Three Things We Learned About the Eagles’ Defense

We covered the offense earlier this week. Now it’s time for Billy Davis’ defense. Here are three things we learned this spring:

1. Disguise will be a buzz word to describe this unit.

Jason Kelce was asked last week to go over the sequence of how the offense sets the protection.

The first thing he said? “It’s all depending on whether it’s a three-down or a four-down defense.”

One of the trademarks of Davis’ defense will be pre-snap disguise. The idea is simple: Make it as difficult as possible for the opposing quarterback and offense to know where the pressure is coming from. We don’t know whether this will be a more of a traditional 3-4 or more of a 4-3 under, but that’s the reason we saw the Eagles going with three down linemen in most packages during OTAs and mini-camp.

“The guys that are standing up as ends, it doesn’t mean it’s a 3-4,” Davis said. “The stand-up is more confusion for the offense – is that guy dropping or rushing? When his hand’s down, most of the time, he’s probably [rushing]. And it affects protections and everything else.”

It was telling last month when Davis said he was always impressed with the way Jim Johnson was able to create the “illusion of pressure.”

That might mean having DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks stand up at the line of scrimmage in the A-gaps before dropping back. It might mean Connor Barwin dancing around the line of scrimmage in various spots before the ball is snapped. It might mean asking the middle linebacker to hustle back and act as the free safety on a specific play (something we saw once or twice at practice).

“There’s a lot more disguise, position swapping than there was in Houston,” Barwin said.

Added safety Earl Wolff: “Disguise and trick the quarterback, which allows us to make more plays on defense.”

There’s plenty to be worked schematically once the pads come on, but get ready to hear the word disguise quite a bit this summer during training camp.

2. Roles for Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are still to be determined.

Let’s start with Cole. In his ninth NFL season, the veteran is being asked to take on responsibilities that were previously foreign to him as he lines up at outside linebacker.

For most of the spring, Cole was at right outside linebacker with the first team – rushing the quarterback from a two-point stance, dropping back into coverage and setting the edge against the run. But he wasn’t used exclusively in that role. He also played defensive end in four-man fronts (primarily in nickel), and there were even times when he was one of the defensive linemen with his hand in the dirt in three-man fronts.

Cole has admitted that he played poorly last season, totaling a career-low three sacks while battling a hand/wrist injury. But it’s not like he’s a fossil. Cole won’t turn 31 until October, and from 2007 to 2011, he averaged 11 sacks a season. In other words, there’s a pretty strong track record there. He may never get back to being a double-digit sack guy, but he should still be able to be a productive player.

Graham, meanwhile, remains a mystery. He most often lined up at left outside linebacker with the second team behind Barwin this spring. That spot appears to be a bit of a “joker” with the player being asked to perform a variety of tasks and display some degree of versatility.

Is Graham suited for that kind of role? His best skill is quite clearly rushing the passer. Last year, no one else on the team matched his production in that area. But now, Graham’s being asked to learn a new position, and the spring offered few hints about what Davis has planned for him.

The bottom line here is that Davis has emphasized personnel being the key, and he has said he’ll play the best 11. But that can only be true to a point. For (an exaggerated) example, if your best 11 players are all defensive backs, well, there’s not much you can do to get them all on the field at the same time.

Hearing him talk, I got the sense that Davis learned in his previous two stops as a defensive coordinator (Arizona and San Francisco) that sometimes you just don’t have the players, and no scheme or coaching tweak can make up for that.

But Barwin, Graham and Cole are without question three of the best 11 defensive players on the roster. In the spring, it was rare to see them all on the field at the same time. We’ll find out if that changes this summer.

3. The linebackers and safeties are excited about the scheme change.

It was no secret that the Wide-9 made life difficult for pretty much everyone except for the defensive linemen. The safeties, for example, had specific run responsibilities that made it difficult for them to guard against play-action.

“Not to say that the safeties aren’t going to be called on to make plays against the run, but we’re not going to be the first guys onto the scene,” said Kurt Coleman. “It’s going to be a big change for us, which is kind of good. It allows us to sit back and read the QB a little more, be more patient.”

Added Davis: “Any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A gap run defenders, you’re just asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls. I hate to talk too much about last season not being here, but just all the transition and all the different communications that happened, I don’t know how you fight through that and play good. I really don’t.”

But it’s not just the safeties. It’s the linebackers too. Against the run, the defensive linemen were often flying upfield while Ryans and Kendricks were left to deal with offensive linemen before attacking the ball-carrier.

“I’m definitely sideline to sideline, going to be able to run a little bit more, be a little more freed up,” Kendricks said.

“We had a lot of people in our face last year, so I mean if tackling was an issue, it shouldn’t be this year.”

There’s always a fine line between excuses and reasons. But it’s obvious that many of the Eagles’ defenders are embracing the scheme change with open arms.

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