Kendricks' improvement typifies better Eagles D

Posted: August 13, 2014

MYCHAL Kendricks had a plan.

Sitting at his locker the day after the season ended, still stung by the playoff loss to the Saints, Kendricks vowed to spend the next 6 months in front of his iPad compiling an encyclopedic knowledge of the game's better players; of its predominant schemes; of top coaches' preferred tactics and tendencies.

Then, he spoke with his Eagles coaches. His plan changed.

"Instead, I went back and watched film on myself. Now, I know myself better. My tendencies. What I'm showing. What I'm giving up," Kendricks said.

He said his coaches told him, " 'You're in competition with yourself. You can't help others until you help yourself.' By assessing myself, and improving myself, I can make the team better. Those around me, better.

"I watched a lot of film on myself. What I showed. What I can do better. Be in a better position."

And?

"I found it. I can't tell you - because of the competition," Kendricks said, smiling slyly.

He sat on the back of an equipment cart as the team prepared to visit the Patriots for 3 days of intersquad scrimmages and practices before they play Friday, and he thought he was being foxy.

"It's something that I did all the time. If I fix this thing the results should be what I want."

It's no secret: Kendricks' biggest issue last season was poor positioning and poor tackling. He played inside linebacker as a second-year player, his third position in 2 years, his third scheme in three seasons. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis put Kendricks in a three-lineman, four-linebacker scheme beside veteran football savant DeMeco Ryans and newcomer Connor Barwin - a dream spot for a young player.

Still, Kendricks found himself out of position perhaps 20 percent of the time.

In Friday's preseason game?

Once.

Kendricks' progress typifies what Davis has done.

The Eagles still will miss tackles, and they will fail to get to the quarterback, and they will give up third-down conversions.

For a while; and to the better teams.

Now, though, they are in the right spots at the right times. Now, they are in position to make plays. This is crucial progress.

Chip Kelly's machine gun offense might be fun to watch, but it only matters if Davis' defense stops the opposition. The Eagles' pass defense ranked last in 2013. The overall defense was fourth-worst. It did no better than mediocre in most categories.

The defense didn't stop anyone until the players figured out where to go, and even then it wasn't a fluid mechanism.

In order for one player to know where to go, he must know where the others are going, too.

If nothing else, 2 weeks of practice and one preseason game indicate that they have a better handle on the scheme.

That starts with players like Kendricks, in the middle.

"His overall understanding of the game has gotten a lot better," Ryans said. "Not just what he has to do, but his understanding of what offenses can and can't do, anticipation of plays before the snap. He's doing a lot better job with pre-snap reads."

It is a team-wide trait, from defensive end Fletcher Cox, whom the Eagles took in the first round in 2012, to safety Nate Allen, a fifth-year talent who appears to have an inside edge over second-year Earl Wolff.

"Yeah, the defense as a whole, there's a chemistry there," Allen said. "We've got a lot of the same guys back, and they're more comfortable."

The Birds added free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins, a fine tackler and a football nerd, but otherwise they essentially are the same principal unit with largely the same backups. It shows.

"Guys are a lot more comfortable where we are now, so things happen a lot faster," Ryans said. "We're a lot further along than we were last year, so guys are able to fly around and play a lot faster. Guys aren't hesitant. We can go attack offenses."

They won't, of course. They will play simplified schemes for the next 3 weeks, hiding their tricky stuff for later, hoping to win one-on-one battles, hoping to make the calls and the positioning second nature.

They will benefit hugely from facing Patriots geniuses Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

"That will help get us get ready much faster," Allen said.

As much as the players have benefited from time spent in study and practice, so too have the coaches learned.

"We know the players' strengths and weaknesses much more than we did a year ago," Davis said. "We've seen them play through the big games and we know what they do well and what they don't.

"We'll put them in better positions than we felt we did at the end of last season. So, hopefully, by the time the season hits, we're way ahead of where we left off at the end of the year."

For a quick gauge of that progress, just watch Kendricks.

"Mychal understands what his assignment is, how it's attached to others around him," said Davis, impressed with Kendricks' learning curve. "When you have young players, usually they don't figure that part out. Usually all their effort is [their] assignment and what [they] have to do."

Certainly, it is not a finished product. The Bears' first team converted three third downs on their second drive Friday, the third a 10-yard touchdown pass . . . but it was a beautiful, back-shoulder bullet past Ryans' ear in the back of the end zone from Jay Cutler, who has one of the strongest arms in the game.

"That was a great throw," Ryans acknowledged with a laugh. "It's a big-time league, so guys are going to make big-time throws and big-time catches. You have to give them credit when they make a great throw and catch like that."

Ryans laughed because he knew he had done pretty much all he could do. He laughed because the Birds had made solid plays during both Bears' possessions. He laughed because he remembered the laughingstock the Eagles' defense was until October last year.

"I thought the run defense and the tackling are two areas that we took big steps," Davis said. "If you compare preseason game one this year to preseason game one last year - we still missed too many tackles [Friday]. One of the encouraging things was we missed with the right leverage. We had head placement and we still missed. But the fundamental part of it - we weren't missing because of arm tackles and heads in the wrong position. Being in the right position was much better."

From the inside, out.

"I was out of position once, but not everything's going to be perfect," Kendricks said. "I was out of position one time. I learned from that. I got better from that. I don't see myself being out of position on that play ever again.

"Look, I might not be right all the time, but the guy next to me might be right that time. And vice versa."

That's how defense works.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

hayesm@phillynews.com

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