Inside the Eagles: Improving the run defense will affect Eagles choices on the defense

Posted: August 26, 2012

CLEVELAND - The Eagles have five defensive ends who could start on any number of NFL teams - six if promising rookie Vinny Curry develops as expected.

The depth at the position, while a luxury, will present Andy Reid with a few difficult decisions when rosters are to be trimmed to 53 by Friday.

And yet, when faced with replacing the injured Jason Babin during the preseason, the Eagles coach did not promote one of his backup ends but rather shifted a defensive tackle - most notably Cullen Jenkins - outside.

Jenkins started at left end against the Steelers in the opener and then against the Browns on Friday night. Fletcher Cox got the nod against the Patriots on Monday night, but Jenkins also played several snaps outside at New England.

The Eagles weren't just tinkering with their lineup or experimenting with a new scheme. They just as easily could have started Darryl Tapp, Brandon Graham, or Phillip Hunt in their base defense as they did with Babin for 14 games last season.

What defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and defensive line coach Jim Washburn are likely trying to do is improve a run defense that was often exposed with Babin on the outside. Even when Babin returns from a calf injury there's a strong chance that Jenkins will continue to scoot outside on obvious run downs.

"He's like a wild card," Castillo said after the Eagles' 27-10 win at Cleveland. "A lot of people may try to run the ball on us early. Here's a guy that's big enough to play defensive end against the run and he's also agile enough to rush the passer if they want to throw the football on first down."

Last season on first and 10, opposing offenses ran only 51 percent of the time on the Eagles. Jenkins or Cox, playing opposite the two-dimensional Trent Cole, would give the Eagles big bodies who can hop inside from the nine technique (in a wider formation) to the five technique (in a tighter formation) when reading run but also pass rush the quarterback if he drops back.

Jenkins, who played most of his time in Green Bay as a five-technique defensive end, did line up outside on occasion last season. But if the preseason is any indication of things to come, he'll be there more often this year.

"I'm used to playing D-tackle," Jenkins said. "End is something I need more learning reps at. So they're just trying to work me in, get me more learning reps."

Babin has turned himself into one of the best pass rushers in the NFL over the last two seasons, accounting for 301/2 sacks for the Eagles and Titans. But last season, offensive coordinators had success running at him.

Babin is a speed rusher, and the wider nine technique allows him to take a sharper angle past tackles and to quarterbacks who are increasingly taking deeper drops. But it sometimes opens a wide gap on the left flank of the defense.

The NFL compiles statistics based on play direction. When running backs ran around the right end against the Eagles last year they averaged 5.9 yards per carry - fourth worst in the league.

Babin certainly wasn't on the field for all of those carries, and he isn't the lone player responsible for stopping the run, but the numbers are telling. It's not as if the scheme can't work against the run, though. The year before in Tennessee, tailbacks gained only 3.5 yards per carry running to the right.

The better numbers there may have had more to do with the Titans' linebacker and safety play - two areas in which the Eagles were weak last season. The Eagles addressed the need at linebacker by adding DeMeco Ryans and rookie Mychal Kendricks.

Kendricks, who the Eagles initially said would improve their pass defense, has looked especially strong against the run. Aside from employing Jenkins on the outside to help with the run, it appears Castillo has inched his linebackers closer to the line in the base package.

Ryans hasn't yet stood out as a run-stopper, which is a concern considering the Eagles were not very good up the middle last season. Opposing running backs averaged 5.5 yards per carry - second worst in the league - when they rushed into the gut of the defense.

Could moving Jenkins, who was the Eagles' best run-stopping tackle last season, weaken the interior? Right now, Cox and Derek Landri are the starting tackles, with Antonio Dixon and Cedric Thornton rotating in.

If Jenkins were to really play more on the outside, would there be a need for the Eagles to keep six ends as some have suggested? The Eagles typically activated only eight linemen on game days last season. What good would it do to keep 11 on the roster?

"If I can keep them all, I will," said Reid. "As many as you can keep. I think that's an important position. Put a lot of responsibility on them. We'll have to see how the numbers turn out, but I don't like giving up good defensive linemen."

It made sense for Reid to sell the idea that he could keep all 11. Who would trade for a player who may end up on the waiver wire?

Contact Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, or follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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