Eagles defense makes strides, but still has a ways to go

Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks pursues Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks pursues Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2014

If the first two preseason games weren't enough to declare the Eagles defense a disaster in waiting, then Thursday night's steadier outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn't enough to pronounce the unit cured of all its issues.

But there has been one constant through the preseason, and that has been the performance of linebacker Mychal Kendricks. In the opener against the Bears, he had good coverage as a pass defender. A week later vs. the Patriots, he was a disruptive run stopper.

And, finally, against the Steelers, in what will likely be the starting defense's last dress rehearsal, Kendricks pressured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into throwing an interception, and he made an open-field tackle - once a weakness of his - on a screen pass.

DeMeco Ryans may be the captain and play-caller of the defense, and be better equipped to play in a 3-4 scheme, but Kendricks will be on the field for every down this season. Coordinator Bill Davis is expected to use more "dime" personnel (six defensive backs), and the Eagles finally got to unveil it against Pittsburgh.

Getting off the field on third down was a struggle in the first two preseason games. Opposing offenses converted 20 of 32 opportunities against all three units. It was a problem last season, when the Eagles finished 24th in the league in opposing third-down success rate.

But the first-team defense forced Pittsburgh to punt on 3 of 5 third downs and was given the night off late in the first half without surrendering a point in an eventual 31-21 victory. The results were mixed when the Eagles were in their dime defense, which was mostly fielded to counter the Steelers' five-receiver sets.

The personnel were not ideal. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Brandon Boykin were out with hamstring injuries. Nolan Carroll started in place of Williams on the outside, but he moved inside as the sixth defensive back, where he expected to play during the regular season. That left Roc Carmichael in Carroll's spot - or Williams', to be exact - and Jaylen Watkins also in the slot in place of Boykin.

The lone inside linebacker was Kendricks, as Ryans ran to the sideline. Kendricks would have played as many snaps last season as Ryans, who led the league, if he wasn't injured. But Ryans is 30 and Kendricks, amazingly, is still only 23.

By the end of last season, Ryans had become a liability on passing downs. He was unable to keep up with certain tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Kendricks had his struggles, as well, particularly against larger tight ends who took advantage of his over-aggressiveness. But he was more consistent by the end of last season and has carried it over into 2014.

It hasn't always been that way. In fact, Kendricks' first two seasons in the NFL were marked by inconsistencies. He would flash his athleticism for one series and then look like a novice the next. A scheme change last offseason that switched him from a 4-3 outside linebacker to a 3-4 inside didn't help his development.

"With Michael being such a hyper guy, this high-energy hyper type, I hope he can play more calm and settle in," Eagles inside linebackers coach Rick Minter said earlier this week. "He plays like a 4-3 [weakside] linebacker, and that's fast flow on everything. In the [3-4] defense, you got to have patience and poise and just sit there sometimes, let the play come back to you. That's harder for him to enact because that goes against everything about his demeanor."

The Eagles want to utilize his downfield tendencies though, particularly as a pass rusher. There should be more opportunities for Kendricks to get into the backfield rushing out of a 3-4 front. He forced Roethlisberger out of the pocket in the second quarter, and the quarterback floated a ball over his receiver and Carroll made a diving grab for the pick.

The Eagles pass rush was otherwise absent. It remains the chief concern on defense. A first-half shutout didn't answer the questions about where the rush, if it is to improve, will come from. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who was flagged for two illegal-contact penalties, didn't calm fears that the emphasis on contact downfield will make him less effective.

But there were plenty of positives considering how poorly all three defensive units looked in New England. Holding the Steelers to fewer than 100 yards in the first half meant that the starters were moving in the right direction.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins broke up a third-down pass with a diving deflection. Cedric Thornton anchored the defensive line on run downs. And Kendricks notched four tackles, a hurry, and a pass breakup.

With the season less than two weeks away, it's a start.



comments powered by Disqus