With Eagles’ Defense, Rotation Seems Likely

The Eagles’ signing of Connor Barwin last week led to some angst among a portion of the fan base.

Why sign another outside linebacker? What about Trent Cole? Brandon Graham? Vinny Curry?

And to a certain degree, that’s a fair question. The simple answer is that the Eagles saw value in Barwin, especially when you consider he’s only 26 and commanded just $8 million in guaranteed money. He’s played in a 3-4 before, was a second-round pick in 2009 and has an 11.5-sack season (2011) under his belt.

But the real answer might require a look at the bigger picture. It’s true that we don’t know exactly what Chip Kelly is going to run offensively or defensively. We look at what he did at Oregon, we look at some of the trends in the NFL, we assess personnel, and we make educated guesses.

One assumption that seems reasonable is that the Eagles will run an up-tempo offense. And if that’s the case, the Eagles will need bodies on defense.

From a September article by SI.com’s Stewart Mandel:

With the amount of time Oregon’s defense spends on the field, [defensive coordinator Nick] Aliotti has had no choice but to rotate in a slew of backups, including the entire second-string defensive line. The upside is that young players gain game experience. The downside is they’re more prone to breakdowns.

“What Nick has done — and it’s taken about four years in Chip’s system to learn it — is if you play fast on offense, you have to play a lot of people on defense,” said [former Oregon coach Mike] Bellotti. “It’s been a good thing that they played somewhere between 18 to 23 players per year. It improves their depth, and it gives their inexperienced players an advantage in that they’re playing real quality snaps when the game is on the line.”

In four years under Kelly, Oregon’s offense ranked 102nd, 120th, 106th and 117th in time of possession (Kelly once called it the “stupidest stat” in football). The flip side is that the defense was on the field longer than most teams.

Will the same philosophy carry over to the NFL? It seems likely. Jerry Azzinaro takes over as defensive line coach and assistant head coach. The first paragraph of Azzinaro’s official Oregon bio explains that he utilizes “numerous players to provide a rotation that results in fresh legs in the trenches at all times.” Azzinaro put that into practice with the Ducks, often going eight-deep up front.

“Coach Az wants us to give everything we have for three or four plays and then he will give us a rest,” defensive tackle Brandon Bair told ESPN.com back in 2009.

Earlier this offseason, inside linebackers coach Rick Minter also indicated that the Eagles would be using some kind of rotation.

“We’d like to play as many players as we can play to stay fresh, to stay sustainable for the long haul,” he said.

In that context, the Barwin signing doesn’t seem so puzzling. Cole is 30 and has been a 4-3 defensive end his whole career. Graham showed pass-rushing chops last year, but again, he has not played in a 3-4 in the NFL. Curry only got 33 opportunities to rush the QB (per PFF), but failed to notch a sack or a hurry.

“In any defense, especially with the way the game is going now, you need to be able to rotate at the defensive line and linebacker position to keep things fresh,” Barwin told reporters last week.

Of course, with the way offenses are trending, defenses don’t always have a chance to sub in and out. At some point, Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis will have to determine who the most productive players are. Once again, versatility will be key.

The rotation philosophy helps not only explain the Barwin signing, but it probably means the Eagles still have some work to do in terms of finding versatile defensive linemen through free agency, trades and the draft.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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  • limodriver27

    Little by little, the picture is starting to focus. This bit of insight (more of this, ok, Sheil?) explains the duplication of skill sets on the roster so far, where one mindset is needed by many moving parts. Be in your best physical shape because you could be in for 1 or 2 snaps or get caught in a “hurry up” or “2 minute” extended period. Of course, the focus of this picture is the offense scoring when in position so I’m cautiously optimistic yet curious of how this will all come together.

  • Reyco

    The thing here though is that they may not be able to do this at this level. An NFL team is much smaller than a college team and you just don’t have the slots on gameday to be 2 deep at every position.

    • pkirkner

      I expect Kelly to figure this one out. Eliminating the fullback opens up one roster spot that can be used for a more versatile player. I’ve noticed that a lot of the players that the club has acquired this off-season have had success both as position players on offense or defense and on special teams. I expect that sort of versatility to be an organizational priority going forward.

      Looking through that lens, Barwin and Casey are interesting guys. In college Barwin played tight end, H-back, defensive end, special teams, and basketball. He added OLB to that list in the pros. Casey’s lined up at both TE and FB in the pros, played kick coverage, was the Texans’ emergency long-snapper, and was a minor-league pitcher and high-school QB so he presumably has enough of an arm to pass on a trick play from time to time. Chung, Phillips, Benn, Williams, and Phillips have all contributed on kick coverage in the pros.

