Eagles Try 3-3-5 Nickel Look, Use OLB In ‘Joker’ Role

Brandon Graham looked comfortable on the first snap.

He stood up on the right side next to Trent Cole, who was at defensive end, and rushed the passer off the edge.

The next play, however, required something different. Graham found himself matched up against Jason Avant on the left side. Seconds after the ball was snapped, the converted outside linebacker was chasing the veteran slot receiver from behind. Nick Foles’ pass landed in Avant’s hands for a 40-yard touchdown.

On the third snap, Graham was back again on the right side. But this time, instead of rushing the passer, he matched up in coverage against the running back, and the ball wasn’t thrown his way.

In addition to learning their responsibilities in the base defense, Graham and Connor Barwin are also adjusting to a variety of tasks in the Eagles’ 3-3-5 nickel package.

In the two practices that have been open to the media so far, the base defense has featured three down linemen almost exclusively. But it’s important to remember that the Eagles will be in their sub packages with an extra defensive back on the field roughly 50 percent of the time.

Teams that play 3-4 have a variety of options when they go to their sub packages. Some use a 4-2-5, which is the same nickel package the Eagles used last year when they had a 4-3 base. They can go to a 4-1-6, using only one linebacker and six defensive backs. Or they can go to a 3-3-5 with three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

And that’s the look we saw from the Eagles yesterday. With Fletcher Cox absent because of traveling/weather issues, Cole, Clifton Geathers and Cedric Thornton played with their hands on the ground.

DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks stayed on the field as inside linebackers. And the secondary featured corners Bradley Fletcher, Curtis Marsh and Brandon Boykin, along with safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman.

The key player though was the lone outside linebacker (either Graham or Barwin), who served a “joker” role, moving around the formation.

“It’s a lot more confusing [for the offense],” Barwin said. “When you always go four down, it’s easy to read the front. When you go three down, they don’t know if I’m inserting or if I’m dropping in coverage. It’s different every play.

“We went nickel with four down [in Houston]. This was different. We’ll do both. We’ll go into a four down. We didn’t do that today. We’ll do a lot more three-down than we did in Houston.”

For now, in the base defense, the Eagles’ outside linebackers are playing sides. In other words, they don’t shift based on motion from the tight end. In the 3-3-5, though, it’s a different story.

“When we’re in our base defense, that’s how we’re playing it right now,” Barwin said. “It’s a left and right kind of thing, not really strong and weak, so you’ve got to be able to play both sides of the formation.

“The one outside linebacker in the nickel, we switch sides a little bit, which is different from the base defense.”

The other player whose role changed in the sub package yesterday was Cole. He spent most of practice at right outside linebacker, rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage.

But when the Eagles went to the 3-3-5, he moved up to the line of scrimmage and set up in a three-point stance.

“I’m head up,” Cole said. “I’m not on that edge. But in the past, I’ve been pretty good at lining straight up over there. I enjoy that, especially when I’m in that 6-technique over a tight end, playing that two-gap situation. I think I’m really good at that. When I’m down in that situation in nickel, I feel like I can go edge to edge real easy.”

Cole indicated that one of the reasons we see him dropping back quite a bit during practice is because Kelly and the coaches need to find out what he’s capable of. They have an idea of Cole’s skill set as a pass-rusher and against the run, but now, at the age of 30, he’s being asked to try something new.

In other words, the process of evaluating current personnel is ongoing, and Cole’s role could change in the coming months.

As for the defense as a whole, coordinator Bill Davis appears to placing the emphasis on flexibility.

“You’ve got to be good at what you do and dictate to the offense, always,” Barwin said. “All defenses nowadays, the good ones are all hybrids because these offenses are getting so complicated. You’ve got to be able to play different defenses against different offenses.”

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