed down the responsibilities, but that he has put his personnel in the right packages.

"It is kind of simpler, but it's not easy by any means . . . It better utilizes each player's potential and their ability. That showed on the field the last couple weeks - we had me and Casey, two rookies out there in one package, then him and Keenan, and then me, Akeem and Chaney out there [in the base defense]," Rolle said. "They're doing a good job of switching up personnel according to what offense [the other team] comes out in, and what our players are capable of doing."


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

Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LesBowen.

 

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