Eagles' defense in rush to turn up pressure

Posted: August 19, 2014

HISTORY HAS shown that teams that can't rush the quarterback generally don't win a lot.

In the last 4 years, just eight of the 48 teams that qualified for the playoffs finished 20th or lower in the league in sacks.

One of those eight teams happens to be the 2013 Eagles, who managed to win 10 games and a division title despite registering just 37 sacks, the 13th fewest in the league.

The only playoff team with fewer sacks than the Eagles last year was the Chargers, who had 35.

So, here we are, just 3 weeks before the unveiling of the Season of Great Expectations, and the question on today's docket is this: Is the Eagles' pass rush really any better than it was a year ago?

"I think I'll have a better year getting to the quarterback this year," said linebacker Connor Barwin, who had five sacks last season, second on the team to Trent Cole's eight. "I think as a team we'll have a better year [rushing the passer] too."

"Oh yeah, oh yeah," Cole said when asked if the pass rush will be better, despite the fact that the Eagles have registered just three sacks in their first two preseason games, none against a starter.

"We have very talented guys. Going a few series here and there as a first-team guy, you really can't get into the groove yet. It just don't work like that.

"Sacks are hard to come by in this league. It's very hard to get them. We're just going to keep pushing ahead and improving."

The Eagles' pass-rush problems last season also were at the root of their third-down problems. They finished 26th in third-down defense, allowing teams to convert 40.3 percent of their third-down opportunities, 47 percent in their six losses.

Just 14 of their 37 sacks came on third down.

Chip Kelly said yesterday that the blame for the third-down struggles should be shared by the pass rush and the coverage.

"It was a combination," he said. "It takes 11. [It takes] coverge and pass rush."

The defense's third-down problems have continued into the preseason. Their first two preseason opponents, the Bears and Patriots, converted 20 of 32 third-down opportunities. The Patriots converted 10 of 15 third-down tries Friday night, including their first seven.

The Eagles decided against overpaying for a pass-rusher in free agency, opting to select one in the first round of the draft. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that Marcus Smith isn't ready for prime time.

He has played 119 snaps in the first two preseason games, including 73 of 81 plays against the Patriots, and doesn't have a sack. He did flush backup quarterback Ryan Mallett out of the pocket once. But Mallett broke containment and ran for a 6-yard touchdown.

"Marcus got a real extended look," Chip Kelly said. "He's got a burst. He's got some speed coming off the edge. But if you're going to play that many plays, we're going to need more production out of you. He's still working at it. He still has a lot of things to improve at."

Kelly also gave extended first-team playing time Friday to another young linebacker, Travis Long, a 6-4, 255-pound undrafted free agent who spent last season on the Eagles' practice squad. Long had a more consistent performance than Smith.

"Travis had a really nice showing against the Patriots," Barwin said. "He played really well. Marcus, we'll see how he does this Thursday [against the Steelers].

"Against New England, he had bright spots where he looked good and then he had spots where he seemed a little bit overwhelmed. So he needs to slow things down for himself. You can see the potential there, he just needs to take each play one at a time."

Said inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans: "Marcus has all the ability, size and talent in the world. The game just has to slow down for him. We run a lot of different calls on defense. He has a lot on his plate right now. It's tough for any rookie. He'll become a good player once the game slows down for him."

Unless that unexpectedly happens sooner rather than later, it's becoming clear that if the Eagles' pass rush is going to be any better this season, it will basically have to be with the same people they had a year ago.

That certainly isn't out of the question. Barwin, who had 11 1/2 sacks with Houston in 2011, is hopeful that he'll get more pass-rushing opportunities and less coverage detail this season, now that Cole and the team's other outside linebackers have had a year in Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme.

Barwin rushed the passer just 37.7 percent of the time last year as Davis had him doing a lot of the defensive dirty work. With the Texans in '11, he rushed 53.7 percent of the time.

"That's what I hope happens," Barwin said. "I hope we can be really good on first down and get teams into second-and-long, third-and-long. Get the even [four-man] front going.

"If not, then I'll drop into coverage and help where I can and pick my spots rushing. But that's all going to be week to week. Let's see how we play. Right now, it's too early to tell."

Last year, the Eagles weren't very good on first down. They were 22nd in the league in yards allowed per first-down play (5.49), which meant not enough second- and third-and-longs. And even when they got them, they still couldn't get off the field. Their opponents managed to convert 25.4 percent of their third downs of 10 yards or more, the third-worst percentage in the league.

Two weeks ago, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis brought in one of the best pass-rushers in league history, Kevin Greene, to work with Barwin, Cole, Smith and the rest of the team's outside linebackers on their technique.

Greene's most important message to them was to keep their pass-rushing technique simple.

"You can make pass-rushing way too complicated," Barwin said. "You can get 3-4-5 different moves, and then you pretty much don't have any move. You need to have one good one and then maybe one other one, and that's it.

"Me personally, I needed to open up my stride a little bit and push the corner [around the tackle] a little quicker. That seems obvious, but you can get away from that. [Greene] pointed that out, and I went back and watched the film and watched other guys, and it definitely makes a lot of sense for me."

Graham said Greene, who was an assistant coach with the Packers for five seasons from '09 to'13 and tutored four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews, gave the outside linebackers drills to do every day.

"I'm excited to see, if we keep working, how much better we're going to be," he said.

"Just watching [Greene] on film, he did the same thing over and over, but he mastered it. It was all about timing. He said timing is everything. It's not always going to work. He showed us plays that didn't work. But you have to come up with a counter move too.

"That's what he was trying to tell us. If you just get the technique down and get your counter move ready, you'll be good to go. But don't stop going towards the quarterback."

If the pass-rush turns out to be better, that early-August training-camp visit from Greene is going to look like an ingenious move by Kelly and Davis. If it doesn't, then they'll have to hope they can once again defy history.


On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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