      If this is in fact an emphasis by the new Eagles leadership, and not my imagination, it’s probably trouble for a number of incumbent players on the Eagles roster, especially at WR, RB, LB, and in the secondary. Colt Anderson, Akeem Jordan, and Riley Cooper are the only guys that I remember being productive in kick coverage last year. Jordan’s probably not coming back because of the shift in defensive scheme, and if pretty much the rest of the bench doesn’t step up their special teams performance during the preseason, I’d expect lots of them to get cut before the season starts.

  • doudigdoug

    It is so refreshing to have someone challenge the time of possession as a stand alone stat – and even better it is our new coach making the argument. However, the same applies to the defense – it is the # of plays and speed of play, not the time on the field. If Oregon’s offsense runs more plays but is on the field less, it is actually better for the Oregon defense, not worse. Think about it: the (opposing) defense that is on the field for 70 plays over 25 minutes should be more tired than the (our) defense that is on the field for 65 plays over 35 minutes. Our defense would be in for fewer plays with more rest time between plays. Just because Oregon’s (and now presumably Philly’s) defense may be on the field for more official game time doesn’t mean they should have to rotate more to keep fresh.

    • bentheimmigrant

      I certainly hope you’re right, but my main issue with Reid was how he always left the D twisting in the wind. Take the Atlanta game… They came out, huge drive, TD. Our D was already tired and demoralised, and we go 3 and out. They drive again, and score again. I’m not saying it would have changed things, but sometimes the D needs to rest between drives. An offence that doesn’t let them worries me somewhat.

      • doudigdoug

        I see where you are coming from and just read the linked article from 2009 about Kelly calling it the stupidest stat in football. I didn’t realize Oregon’s defense was not only on the field longer but for more plays also. In that case it makes sense to rotate defense more. I also understand that if your offense plays fast the defense gets less time on the bench – but I would rather have more time between plays on a given drive than more time on the bench between drives as a defender.

        My big pet peeve with using time of possession to assess fatigue is just that time of possession is skewed towards running teams who use the whole clock. A running play and an incomplete passing play takes the same amount of time in actual time as opposed to game time so there shouldn’t be a difference in fatigue (unless you feel defending a run play is more tiring). A 3 and out is bad regardless of how it happens – all run, all pass or a combination.

        • bentheimmigrant

          Fair enough. If all that’s been said about Kelly’s plans to have a variable speed is true, then hopefully we’ll look more like the Patriots in that respect – working in the no huddle, but taking time, but then rushing to snap the ball after a big play to keep the D reeling.

          • ajball

            Lifetime Eagle fan and Duck alum here… the key to Oregon’s pace on offense is their pre-snap recognition and the simplicity of their keys and reads. They’ll frustrate you at times, particularly in the first half, as it seems like they’re pounding their head against the wall with a couple of play calls that are producing little to nothing. Then bam… they see a tendency in that formation that they can exploit and it’s 6 for the good guys. Kelly is an in-game play calling savant in that way. He’ll sing you a lullaby until you fall asleep, then steal your wallet. Their even more effective in exploiting these tendencies later in games as the defense begins to fatigue. My guess is that NFL DC’s will raise the bar substantially in their ability to disguise their play calling, but Chip will win his fair share of these chess matches.

            The other thing to keep in mind is the way that Oregon practices. They’ll bust off 200 reps in a 1:30. They literally practice like they play. They’ll need to slow it down I’d guess given roster limitations relative to college ball, but they’ll get far more reps in than the competition in a shorter period of time. The pace of their practices literally is their conditioning at Oregon. No need for wind sprints… they’re essentially in cardio mode the entire practice.

            Defensively, they definitely will use depth. I’m not sure how well that will work out at the NFL level, but it certainly was a key to Oregon’s success defensively under Kelly. The Ducks essentially rotated 3 corners and 3 safeties this season when the game was in doubt. There’s no doubt that Oregon rotated their front 7 more regularly than their defensive backfield, so it makes sense to build quality depth and versatility there. I like what they’ve done so far and can’t wait to see what they do to address the defense in the draft.

  • NickS1

    I hope the team is doing conditioning on their own as I type this.

    • GreenDrank

      Curry and Graham are. Pretty sure Dixon is just getting fatter

      • knighn

        Dixon plans to eat Sopoaga just to make sure he nails down that NT spot.